I wrote recently about King Saul and the question, which became a proverb, “Is Saul among the Prophets?” The oddity of Saul prophesying is implied in the question, and was apparently a significant enough point that it comes up not once, but twice in the narrative of Saul’s life. (See 1 Samuel 19:23-24)
Prophesying was out of character for Saul. He wasn’t known as a spiritual man, and he didn’t even make a great king. Yet, he was God’s chosen man to be Israel’s first king.
Saul wasn’t king for very long before God made it clear to Samuel, the prophet, that we rejecting Saul as king and would be replacing him with another man – a man after God’s heart. (1 Samuel 13:14) From this (and the narrative of Saul’s life itself), we know that Saul was not a man after God’s heart.
So why did God make him king?
Perhaps, it was an object listen in what happens when we reject God. Remember that the people demanded a king like the other nations around them. They were rejecting God in demanding a king, but God told Samuel to give them what they wanted anyway. Perhaps, God chose a king for them who was like them – not after God’s heart.
Perhaps, God wanted to demonstrate for the people that their desire for a king was a bad idea, so he gave them a bad king. Maybe. But then he gave them “good” kings (David and Solomon). They also had many worse kings!
I continue to mull over the uncharacteristic event of Saul prophesying (twice!) and the apparent fact that it was so out of character for him. It wasn’t what he said (we don’t know what he said), but the fact that he prophesied at all that was is noteworthy.
Further, it seems that Saul wasn’t a willing mouthpiece either time he prophesied. The second time, he went looking in Ramah for David to kill him. David was hiding there from Saul. When Saul got there, though, he was overcome by the Spirit of God and began prophesying with the prophets there – “day and night” Saul lay naked and prostrate on the ground.
God stopped Saul from killing David by overcoming him with prophecy. Strange! Is it not?
In the previous article on the subject of Saul prophesying, I drew the conclusion that the prophecies are not the story here: the story here is the heart of the man (whether it be Saul or David).
Samuel prophesied that Saul would be made king, but Saul didn’t embrace or internalize the prophecies told by Samuel. Saul’s life would have been different, perhaps, if he had stepped up to the kingly anointing he received. Instead, he deviated from God at every turn.
Samuel’s prophecies did come true, but the end result was less than one might expect. Saul did become king, but he was a lousy king, and he certainly was not a man after God’s heart.
Saul wasn’t even king for long when God told Samuel He was taking the kingdom away from Saul because of Saul’s bad decisions. Samuel was led by God to David, who was merely a shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep, and anointed him to become king long before Saul ceased to be king. (1 Samuel 16:12-13) This happened before David rose to fame by killing Goliath. (1 Samuel 17)
We might imagine that something as momentous as this anointing should be followed immediately by the act of making David king, but it wasn’t so. David simply went back to tending his father’s sheep!
David wasn’t even part of the army that was mustered to face the threat of the gathering Philistine horde. He was still tending his father’s sheep and running errands from his father to his brothers as they prepared for battle.
The Philistines faced off with Saul’s army for 40 days. All this time, David went back and forth between tending his father’s sheep and taking supplies from his father to his brothers. (1 Samuel 17:14-18) David wasn’t supposed to be there the day he faced off with Goliath, except that he was delivering supplies.
Remember that Saul responded reluctantly to the anointing Samuel gave him and hid when Samuel came to announce the kingship publicly. David’s response to the anointing by Samuel seems to be even less robust than Saul’s response! David simply went back to tending sheep.
We know David didn’t lack the faith to rise to the kingly anointing, though, because of what happens next. David was bringing supplies to his brothers when he hears the taunts of the giant, Goliath. When David saw that no one was willing to stand up to the Philistines, David rose to the occasion.
David’s faith in God led him to stand up to the giant, Goliath, in the face of the huge army of the Philistines! Thus, we are right to conclude that David wasn’t shrinking back from the anointing, as Saul did, when he went back to tend his father’s sheep.
It’s also worth noting the curious focus on Saul prophesying in this narrative, while we read nothing at all about David prophesying. This is curious, first of all because Saul was an unlikely prophet. More importantly, we know from the Psalms that David was prophetic! Jesus quoted David’s words that prophetically anticipated the coming of Jesus, the Messiah! (See, for instance, Psalm 110)
So, what does this have to do with prophecy or with having a heart for God? I will get to that, but first there is more to the story….
Even after David’s fateful encounter with Goliath, Saul went on being king for years. It wasn’t God’s timing to make David king then and there, and David (it seems) was ok with that.
David was focused on being true to God and taking care of the responsibilities he had. David, it seems, was willing to leave the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by Samuel completely up to God in His providence and timing.
David did not try in his own strength or wisdom to bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. His emphasis was first and always on being true to God. (Not that he always was; but his desire was to be true to God.)
Saul, on the other hand, exhibited the opposite behavior. For instance, when Samuel told Saul to wait seven days for him while the looming threat of the Philistine army had Saul’s men cowering in caves and tombs, Saul got anxious. He took matters into his own hands, and offered an improper sacrifice to God.
Saul wasn’t willing to wait on God. Saul took matters into his own hands.
On multiple occasions, when Saul was seeking to kill David in jealous rage, David had opportunity to kill Saul. Once when Saul went to relive himself in the cave where David was hiding (from Saul), David cut a piece off his robe, but he refused to take the life of “the Lord’s anointed”. (1 Samuel 24:1-8) The second time David snuck into Saul’s camp at night and stole his spear and jug of water that were next to Saul’s head as he slept. (1 Samuel 26)
These, and other examples, show that David was inclined to do what was right and honorable in the moment, giving no apparent thought to how God might bring about making him king. Even though God spoke through the prophet, Samuel, that he was rejecting Saul as king and taking the kingdom from him, David did not take Saul’s life into his own hands. Even though David knew he was the one to take Saul’s place as king, David would not do the thing that seemed dishonorable to him and take Saul’s life into his own hands.
Saul was reluctant and fearful to embrace the kingly anointing at first. He feared people, and he shrank back from the responsibility. When he became king, though, he tried to hold onto his position more tightly than he held onto God.
Even when God rejected Saul (1 Samuel 15:26), he was more interested in holding on to the honor shown him as king than he was in his relationship with God. Saul was more concerned about what people thought of him than favor from God. He wanted honor from his people more than he wanted to please God. (1 Samuel 15)
David, of course, stands in contrast to Saul. Saul shrank back; David stepped up. Saul was after his own honor; David was after God’s heart. Saul was not spiritual, but he was known for awkward and showy displays of spirituality; David was deeply spiritual and prophetic, but he wasn’t know for it.
Though David didn’t shrink back, he did not allow himself to be carried away with the prophecy and anointing from Samuel. David allowed God to work out His purposes in His own time. David didn’t shrink back from it, as Saul did, but he didn’t try to seize it in his own strength or rush the timing of God.
We see in the story of Saul, that God does what he wants even if we fail to be obedient. God chose Saul, even though Saul was less than enthusiastic, and God made him king despite and Saul’s failings. God rejected Saul when Saul failed to honor or follow God’s instruction, and God took the throne away from Saul though he fought desperately to hold onto it.
God will not be frustrated by disobedient by people. Though every man be untrue, still God is true! (Romans 3:4) Thus, when people say they don’t believe in God because of the hypocrisy in the church, they have no idea who God is! God works out His purposes despite us.
In the story of David, we see that David did not seek to bring about the prophecy and anointing of God in his own strength or timing. Rather, David tried to be obedient and true in every situation, and God orchestrated the events in His own timing to make David king.
We see no evidence that David dreamed about being king, even after he was anointed by Samuel. We see no evidence that David longed to be king or did anything specifically trying to make it happen. He was a man after God’s own heart; he was not a man who sought to be king.
David was far from perfect, but his imperfections pale in comparison to our memory of him as a man after God’s heart, a man who desired to stay true to God (though sometimes he failed). Even after he sinned, David always returned to God. David sought right relationship with God over any other thing.
As for prophecy, I am reminded of Paul’s words:
Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22)
We see in Saul an an initial refusal to embrace, and even to shrink away from, the anointing and prophesy from Samuel. In that sense, it seems he treated the prophecy with “contempt”.
We aren’t really given much information on how David received the anointing and prophecy from Samuel. He went back to tending sheep, but we see him really step up to the plate when he saw Goliath taunting God’s people. From that, we can surmise that David took the anointing and prophesy to heart. He believed God was capable of doing the seemingly impossible.
When Saul was king, however, he held onto the position of king too tightly. Though he didn’t give much weight to the anointing and prophecy when he received it, he clung to his position even after the prophecy that he was being rejected as king and God was taking the kingdom from him.
Saul held onto the position God gave more than he held onto God and His word. He treasured his position more than he treasured relationship with God. He wasn’t content to let God be true; Saul always tried to take matters into his own hands.
David, on the other hand, was more interested in relationship with God than anything else. He let God do His work in His own time. He didn’t hold the anointing and prophecy in contempt, but he also didn’t try to make it come about in his own efforts. He waited on God. He held into what was good, and he rejected what was evil.
It turns out that David was much more prophetic than the narrative suggests. Throughout the Psalms of David are prophetic statements that find their fulfillment in Christ, the Messiah!
We seem to be easily distracted by the wrong things. The buzz in Israel in David’s time was whether Saul was among the prophets. No one (apparently) was talking about David as a prophet. I don’t think David would have called himself a prophet. Samuel was the prophet, yet David’s words are full of prophetic anticipation of the Christ who would come from David’s line.
Postscript: From the Ligonier website we get this insight into the story of Saul prophesying:
“Matthew Henry sees today’s passage as confirming that serving in ministry is in itself no proof of conversion. He writes, ‘Many have great gifts and yet no grace, prophesy in Christ’s name and yet are disowned by him.’ Saul prophesied, though his heart was set against the Lord. It is possible to do great things for the church and yet be unconverted. We must trust in Christ for salvation, not in what we do in His name.”