Did God tell a man that He’d help him kill the king so that he could become king himself?

Q. I read in the Bible many years ago that God told one man (I forgot who) that he would be king, and the man replied that there was already a king, so how could he become the king? God answered him something like I will help you kill him so you can become the king. Where in the Bible do I find this?

The story line you’re describing actually sounds to me a lot more like Shakespeare’s play Macbeth than something in the Bible. Near the beginning of that play, three witches greet Macbeth as “thane of Glamis” (his actual title), as “thane of Cawdor” (a position that belongs to someone else), and as someone who will “be king hereafter.” Macbeth replies:

I know I am thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor.

In other words, Macbeth knows he has inherited his own title, but there is already a thane of Cawdor, and there is already a king, so those titles can’t apply to him. But right afterwards, he learns that the king has executed the thane of Cawdor as a traitor and given him his title. Unfortunately Macbeth reasons that if the first thing the witches told him was true, then the second could be true as well, and he might become king. Even though his friend Banquo warns him that “to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths” (in other words, the witches have no good intentions), Macbeth unfortunately decides he should kill the king and take over the throne, since that has been predicted for him. This leads only to disaster for Macbeth—but I won’t tell you any more here; the play is so good, you really need to see it or read it for yourself!

The one place in the Bible that’s somewhat similar to what you’re describing is where God tells David that he will become king, even though a different man, Saul, is currently on the throne. But God never tells David that he will help him kill Saul. And although David later gets two opportunities when he can easily kill Saul and even claim that this is in self-defense, he does not. Instead, despite encouragement from his own soldiers that God has provided these opportunities in order to fulfill His word that David will be king, he replies (swearing an oath):

“As surely as the Lord lives, the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed.

That is, David expected that Saul would either die of some illness or accident, or in battle, or even of old age, but he wouldn’t do anything to kill Saul himself, even though God had promised him that he would be king. So you may be remembering what God predicted for David while Saul was still alive, but perhaps mixing that memory with some details from another story.

Was it God or Satan who incited David to take a census?

Q. In 2 Samuel, the author says that God incited David to take a census of the people because He was angry with Israel. But in 1 Chronicles, the writer says that Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census. I am inclined to blame David himself, since as king, he would bear blame for all royal decisions. The author of 2 Samuel, who is usually truthful, might have felt he needed to avoid blaming the king. But later, in both accounts, David admits his sin. Who was truly responsible for David’s taking a census: God, Satan, or David?

Joab brings David the census report

The question you’re asking about is precisely the issue I mentioned when I was asked some years ago what problem in the Bible bothered me the most. In my biblical teaching, I’ve always used a “good question” format. For example, in one of the churches I served as a pastor, for our adult Sunday School curriculum one semester I just told the people, “Write down all the questions you have about the Bible and we’ll work through them together.” I always served churches near colleges and universities, and when my wife and I would have groups of students over for dinner, after the meal she would say to them, “Does anyone have any questions about the Bible? Chris loves to answer those!” At one of these gatherings a student once said to me, “All right, you’ve answered our questions, now what bothers you about the Bible?” And I mentioned this issue—how the Bible attributes the same action in one place to God but in another place to Satan. How much more of a contradiction could you find?

But here’s how I  finally came to terms with the issue. I recognized that as the biblical authors tell the story, they often share their perspectives on why things happened. These perspectives are “inspired” in a sense that I’ll describe shortly, since these are, after all, biblical authors. But the case we’re considering shows that they can’t be “inspired” in the sense of always infallibly correct through divine intervention in the ordinary process of storytelling and composition, because if they were, the Bible simply wouldn’t be able to attribute the same action both to the ultimate holy agent (God) and the ultimate evil agent (Satan) at the same time.

So what’s going on here? As I said, the biblical authors comment on the story as they tell it. (The title of Günther Bornkamm‘s classic volume Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew helped crystallize this insight for me: The biblical authors are entrusted with passing on the tradition of the stories of God’s work in the world, but they also share their own interpretations of it.) For example, in 2 Kings, the author is describing how, right after the long and godly reign of Josiah, the kingdom of Judah was plundered by foreign invaders and ultimately destroyed. The author comments, “Surely these things happened … because of the sins of Manasseh,” Josiah’s grandfather, “and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”

The author uses a term in Hebrew, translated “surely” here, that means “this has to be” or “this can only be …” For example, in 1 Kings, the Arameans are fighting against King Ahab of Israel, who has enlisted King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. Somehow Ahab persuades Jehoshaphat to wear his royal robes into the battle while he goes in disguise himself. When the Arameans see Jehoshaphat in his robes, they say, using this same term, “This has to be the king of Israel.” But when Jehoshaphat cries out to the Lord for help, they realize he can’t be Ahab (who was known to worship Baal), so they leave him alone and go looking for Ahab instead.

So the term is a “particle of assurance or emphasis,” as William Holladay says in his Hebrew lexicon. But why would a biblical author need to use such an expression at all (“this must have been because …”) if they were writing under a kind of divine inspiration that guaranteed that they knew all the reasons for things? Examples like this not only illustrate that this isn’t the way in which the Bible is inspired, they also show that the biblical authors themselves aren’t aware that they are writing Scripture. Another clear example is when Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else” besides Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. I have no trouble believing that God helped Paul provide the right names, without any omissions, of the people he baptized in Corinth. But if God was doing that, Paul didn’t realize it! Instead, he admitted, “I don’t remember.” So Scriptural inspiration does not involve overriding the ordinary limitations on human memory and perspective.

I don’t find that at all disappointing, however. I actually find it quite exciting that God, in effect, allowed and even invited the biblical authors to contribute their own perspectives as they told the story. As readers, we are then invited to put these perspectives into conversation with one another, if they seem to differ, and we are also invited to join in conversation with them ourselves. This is precisely what you’re doing when you suggest that the author of 2 Samuel might not have wanted to blame David, but you’re inclined to blame him yourself. Excellent!

We can certainly observe that in any situation, God has a plan, and Satan has a plan, to work with the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own larger purposes. In our day-to-day walk with the Lord, we need to be very discerning about the situations we face: We need to ask ourselves, “How can I recognize and cooperate with God’s plan for this situation, and how can I recognize and avoid furthering Satan’s plan?” It seems to me that the author of 1 Chronicles recognized that Satan would try to use any opportunity to damage and destroy David’s kingdom, while the author of 2 Samuel recognized that God was already aware of the pride and confidence in human power that the census expressed and that God was displeased with these things. These two authors bring out these complementary perspectives. And you have added your own perspective, well supported by the text: David’s own pride, which led him to persist in taking the census even after Joab told him the Lord was Israel’s protector, rather than the army, was also responsible. David confessed afterwards that he had sinned.

So what we have ultimately is a conversation within the text, and between the reader and the text, about why particular things happen in the story. And as I see it, that is the level on which inspiration resides. What we are given in the Bible is an inspired conversation that we are invited to join. We can be confident that the answer to our question is in that conversation, although we may discover, as we talk things out with the biblical authors, that we actually have a deeper question than we may have realized at first. Maybe the issue isn’t really, “Which one of these three was responsible for the census: God, Satan, or David?” Maybe the issue is actually, “In a moral universe in which forces of good and evil try to work through the free choices of human moral agents to advance their own purposes, how can I make choices that will not further the purposes of evil, but rather help further God’s purposes and enable me to join in with them?”

How long after God rejected Saul did God tell Samuel to stop mourning for him?

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.

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.


Did the apostle Paul ever have any children?

Q. Did the apostle Paul ever have any children?

Paul seems to indicate in his first letter to the Corinthians that he has always been single. Addressing the question of whether a believer should marry, he says, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” His further comments indicate that what he means here is that he wishes they could all serve God with the advantages of singleness, as he does: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided.” However, Paul does acknowledge that singleness and marriage are both callings—indeed, “gifts”—to each believer from God, and so “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.

So if Paul never married, then he never had children. However, it seems that in his case, the promise of Jesus came true that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Even though Paul never married, and this allowed him to be “concerned about the Lord’s affairs” with undivided attention, in the very course of his work for the Lord he met Timothy, who became his close co-worker, and more than that. In his letters to Timothy, Paul addresses him as “my true son in the faith and as “my dear son.” He also calls Titus, another young co-worker, “my true son in our common faith.” So even though Paul never had children of his own, in the Lord he had at least two dear children who joined him and helped him in his mission.

From where did Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt?

Q. From where did Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt? According to Luke, the family went back to Nazareth after Jesus was presented to God in the temple.

Thank you for your question. I discuss it in this earlier post:

Why do Matthew and Luke seem to disagree about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?

Does God bring judgment on a people after a certain point?

Q. Does God wait for a people to surpass a certain point before He  brings judgement on them? Do we have the means to know what that point is? I ask because in Genesis, when Abram falls in a deep trance, God says that the iniquity of the Amorites hasn’t yet reached its full extent. We learn that the Amorites were later destroyed, during Moses’s time. The timeline seems to fall in place with the conversation God had earlier on with Abram. However, Moses says in Deuteronomy that God made Sihon king of the Amorites stubborn and obstinate. Why wasn’t Sihon given more opportunities perhaps to repent, as the arrogant Pharaoh of Egypt was given before God hardened his heart? In light of all this, how do we take part in God’s story though history, and are some people predestined for destruction regardless of how thing turn out?

Let me start with the later part of your question and work my way back to the beginning of it. While Moses does say that God made Sihon’s heart stubborn, I think we actually should see the way that God treated Sihon as  similar to the way that God treated Pharaoh. First each ruler chose to disregard God’s supreme power and authority, despite warnings, and then God confirmed the ruler in that choice.

We learn from other Old Testament narratives that the peoples living in the area where the Israelites ultimately settled were aware of what God had done to free them from slavery in Egypt. Late in the time of the judges, for example (under Samuel, the last judge), the Philistines were fighting against the Israelites and they learned that the ark of the covenant had been brought onto the battle line. They recognized the ark as an embodiment of the presence of God, and they cried out, “Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues!” The Philistines fought extra hard because of this, and while they won the battle and captured the ark, they were then struck by plagues themselves and had to return the ark in order to be delivered.

Similarly, when Joshua sent spies to explore the land of Canaan, Rahab told them, “All who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan.” So news of God’s earlier victories spread to the surrounding peoples, and this can be considered a warning that they should have heeded. Rahab herself expressed faith in the true God and helped the Israelites, and so she was spared with her family. I think we can conclude that Sihon should have known enough, from what he must have heard about God striking the Egyptians with plagues and drying up the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape Pharaoh’s army, to allow them to pass through his territory, which was their only request. But instead of allowing them to go by peacefully, he attacked them, and in the battle that followed, he and his army were destroyed. We don’t know exactly where his own choices ended and God’s confirmation of those choices began, but in Deuteronomy Moses is describing the latter part of that process.

This may point to at least part of the answer to your original question. If a people and its leaders are no longer considering the warnings that God has given them—particularly, in the case of modern societies, in the biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity in former times—then we should indeed be concerned that they may have passed an ominous point. This is true at least descriptively: If people are no longer heeding God’s warnings, how can they be expected to change course?

But I would hesitate to say this prescriptively, that is, “Once we see a people reach this or that particular stage, we know that they’ve passed the point of no return.” To answer the first part of your question directly, I don’t believe we have the means to know that what point is. So we should always pray and work for God’s standards of justice and compassion to be honored in our societies. Even in a situation where we may think that things have gotten so bad there’s no way we our society can escape divine judgment, we can still respond with repentance, prayer, and advocacy. We can say, as the king of Nineveh did even after Jonah told him that his city was going to be destroyed, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” In short, I don’t believe that any particular people is predestined for destruction regardless of how thing turn out.