Saul and David
1 Samuel 13:13-14
And Samuel said to Saul, You have done foolishly: you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you…

The widely different judgments which Holy Scripture leads us to form respecting Saul and David is a subject which occupies much attention when we are reading the first book of Samuel. The impression which Saul makes upon an average reader, at least at first, is beyond all question a favourable impression. The salient points of his character engage our sympathy, and this sympathy is deepened when we consider the misfortunes of his later life and its tragic close. Saul, indeed, had many of these qualifications which always go to make a man popular. Of the higher qualities of Saul's natural character which inspires this affection the first was, I do not say his humility, but his modesty. Modesty, unlike humility, is not inconsistent with certain forms of pride; and it is a natural virtue which is good as far as it goes, and which is always attractive Saul was modest. It is plain from the account of his elevation to the throne that he had no wish for such a position. When a number of his new subjects despised him, and, failing in the ordinary usage of Eastern courtesy, brought him no presents, he betrayed no annoyance or irritation; "he held his peace." Closely allied to this modesty was his capacity for generosity towards opponents. Certainly, Saul was much besides all thin; he was proud, he was reserved, he was obstinate, he was haughty in his later years, he was a prey to the most capricious and irrational jealousy; but, especially in his early life, he had qualities which are always valued and valuable, and which explain the affection with which he was regarded by those who knew him. Moreover, his reign was, on the whole, and in a civil or political sense, of benefit to his country, and yet with this personal character and this note of God's assistance — for such it was under the old covenant — Saul had upon him, almost from the first, the presentiments of disaster and ruin. When we turn to David we find it difficult, at first, to explain this phrase — the man after the heart of God — thus used by Samuel by way of contrast to Saul, for David's feelings are written much in the page of Holy Scripture, and they seem, at first sight, to make such an expression unintelligible, or, at least, exaggerated. In point of natural excellence, Saul and David had, at least, while each was a young man, several points in common. If David could not rival Saul's stature, his activity and his muscular strength were exceptional; his feet, he tells us, were like the feet of the gazelle; his arms could break even a bow of steel. Both Saul and David were men of personal prowess and of personal courage, and David resembled Saul in his modest estimate of himself, and in his generous conduct upon occasions towards others. But there are dark traits in David which the Bible makes no attempts to disguise. Nothing in the annals of Oriental courts can well exceed the baseness of his intrigue with Bathsheba and the cowardly murder of Uriah. Rarely has cruelty towards a conquered enemy been greater than that with which David treated the Ammonites, and although another side of his failings has been much exaggerated by some ancient and by several modern critics, there are traces of deceitfulness in David which recall his ancestor Jacob, and which impair the nobility and the beauty of the general impression he leaves with us. And yet in contrast with Saul he has on him from the first the notes of God's special approval; his trials and misfortunes only established or renewed his prosperity; his long persecution by Saul leads to his succession to the throne; Absolom's rebellion only makes his rule more secure than ever in Jerusalem. All through there is upon David a presentiment of acceptance, just as upon Saul, especially as the years pass on, there is more and more plainly stamped a note of reprobation. If it seems at first sight that there is something arbitrary in the different estimates that Holy Scripture itself leads us to form of Saul and David, let us look once more hard at Saul, and let us ask ourselves what it is that is especially wanting in him. Is it not this, that Saul, so far as the Bible account of him goes, gives no evidence of having upon and within him the permanent influence of religion, of anything that we could call the fear and love of God in his hearty. And the same temper is observable in Saul when he was ordered to go and smite the sinners of the Amalekites and utterly destroy them and their cattle. The first particular of his disobedience was occasioned by his wish to be popular, he "feared the people and obeyed their voice"; the second was probably due to his feeling for a brother monarch — a feeling which, however natural at other times, ought not to have arrested obedience to a Divine command. Certainly, Saul's conduct in respect of Agag did not arise from any unwillingness on his part to shed blood. He had no such scruples to prevent him from attempting the extermination of the Gibeonites, although they ought in his eyes to have been protected by Joshua's oath, which pledged their safety in the midst of Israel. The truth was that he was at heart indifferent to the command of God, and thought himself at liberty to disobey just as much of it as the feeling or convenience of the moment, might suggest. And it is no objection to this view of Saul's mind, as in reality unconcerned with the claims of God and with the unseen world, that he showed himself anxious for some superhuman guidance when on the eve of his death he stole round the base of little Hermon to endeavour to consult the witch. We see the same thing every day of our lives. Men who have scornfully rejected the Christian revelation are constantly haunted by weird or grotesque superstitions. The human soul is made for faith in the unseen, and if its deep craving be not satisfied by the one supreme reality of what He has told us about Himself, it will seek satisfaction in quarters which faith would condemn more earnestly than reason. Now it was precisely in this respect that Saul presents so great a contrast to David. David, in spite of his grievous faults, had upon his heart and conscience continually the impress, awful, yet most fascinating, of the majesty, the beauty, the encompassing presence, the boundless magnificence of God. This great possession remained with him throughout his life. He has admitted us to the secrets of his soul at almost every stage of his eventful history. David associates us with his experiences not, only in his triumphs, but in his deep and unspeakable humiliations. We know what he feels and thinks after his sin with Bathsheba, what he feels and thinks as he flies a dishonoured exile before his rebellious son. And he is always true to this ruling characteristic of his life. When in his fear or his exaltation, in his penitence or in his joy, in his struggles or in his repose, in thought or in action, God has the first place in his intellect; God's approval, God's condemnation, God's works, God's will are ever his first concern. This, the preoccupation of his life, makes him, even in the camp or on the throne, a sort of enthusiast, on whom the outward world sits lightly, and who cares not for its unfavourable opinion if only he is loyal to his unseen and awful Master. "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of Thee." One cannot imagine these words in the mouth of Saul, the cool-headed man of the world, conducting himself as did David when the ark was moved in state from the house of Obed-edom, near Kirjath-jearim, to Jerusalem. This is the reason why David is called, in contrast to Saul, "the man after God's own heart." Certainly. David's sins were not after God's own heart. May He forgive the blasphemy that would suggest that they were! But beyond and beneath those sins there was a permanent character of soul instinct with the fear and with the love of God that survived and conquered them. There was, so far as we know or can conceive, nothing corresponding to this in Saul. There is, indeed, no event in Saul's life which is at once so cruel and so base as David's sin with the wife of the murdered Uriah; but then there was nothing in Saul that could have issued forth as David's heart-broken repentance. It is the difference between cold, tranquil, decorous indifference to the real claims of God upon a human life, and a fear of God and a love of God which are upon the whole of the governing forces of the soul. Saul and David are lasting types of human character. Saul and David live in their representatives at the present day. Lives on the whole decorous, illustrated even by undoubted and high natural virtues, but based on a deep, if not a reasoned, indifference to the will of God — such lives are lived side by side with lives open to grave criticism on account of conspicuous failings, yet based at bottom on a true fear and love of God, which lasts on under and in spite of the imperfection of the service which is rendered to Him. Saul is the more popular character with the world at large. The world likes his mixture of generosity and haughtiness, his jaunty carelessness about all that points to the mystery and the responsibilities of life. David. too, is unquestionably vulnerable and keen sighted, and unfriendly critics are always hard at work upon the inconsistencies which they detect between his practice and his professions. Nevertheless, my brethren, it is better to have our part with David than with Saul; with a loyalty to God which is not always consistent, rather than with an outward propriety, if so be that it is never really loyal.

(Canon Liddon.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.

WEB: Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of Yahweh your God, which he commanded you; for now Yahweh would have established your kingdom on Israel forever.

Folly Illustrated by the Character of Saul
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