One of the great values of reading through the Bible every year is the insight God gives over time. Each year new light shines on the pages of the Word, and each year God exposes some truth—there all along—that He holds in hand for the one who “listens daily to [Him], watching daily at [His] gates, waiting at the posts of [His] doors” (Prov. 8:34). Saul’s life offers lessons on leadership for those who learn by example and precept.
Saul had the honor of reigning as the first king of the united monarchy in Israel. He began well; he was humble, he was obedient, he was respectful of God and His prophet. He was the people’s choice for king—tall, handsome, and wealthy (1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23). His life spiraled downward, however, in an ever-increasing trajectory of failure, sin, and blame that cost him his kingdom, his sons, and ultimately his life. Saul’s legacy offers powerful lessons for those interested in leadership; sadly, they all are written in a minor key and all teach what not to do.
Saul started humbly, but eventually he began to believe his own press. He refused to wait on Samuel to offer sacrifices as God had commanded, and in his impatience offered the burnt offering for the battle. Samuel arrived immediately after he finished, rebuked him for his folly (1 Sam. 13:13), and told him that his kingdom would not continue, for Saul was not a man after God’s own heart (13:14). God honors the man who waits on Him rather than promoting himself.
Saul spoke foolishly in a public oath that hurt his people and endangered the life of his son. When Jonathan started a rout of the Philistines, Saul put the entire army under the threat of a curse, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Both the curse itself and the emphasis in it (“. . . I . . . my”) show a self-focus not befitting a monarch serving the living God. Had not the people intervened, it would have cost him the life of his son Jonathan (14:45). God honors the man who guards his words because he cares more about God’s honor than his own publicity.
Saul worried more about what men thought about him than what God told him to do. Samuel sent him to slay the Amalekites for attacking Israel when they came out of Egypt (15:2); he was to take neither prisoners nor prizes. He did not obey the Lord fully; instead, he blamed the people (15:21) for his failure to do what he knew God had commanded. His incomplete repentance further compounded his attitude; he only wanted to worship with Samuel so that he would be honored before men (15:30). No wonder Solomon later wrote, “The fear of man brings a snare” (Prov. 29:25). God honors the man who fears Him more than men and takes responsibility for his own sin.
Saul lost courage when he needed it most; Goliath’s size—someone finally taller than Saul—showed up his cowardice as well as his lack of faith. His willingness to send a “youth” (1 Sam. 17:33) to fight a giant speaks volumes. Since God commands His leaders to be courageous (Deut. 31:6; Joshua 1:6, 7, 9), a failure in courage is a sin. God honors the man who chooses the courageous path even though he is trembling.
Saul let the green-eyed monster of jealousy devour his heart. Instead of rejoicing when David wrought victory for Israel, Saul demoted and finally chased away his best warrior at a time when Israel most needed strong-hearted soldiers for the battle. He whined over the singing of songs about David (1 Sam. 18:8), sought to kill him outright with a spear, and sent his soldiers to kill him at home. Each scheme failed, but Saul’s preoccupation with David gave his enemies strongholds in the land (1 Sam. 23:1, 27; 28:1). God honors the man who rejoices when his companions succeed because he is busy building God’s kingdom and not his own.
Saul attacked and killed the servants of the Lord because they helped his “enemy” (1 Sam. 22). Saul had been reduced to appealing to pity (“there is not one of you who feels sorry for me”—22:8) from his soldiers in order to seek out David; when he found out where he had been, he killed the LORD’s priests (22:18). Saul’s jealousy had so corroded his heart and seared his conscience that he had no compunction to condemn, attack, and destroy God-called men and their families. God honors the man who honors His servants. He ascribed his own evil motives to the priest’s innocent assistance, and brushed aside the priest’s protestations of David’s loyalty.
Saul confessed his folly only once, but once was enough; God provided David with a situation where Saul was exposed and David had opportunity, but David refrained from killing Saul (“Who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless?”—26:9). When Saul responded to David’s kindness, he confessed, “I have played the fool” (26:21). He never said it again, but out it came, defining his reign and exposing his heart. God honors the man who so lives in the fear of the LORD that, though he does foolish things, does not end as a fool.
Saul sought the counsel of the world instead of God. Like men today who listen to lawyers, accountants, and stockbrokers rather than the Word of God, Saul turned to a medium to conduct a séance (28:8). God’s rebuke from this experience so unnerved him that he gave up; he went into battle without God’s protection or His leadership, and so brought defeat on his kingdom. God honors the man who treasures more the Word of God than all the counsel of man.
Saul’s death testified to his failure; he died alone and abused, after the deaths of his sons and all his soldiers in one day (31:6). He deserted God to chase a loyal servant, so God deserted him. Saul’s rebellion cost him more than he had ever dreamed. His kingdom lasted only one generation; his reputation was tarnished forever by his sin; his only true mourner was the man whom he had pursued unjustly; and, his name became a synonym for poor leadership. God honors the man who may live in obscurity but obeys Him. As Adrian Rogers said time and again, “The faith that falters at the finish was faulty from the first.”
Saul’s failure may be traced to his lack of Bible literacy. Saul failed at the outset because he did not listen to the Word of God with its clear instruction for kings. Had Saul bothered to read and copy the Book of the Law as God commanded kings to do through Moses (Deut. 17:18), he would have seen in both Exodus and Deuteronomy that God had sworn to have war forever with Amalek and that one day He would call upon His people to “blot out Amalek from remembrance on the earth” (Deut. 25:19). Further he would have also learned the behavior of kings and honored God rather than ending in disgrace. God honors the man who lives in His Word daily.
Learn the lessons Saul teaches, or perhaps become one who repeats them.