Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

Q. Why did God reject Saul as king for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon when they offered sacrifices?

Saul was rejected as king not specifically because he offered sacrifices, but because he disobeyed a direct command that God had given him through the prophet Samuel.

Samuel had told Saul, “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”  But Saul, worried that his whole army would desert him, offered the sacrifices himself, just before Samuel arrived.

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “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.”  In other words, the penalty for this outright disobedience to a direct command from God was that Saul would not be the founder of a royal dynasty; while he would remain king, his descendants would not rule after him.

Secondarily, however, this disobedience did lead Saul to usurp a privilege of the priesthood.  As I discuss in this post, by offering these sacrifices, Saul was imitating the Canaanite priest-king model instead of respecting the separation between the kingship and the priesthood that was established in the law of Moses.

Saul subsequently disobeyed another direct command from God when he was told, again through the prophet Samuel, to completely destroy the Amalekites.*  Saul instead kept their king, Agag, alive as a trophy of war, and his soldiers kept the best of the cattle to “sacrifice to the Lord”—as part of a grand feast that they would enjoy themselves.  Samuel asked Saul once again, “Why did you not obey the Lord?”  The penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early and be succeeded by “one of his neighbors”—not one of his own descendants.

A sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger for a mural depicting Samuel confronting Saul after the battle with the Amalekites

It is true that during a deadly plague, David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings upon it.  But David actually did this in direct obedience to a command from God, and in any event these were the kind of offerings that any ordinary Israelite could offer.  The author of Psalm 116 says, for example:

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. . . .

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Presumably when the psalmist says “I will sacrifice a thank offering,” this involves the assistance of the priests and Levites at the temple.

I think we should understand in the same way the statement that is made about the dedication of the temple itself in Jerusalem:  “Then the king [Solomon] and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord.”  The text makes clear that priests and Levites were present, and we should understand that they were the ones who actually offered these sacrifices, but at the initiative and expense of the king and people.

I hope these observations help answer your question.

– – – – –

*Episodes in the Bible like this one, where God commands complete destruction, are very troubling.  Some interpreters, like Philip Jenkins, argue that they never really happened.  Others like Adam Hamilton suggest that the biblical writers or characters were wrong in thinking that God had actually commanded this.  As I say in my review of Jenkins’ book, “I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.”  In this post I describe my own efforts to come to terms with them.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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.

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