Sermon by: Robert Austell
Today and over the next six weeks I’d like to look with you at a number of prominent people in the Bible who all have something in common: they are kings. While I want to take this opportunity to review some biblical history and parts of the Bible you may not have spent much time studying, I hope this will be more than a history lesson. And while it may not be immediately apparent what a king of Israel might have in common with you, each was in a position to lead others while serving the Lord. And that is a position almost every one of you will be in at some point in your life, whether at work, raising a family, volunteering at church, or any other number of scenarios. And the real trick isn’t figuring out how to lead, teach, or have authority over others; it is doing so as a servant-leader, under the covering of God’s ultimate Kingship.
We will see how different kings in the Bible succeeded and failed at this balance of earthly authority and divine dependency, and be challenged to apply the lessons we learn to our own lives.
Some of these characters are perhaps unfamiliar; so I plan to begin each week with five facts about each one. Then we’ll consider one or two key scripture passages about each one and what application we can make for our own lives.
Today, we are looking at Saul, the first king of Israel.
1. Saul was the first king of Israel, in approximately 1030 B.C. His rule followed the period of the Judges, both a book in the Old Testament and a means of governing by tribal warrior-prophets. Before Saul’s time, the enemies of the tribes of Israel had also been small and tribal; but leading up to his time, the Philistines had emerged as more of a unified enemy in the region.
2. We read in different parts of 1 Samuel about Saul’s qualifications for leadership. In a nutshell, he was the biggest and strongest, described as standing head and shoulders above other men (1 Sam. 9:2). He was a natural leader and had evidenced at least one spirit-filled experience among the prophets.
3. He was chosen in response to the people’s demand for a king, against the prophet Samuel’s advice (1 Sam. 10:17-27). This was described in one of our texts for today and we’ll talk a bit more about it in a moment.
4. He had early success as a king, defeating the Ammonites, the Philistines (1 Sam. 13-14), and the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:8).
5. He committed several spiritual offenses. He offered a sacrifice without Samuel present (1 Sam. 13:8-14), which was a no-no. He broke the very sacred ban against taking anything of those they defeated in battle (1 Sam. 15:2ff). For this grave offense Samuel deposed and sentenced him (1 Sam. 15:26,35). And in perhaps his most well-known transgression, he consulted a medium rather than the Lord (or Samuel) for guidance (1 Chron. 10:13). I’ll comment further on the deeper problem with these acts as well.
But there are five facts to know about Saul. He was the first king of Israel; he looked the part and was chosen for it; he was successful militarily; and he was not particularly mindful of what God wanted him to do. Let’s look now more in-depth.
It is said that money cannot buy happiness. That is, perhaps, not a far distance from the claims of Psalm 33, which we heard in the call to worship:
The king is not saved by a mighty army; a Warrior is not delivered by great strength. (v. 16)
It’s counter-intuitive, I know. It depends on what you mean by ‘saved’ and ‘delivered’ – just like the saying about money depends on what you mean by ‘happiness.’ After all, money can buy you a moment’s pleasure – a tasty bit of chocolate or the newest electronic gadget or a ticket to the big game. The wisdom behind the saying is the realization that true happiness is deeper and more meaningful than those temporary entertainments.
Likewise, a mighty army or great strength or the latest security system or a bodyguard can offer some peace of mind. They can even win the day. But the underlying wisdom behind the Psalm, ironically enough thought to be written by Saul’s successor, King David, is that there is greater deliverance and salvation than a strong king or army can offer.
In the history of Israel, God had consistently been the source of deliverance and salvation. In both the passages we heard this morning from 1 Samuel, there was reference to the Lord delivering His people from slavery in Egypt. But the people wanted a different kind of deliverance, a different kind of salvation. They wanted something for the immediate need, and that seemed to be a king like the other nations.
In 1 Samuel 8, just after where we stopped reading, Samuel tells them of all the costs of having such a king: there will be extensive taxes and taking of sons and daughters to service his needs. There will come a day when the people cry out because of the burden of serving a king. But the real spiritual problem in 1 Samuel 8 and following is that the Lord has been serving as the Great King of Israel and the people want something and someone just a little more tangible. So they choose the best-looking, strongest, fiercest warrior among them; after all, they fight a mighty foe. And despite the sternest warnings, Saul is crowned king.
It’s hard to tell in chapter ten if Samuel is playing along to illustrate the folly of their demand or if he, too, is persuaded by Saul. Verse 23 describes him as physically “head and shoulders above the rest.” And Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? Surely there is no one like him among all the people.” And yes, the Lord did choose him – but as what the people were asking for, not as His best for them.
As I mentioned in the five facts, Saul had early military success, defeating and beating back several of Israel’s enemies. But the Philistines continued to be a threat – remember Goliath? And Saul engaged in spiritual practices forbidden by the Lord. Perhaps the power of leadership went to his head. Perhaps he wanted to appear spiritual to the people or claim some mantle of spiritual authority in addition to military authority. In the end, he pitted himself against God rather than humbling himself before God. And that was his downfall.
From this example to the Psalm we heard to the example of Christ himself, godly human leadership involves allegiance and service to God, the High King. There IS a place for strength, resources, money, technology, and every other human resource, but not at the expense of trust in and service to God.
Let me say again that there is a broad point of connection and application here. This biblical principle isn’t just for kings and rulers, but for every person who is in some position of leadership. And I believe that covers just about every one of you at some time or another.
You may lead a team at work. You may lead teenagers in the youth ministry. You may be a teenager and have the opportunity to lead and set an example for your friends. You may be a parent, with the responsibility of raising young ones to maturity and adulthood. In every case there are resources at your disposal, and good ones. It is wise and beneficial to have training, technology, money, support, and more. But the deep lesson from this first of Israel’s kings is that it is not enough to truly succeed. God is the true King, the true Rescuer and Deliverer.
God’s timing is always interesting. This past week I circulated a prayer request for a friend whose newborn baby has severe heart issues. My friend and her husband are journeying through challenges I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around, yet doing so with faith and grace that only God can inspire. At the decision not to pursue a high-risk surgery, my friend shared these thoughts. Listen for the truth of today’s scriptures lived out loud in her and her husband’s testimony: that God is the only one who truly saves.
When I felt I might be pregnant in April, I heard the Lord telling me not only that I would have a boy but that he would be like Josiah, one of the kings in 2 King 22-23 in the Old Testament of the Bible. Josiah became king at an early age and was faithful in leading the people back to their God. When I heard this, my vision for [my child] revolved around seeing him as a great preacher and evangelist, like Billy Graham, but I have realized in the past few days that [this little one] was first sent to turn mine and [my husband’s] hearts back to our God, for us to know Him more deeply as a God who is loving, always present, abounding in mercy and compassion, and sacrificial; he was sent to us to challenge our idols and gods of selfishness or self-centeredness, technology, dependence on ourselves; he was sent to us to remind us how we will suffer in this world but that there is an eternity free of suffering that awaits all of us.There is much in us that demands a king – quick answers, deliverance from what ails us, freedom from what enslaves us. And we are so quick to turn to the stuff of this world to find peace, hope, and rescue. While we need not despise or decline helpful resources in this world, they are not our salvation. God is our only hope and salvation. It is a wise person who looks first to God for help. Whether a parent, boss, teacher, manager, or friend, it is a strong leader who trusts most in the Lord. Amen.
In the meantime, we smile at [our son’s] unique frustrated cry, learn his different grimaces and smiles, enjoy his beautiful face, his long fingers, toes and serious brow, and remember that none of us are our own, that we belong to a God who gave us His Son that we may know Him and live.