Finishing Well
by Jack Wald | October 12th, 2008

I Samuel 9, 28

In our study of I Samuel we come this morning to the introduction of Saul, Israel’s first king. He was an impressive first choice. If Hollywood had come to Israel in the time of Samuel to make a film about a king, they would have been so excited to have found Saul. He was tall and handsome. He was a head taller than everyone else around him. He looked like a king.

Last week I preached from chapter 8 which is a transition chapter between Samuel’s rule of Israel and the search for a king. The elders of Israel had come to Samuel to demand that a king be found to rule them which did not come as good news for Samuel who viewed this as a rejection of his leadership.

Samuel was older and knew he would not be around forever and so he had appointed his two sons to be judges for Israel. But they were just as corrupt as his predecessor Eli’s sons had been. Samuel knew all this but he was not yet ready to be put out to pasture and so he was offended when the elders demanded he find them a king.

Chapter 8 ends with Samuel telling the elders of Israel “Everyone go back to his own town.” And then Samuel waited.

I don’t think Samuel was eager to begin his search. If this was what God wanted, thought Samuel, then let him make it happen. Meanwhile Samuel went about his regular business, visiting towns, acting as judge, settling disputes, leading in ritual worship.

Saul’s father, Kish, sent his son out with a servant to find some donkeys that had strayed away. This was not extraordinary or unusual and he set off as he had undoubtedly done before. They made an extensive search and after three days Saul began to be concerned that they had been gone too long and his father would be worried But then the servant reminded him that Samuel was nearby and perhaps they could ask him where the donkeys were. (This is a little indication that not all of the requests that came to Samuel were of great consequence.)

The towns of that time were set on hills which meant that the wells were below the town and it was the task of the maidens in the town to come down to the well to draw water. This is where Saul and his servant met some of these young women.

11 As they were going up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and they asked them, “Is the seer here?”

12 “He is,” they answered. “He’s ahead of you. Hurry now; he has just come to our town today, for the people have a sacrifice at the high place. 13 As soon as you enter the town, you will find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people will not begin eating until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward, those who are invited will eat. Go up now; you should find him about this time.”

14 They went up to the town, and as they were entering it, there was Samuel, coming toward them on his way up to the high place.

Saul set out with his servant to look for the donkeys who had strayed and Samuel had just arrived in this town to make a sacrifice. If the donkeys had gone missing a day earlier, they would have missed meeting Samuel. If Samuel had been delayed he would have not been there when Saul and his servant came by.

Do you see the hand of God in this, arranging this meeting between the two?

If there is any doubt that it is God who is making the arrangements, the next verse removes that doubt.

15 Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel: 16 “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him leader over my people Israel; he will deliver my people from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked upon my people, for their cry has reached me.”

17 When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.”

Saul came to Samuel thinking he was unknown but to his surprise he was known and was treated with great honor.

Samuel showed Saul he was a prophet by telling him the donkeys that had been lost three days earlier had been found. And then he blew his mind.

And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and all your father’s family?

The elders of Israel had asked Samuel to find them a king and now Samuel let Saul know that he was to be this king.

There are some people who from birth want to be king and scheme and manipulate to achieve their high ambitions. Some people would have jumped at the chance, but not Saul. Saul was a reluctant king.

He began by pointing out that from a political point of view he was not an obvious choice.

21 Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?”

It made much more sense to have one of the members of the larger tribes of Israel as king.

But Samuel went on astonishing Saul. He brought him into the hall where about thirty men had been invited for the meal and instructed the cook to bring the leg he had asked to be saved.

This meant much more than Saul was treated as an honored guest. In the law of Moses it was instructed

Exodus 29:27-28

Consecrate those parts of the ordination ram that belong to Aaron and his sons: the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. 28 This is always to be the regular share from the Israelites for Aaron and his sons. It is the contribution the Israelites are to make to the Lord from their fellowship offerings.

The leg was the priest’s portion. Samuel knew this. Saul knew this. The thirty invited guests knew this. And the question came to the minds of all but Samuel, “Why was Saul being given the priest’s portion of meat?” Only Samuel knew that as the Lord’s anointed, Saul was entitled to this special piece of meat.

In the morning Samuel sent Saul’s servant off ahead so he could be alone with Saul.

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance?

And then he gave three signs to Saul that would prove to him that he had, in fact, been anointed as king.

First,

2 When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?” ’

Secondly,

3 “Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine. 4 They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.

And thirdly,

5 “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. 6 The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. 7 Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.

And then he set the stage for the next event when Saul would be publically recognized as king.

8 “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”

God providentially brought Samuel and Saul together. God gave Samuel knowledge of what Saul was doing here. God pointed out to Samuel who his choice for king was. And God gave to Samuel three signs that would prove to Saul that he was God’s choice and Samuel’s choice for king.

Saul was clearly God’s choice to be Israel’s first king.

How did Saul react to all this?

9 As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day.

Saul came home and his uncle asked him,

Where have you been?

Where have I been? Well sit down and let me tell you!” I would have bursting with news to tell.

I heard a joke once about a donkey who died while pulling a cart. The owner was trying to figure out what to do about it when a woman came out of a nearby house and asked if she could buy the donkey and have it moved into the bathtub of her house. The owner asked her why she wanted to do this and she told him, “For twenty years my husband has come home from work and every night he enters the house and asks, ‘What’s new?’ Well tonight I’m going to have an answer.”

What do you think you would have said? What would Joseph, the favored son of Isaac who delighted in telling his brothers about his dreams where he ruled over them, have said? Joseph would have told his uncle he would soon be kneeling down before him. But what did Saul say?

Now Saul’s uncle asked him and his servant, “Where have you been?” “Looking for the donkeys,” he said. “But when we saw they were not to be found, we went to Samuel.”

15 Saul’s uncle said, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.”

16 Saul replied, “He assured us that the donkeys had been found.” But he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship.

This shows me that Saul had a great deal of maturity. This shows me his strength of character. Saul had been singled out by Samuel the prophet to be Israel’s first king. He had been anointed with oil. His heart had been changed. The Spirit of God came on him with power and he prophesied. This was not an uneventful few days but Saul kept this all to himself. He did not brag. He did not boast. Something extraordinary had happened and Saul kept it to himself to have time to think about all that had happened.

There is a lot to like about Saul in this opening section. He is tall and handsome and yet it has not gone to his head. Saul does not show the arrogance that many talented people have. So many times, talented men and women know they are talented and make sure everyone else knows they are talented.

But every once in a while I discover a young man or woman who is talented in many ways and yet is humble. Smart, musical, athletic and yet caring of others, not at all arrogant. These are remarkable people and I see a bit of this in Saul.

He was not opportunistic, jumping at the chance to have the power of a king. He was mature enough to keep to himself the events of his evening and morning with Samuel, to wait and see what would happen next.

And over the weeks to come, we will see more examples of Saul’s good character and wise leadership.

But, unfortunately, as we move through the accounts of his years as king, he does not fulfill the promise he had at the beginning.

How many years do you think Saul was king? 10? 20? 30? 40? I Samuel 13:1 records that

Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty- two years.

There is some ambiguity in the Hebrew about these numbers, but the point is that Saul had a long reign as king of Israel and this surprised me when I read the account. I had thought Saul’s leadership of Israel had been much shorter in time. But 42 years? That’s a long reign as king.

As you read through I Samuel, it is sad to see Saul, who started with such promise, who had so much potential, descend into such a pitiable person. Saul started with a lot of promise but then in his middle years as king he became jealous of David and we read some really ugly scenes.

Saul became jealous of David because after David defeated Goliath, the people fell in love with David and showered him with praise. They loved David more than they loved Saul and he was jealous.

10 The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11 and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

Saul prophesied as he had done before but his jealousy had opened him to evil spirits and he tried to kill David. David ran from Saul and there began many years of a cat and mouse game between Saul and David. But it was sometimes a deadly game for the innocent bystanders.

When the priest Ahimelech at Nob, where there was a community of priests, helped David when he was running away from Saul, Saul retaliated by slaughtering all the priests and their families. The deaths of these priests and their families was a tragedy in which both Saul and David were responsible. David lied to Ahimelech, not letting him know that he was running from Saul and knowing that Saul would take out his anger on the priests. David had a part in this but it is Saul who has become so obsessed with David that in a burst of anger ordered the priests to be killed.

His men would not do this because it was such a horrible thing to do. It took Saul’s right hand man, Doeg the Edomite to kill, one by one, the priests and then their families. This is a long way from the Saul of chapters 9 and 10 and 11.

And then at the end of his life, Saul went into battle with the Philistines and was afraid. He looked to God for help but God did not answer him through any of the ways Saul was used to, not by dreams, not by prophets, not by Urim (a device priests used to discern God’s will). Saul was stuck, afraid of what might happen in the coming battle and cut off from communication with God.

Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from Israel but now he turned to them, his last hope.

He went in disguise to the medium at Endor and she brought Samuel up from the dead who delivered the worst possible news to Saul. The army would be defeated and he and his sons would die in battle.

It is so terribly sad to see a man with so much potential end up in such a pitiable state.

Over the next few weeks we will learn a lot of lessons from Saul’s life, but for this morning, let me point out a couple observations.

First, Saul’s life did not have to end this way. Saul made a lot of bad choices that accounted for the dismal way he ended his life.

Frederick Buechner begins his description of Saul by saying:

Saul, the first king of Israel, had three things going against him almost from the beginning. One of them was the prophet Samuel, another was a young man named David, and the third and worst was himself.

It is true that Samuel never seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter of Saul. It is as if he resented that anyone had been chosen to take his place as leader of Israel. Buechner says:

Samuel never thought Israel should have had a king in the first place and told him so at regular intervals.

Saul did not receive from Samuel the help and support he needed but Saul, at the end of his life, stood without excuse. Saul made the bad choices that led to his pitiable end.

Saul was king when they were facing the Philistine army with their giant warrior, Goliath. He was in a difficult situation. The Philistines were part of the remnant of the Minoan civilization that had been destroyed by the volcanic eruption at Santorini and the tidal wave that ensued. The survivors moved to Egypt, Gaza and other parts of the Mediterranean world. And they brought with them superior technology. They had mastered the art of working with iron and Israel had to go to Philistine blacksmiths to have any iron work done. As a consequence, the Philistine army was armed with swords and spears, but not Israel.

So on the day of the battle not a soldier with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear in his hand; only Saul and his son Jonathan had them.

Saul sat with his army facing the Philistines in a standoff and David, probably just a teenager, won the day by killing Goliath and demoralizing the Philistine army (and picking up a lot of swords and spears in the bargain).

David was a hero and Israel celebrated him. Unfortunately for Saul’s ego, they chanted

Saul has slain his thousands,

and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul could have worked with David and used his skills to build and strengthen his kingdom, but Saul was consumed with jealousy.

There was a weakness in Saul that he allowed his jealousy of David to grow and eventually consume him. Saul allowed his ego to lead him. Saul allowed his need for approval to lead him. Saul made choices that led him steadily down on the path of alienation and despair.

My second observation is that the overriding tragedy of Saul’s life is not that he made bad choices and did some terrible things. The great tragedy of Saul’s life is that as he moved through his life he moved away from God and ended his life cut off from God. There are a lot of things to regret in Saul’s life but for me the absolute worst is to see where Saul started and then see how far away from his start he finished.

In I Samuel 10 and 11 we read that

God changed Saul’s heart

the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying.

the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger.

But as time went on and Saul gave in to his ego and jealousy, it is over and over again an evil spirit that comes upon him and finally at the end, he is going out as a king should, to do battle against his perpetual enemy, the Philistines, and when he turns to God for help, God is not there. Saul has been cut off from God and abandoned.

The scene of Saul with the medium at Endor is a tragic scene. The tragedy is not all the things that happened in his life, not all the bad things he did but that he lost the ability to hear God speak to him.

Saul started out well but finished miserably.

To finish miserably is such a tragedy because on the eve of the greatest journey we make when we die our physical death and set out for our eternal judgement, if we are not on good terms with God, it is not a good sign.

My dad died one month ago. As he was sitting on a chair taking his last breath, the accomplishments of his life meant nothing. All of those slipped through his fingers and he went were they cannot go. Up until the moment he died it was a matter of where he went to university, his service in the Navy in WWII, building his own home, starting a business, his marriage and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But all of these slipped away and what was he left with?

Saul served as Israel’s first king for forty-two years. Over the years there was good and bad in his life but all of that ended when he fell on his sword in battle rather than be captured by the Philistines. Meeting with the medium at Endor was like my dad sitting on the chair taking his last breath.

Saul took his last breath and entered into battle against the Philistines alone, estranged from God, knowing that Israel would lose the battle and he and his sons would die.

How terribly sad.

Compare the way he ended his life with how his namesake from the New Testament ended his life. Saul who took on his Greek name, Paul, started off his life when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He began his life with great promise just as King Saul did but listen to how he described the way he finished his life.

II Timothy 4:6

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

As we move through the years of our lives we are consumed with all the responsibilities that come to us. We make choices along the way to deal with the problems and difficulties we face. You may be sitting here this morning making notes in the bulletin about things you have to do this week, maybe making a note about an idea of how to solve a problem you are facing at school or at work.

We are supposed to be responsible and do a good job at school and at work. If a good idea comes to you, by all means write it down in the bulletin so you don’t forget it. But you need to be aware that your job will come to an end. Your achievements will one day slip away. All the things that are so important now will one day fall away and you will be sitting on a chair taking your last breath.

And when that happens, where will you be in your relationship with God? That is the only thing that will matter. That is the only thing you will take with you after you take your last breath.

Make choices now in light of what will certainly come. Finish well so when you take your last breath you will do so in the presence of and with the blessing of God.