Didn’t God treat Saul a lot harsher than David?

Q. I can’t help but think that God treated Saul a lot harsher than David and his descendants.

God was reluctant to give Israel a king to begin with, but when God relented, it sounds to me that God picked Saul because he had such a great appearance, not because he was so godly. God even had to give Saul a new heart. Why not pick a person that’s more suited for the job to begin with, or just tell Israel to wait until David is born and old enough?

Why did God use less oil to anoint Saul compared with David? Doesn’t that mean that God blessed Saul less than David? Didn’t God not only reject Saul, but make him worse by sending an evil spirit?

I understand that Saul didn’t obey God in all things, but neither did David. He lied to the priests about being sent on a mission by Saul, and it was because of David’s lie that all but one of the priests was murdered. This wasn’t the last time David lied. It looks to me like every time David lies, somebody dies. And then David took another man’s wife and had him killed. But it still seems there was nothing bad David could do that would remove him from God’s love. Why is that?

I have read your two posts about Saul and David. In the one entitled “How could God call David a ‘man after his own heart‘ when he committed adultery and murder?” you say that God called him that because “David was always devoted to the LORD as Israel’s supreme ruler and he never turned aside after other gods. This heart of loyalty became the standard by which all later kings were judged.” But what about Solomon then? He was David’s son, but he not only worshiped other gods, he built altars for them and actively encouraged idolatry! I understand that God took most of his kingdom away as a direct result of this sin, and yet Solomon was allowed to live out his live as king of Israel in all his splendor.

You also have a post entitled, “Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?” There you say, “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.” I would hope to think that God is a God of more than two chances (or I am in a world of trouble), even if Saul was rejected to set an example for future kings.

To summarize, I don’t understand why God would punish one person so harshly for a handful of sins and other persons barely for so many sins, sins that would affect Israel for hundreds of years to come. David and Solomon are not at all far behind Saul in setting an example. I think they both messed that up royally.

First, I want to commend you for reading through the biblical story very carefully and not ignoring the things that bothered you, but making a note of them and continuing to think about them. (You provided quite a number of Scripture references, which I have turned into the links above.) But let me try to provide a perspective on the story that may help account for some of the things that aren’t adding up for you right now.

For one thing, it’s simply not the case that “it was because of David’s lie that all but one of the priests was murdered.” David’s “lie” (which was really a deception, as I’ll discuss shortly) actually should have saved the priests’ lives. David didn’t tell Ahimelek the priest that he really was running away from Saul, and even if this was because David didn’t think he’d get help if he admitted the true circumstances, the result was that Ahimelek wasn’t guilty of intentionally helping someone his king considered to be an enemy.

When Saul brought Ahimelek in for questioning and learned that he had helped David innocently, thinking he was  actually advancing Saul’s interests by doing so, Saul should have told him, “All right, you didn’t know any better, I won’t hold you responsible.” Instead, Saul not only ordered Ahimelek to be killed in response, he ordered his entire extended family to be killed—85 male family leaders—plus the entire town that the priests lived in, “men and women, children and infants, cattle, donkeys and sheep.”

This was vastly disproportionate vengeance for something that shouldn’t even have been punished in the first place. It’s reminiscent of Lamech, early in the Bible, swearing to take revenge seventy-seven times against anyone who wronged him—a primal example of human arrogant self-assertion against the restraints that God originally built into human life. The priests of the Lord especially should have been shielded and protected from such vengeance. All of Saul’s court knew this; we hear that “the king’s officials were unwilling to raise a hand to strike the priests of the Lord.” But a foreigner who was in Saul’s service went and killed them. This violence was no doubt intended to terrorize the rest of Israel with the threat that the same thing would happen to anyone and their entire town who did anything Saul didn’t like.

So David was not responsible for killing the priests. Nothing David said or did required Saul to make that response. Instead, Saul should have done just the opposite, recognizing that Ahimelek had not knowingly conspired against him. Beyond this, Saul, like his own officials, should have been unwilling to “strike the priests of the Lord.” But because Saul had already made the choice to step beyond his own proper bounds as king, he was prepared to do even that. The seeds of such an action had already been sown when Saul first made the choice that, God recognized, showed he needed to be rejected as king. David and Solomon certainly did some serious things wrong, and they were punished for those things and unfortunately the kingdom suffered as well. But they never descended into the extermination of entire communities. It was right for God to restrain Saul from going any farther on such a course.

As I mentioned, David’s “lie” was actually a deception. It’s generally accepted that people in a situation of powerlessness can use deception to save their own lives and especially to save other people’s lives. (See my three-part series, “Does God let us use deception for a good cause?“) That’s what David was doing here: He was at least trying to get help himself without placing the priests in an impossible dilemma, and as a result he also kept the priests from knowingly “aiding and abetting a fugitive.” But Saul had no regard for their innocence.

To address another one of your concerns,God didn’t just choose Saul because he was tall and handsome. Rather, once God had agreed to provide a king for the Israelites, God spoke privately to Samuel and told him, “I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.” So God’s ultimate motive was not to appease the people’s request, but to deliver them in compassion, much as God sent Moses to Egypt to deliver the people there after hearing their cries. Saul had many positive qualities (courage, leadership) that enabled him to win some significant initial victories on the people’s behalf. This showed that he wasn’t just another pretty face. Unfortunately, after getting of to a positive start, he chose self-assertion rather than continuing reliance on God.

Samuel likely didn’t use more oil to anoint David than Saul. Even though many Bibles say that Samuel filled his “horn” with oil for David, while he just pulled out a “flask” for Saul, the two terms are actually equivalent. One definition of the term “horn” in such a context is “a container used as flask for oil.” Several English translations actually say “flask” rather than “horn” in the David story, to bring out this meaning. But even if the quantities of oil had been different, that would not have meant that a different degree of blessing was intended. This was a symbolic act, and the oil, whether a lot or a little, was meant to signify God’s choice of the person it was poured on. When you take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, whether you get a large or small piece of bread and a large or a small sip from the cup, the sacrament is still just as effective.

I believe that I have addressed many of your remaining concerns in the posts you mentioned, as well as some other posts on this blog. Please see the following posts as well:

Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

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

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

I hope that these reflections will help you make a little better sense of the story of Saul and David. The fact that I have written several posts in response to other readers’ questions about this story shows that you’re not alone in being uncomfortable with what seems to be God’s unfair treatment of Saul compared to the way David is treated. So once again I commend you for reading the biblical story carefully and thoughtfully. We shouldn’t just gloss over things that are troubling to think about. Instead, we should read and reflect and talk about our questions with others. I hope I’ve helped you to do that.


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: