If God gave Saul a “new heart,” how could Saul disobey and be rejected?

Q. I recently noticed (for the first time) that God gave Saul a brand new heart when He chose him to be king over Israel. So how could Saul then disobey God, to the point where God rejected him as king?

The Bible does say that God gave Saul a “new heart” (NLT) or “another heart” (ESV) or “changed his heart” (NIV, NASB) when God chose him to be Israel’s first king.  Just before this happened, Samuel told Saul, “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you . . . and you will be changed into a different person” (NIV, NLT) or “another man” (ESV, NASB).  The Hebrew word translated “different” or “another” here is the same word used to describe the “new” or “changed” heart.

So this definitely seems to be genuine spiritual rebirth–both regeneration and Spirit-filling.  And there is evidence of it in Saul’s subsequent conduct.  At first Saul was so timid that when Samuel wanted to proclaim him king to all the Israelites, Saul hid among the supplies!  But soon afterwards, galvanized by God’s Spirit, Saul boldly led a successful campaign to rescue an Israelite city that was being besieged by a longtime deadly foe, the Ammonites.  In the wake of this success, Saul was given the opportunity to put to death all those who had opposed his kingship.  But he insisted that their lives be spared.

So what went wrong?  After Saul had been king for many years, he was facing another dangerous foe, the Philistines.  Samuel agreed to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor on Israel’s army, but when he didn’t arrive at the appointed time, and Saul’s army was so intimidated by their enemies that the soldiers began to desert, Saul decided to offer the sacrifices himself.

Samuel arrived just then and when he saw this he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

Why was offering the sacrifices such a severe violation that it cost Saul his kingdom?  Because God had carefully separated the kingship from the priesthood in the law of Moses.  The kings of the surrounding nations, by contrast, were priests; some were even revered as gods.  But God wanted the Israelites always to understand that He alone was their God, and He wanted them always to seek him through the priests who were descended from Aaron, whom He had chosen as Israel’s first high priest.

But Saul, most likely influenced by the example of the kings of the nations around him, did not hesitate to try to concentrate the roles of king and priest together in his own person, contrary to God’s design for the nation.  This led to disobedience and a break with Samuel’s godly influence, and it was all downhill from there.

The lesson is that a new heart and the filling of the Spirit are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a life that remains true to God.  We also have to be very careful of the examples around us that we allow to influence our thinking and conduct.  We need to pick our friends and role models carefully, and be careful what we watch and what we think about it.  We also need to be aware that the temptations we encounter in a position of power and influence are much greater than ordinary temptations. Otherwise, even genuinely reborn and Spirit-filled people like Saul–or ourselves–can be led down the wrong path.

John Singleton Copley, “Samuel Reproving Saul” (1798)


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.

8 thoughts on “If God gave Saul a “new heart,” how could Saul disobey and be rejected?”

  1. I agree with you that Saul was wrong, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence in 1 Sam 21. Jesus refers to it in each of the synoptics. In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

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