The question – is Saul among the prophets? – must have been a big deal in Israel in the 11th Century BCE, which is when King Saul lived according to the biblical timeline. It was such a big deal it became known as a proverb. (1 Samuel 10:12)
What is it with this question? How and why did it become a “proverb”? What is the back story?
Twice Saul prophesied with the prophets, but the question that became a proverb was not a compliment. It was a puzzlement, because Saul was an unlikely prophet. He also was an unlikely king. In fact, he was pretty much a failure as king.
Saul, of course, was the first king of Israel, but he wasn’t known for his leadership or his spirituality. He was just the kind of person God often chooses – an unlikely candidate – but Saul didn’t rise to the challenge.
Saul’s story begins while he is searching for his father’s lost sheep. His path leads him to the prophet, Samuel. Before they meet, God tells Samuel He is choosing Saul as Israel’s king. Samuel orchestrates a big dinner and anoints Saul to be the future king in a small group of people. (You can read a good summary of the details here.)
Saul was just looking for some lost donkeys, so the turn of events was likely a bit unsettling. Saul wasn’t ready to be a king. Even after Samuel predicts three signs meant to convince Saul of the authenticity of the kingly anointing, Saul is not willing to embrace it.
Two of the signs Samuel gave him come true, but Saul doesn’t grasp what he is supposed to do. The third sign comes true when Saul encounters some prophets: “[T]he Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them”. (1 Samuel 10:11)
Saul still seems clueless, though. When he gets back home, he doesn’t tell his uncle that Samuel said he would be king or about the anointing. He doesn’t talk about signs, all of which came true on his way home.
When Samuel finally comes to “seal the deal, to declare Saul publicly the King of Israel, Saul is nowhere to be found. Saul is hiding among some baggage!
Given Saul’s less than hardy reaction to the declaration that he would be king, we know that Saul didn’t “playing along” or fake it when he prophesied. At best, he was a reluctant participant. He might have even been an unwilling vessel!
Thus, the question – Is Saul among the prophets? Saul was not known to be a prophet. Saul wasn’t a particularly spiritual man.
This wasn’t the only time, though, that Saul prophesied with the prophets. The second time was even more “out of character”. I have been puzzling on these things in light of more current events – the prophesies about Donald Trump and a certain emphasis on prophecy in a segment of the church today.
It wasn’t long after Saul became the king that his star began to fade. Saul didn’t exactly rise to the occasion of his kingly anointing. He never really embraced it, and his character would not withstand the pressures of it.
Saul failed to stand up to the Philistines, as he was instructed. His son, Jonathan, took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistine garrison Saul was directed to attack. (1 Samuel 13:1-4)
The Philistines responded by gathering thousands of chariots and horsemen to mount a counterattack. The Israelites hid in caves and tombs, while Saul remained at his hometown of Gilgal, and “all the people followed him trembling”. (1 Samuel 13:5-7)
Instead of waiting for Samuel, as he was instructed, Saul rushed to offer sacrifices to God, himself. Something he shouldn’t have done. This was the beginning of the end for Saul. When Samuel arrived, he was moved by God to announce:
“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”
1 Samuel 13:13-14 (emphasis added)
The clear implication is that Saul was not a man after God’s heart.
But it would be some time before the end of Saul’s reign as king. Jonathan, rose to the occasion, again, took matters into his own hands, and defeated the Philistines. After that, Saul did become the defender of Israel he was called to be (1 Samuel 14:47-52), but it was too late.
Saul continued to ignore God’s instructions given to him by the prophet, Samuel. When Saul instructed to go after the Amalekites “and devote to destruction all that they have”, he failed to do as God ordered him to do, allowing his men to take whatever they wanted. (1 Samuel 15:1-9)
When Samuel confronted him, Saul was full of excuses. (1 Samuel 15:10-15) Saul was rebellious and presumptuous and rejected God’s word in favor of his own determinations. (1 Samuel 15:23)
Thus, Samuel said to Saul:
“[Y]ou have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
1 Samuel 15:26
Saul begged Samuel to return with him and honor him before the people (1 Samuel 15:30), but Samuel refused and went away, never to see Saul alive again.
(Saul was more concerned about retaining honor among his people than the favor of God.)
This was the point when God began to reject Saul as king, but it wasn’t the end of his reign – not yet.
Not long after that, the Philistine army gathered again and taunted Israel and Saul. Saul and his men were “dismayed and greatly afraid”. (1 Samuel 17:11) This is when the young shepherd boy, David, arrived, stood up to Goliath when no one else would, and killed him.
Saul burned with jealousy over the subsequent attention David got. While he was stewing on the turn of affairs, a “harmful spirit from God rushed on Saul”, and Saul “raved” with anger. As David was playing music in his presence, Saul twice tried to pin David to the wall with his spear. (1 Samuel 18:10-11)
As David dodged repeated attempts on his life, Saul became moody and depressed. Saul’s desire to kill David became obsessive. He seemed more focused on killing David or having him killed than he was on being king.
David finally sought refuge with Samuel at Ramah, and this was the context for the second time Saul prophesied. It is significant, I believe, that Saul was in a state of moody rebellion and desperate obsession to kill David and hold onto to the kingdom that God decreed he would lose.
Saul sent messengers to capture David in Ramah, but the Spirit of God came upon them in the company of Samuel and the prophets, and they prophesied with the prophets instead of seizing David. (1 Samuel 19:18-20) Saul sent a second group of messengers to capture David, and the same thing happened. (1 Samuel 19:21)
Then, Saul went himself to Ramah to seize David, but “the Spirit of God came upon him also”, and Saul began to prophesy. Saul was so “seized” by God that he stripped off his clothes and “lay naked all that day and all that night”. (1 Samuel 19:22-24)
Thus, the question was asked again: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Not only was Saul not a prophet; he wasn’t a good king. He was a soft leader. He was fearful and tentative in the face of his calling. He was more interested in what his people thought of him than following God’s instruction. He was unstable in all his ways.
He was not a man after God’s heart. Yet, the question lingered, maybe only half rhetorically: “Is Saul among the prophets?”
I think of these things as I consider 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22:
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”
We walk a fine line in the kingdom of God. It’s always a narrow path. Saul was overcome alternately by the Spirit of God to prophesy and a “harmful spirit from God” that propelled him in his jealous rage to kill David. Saul was on the wrong side of both spirits.
We should not quench the Spirit or despise prophecies, but we need to be careful. We need to “test them all”. We should hold onto only what is good, but we need to reject every kind of evil.
We don’t know what Saul prophesied. Scripture doesn’t tell us. It seems that Scripture is speaking to us not about the content of prophecy here, but of the act of prophecy, perhaps.
The first time Saul prophesied was in fulfillment of a sign God spoke to Samuel. The second time Saul prophesied he was prevented, thereby, from his carrying out the evil he was determined to commit against David – God’s newly anointed king.
What Saul prophesied apparently wasn’t important. The act of prophecy accomplished God’s purposes both times; the content was beside the point.
Saul didn’t embrace or internalize the prophecies from Samuel, or he would have stepped up to the kingly anointing he received, and he would have been the king God intended him to be. Instead, he deviated at every turn.
The prophecies are not story here: the story here is the heart of the man (whether it be Saul or David).
I see a danger in putting too much emphasis on prophecies, and too little emphasis on having a heart after God. Paul tells us to hold only onto what is good. Anything that we rely on, trust in, and dream about and pour ourselves into more than God, Himself, can become a stumbling block and an idol to us.
Though Saul was reluctant and fearful to embrace the kingly anointing, once he was king, he clutched onto the position more tightly than he held onto God. Even when Samuel said God was rejecting him, Saul was more concerned about what the people would think of him. He wanted honor from his people more than he wanted to please God. (1 Samuel 15:30)
David, of course, stands in contrast to Saul. Saul wasn’t king very long when God rejected Saul as king for rejecting the word of the Lord. (1 Samuel 15:26) David became the man God sought out to be king – a man who was after God’s heart.
Significantly, David was anointed by Samuel to be king even before he encountered Goliath. (1 Samuel 16:12-13) After he was anointed, though, David went back to tending his father’s sheep! It would be years before David would become king. I will pick up this thread when I write a sequel to this article.
In the meantime, my takeaway here is that prophecy, itself, counts far less than having a heart for God. What that looks like is seen in the little things as much or more than the big things.
God does cause people to prophesy, but the act of prophesy is not necessarily a sign that a person is after God’s heart. Even a person who is in rebellion to God can prophesy. Jesus warned us, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name….'” (Matthew 7:22) And Paul said, “If I have the gift of prophecy …, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2) Prophecies will cease, but love (love of God and love of people) will never end.