The Failure of Earthly Kingship
1 Samuel 13: 2-15 (NRSV)
2 Saul chose three thousand out of Israel; two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin; the rest of the people he sent home to their tents. 3 Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines that was at Geba; and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear!” 4 When all Israel heard that Saul had defeated the garrison of the Philistines, and also that Israel had become odious to the Philistines, the people were called out to join Saul at Gilgal.
5 The Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude; they came up and encamped at Michmash, to the east of Beth-aven. 6 When the Israelites saw that they were in distress (for the troops were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns. 7 Some Hebrews crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people began to slip away from Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the offerings of well-being.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel arrived; and Saul went out to meet him and salute him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, 14 but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” 15 And Samuel left and went on his way from Gilgal. The rest of the people followed Saul to join the army; they went up from Gilgal toward Gibeah of Benjamin.
Saul counted the people who were present with him, about six hundred men.
Saul started well, but soon he began to diverge from the purposes for which he had been made king. Although he had previously been motivated to action by the Spirit of the Lord (11:6), he resorted to propaganda and took credit for Jonathan's initiative (verse 3). In seeking the centre stage, he became proud and usurped the place that belonged to God alone. In the process, he brought on Israel the animosity of the Philistines (4), provoking a battle for which Israel was ill-prepared. Because he had acted without waiting for God's advice.
Saul endeavoured to rally his troops by usurping Samuel's priestly role and offering up a burnt offering himself (8-9). On arrival, Samuel was furious at what Saul had done. Saul's foolish act had lost the Lord's favour (11-12). Therefore, his kingdom would pass to someone else, who was a man after God's own heart (13-15). Saul's kingship went in severe decline from that point on, resulting in his death and the end of his dynasty in chapter 31.
The story of Israel's search for a king is familiar in every generation, including ours. The search for a leader to follow is always tricky. The trouble is that almost all political leadership ends in failure. Israel has a new start with David, a man after God's own heart, only to find that David's reign would end in tears. Throughout the history of Israel's kingship, the prophets seek to hold Israel to account, always pointing beyond them to a future king and kingdom – King Jesus, the servant king. He alone will bring peace, stability and renewal at the coming of the kingdom and reign of God.
In appointing political leaders, we must seek to select those who will work hard and seek the common good, rather than that which only benefits their own party. Thus, we are responsible for holding them accountable while recognising that it is only with the coming of the kingdom and reign of God that justice and righteousness will arise in all its fulness.
Grant us wisdom in wisely choosing our leaders and holding them accountable.