Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

Rembrandt, King Saul (detail)

These are excellent questions.  In this post I’ll look at why God rejected Saul as king.  In my next post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

Kingship in Israel was supposed to be different from kingship in the surrounding nations.  Israel’s king was not to be considered divine.  In the law of Moses, God carefully distinguished the priesthood from the kingship and gave future kings careful instructions that put them under the law.

So it was vital that Israelite kings not usurp any priestly or divine prerogatives.  The precedent that Saul set as Israel’s first king would influence all of his successors (like George Washington declining a third term).  So he was held to a strict standard.

At one point during Saul’s reign, he was campaigning against the Philistines and waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor.  When Samuel didn’t arrive as soon as he expected, Saul offered these sacrifices himself, assuming the prerogatives of a priest.  When Samuel did arrive, he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing,” using the Hebrew term for people who act without regard for God.  Samuel warned that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, meaning that his family would not establish a dynasty.  He’d be succeeded on the throne by someone from a different family.

Some time later, however, God gave Saul a new assignment in his capacity as king.  Samuel introduces this assignment by saying, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel.”  So perhaps this was intended as a “second chance.”

God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites.  (This is one of those episodes of total destruction in the Bible that are very difficult for us to understand; I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.) One thing we can recognize in such episodes is that the Israelites were never to take any plunder because weren’t in the war for themselves; they were considered agents of divine judgment.

But Saul and his army spared “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”  They only destroyed what they thought was undesirable and worthless.  They spared King Agag because in this time captured kings were a prized trophy of war.  By conducting this raid as if it were ordinary warfare that he was directing, Saul once again usurped a divine prerogative and misrepresented the character of divine judgment, which doesn’t privilege the powerful and the beautiful.

It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king.  And so, to prevent Israelite kingship from being established on the model of the divine kings or priest-kings of surrounding nations, God didn’t allow Saul to establish a dynasty.

Nevertheless, even after Samuel announced this judgment a second time, he granted Saul’s request, “Please honor me [as king] before the elders of my people and before Israel.”  Saul reigned for 42 years and throughout that time he was acknowledged as the rightful king.  David, even though promised the kingship himself, respected and protected him as the “LORD’s anointed.”

One of the last things we hear about Saul in the Bible is David’s tribute to him after he was killed in battle.  Acknowledging how Saul had made Israel secure and prosperous by defeating its enemies, David laments,

Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!

So even though Saul wasn’t able to establish an Israelite royal dynasty on the right principles, the Bible acknowledges the benefits Israel received from his long reign.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

28 thoughts on “Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?”

  1. Saul got a raw deal. He didn’t want to be King to begin with – God forced it on him.
    In 1 Sam 10:7, Samuel tells Saul to do “as occasion serves him, since God was with him.”
    In 1 Sam 10:8 Samuel tells Saul to wait seven days.
    In 1 Sam 13:8 Samuel was late – Saul waited seven days – then made a sacrifice – to God!
    In 1 Sam 13:13 Saul violated a command the Lord had given him – but no reference as to what the command was – maybe God had communicated privately with Saul or Samuel told him something that isn’t relayed to the reader.
    In 1 Sam 13:14 Samuel didn’t even have to think about it or communicate with God – Samuel told Saul he was finished. Either Samuel knows God’s mind or God had communicated with Samuel before he lollygagged his way to Gilgal.
    Something seems fishy – God didn’t want Saul for some reason and goes out of his way to badger him for the rest of Saul’s life, even so far as sending evil spirits to torment him.
    Commentators often say that Saul’s treatment of Amalek is what sealed his fate – but God had abandoned Saul long before this.

    I too feel sorry for Saul.

    1. Yeah. I also feel sorry for Saul. The people wanted a king and in the end Saul had to pay the price for it because he wasn’t able to do it. In fact he wasn’t supposed to be able to do it… nor any other king. All of Israel history pointed to the coming Messiah and his kingdom. So then the question is. Can we really point fingers at someone like Judas for doing God’s work? Betraying Jesus? I mean, someone had to pick up that burden.

  2. Good analysis, very nice of you, God has blessed you with His Divine Wisdom please continue to use it for His Glory thank you very much,

  3. Thanks for this discussion, I googled “Why did God reject Saul” and this popped up, I found it very helpful. I still sort of feel like Saul got a “raw deal”, like the brother above expressed, but I do feel like I understand the situation a bit better and why the rules Saul broke were more important than I had perhaps considered.

  4. Saul consulted a familiar spirit through a witch, for Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, for by so doing he rebelled against God. This is a serious offence that angered God.

    1. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft & rebellion the very cause of mans fall. Even as is prophesied “For he will deceive the whole world through Sorcery” read witchcraft, & Saul’s indulgence says much to this.

  5. God left Saul for acting priestly, but a few chapters later, while moving the ark. David sacrificed a bull and wore priestly garments. What’s the difference?

  6. God called David a man after his own heart, but he also called him a worm. The former in terms of the Spirit, & the latter in terms of the Sin ( in flesh)

    1. In the biblical narrative, God seeks out and chooses David, calling him a man after his own heart, only after King Saul disobeys. So the reason for God’s rejection of Saul isn’t God’s favor for David.

  7. You indicate that God rejected Saul for taking spoils from battle and not destroying the Amalekite king and all the livestock. What about David in I Samuel 27:8-9 when he attacked the Amalekites and destroyed every person so they wouldn’t “inform” on him by revealing his multiple deceptions (vs. 11) but spared animals and clothing, presumably for his own benefit? In the process, he even lied to Achish, king of Gath, about where he obtained this plunder, just like Saul manufactured reasons for his disobedience. Didn’t he know about Saul’s sin in this regard? Or does David get a pass because he didn’t receive “direct” instructions from the Lord? We are told that “such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory”; so he lived a lie for 16 months, calling himself Achish’s servant. And as far as his wives are concerned, he had accumulated 6 wives before he even became king over all Israel, one of whom was the daughter of a king. How many wives does a king need to assure that he has “heirs”? Wasn’t it God who assured David’s dynasty and not his production of multiple sons? And his demand for the return of Michal from Ishbosheth in II Samuel 3 can only be seen as a political move. According to the law of Moses, the fact the Saul had given Michal to another husband after David did not send for her to join him (but he could take two other wives while he was fleeing) suggests that Michal could not be his legitimate wife. She was married to another! The only explanation that makes any sense to me for the difference between God’s treatment of Saul and His treatment of David is God’s sovereign grace: God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. Just like all the rest of us, David did nothing to deserve God’s mercy, including God’s choice of David to be king. Why do we as humans work so very hard to find reasons for David to be different from Saul or from the rest of us? It is because of His great mercy that we are not consumed, and that includes David! We diminish God’s mercy when we cannot accept that David does not deserve it any more than Saul does. That he was a man after God’s own heart says everything about who God is and nothing about who David is. If it’s anything else, then there is no hope for any of us.

    1. Interesting point about David. Also, after Solomon married a Egyptian princess and started trading with them (which was strictly forbidden) God even asked him if there is anything else he wanted… I Kings 3. I find it pretty strange.

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