In this chapter, Saul prepares for battle against the Philistines but sins in the matter and loses his right to the kingship.
Saul was anointed as king three chapters ago, confirmed as king before all the people two chapters also, and loses his kingdom in this chapter. The chronology is a bit difficult to work out, but in all likelihood this chapter is happening 7 days after Samuel’s message in 1 Samuel 10, because verse 8 of this chapter talks about Saul waiting the “seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal”.
What makes this somewhat confusing is that Samuel, Saul and the rest of the people were at Gilgal just a little while ago in 1 Samuel 11:14-15 when the kingship is reaffirmed, and it is probable that Samuel’s speech also occurs in that same festival at Gilgal. It’s only in v. 2 of this chapter when Saul chooses 3000 men and sends the rest back to their homes. Back from where? From the convocation at Gilgal.
By this chronology, I can assert that it has been no more than 7 days since Saul was anointed as king and then selected as king, and now Samuel is prophesying that his kingdom will not endure and will pass to another. What I find so fascinating about this is that verse 1 of this very same chapter says that Saul reigned as king for 42 years (some manuscripts say 2 years, but later passages in the OT confirm that Saul reigned for 42 years). After Saul was anointed king, it took several days before the kingship truly passed to him and the people affirmed his kingship. So there was a delay that occurred between Samuel’s anointing and when the “real” kingship passed into his hands. Now we are told that the kingship will not remain with him and that the LORD will select another man to be king, “a man after his own heart”, which Saul apparently is not. But even here, there is a delay as Saul will remain king for another 42 years before another takes his place.
In my mind, this is the same sort of delay that happened between when God told Adam he would return to the dust (in death) in Genesis 3 and when Adam actually died at least 800 years after this happened. God prophesied that Adam’s sin would result in death, but there was a delay between when his death was proclaimed and when it actually occurred. It’s the same kind of delay as when God called Gideon a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12) but it took some time, some days or weeks, before Gideon was in any way behaving like a mighty warrior. It’s the same kind of delay as when God called Abraham a father of many nations, but in his life he only had one child of promise (and a few other children through concubines). It took some time before that one son had another son, and then it took some time until that son had 12 sons, and more time after that before those 12 sons became 12 tribes, and then 400 years before they ever returned to the land of promise, that had been promised to Abraham all those generations before.
Many people are confused by the waiting period between when something is prophesied and when it is fulfilled. Sometimes this results in discouragement, when some promised blessing feels delayed, and sometimes this results in scorn or discouragement when promised destruction, the result of sin, is delayed. This causes people to believe that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, because the blessing of the righteous is sometimes delayed and the destruction of the wicked is sometimes delayed, each for its own reason and purpose. But we do not easily understand the purposes of God and therefore misunderstand his actions. I have seen this confuse believers and nonbelievers alike, but from the bible we can see these kinds of delays happen in many stories, but we always see the LORD fulfill his word. Sometimes it takes a day, and sometimes it takes 400 years, but we always see the fulfillment of his word.
In this chapter, we see Israel once again engaging in conflict with the Philistines. The Philistines are oppressing Israel, prohibiting them from keeping blacksmiths so that they could not make weapons. From a chronology standpoint, I don’t understand how Israel could have fought and defeated the Ammonites without weapons if they now struggle to fight the Philistines without weapons. Maybe they really did fight the Ammonites without weapons, or maybe the battle against the Philistines happened sometime later than 7 days after their earlier conflict. I’m not sure.
Samuel guided Israel to defeat the Philistines some time ago, in chapter 7, but by 1 Samuel 9:16 the LORD is already telling Samuel that the king he should anoint will save Israel from the Philistines. This is undoubtedly the conflict foreshadowed by that verse. After sending everyone home in v. 2, Saul blows the trumpet (Num 10 explains the construction and use of trumpets in rallying the nation) and calls the nation back to Gilgal. However, it appears that Samuel departed from Gilgal and has not returned. Now Saul is in a horrible predicament.
I once heard a teacher summarize this chapter as follows: when the men scatter, the enemy gathers, and the LORD tarries, then is the heart of a man revealed.
Saul knows that he’s not permitted to offer sacrifices. Offering sacrifices is part of the ministry of the priesthood, which belongs to the house of Levi, and Saul is a Benjamite. Samuel himself is an Ephraimite, but he was dedicated at his birth to the LORD so I think he was “adopted” into the priesthood. More specifically, Samuel commanded Saul to wait for him in Gilgal for 7 days, but even if he didn’t Saul would never be permitted to offer sacrifices.
I think there is a more important issue than what the Law commands. That issue is Saul’s heart, which Samuel references in v. 14: “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” This was something I pointed out a couple times about Samuel, because Samuel is doing things that appear to violate the letter of the Law. He slept in the most holy place before the ark of the covenant, and he has offered sacrifices which is reserved for the Levitical priesthood. Even his criticism of Saul here is that Saul did not wait for Samuel to come and offer the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings.
I believe the distinction is (apart from Samuel’s Nazirite dedication) that Samuel acted from a heart’s desire to honor the LORD, to do the “good and right way”, to follow the spirit of the Law that is expressed in the Ten Commandments and the Shema.
Let us seek to understand Saul’s heart in this matter. His troops are quaking with fear, hiding in caves and among rocks and pits and cisterns, or crossing over the Jordan and living among the tribes of Israel outside of the promised land. Saul himself waited 7 days, “the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come.” Saul explains it best in v. 11-12: he sees his men scatter, Samuel is delayed, and the Philistines are assembling to attack him, he wanted to “[seek] the LORD’s favor.” Why is this bad?
I think part of the issue is that Saul is doing this to rally his men. I suspect that Saul is not being entirely truthful with Samuel. Maybe seeking the LORD’s favor is one thing he had in mind, but I think Saul is also trying to encourage his men by constructing an appearance of religiosity.
Another issue is that I think Saul is behaving like the elders who brought out the ark of the covenant to help them win their earlier battle with the Philistines in chapter 4 of this book. In that case, the people of Israel cheered greatly at the appearance of a religious symbol, thinking that the LORD would give them victory even while their hearts are distant from him. I believe that Saul may be doing the same thing here. He is not offering a sacrifice to honor the LORD, he is offering a sacrifice out of fear that he’s going to lose his nascent kingdom.
I’ll be the first to admit that Saul is under a lot of pressure. It is quite possible that the Philistines will murder him if they can, so this is a life or death situation. It’s also really hard for me to point to something and say “Saul did the wrong thing here” because so much of the problem is not Saul’s actions, but Saul’s intentions. We have seen that people can behave contrary to the letter of the Law and still be righteous insomuch as their hearts seek righteousness. But I think it’s far more common for people to behave contrary to the Law for all of the wrong reasons, like greed, lust, jealousy or (in this case) fear. Sometimes fear can drive people to God, but many other times it drives people away from God because like Saul, they do not trust God to protect them in the times when your allies are few, your enemies are gathering and swiftly approaching, and God and his prophets seem distant.
This is a pivotal moment in Saul’s kingship precisely because it tests his heart and he responds so badly to it. Israel hasn’t even lost a battle, but Saul has lost the kingship. I don’t think the irony is unintended when Samuel shows up the moment that Saul finished offering the sacrifice. Samuel was delayed in order to give Saul a choice as to what he is going to do. Saul chose to offer the sacrifice himself, so it’s only fitting that Samuel would show up immediately after Saul had made his decision. If Samuel had showed up earlier, Saul would still have had a heart distant from the LORD, but he would not have had an opportunity for it to be revealed. God creates situations like this not to embarrass Saul, nor to lay a trap for him and destroy him, but to reveal to Saul and to Samuel and to all of us what kind of a person Saul is. He would have been that person regardless of whether this episode had happened, but we would not have known it.
Even now I don’t believe that Saul is rejected by the LORD if he were to repent and change his heart. The LORD gave him the kingdom once, and could give him the kingdom again. More importantly, God has taken the kingdom from him, but that doesn’t mean that God rejects him as a person. Saul could still repent and seek a life of righteousness, and regardless if he gets the kingdom back God would honor him for it. This is something we will read about in later chapters, as we see how Saul’s life progresses.
For now, the Israelite army is in a dire situation. They have no weapons, are dispersed and hiding in caves and amongst rocks, and Saul has 600 men left against a considerable Philistine army. The Philistines are sending raiding parties into Israel, stealing food and probably murdering or capturing what men they find. Saul has sinned by what he did with the burnt offering, and Samuel tells him his kingdom will not last and then leaves for Gibeah. The battle is not over, however.