The place of Saul in Old Testament history is significant and, we believe, typical of great spiritual truths. It is conceded that Israel’s redemption from Egypt foreshadowed human redemption through the cross of Calvary and the finished work of Christ. It is also beyond question that the triumph of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan pointed forward to the Pentecostal baptism and blessing of the Apostolic church and the deeper rest into which the Holy Ghost brings the individual Christian.
The dark period of declension recorded in the book of Judges and the earlier chapters of Samuel were typical of the dark ages of Christianity, and the Reformation under Samuel was strongly parallel to our Protestant Reformation and the revival of the church of Christ from the bondage of mediaeval darkness and superstition. A little farther on we shall find that the kingdom of David and Solomon was the type of Christ’s Millennial throne.
But what was the meaning of the strange parenthesis of Saul’s life that came before the kingdom of David and Samuel? Alas! it is the counterfeit kingdom which Satan is seeking to set up on the throne of human selfishness and worldly pride, instead of the true kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of which, alas! we have too many evidences in the compromising and worldly ecclesiasticism of our day, and in the Laodicean picture which the Apocalypse has given of the church that is to be rejected at the coming of the Lord.
But while this is the dispensational meaning of Saul’s life, it has a still more solemn personal application for every individual Christian. It is God’s fearful object lesson of the power and peril of the self life and the need of its utter crucifixion before we can enter into the true kingdom of spiritual victory and power.
1. We see the spirit of self in the very motive that prompted the kingdom of Saul. Samuel perfectly understood it as a virtual rejection of God as the supreme King of Israel and a real vain-glorious desire to be independent of Divine control and to be like the surrounding nations of the world. “Make us a king,” they said, “to judge us like all the nations.” No wonder that Samuel was deeply displeased and prayed unto the Lord, but God answered him: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”
Nevertheless, Samuel still protested and solemnly warned them of the burdens and the exactions which their king would claim from them and the trouble they were bringing upon themselves, adding: “Ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” But it was no use. They had set their heart upon their king and they answered: “We will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” This is the spirit of the prodigal, saying, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” It is the desire of independence which is the very root of human sin, and it is the spirit of conformity to the world into which self life always develops. We see it in the spirit of worldly conformity in the church today, and we are conscious of it in our own natural hearts as that broad, self-asserting and dominant ‘I’ which makes man a God unto himself and refuses to surrender his will to Christ, or yield the direction of his life to the will of God and the government of the Holy Ghost.
Therefore, the very first step in the new life must ever be surrender; and the essential condition of the baptism of the Holy Ghost is to yield the very last point to God, and even the things which may in themselves be harmless must be first surrendered if for no other reason than to prove our will is wholly laid down, and that God is all in all.
2. We see the spirit of self in the character of Saul, and the qualifications which made him the choice and the idol of the people. Saul was the very embodiment of the human. He represented all that was most strong, chivalrous, attractive and promising in human nature. He was of splendid physique, a head taller than all the people, a magnificent specimen of physical manhood, and “every inch a king.”
He possessed the intellectual, moral and social qualities that constitute a great public leader. He was brave, heroic, enthusiastic and generous, and the early years of his reign are adorned with some stirring examples of heroic deeds. He was all that the human heart would choose. He represented the best possibilities of human nature, and as the people looked at his splendid figure they shouted again and again that patriotic cry which has so often reechoed since, and which has so seldom been fulfilled as a prayer to heaven, “God save the king.”
God had to let this man stand before the ages to show that man at his best is only man and that human self-sufficiency must end in failure and desperate sorrow. This is the lesson that God is trying to teach His children still. How few of them have found it out so fully that they can say, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” The sentence of death has passed upon the flesh, and there is but one thing that we can do with it — to nail it to the cross of Jesus Christ, to reckon it dead, and to keep it forever in His bottomless grave.
3. The spirit of self in Saul was combined with much that was good and attractive, both naturally and spiritually. Naturally, we have seen that he was not only a man of princely bearing, but of many noble and heroic qualities. He had also a most beautiful family, and Jonathan, his son, is the most attractive figure in the long gallery of Bible characters.
When Saul came to Samuel and was first called to the kingdom he seemed to have many elements of sterling virtue and genuine humility. Like a dutiful son, he went to search for his father’s asses, and then he went to the prophet Samuel to ask counsel about finding them. When he came to Samuel and was told his extraordinary message and anointed to be king there was no unbecoming self-consciousness about him. He kept his secret with discretion and modesty, and even in telling his uncle about the words of Samuel, he said nothing to him about the greater message concerning the kingdom. When he left the presence of Samuel he did just what he was told, and when he met the company of prophets he joined them and received a real baptism of the Spirit like them, and prophesied among them with genuine religious enthusiasm. And even when they sought for him to bring him out before the people and announce to him their choice as the national ruler, they could not find him, for he was hiding among the stuff and he seemed a very paragon of modesty and unobtrusiveness. And yet this was the very man who let the dark and dreadful shadow of himself blight his own life and ruin his kingdom and his family. Oh, how self-deceptive is the human spirit. Oh, how pride itself will hide away in the very guise of deepest humility! In speaking of his earlier life the prophet Samuel pays a tribute to his earlier humility. “When thou wast little in thine own sight,” he says, “wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel?” We cannot doubt that Samuel’s language is perfectly sincere, and that he is giving Saul credit for at least a measure of genuine humility. What then was the defect? May it have been this? It is one thing to be little in our own eyes, it is another thing to be out of our own sight altogether. True humility is not thinking meanly of ourselves, it is not thinking of ourselves at all. What we need is not so much self-denial as self-crucifixion and utter self-forgetfulness. The perfect child is just as unconscious in the highest place as in the lowest, and the true spirit of Christ in us recognizes ourselves as no longer ourselves, but so one with the Lord Jesus that we may truly say: “Not I, but Christ liveth in me.” “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
But what are we to learn from this combination of so many excellencies in one life and its ultimate failure and ruin? Alas, we are to learn that Satan’s choicest wile is to mingle the good with the evil and to cover his poison as a sugar-coated pill, because he knows we would never take it in its unmixed and undiluted evil. Satan’s choicest agents are those that are attractive and naturally lovely. Esau was a more winning man naturally than Jacob; but Esau was lost and Jacob was chosen. You may be beautiful, you may be wise, you may be cultured, you may be moral, you may be useful, you may be noble and generous, and yet, withal, you may be living for yourself and, at last, like Saul, be self-destroyed. Satan doesn’t want your property outright now; he only wants a mortgage on it, and he is content to take a mortgage for a thousand dollars if he cannot get one for a hundred thousand. He can wait for the day of foreclosure. All he wants is to have his hand in it. It is the mixed lives that are doing the mischief.
“Wherefore come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
4. The first test came to Saul in an hour of severe trial when, beleaguered by his enemies and deserted by almost all his soldiers, he seemed to be facing destruction. Waiting seven days for Samuel to come and begin the battle by the usual sacrificial offering, Saul at last grew discouraged and impatient, and then he presumed to take upon himself the priestly functions which belonged only to Samuel, and to offer up the sacrifice without waiting for the prophet. As he was offering it, Samuel came and instantly pronounced upon Saul the terrible sentence: “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which He commanded thee: for now would the LORD thy God have established thy kingdom upon Israel forever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee.”
Many a life succeeds while all is successful, but in the hour of trial self always shows itself. Saul was a splendid king until the first great trial met him, and then he became discouraged, distrustful, self-asserting and presumptuous, and dared to take in his own hands the things that belonged only to God. He usurped the throne of God Himself and showed his true nature. He was a man of his own heart and not of God’s heart, and henceforth God sought Him a man after God’s heart who should do God’s will and not his own, and thus be a true representative of Israel’s true King.
As soon as Saul had shown himself in his real character, God immediately delivered the people out of their peril by two feeble men — Jonathan and his armorbearer — that He might show to Saul how little he needed his strength or any human strength or wisdom, and how all-sufficient God was to those who truly trusted Him. Even this victory Saul almost wrecked by his interference and wilfulness, and it became apparent by his own folly that he could not be trusted with God’s work, and that his persistent self-will would always hinder the will and the work of God.
Not instantly did the crisis come. God let this spirit of self work out to its full development slowly; but it was evident from this hour that Saul’s life must fail, and that Samuel’s prophecy was, alas, true.
5. God gave another opportunity and second test. He sent Saul on an important expedition to destroy Amalek, the race of Esau that had tried to hinder Israel in their passage through the wilderness. There is a deep spiritual meaning back of this story; for Amalek was a type of the flesh; and the destruction of Amalek was just an illustration of the very principle which Saul’s life so strongly emphasizes, and Saul’s failure to destroy Amalek is, therefore, the more significant because it shows how deeply rooted the self-principle was in his own soul. The man who spared Agag was the man who spared the principle of self in his own heart; and the two pictures blend with an awful significance for everyone of us.
Saul successfully accomplished the invasion and returned victorious. He even seems to have been so possessed with the spirit of self-complacency that he failed to realize his own true character until Samuel uttered his fearful words of doom. “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord,” he cried with perfect assurance, and when the awful words of the prophet answered back: “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. . . . Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king”; it is doubtful if even then Saul fully realized the nature of his sin. So subtle and self-deceiving is the spirit of self that even then all he seemed to feel was the fear of being humiliated before the people, and he begged the petty bauble of Samuel’s public recognition and honor, and this little bit of vainglory was the solace and the comfort of his wretched soul in the hour when the sentence of death and ruin was thundering in his ears.
What a spectacle of complacent self-deception; the snare of a religious motive, keeping the spoil to sacrifice to the Lord! We see the fear of man, the unwillingness of this weak man to displease the people when they begged him to save the precious booty of Amalek.
But one word above all others seems to crystallize the very element of this stupendous folly. It is the word “compromise.” Saul obeyed, but with a compromise. Saul did much good, but he compromised with evil. God’s commandments are uncompromising, inexorable, unqualified, and our obedience must be inflexible, absolute and complete. The faintest reservation is really the very soul of disobedience. The failure even to hearken to the full meaning of God indicates a spirit of unwilling obedience.
Saul stands before us in this picture the incarnation of self-will and, therefore, the enemy of God, nay, the rival of God upon His very throne. Could there be any other issue? “Thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king.”
6. Not immediately did the judgment culminate. Slowly still, the coil of self unwinds until all its hidden sinuosities have been revealed. Saul did much work after this, much good work, fought many battles, fought them well, reigned over Israel, and established a powerful kingdom, but it was Saul’s kingdom and not God’s. All the remaining years were years of self-activity and self-vindication. For nine years he pursued David, his rival, with ferocious hate. The Spirit of God left him, and an evil spirit, by God’s permission, possessed him; and as the years went on, the beginning and the end of his existence was Saul and not Jehovah. It was self-incarnate with all its miserable works and fruits.
7. At last the culmination came. Eaten out by the canker of self, his heart became the dwelling place of Satan. The devil took entire possession of him, and in one dreadful hour he gave himself up to spiritualism, and, rejected of the Lord, sought the counsel of necromancers, whom he had formerly persecuted and banished from his kingdom. It was the last fatal step. Self had driven God from his throne, and now it gave it to Satan and the next chapter of self life was self-destruction.
Trembling and prostrated by the fearful vision which his own presumption had brought up from the depths of Hades, Saul dashed with reckless despair into the last battle of his life, and the next day the tragedy was complete — the flower of Israel’s youth was lying on the slopes of Gilboa — the army of Saul was annihilated — the Philistines were victorious on every side — the kingdom which Saul had built up for a quarter of a century for himself was broken to pieces and scattered to the winds — Saul’s sons were lying dead on the mountain sides, and Saul himself, a wretched suicide, had gone to his own place. The scorpion, self, had stung others, and now, at last, it stung itself to death. The revelation of human selfishness was complete, and before the sad and fearful spectacle we may well stand in awe and humbly, earnestly and fervently pray:
Oh, to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
Oh, to be lost in Thee!
Oh, that it might be no more I,
But Christ that lives in me.