Both Saul and David reign over Israel for forty years. Both kings start with humility and both sin against the LORD, but that’s where the similarities end.
Soon after Saul becomes king his initial humility fades; he disregards the instruction and confrontation of the prophet Samuel:
- Instead of waiting for the prophet’s arrival, Saul, in panic, offers the burnt offering.
- Instead of destroying all of the Amalekites and their possessions Saul allows the Amalekite king to live and the people to take the best of the plunder.
- Instead of taking responsibility for his disobedience Saul blames the people and seeks the prophet’s honor before the people.
Comparatively, Saul’s sin appears less grievous than David’s:
- Instead of going out to war with his army David remains in Jerusalem.
- Instead of turning away from looking at the beautiful wife of one of his mighty men David sends for her and has sex with her.
- Instead of acknowledging his lust and adultery David covers his sin by having Bathsheba’s husband killed and marries her.
The most striking difference between the two, however, is how both kings respond to the confrontation of the prophet:
Saul spiritualizes and minimizes his disobedience (even implying the blame is Samuel’s), “When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:11-12, emphasis added). Later, when confronted by Samuel regarding the instruction to destroy the Amalekites, Saul declares, “I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (15:13) and blames the people for his actions, “But the people took the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (15:21). Saul acknowledges his sin, but desires the esteem of the prophet and the people of Israel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obey their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD” (15:24-25).
Samuel assesses and reveals the root of Saul’s disobedience, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (15:17, emphasis added). Samuel’s assessment points back to the passage in Deuteronomy describing the behavior of kings, “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of the law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his Gd and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel” (Deut. 17:18-20, emphasis added).
David neglects his primary role as king, that of seeking the LORD on behalf of Israel and leading the battle against Israel’s enemies. David’s habit up to this point in his life is to inquire of the LORD (1 Samuel 23:3,4; 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19,23; 21:1). He remains home, sees a beautiful woman on the rooftop, inquires about her and sends for her (2 Samuel 11:1-5).
Nathan confronts David with a story about a rich man with many flocks and herds who takes the one lamb of a poor man to feed a house guest (2 Samuel 12). David responds to the story by demanding a four-fold penalty (see Exodus 22:1).
After Nathan describes the consequences of David’s sin, David takes ownership of his sin, “I have sinned against the LORD” (12:13). Psalm 51 expresses the depth of David’s brokenness:
“For I acknowledge my transgression” (3).
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight” (4).
“Behold You desire truth in the inward parts” (6).
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (7).
“Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (9).
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (10).
“Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation” (14).
Finally, David offers to the LORD what He requires and what Saul refuses, “a broken and contrite heart” (17) in the place of burnt offerings and sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
Both kings sin against the LORD; only one—David—expresses genuine repentance.