Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may worship the LORD.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.” So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the LORD.
Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
(1 Samuel 15:24-35 ESV)
There is a familiar quote that goes, 'Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it.' Most sources I found say the author is unknown. At least one thought it was coach Vince Lombardi who said it. Whoever said it, nothing could be more of a true explanation for what happened to King Saul.
You may remember that when the men came to anoint him as king, they had to hunt Saul down and ultimately found him hiding among the baggage. There is no more deadly combination of character flaws for a politician to have than the twin issues of fear and pride. That was the exact combination that ultimately undid our 37th president, Richard Nixon. A politician can survive infidelity (Bill Clinton, Grover Cleveland), corruption (Warren Harding, Chester Arthur), and even poor judgment and bad advice (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush), but no leader can live in fear of the very people he serves while also nursing an outsized ego.
Look at what happens here. God had told Saul to go and utterly end the Amalekites. We’ll discuss whether God ever approves violence some other time, but for now let’s just assume that’s what God ordered done. Saul went and did the job, but he brought back a bunch of what pirates used to call booty (isn’t it funny how the meanings of words change over the years) – gold and silver. He also brought back the king of the Amalekites, Agag. His plan was to put on a show for the people of Israel once he got home. He was going to kill Agag in a great public display that would feed his character flaw of pride and assuage his character flaw of fear.
When Samuel the prophet confronts Saul about this sin, Saul shifts the blame to the people! He sinned, he said, because the people wanted a show. Today we would say he had succumbed to the curse of polling data.
Having issued the excuse, Saul turns on a dime and tries to regain his political footing. He shifts the focus to worship – this time because he is afraid of Samuel. This guy will do whatever will placate the person he’s dealing with.
When Samuel drops the other shoe and tells Saul God has rejected him from being king, Saul completely goes to pieces. Talk about grasping at straws! He turns violent and tears Samuel’s robe. We are watching the disintegration of a public figure. And oh, by the way Saul, God isn’t going to lose any sleep over you. Anyone remember Spiro Agnew? Even Nixon was glad to see him go.
It is curious what happens next. Saul cuts a deal with Samuel. “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.” Saul didn’t care a whit about worshipping God. All that mattered to him was how he looked to the people. He wanted to be remembered as a religious man. Why did Samuel let him go through with his charade? He did it because, while Samuel, as a prophet could announce God’s intentions, he could not bring them about. That would have to wait for another day when David’s star would rise and Saul would self-destruct. Samuel didn’t need to do anything. Saul was right on course to bring about his own end.
Samuel regrettably must finish the work Saul was sent to do. Saul couldn’t even be depended on to do what he had promised. Remember the show he was going to put on? When Agag comes in to speak with Samuel he has a big goofy smile on his face because he knows that Saul had undoubtedly promised him he would spare his life and set him up in a country estate somewhere after the conquest was complete. My guess is Agag was in on the whole deal from the beginning and betrayed his own people.
Samuel is no soldier. It says that he hacked Agag to pieces. I don’t think he was any good at working with a sword, but once he got started he probably took out all his pent up frustration about Saul out on this Amalekite. No wonder he went back to Gibeah and mourned over Saul for the rest of his life.
This whole sad political saga may sound very remote, like something out of West Wing, but really fear and pride are part of daily reality for many of us. Do you spend your life placating the people you work for? Are you afraid of what your friends think of you and how they view you? Did you ever put on a party because you thought that’s what you should do if you want to keep this set of friends happy? Welcome to Saul’s world.
The great failure of Saul is that he was unable to learn from the things God wanted to use to teach him. He was afraid and ambitious when they anointed him as king, and those traits carried on though his whole awkward reign. They finally were his undoing. What keeps you from really becoming what God wants you to be? What character flaw is keeping you forever in a sin loop or forever striving and never arriving with God?
Stop. Right now. Turn your computer off and walk away. Go and spend a few minutes and give it a name, this character flaw. And then thank God that he has revealed it to you; listen to the voices of the prophets who speak into your life. They’ve probably been telling you about it for some time. Once you’ve identified it, make no excuse. Bring it to God and burn it on an altar before him. Then go in his strength and renewal.