King Saul’s Finest Moment

An article from SVM Fall 2011

Edward Malone


An article from SVM Fall 2011

Saul summons Israel to fight the Ammonites who have besieged Jabesh-Gilead and threatened to gouge out the eyes of all the city’s able-bodied men. Two episodes appear in the top panel of the page. On the left, the people of Gibeah meet Saul as he returns from the field, driving two oxen. The news they tell Saul of the plight of the men of Jabesh-Gilead so angers the tall young leader of Israel that he slays his oxen, cuts them into pieces and gives the pieces to three men. These messengers will take the pieces to every part of Israel and announce that the cattle of any man who does not fight the Ammonites with Saul will receive the same treatment.

After the age of the judges when the children of Israel did what was right in their own eyes and before the ascent of the dynasty and royal line of David, from whom our very own lord and savior Jesus Christ is descended, there reigned in Israel a king named Saul who is historically regarded as a strong and brave man whose very own disobedience, enviousness, insecurities, and paranoia were the undoing of his kingdom. But perhaps King Saul’s finest moment as King of Israel was when he rallied his fellow Israelites and defeated the aggressive and intimidating Ammonites.

Saul Defeats the Ammonites

The story begins with the appointment of Saul by the prophet Samuel as leader of the people of Israel. In a series of casting of lots, apparently ordained by God, Samuel lined up all twelve tribes of Israel. Upon casting the first lot, the tribe of Benjamin was selected. To narrow the choice, another lot was cast, and the clan of Matri was chosen. The clan of Matri took its place in the line, and Saul, the son of Kish was selected among the clan. Saul, apparently either shy or overwhelmed by the moment, disappeared, hiding himself in a pile of baggage. When Samuel asked about Saul’s whereabouts, it took God Almighty Himself to reveal that Saul had hidden himself in the baggage. After the people fetched Saul, Samuel addressed the people, appointed Saul to lead Israel and instructed Saul and the people concerning the duties of kingship.

A group of troublemakers, however, mocked Saul and refused to congratulate him, saying “How can this man save us?” But Saul held his peace.

As soon as Saul was appointed, an enemy disrupted the peace. Nahash, the king of Ammon encamped his troops outside a neighboring city of Jabesh Gilead, preparing them for war against the city. The men of Jabesh offered themselves as slaves to Nahash, only asking him to name the terms of surrender. Nahash insisted that the citizens of Jabesh be spared only upon the condition that he gouge out the right eye of every inhabitant of Jabesh. Instead of fleeing or refusing Nahash’s demands, the people of the town asked for more time to think it over. They then sent messengers to Saul to ask for help.

It is unclear if Jabesh at the time was an Israelite controlled city, a protectorate of the Israelite kingdom, or a city of people closely allied with Israel. In a recently discovered version of I Samuel found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as 4QSam, the text of I Samuel 10 adds that King Nahash had previously attacked the Israelite tribes of Gad and Reuben and gouged out the right eyes of those Israelites. Seven thousand Israelites escaped and fled to Jabesh. If the 4QSam version is true, then this could explain why the people of Jabesh Gilead asked Saul for help.

The messengers reached Saul’s hometown of Gibeah and alerted the people about what was going on. The people burst out into an uproar, and then Saul showed up. He had been plowing in the field behind oxen.

When Saul heard about the happenings in Jabesh, the Spirit of God came upon him and he burned with anger. He grabbed an ox, cut it into pieces, and distributed the ox parts throughout all of Israel, warning them that they would suffer the fate of the ox if they did not join together with him and stop the Ammonites.

The dread of Yahweh fell upon the men of Israel and they “came out as one man” to join Saul. Saul’s volunteer army then launched a surprise attack upon the Ammonite troops, destroying most of them. The Bible says that “no two of them were left together.”

When Saul and his army returned from their victory over the Ammonites, the people of Israel were joyous. But loyalists   to Saul wanted to execute those who had previously opposed Saul’s elevation to kingship. Saul, however, refused to punish his former detractors. Saul said that no one would die that day and that Israel should enjoy the victory God had just given them. Said Saul, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today Yahweh has wrought deliverance in Israel.”

Then Samuel suggested that Saul be formally proclaimed king once again. Samuel said to the people: “Come and let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom” (I Samuel 11:14). The Israelites then went to Gilgal and made Saul king over Israel once and for all.

Parting with Their Right Eyes

These transactions and occurrences both teach us useful lessons and beg very important questions. Upon threat of annihilation by King Nahash, the men of Jabesh were willing to part with their right eyes to save their physical lives. What does this teach us concerning what we ought to be willing to part with to save our spiritual lives? Remember, Jesus said that if our right eye offends us, we should pluck it out and that it is better to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye than to perish with both eyes. If the men of Jabesh under threat of physical death deemed their right eyes dispensable, then what are we willing to dispense with to follow Jesus Christ and escape eternal death? (Both Jesus and this author are speaking metaphorically).

Saul Plowing in the Field

When news reached Saul concerning the threats of the Ammonites, Saul was plowing in the field. If Saul had previously been anointed king and thereafter given the duties of kingship, why would Saul be plowing in the field at such a crucial time? Why would he not be sitting on his throne? And after the victory over Ammon, why would Samuel and the Israelites have to go back and renew Saul’s kingship? Perhaps the answer lies in the word choice used by the author of I Samuel who in chapter 10 states that Saul was first anointed “captain” over his people Israel. The fact that the Hebrew word nagid (captain, leader) was used and not melek (king) may indicate that Saul, at first, was not acknowledged as king, but simply as one who went before and led his people. If Saul was indeed king, then maybe the kingship—being a brand new position as it was – was only a part-time position then.

But perhaps the best explanation for Saul plowing in the field was that Saul had refused to or procrastinated in assuming his duties. Although he held his peace when a group of dissenters scoffed at his appointment as leader, Saul – being the shy, modest, and under-confident man that he was – may have simply gone back to farming and herding. Whatever was the case, a seemingly unfit Saul plowing in the field was able to – with the help of the “Spirit of God” – rise to the occasion and rally his fellow countrymen.

Righteous Anger

When news reached Saul concerning the threats of the Ammonites, the scriptures say that Saul burned with anger. Was this a good thing? Is there a place for anger among God’s people today? Yes. When another person is being abused or mistreated, it is the duty of righteous people to burn with anger. Like King Saul, we may be safe and minding our own business, plowing in the field. But just as the threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the people in Jabesh become Saul’s business, threats to the health, safety, and welfare of our neighbors should become our business.

Dissenters Turned Supporters

When the Israelites came together to fight the Ammonites, the Bible says they “came out as one man.” This means that the men who had previously mocked Saul joined in Saul’s crusade to defeat Nahash and the Ammonites. What brought about their change of heart?

The scripture says it happened when “the dread of Yahweh fell upon the people.” Indeed God has the power to one day make your nastiest naysayers “come out as one man” behind you in support for your righteous cause. We must be comforted by this fact and always mindful that it is God alone who changes the minds and softens the hearts. Jesus once said, “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44)

But when the dissenters are finally turned into supporters and God gives us the victory, how will we react? Will we be like the loyalists who demanded that Saul’s detractors be punished? Or will we show the forgiveness of King Saul, who discouraged the people from seeking vengeance and encouraged them all to enjoy the victory that God had given them? There is a tendency among God’s people to think they are alone. Being mistreated, persecuted, and mocked by outside people can certainly contribute to this feeling. In fact, this feeling can even lead to a temptation to shut the very doors of salvation to others. Indeed there are some Seventh-Day Christians who teach a doctrine called closed probation in which they contend that there will come a time when God will completely remove the availability for repentance and salvation from the world. It is almost as if they want people to perish. But we must have the attitude of King Saul who in his finest moment behaved like God, who is “not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Saul’s Kingship

Although King Saul’s kingship over Israel would eventually come to a tragic and sinful end, the above transactions and occurrences show us an understanding and forgiving Saul. A Saul who like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ “receives the submission of rebels, and even pleads their cause.”(Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary)

This story about Saul should also teach us an important lesson about the time, place, and manner in which God calls a person for a certain task or work. Whomever God qualifies, he qualifies. If He equips and readies a person for a specific task, then that person is the person who should fulfill that task. That person’s previous ineptitude or subsequent disqualification may not matter to God at the moment. God may be using that person pro hac vice (L. “for this occasion”). If Saul did nothing else right in his life, he fulfilled the will of God on this one occasion.

Even from the life of King Saul, a man who most biblical scholars regard as a scoundrel, we can look at its finest moment and learn some important lessons about sacrifice, leadership, moral indignation, redemption and forgiveness.

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