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What Did Saul Do Wrong? (1 Samuel 13)

In 1 Samuel 13, we see an impatient King Saul get himself into trouble when he gets tired of waiting for Samuel, and he decides to make a sacrifice to God in an attempt to gain His favor in light of the growing threat from the Philistine army. Samuel arrived as soon as Saul was finished making the sacrifice and rebuked him, noting that, because of his foolishness, God would not allow his kingship to endure. And so it is because of Saul’s impertinence that God would raise up a man named David to take Saul’s place. With David, God would make a covenant to keep one of his descendants on the throne in Jerusalem and the promised Messiah would also come from his family line.

When we read about the exploits of Saul, it’s not too hard to understand why God became unsatisfied with him. Saul regularly exercised poor judgement and had a bad habit of getting angry and throwing spears at people. Worse, Saul didn’t appear to be a man who was very focused on serving the one true God. All of this is pretty easy to understand when we read about Saul’s story in the Bible. However, 1 Samuel 13 might prove to be somewhat confusing when considered in the greater context of Saul’s career. There were plenty of instances in Saul’s life where his lack of focus on God was clearly on display, and yet God chose this particular action, Saul making a sacrifice to gain the His favor, to be the tipping point where God had enough. What gives? Shouldn’t God have been pleased with the sacrifice? Why would the one time when Saul was actually sacrificing to God be the moment God got angry enough to punish him?

The answer to these questions lies with the limits to Saul’s kingly authority. When Saul was made king over Israel, he was put fully in charge of civil affairs, but sacred affairs still remained the purview of the High Priest. Old Testament Law was crystal clear on the specifics of the type of sacrifice that Saul performed, and anyone who stepped in to perform this ritual who was unqualified to do so faced grave consequences. Under the New Covenant, the Bible tells us in 1 Peter 2 that the body of Christ is a priesthood with Jesus as our High Priest. As such, we no longer need intermediaries when interacting with God, so Saul’s sin in 1 Samuel 13 might seem like a foreign concept. Today, no one stands between us and a holy God, but prior to Jesus’ work on the Cross, this rigid system of spiritual representation through the priestly line was an integral part of God’s plans and how man interacted with Him.

When Saul was waiting for Samuel to arrive, he became impatient. He was facing a very real threat from the Philistines, and his men were scared and deserting him. When Saul grew tired of waiting for Samuel, he ironically chose to disregard God’s Law and make a sacrifice to seek the Lord’s favor. His actions backfired, and God’s judgment was pronounced.

Hopefully, this explanation has shed some light on how Saul got into trouble when it appeared he was trying to do the right thing. We should take note of this lesson too. Sometimes in life, we may find ourselves in a dire situation and we may grow impatient and think that we need to compromise a biblical principle in order to solve our problem. But if we should find ourselves struggling with that particular temptation, don’t give in. It didn’t go well for Saul, and it won’t go well for us either.

When I was in Seminary working on my Masters degree, I had a number of female classmates who were also either training to be, or currently serving as, pastors. Through the normal course of study, we found ourselves as a class working through 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and the question naturally came up, is it OK for a woman to serve in the role of Pastor? A very lively debate broke out about this topic, and while the original text of this passage (as well as 1 Corinthians 11:30-12, 13:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; and Titus 1 and 2) is pretty clear, the argument made in favor of women pastors by my classmates abandoned Scripture altogether. The Bible is quite clear: the role of pastor needs to be filled by a man. The argument so vehemently made by my female classmates though was simply one of need – there weren’t enough qualified men to do the job and someone needed to step up and fill the role. Wow! On one hand I appreciated the urgency and sense of duty expressed by these women, however, I couldn’t help but think that maybe there was a little bit of Saul in their rationalization, and by them stepping in to take on this role the Bible says was supposed to be performed by someone else, they may just find that God won’t react as well to their sacrifice as they thought He would.

As a further irony, Samuel arrived as soon as Saul had completed his sacrifice. So apparently, the God-honoring solution to Saul’s problem was already on its way when Saul made the decision that he couldn’t wait any longer. Oh if he had only held out, history would look very different.

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