Saul, Israel’s notorious first king, is usually remembered for his role as the “bad guy” in King David’s epic story. He of course tried countless times to snuff out the shepherd boy who God had appointed to replace him. But people often forget that before he became the villain, he too was chosen by God (1 Samuel 10:24). His is a tragic story of a sometimes great leader with enormous potential who was ultimately overcome by his own insecurities, doubts, and fears.
Saul was tall, dark, and handsome (1 Samuel 9:2). He was every inch the picture of a king. He was also a fierce warrior with numerous military exploits to his name. God used him mightily to deliver the people of Israel from foreign oppressors. And to his credit, Saul had the courage to show up for his final battle, even knowing in advance that it would certainly end in his defeat and death.
From early on, Saul was unsure of himself (1 Samuel 9:21, 10:22). He had a less-than-accurate, understated perspective of who he was, who God had made him to be. When Samuel told him he would be king, for example, Saul insisted that the prophet had the wrong guy, that he was a nobody, and that “[his] family [was] the least important of all the families” in his small tribe (even though the text specifically says his father, Kish, was “wealthy” and “influential” – 1 Samuel 9:1, 21 NLT).
God fully equipped King Saul with his Spirit, gave him a “new heart,” and changed him into a “different person” (1 Samuel 10:6, 9). He had everything he needed to succeed, but time and time again he kept reverting back to the insecure guy who once hid among the luggage, frequently preoccupied with what people might think of him. He “felt compelled” to break God’s command when things seemed to be unraveling (1 Samuel 13:12). He was “afraid of the people” and sometimes allowed himself to be carried along with the prevailing streams of public opinion rather than holding fast to God’s instruction (1 Samuel 15:24). “Although you may think little of yourself,” said Samuel in his final rebuke, “are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17).
Eventually, God revoked his life-giving Spirit, and Saul was overcome with depression and fear (1 Samuel 16:14). He spiraled down into a place of total darkness and basically lost his mind. At perhaps his lowest, he ordered the murder of 85 innocent priests and their families in a desperate effort to retain control of a kingdom that God had already given to another. He finally died on the battlefield, hopeless and alone, his enemies closing in around him, and left with the crushing knowledge that his three sons had been cut down.
“Samuel was so deeply moved,” following God's rejection of Saul, “that he cried out to the LORD all night” (1Samuel 15:10-11). After delivering God’s message of judgment to the wayward king, “Samuel never went to meet with Saul again, but he mourned constantly for him” (1 Samuel 15:35). Samuel’s gut-wrenching response to Saul’s fall is very sobering, I think. Without it, we might be tempted to breeze right past Saul’s story on our way to King David. He can easily become a one-dimensional villain in our minds, a footnote in the narrative, simply a faceless antagonist standing between David and the throne. But if we deny Saul his humanity—his initial potential and the nature of his brokenness—we run the risk of missing his costly warning.
Saul’s low opinion of himself wasn’t a sign of humility. It wasn’t a virtue. It was rooted in his unbelief and maintained by his failure to fully grasp that God had chosen him, empowered him, and assigned him a task. Saul didn’t wear the crown because he was great. He wore the crown because God is great, and he ultimately lost it because he couldn’t connect the dots. It wasn't that he thought too little of himself. On the contrary, he thought too much of himself (or too often of himself). Saul’s fixation on his own inadequacies (that he wasn’t good enough, that he’d eventually be found out, that he’d lose it all to someone better) and his resulting jealousy and paranoia was evidence that his hope wasn't in God. His hope was in himself. His fears, which sprang from his self-reliance, became self-fulfilling prophecies. In the end, Saul fell on his own sword.
“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul... How the mighty have fallen”
—From the “Lament of the Bow,” a funeral song composed by King David, recorded in 2 Samuel 1