Now that Samuel has given his farewell address and the kingdom has been transferred to Saul we will begin to see Saul’s fall.
The typical setting for a king to falter is given to us in 1 Sam 13:5. “And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” This is not the first time we have seen this kind of language: “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots” (Joshua 11:4).
The trouble is that Saul is no Joshua. In both books the next comment is about the enemy encampment. This is followed in Joshua by YHWH telling Joshua not to be afraid and that YHWH would hand these enemy troops over to Israel slain the next day. This is followed in Samuel by the people being afraid: hiding in caves and holes, rocks, tombs and cisterns, some crossing the fords of the Jordan and the people following Saul were trembling. The sense that comparing these two passages gives is that YHWH was with Joshua but YHWH was not with Saul.
If we back up for a moment to see how we got here it is worth paying attention to the details in 1 Sam 13:2-4. First, Saul chose 3,000 men of Israel. (This should remind us of Gideon’s 300 men). But then 2,000 of them were with Saul and only 1,000 of them were with Jonathan (Saul’s good son). Second, it was Jonathan that defeated the garrison of the Philistines. Third, this defeat of the garrison of the Philistines was attributed to Saul and not Jonathan (or better yet, YHWH). Jonathan then drops out of the scene with his 1,000 troops and we see the 2,000 troops led by Saul faltering.
Thus Jonathan is out of the scene here and Saul is waiting for Samuel. Apparently Samuel had told him that he would come in 7 days, but Saul waited the 7 days and still no Samuel. So Saul took it upon himself to offer the burnt offering and as soon as he finished Samuel showed up. This is Saul’s fall, and it is followed by the question we would expect to hear from YHWH to the son of Adam, Samuel says, “What have you done?” (1 Sam 13:11). And Saul blamed the people who were scattering, and Samuel who was late, and the enemy that has gathered.
Like Eve seeing that the fruit of the tree was good for wisdom, Saul acted foolishly. Samuel told him, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of YHWH your God, with which He commanded you. For then YHWH would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. YHWH has sought out a man after His own heart, and YHWH has commanded him to be prince over His people, because you have not kept what YHWH commanded you” (1 Sam 13:13-14). Thus like the first fall, the ‘late arrival’ of Samuel was a test. Had Saul passed, the kingdom would be his forever.
The test had a limited duration, if Saul had just waited a short time more Samuel would have been there to offer the burnt offering. But Saul was not “a man after [God’s] own heart.” YHWH desires obedience. Saul thought that offering the burnt offering was more important than obedience. Saul’s census after these things numbered only about 600 men (v.15) of those 2,000 or perhaps of the 3,000 as Jonathan comes back on stage (v.16). 600 men was twice as many as YHWH used with Gideon to save Israel.
In the next chapter we discover the difference between Saul and Jonathan. Jonathan says to his armor bearer, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised [Philistines]. It may be that YHWH will work for us, for nothing can hinder YHWH from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam 14:6). And what Jonathan did caused a panic among the Philistines and in the panic they were defeated. “So YHWH saved Israel that day” (1 Sam 14:23).
It is worth noting the death and resurrection motif here. Jonathan, the king’s son, went down as if into one of the tombs/graves and came back up out again and this prompted other men in Israel to also rise up out of their graves. Leithart suggests that the imagery is even more clear when you realize that the canyon between the two armies was very steep and described as teeth. Sheol is pictured as a hungry monster in Scripture and so Jonathan is pictured as going down into the mouth of Sheol and rising again. The names of the crags he notes are “thorn” and “shining,” which also fit the death curse and resurrection blessing pattern.
In any case, Jonathan has learned the lesson of Gideon whereas Saul had not. In fact, next Saul will act like Jephthah and curse the man who eats food until that evening. Jonathan had not heard the curse (as Jephthah’s daughter too did not hear it). And as the people of Israel were walking through a forest where honey was dripping (in the land flowing with milk and honey) they could not eat it but Jonathan did. And when Jonathan heard about the curse, he said, “My father has troubled the land. … How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies…” (1 Sam 14:29-30).
Saul’s desire to kill Jonathan because of the vow is his second sin fitting the Genesis “progression” of (1) sin of Adam, (2) sin of Cain, (3) climax of sin before the flood. This fratricide of wanting to kill Jonathan was like Cain killing his brother Abel. Saul is like the first Adam and seed of the serpent, David will be like the last Adam and seed of the woman (Jesus Christ).
The chapter ended with this note, “There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul…” It is worth comparing this to the usual formula in judges that the land had rest until the judge died.
Saul’s fall and YHWH’s rejection of Saul reaches (3) in chapter 15. YHWH commanded Saul through the words of Samuel to devote to destruction the Amalekites and not spare any man, woman or child or even their livestock. The Kenites living among them were allowed to depart from the Amalekites because the Kenites had been kind to Israel upon leaving Egypt whereas the Amalekites had opposed Israel at that time. But Saul also spared the Amalekite king Agag and the best of the livestock. The Israelites devoted to destruction as an offering to God the worthless and despised but kept the good things.
This is the chapter that begins the prophetic refrain: “Has YHWH as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of YHWH? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). And now not only will Saul not have the kingdom forever but he is rejected as king period.
Saul feared and obeyed the people rather than YHWH/Samuel (1 Sam 15:24). YHWH regretted that He made Saul king over Israel (1 Sam 15:10, 35). This is fitting. After all, God regretted creating man just before the flood. Remember the Genesis analogy.
Thus we have seen the fall of Saul. Yet he will continue to be a player for some chapters yet to come.