Q. How long was it from when God rejected Saul as king because of his second serious disobedience (when God said, “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions”) to when God said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel?”
This is one of those questions that we just don’t get enough information from the Bible to answer. But in cases like this, we should always see what we can find out by trying to get the answer.
We know that Saul was king for a total of forty-two years. (In his speech in the book of Acts, Stephen uses the round number of forty years.) We don’t know how long Saul had been king at the time of his first disobedience, when Samuel told him that as a consequence he would not found a dynasty, even though he would remain king himself. But many years must have passed between that time and Saul’s second disobedience, because the narrative in 1 Samuel says in between, “After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them. He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.” As I said in my previous post, “Saul had many positive qualities (courage, leadership) that enabled him to win some significant initial victories on the people’s behalf.”
However, after these years and these victories, unfortunately Saul seriously disobeyed the Lord a second time, as I discuss in this post. God then told Samuel to tell Saul that he would not live out his years as king. The Bible informs us that “Samuel was upset at this, and he prayed to the Lord all night long.” Samuel clearly recognized Saul’s good qualities, and it seems that he was trying to intercede with God on his behalf. But God’s message to Saul, through Samuel, was that despite all the potential he still had, God simply couldn’t use someone who wouldn’t obey. Samuel delivered this message, and after that, we are told, he “left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.”
It was only after some further time that God said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” This gives us a little bit of a clue about the overall time frame. David became king, after Saul’s death, at age 30; he was very likely under 20 years old when Samuel anointed him, since he still wasn’t old enough to serve in the army. So there were at least ten years between the time God told Samuel to stop mourning and when Saul died. If we assume that took at least 10–20 years for Saul to conduct all of those military campaigns against the hostile surrounding nations after first establishing his own rule, it seems likely that not much more than 10 years could have passed between when God said he was rejecting Saul as king and when God told Samuel to stop mourning. The time could even have been shorter than this, depending on when Saul actually did disobey for the second time. But the expression “how long?” suggests that it was at least a period of some years. That’s how it seems to me, anyway. As I said, we aren’t given enough information to know for sure, but I would personally estimate somewhere from a few years to as many as ten years.
So what can we learn from trying to answer this question, even if we can’t settle on an exact time period? For one thing, we see that it was appropriate for Samuel to pray for Saul and to mourn for him. The Bible affirms these actions by recording them for us. The loss of a great leader’s potential future contributions through misconduct is tragic. We honor God, who gives leaders their abilities and opportunities, when we acknowledge what a loss it is when these gifts can no longer be used to the fullest.
However, another thing we learn is that it is not appropriate to mourn such a loss forever. People need to reach the point where they accept the consequences of their own actions, and we ourselves need to reach the point where we accept the consequences of others’ actions and join in the response that God is making to the new circumstances that have resulted from them.
Saul’s son Jonathan actually provides an excellent example of this. After David had to flee from Saul, Jonathan went to see him and “helped him find strength in God.” He told him, “You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you.” In other words, Jonathan accepted that he would not become king himself, succeeding his father, because Saul had forfeited his rights to a dynasty and even to the kingship. Jonathan accepted that David would become king instead. But he envisioned where he would fit in those new circumstances, and he was prepared to assume this role and make his contribution. Unfortunately, Jonathan himself was killed in the same battle in which his father Saul died, so he wasn’t able to fulfill these plans. But he nevertheless provides a good model of accepting the consequences of another person’s actions—even when they affect our own future prospects—and planning to take part in the new things that God will do in light of those consequences.
This is what God was telling Samuel to do as well. God wanted him, in effect, to stop wishing that Saul could still be king and go anoint someone else. Mourning for a leader’s lost potential contributions should not be endless and infinite; it’s God’s purposes in the world that are infinite, and all other considerations must be subordinate to them. However, I think we can also assume that God did allow Samuel to mourn Saul for the full time period that was appropriate. This explains why there was a delay between the two things you’re asking about, however long that delay might have been.