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 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.

7 thoughts on “Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?”

      1. Don is actually correct. There is a blurring of David role’s as king and priest. See Eugene Merrill’s Old Testament theology for a good treatment of this issue. The issue is not so much that Saul offered the sacrifice but that he did not wait for Samuel. The blurring continues into the book of Zechariah, where the priest is crowned as the Branch, a typical Davidic term.

  1. You state that “the penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early.” It appears that Saul actually lived longer than David: Saul died at 72 years and David at 70 years. It also appears that Saul reigned 42 years and David only 40 years. In fact, Saul’s reign was one of the longest of all the kings of Israel and Judah combined. How is this a punishment? The kingdom is lost to Jonathan as Saul’s heir, but it never seems to have been lost to Saul. We diminish God’s mercy and God’s glory when we do not acknowledge that David does not deserve God’s mercy any more than Saul did. Why look for excuses when David did many of the same things as Saul ? Like Saul, David did not destroy the Amalekite livestock in I Samuel 27 (nor in I Samuel 30), and his reason for destroying the men and women in chapter 27 was hardly to honor God’s command; it was to protect his deception of Achish. David wore a priestly garment in II Samuel 6:14. David was a liar, a murderer, and an adulterer who “despised the word of the Lord” and even despised God (II Samuel 12). Perhaps this is why David reigned an even shorter time than Saul did and his sons’ behavior brought him shame, unlike Saul’s son, Jonathan. What a disappointment Solomon turned out to be! He thought he was entitled to whatever he desired, from multiple wives and concubines to conscripted slaves among the Israelites (I Kings 5:13) to build his vast projects that brought him fame. Because of Solomon’s sins, the kingdom was divided (I Kings 11), and David’s dynasty was limited to Judah. When will we realize that there is only one king worth our praise and glory? The Lord Jesus Christ! When we read the story of David’s very flawed life, we should simply be amazed that God showed him as much mercy as He did, just as we are amazed by God’s mercy to us.

    1. the bible names David as a man after God’s own heart simply because he would do what God wanted him to do. He had true repentance just to mention these two… that’s why all other kings who came after him were measured in accordance to David’s reign. king David had many achievements compared to Saul

  2. Perhaps in judging how closely King David measured up to God’s standard we miss the point of the narrative. Scripture describes him as “a man after God’s own heart,” which means he was approved by God. David exemplified the first commandment in loving God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength though he was human, tempted and flawed. I am so encouraged by his story which demonstrates principally to me the unsurpassing love, mercy, and faithfulness of God that translates David from pasture to palace and transforms him from brash shepherd boy to victorious leader and gracious king, capable of great kindness and generosity to his enemies. Scripture tells us David was Israel’s greatest king, who united a divided country, ended a protracted civil war and ushered in a 40 year reign of peace and prosperity for God’s people. This made her the superpower of the mid-east and guiding light of the surrounding polytheistic nations to believe in the one true God (Israel’s divine purpose). The dynasty God established through David is also the royal line through which our Saviour, Lord Jesus, descended. The number 40 is hugely significant in God’s timing, symbolizing a period of divine trial and purification (a generation) which Israel certainly went through under Saul after their rejection of God. After this followed a period of restoration, also divinely orchestrated here through the shepherd king, David. This pattern began with Israel – the nation God created – and her neighbors, but will be repeated in the entire world before the Lord Jesus – our Good Shepherd, King and High Priest – returns.
    I am greatly comforted by God’s grace to David through all his trials, persecutions, temptations and betrayals, especially as I experience these in my own faith journey to Christ weighed down by the trappings of my own fallen human nature. My hope and trust is that God will as graciously lead, train and grow me according to His divine purpose, even when I sin. It is not David’s faithfulness on display here, but God’s. The awesome grace, power and loving kindness God lavishes on us – His enemies until we believe – shines through the pages of King David’s life as the sun amid the heavens! David failed at times in his life, as do we all; the good news is that God loves us and forgives us and has provided restoration for us through the sacrifice of His perfect son, Jesus Christ. Hallelujah, my God and my King!

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