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.

Why did God give Nebuchadnezzar so many chances?

Q. I’ve been reading through Daniel and have been struck by how much God seems to communicate with and pursue Nebuchadnezzar. Any theories on why the God of Israel gave so many chances to a pagan king?

God certainly gave Nebuchadnezzar repeated opportunities to acknowledge Him, even after Nebuchadnezzar rebuffed and defied His initial overtures.  I explain the character of Nebuchadnezzar’s defiance in my book After Chapters and Verses:

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was looking at the book of Daniel. When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar made a statue ninety feet high out of gold. Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand this story better.

One note suggested that this was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire. Another observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling. But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the week before, and remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue. Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar created a statue that was entirely gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God. He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced. And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead. No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

And no wonder we marvel that the God of Israel continued to pursue a pagan emperor even after this.

One reason for the continuing pursuit may be that God had given Nebuchadnezzar an important trust to fulfill as the emperor of what was then the entire known world for the people of Israel, and also as their temporary lord during their exile.  In this role it was crucial that Nebuchadnezzar ultimately acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  God went to great lengths to win this acknowledgment. (See Blake’s illustration below!)

But I think we should also see Nebuchadnezzar as an individual example of a general principle.  As Peter puts it in the New Testament, God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  God goes to great lengths and makes repeated overtures to every soul, striving to bring it to repentance and salvation so that it can fulfill His purposes for it on earth.

And we can see how Nebuchadnezzar was offering small but positive responses as God reached out to him.  Even though Daniel said his dream foretold the end of his empire, instead of punishing Daniel for disloyalty or treason, Nebuchadnezzar rewarded him, as he’d promised to do for anyone who could tell him a dream he’d had while asleep but forgotten once he woke up!  In this way he tacitly agreed with Daniel that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” that are beyond human capability.

Similarly, after Nebuchadnezzar saw God deliver Daniel’s friends from the fiery furnace, into which he’d thrown them for refusing to bow down to his statue, he decreed severe punishment against anyone who would “say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.”  And in the end, as I noted earlier, Nebuchadnezzar did acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So in response to God’s repeated overtures, we see Nebuchadnezzar slowly recognizing and acknowledging more and more about God’s supreme claims.  It shouldn’t surprise us that God would continue to pursue anyone who was steadily coming around like this.  And we should be encouraged by similar signs, even small ones, that the people we dearly want to know and love God are being steadily pursued and are beginning to respond.

William Blake, “Nebuchadnezzar” (1795). An illustration of God’s decree against the emperor, “Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal . . . so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?

This question was asked in a comment on my previous post.

Q. I agree with you that Saul was wrong to offer sacrifices, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence. (Jesus refers to this episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

You’re right that both Saul and David did things that only priests were supposed to do.  And as I observed last time, it was extremely important in ancient Israel that the monarchy and the priesthood not be combined. So we do need to account for why Saul is punished for his actions while David is not.

This issue arises again during the reign of Uzziah, and in his case, the nature of the offense is made very explicit:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’”

For crossing the royal/priest boundary, Uzziah was struck with leprosy and he lived out his reign in seclusion, with his son acting in his place as regent.  For the same offense, Saul was rejected as king. So you’d think that God would have had as much of a problem with David eating the consecrated bread as He did with Saul offering sacrifices or Uzziah burning incense.  But instead, Jesus cites David’s actions as a precedent for his own disciples lawfully plucking and eating grain as they travel through a field on the Sabbath.  In Matthew and Luke, this incident is paired with a Sabbath healing episode, suggesting that David also provides a precedent for Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  In other words, his actions are seen as positive and exemplary, not negative and dangerous.

So what’s going on here?  I think the best explanation is that there is a distinction between the privileges of a priest and the functions of a priest.

One of the privileges of a priest is that “those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and . . . those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar,” as Paul observes in 1 Corinthians when arguing for his own right to be supported as an apostle. In other words, as Leviticus explains, once consecrated bread has been replaced with fresh bread and removed from God’s presence, it “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”  So no one but the priests had a right to this bread, as it was part of the priests’ support.  But Ahimelek the priest was nevertheless free to share this bread with David and his hungry companions–to “do good,” as Jesus put it, with the food at his disposal.  David was not arrogantly demanding priestly privileges for himself as king; he wasn’t even king yet at this point.  He was simply a hungry man asking for food and receiving it from God’s sanctuary.

By contrast, both Saul and Uzziah were usurping priestly functions, and in both cases it seems they were doing so as an assertion of their own expanded powers.  This, as I noted last time, threatened to assimilate the Israelite monarchy to the Canaanite priest-king or god-king model, and it could not be allowed.

There’s one more related issue that I’ll take up in my next post.  According to the book of Samuel-Kings, during his reign in Jerusalem, “David’s sons were priests.”  Was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?  I’ll explore that one next time.

Statuary, “David receives sacral bread from the priest Ahimelech,” in the Ceremoniall Hall of the Hradisko Monastery, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Sculptor: Josef A. Winterhalder, 1734.

How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione

Why did God make people and angels who would fail and fall away?

Q. I have a friend who is wrestling with understanding how so many people and even angels could turn their backs on God. When you consider all the great names of the Bible, they usually come with some failures; 1/3 of the angels fell; Judas turned away from Jesus. My friend wonders not just at the failure and what that means for us who have never even walked with God like our forefathers, but also why God chose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them? He also asks why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden. Instead, He permitted Satan to hang out there. My friend is asking some honest questions that many people wrestle with, I think. I came across this blog and enjoy the well thought-out answers that you’ve written, so I thought I’d throw in these questions and see what comes back.

Thanks for joining in the discussions on this blog!

You said that you thought many people wrestled with the same honest questions as your friend, and I’d have to agree with you, as I’ve already had the challenge on this blog of trying to respond to some questions very similar to the ones he’s asking.

For example, he was concerned about why God would choose to create such fallible creatures, knowing He would have to destroy many if not most of them.  I’ve shared my thoughts on essentially the same question in this post entitled, “Why does God make people He knows are going to reject Him?

Your friend also asked why God didn’t protect Adam and Eve in the garden, rather than permitting Satan to hang out there.  I address that concern in my post entitled, “Why didn’t God protect the children he created from an evil being like Satan?

And as for why people who walked with God, and even angels who saw God face to face, could still fail and fall away, see these posts, for example:

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Why did God create Satan?

Perhaps you and your friend can both read these posts and then discuss them together.  Maybe that will help address his concerns.  But please write back with any follow-up questions you have afterwards.  Thanks again for joining the conversation here.

Does God know in advance who will be the Antichrist?

This question was asked in a comment on my post entitled “Why Did God Create Satan?

Q. Wow I really love this article. For years I’ve been trying to make sense of two somewhat conflicting beliefs, (1) that we are made as an expression of God’s love and (2) that God made Satan knowing that he would turn on him and tempt Eve. I’ve often wondered if God makes the deliberate choice to not know what choices we will make. Being God he certainly has the option to make that choice if he wants to. My only thought that would seem to contradict this theory is that the Bible talks about the future Antichrist and it’s pretty clear about what choices he makes. What are your thoughts on this?

If God does know in advance what choices we’re going to make, then the creation of Satan certainly raises a great problem for the idea that God loves us and wants the best for us.  How could God create “such a monster,” as the questioner behind my original post put it, knowing what havoc he would wreak on humanity and the creation?

The solution I suggest is that God created not Satan but Lucifer, a great and glorious angel who had tremendous potential for good.  Because Lucifer had the freedom to follow God or not, what he would eventually choose was not knowable in advance—at least according to my understanding of freedom.  And not knowing what cannot be known is not a deficiency in omniscience or foreknowledge.

You’re suggesting a different solution:  God could know every choice in advance, but God chooses not to know, perhaps for the same reasons I describe in my original post, to allow true freedom so that true love will also be possible.  (Love that is compelled is not love.)

I think that both of these approaches work, so I just need to address what you’ve raised as a potential counterexample:  Isn’t it clear from the Bible that God knows in advance what moral choices the Antichrist is going to make—another “monster” whose choices will wreak havoc?

I’d say in response that I think we need to examine critically what we’ve been led to believe about what the Bible predicts regarding the Antichrist, that is, the person who will lead a worldwide rebellion against God at the end of history.

For one thing, the term “antichrist” is not used in the book of Revelation or in any of the other biblical passages that are typically understood as predictions of the end times.  It is used only in the letters of First and Second John, where it is defined as anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.  This, John writes, “is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”  In other words, for John, “antichrist” is not so much a future person, it’s a spirit that has already arrived.  We need to be careful not to come under its influence ourselves, but this does not mean that God knows in advance which specific people will choose to give in to its influence, not if their choices are truly free.

The Bible does speak under other names of a person whom interpreters often identify with a future “Antichrist.”  In Revelation he’s called the “beast.”  This seems to be an echo of the way this same figure is described in Daniel as one of the “kings” of a “kingdom” that’s represented symbolically in his vision as a “fourth beast.”

But I think it’s important to recognize that the initial application of the prophecies in both Daniel and Revelation must be made to the near future from the standpoint of those books, that is, to the time when they were written, or shortly afterwards.  This is simply responsible biblical interpretation, to ask first what a text would have meant to its author and its original audience.

In that light, as I explain in my study guide to those two books, and in this post, Daniel’s references to the “tenth horn” of the “fourth beast,” equivalent to the “little horn” of his next vision, must be associated primarily with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC.  Similarly, as also I say in the guide and in this post, Revelation’s frequent references to the “beast” must be understood as referencing initially the Roman emperor Domitian, who persecuted the followers of Jesus late in the first century AD.

At least according to the “preterist” approach I take to Daniel and Revelation (see the explanation of that term near the end of this post), any further fulfillments of these prophecies will occur in the future by analogy and redemptive-historical “deepening.”  (This is precisely the way that Jesus, according to Matthew, “fulfilled” Old Testament prophecies—not so much literally as typologically.  See this post for a discussion.)

As the conflict between good and evil reaches its culmination at the end of world history—the Bible certainly envisions that happening—somebody will take the lead in opposing God, and that person will gather followers from all over the world.  But I’m not convinced that it’s knowable right now who this person will be, as countless people will make innumerable choices between now and then.  Rather, as Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  In other words, the leading astray may be inevitable, but the actual person who leads astray remains indefinite (“anyone”).

As a result, I don’t believe the Bible actually predicts which specific person in the future will lead the opposition against God at the end of history.  And so what the Bible says about this future figure is not a counterexample to the idea that God does not know moral choices in advance because they are truly free and thus unknowable.  What we need to come to grips with is not God knowingly creating a monster, whether Satan or Antichrist, but God endowing us with such beautiful, terrible freedom.

“The Beast from the Sea,” medieval tapestry illustrating figures from the book of Revelation. This “beast” is typically identified with the Antichrist.

Why did Jesus agree to the demons’ request to go into the herd of pigs?

Q.  In the story where Jesus drives demons out a possessed man and into a herd of pigs, the demons implore him not to send them to the abyss. Why did Jesus have mercy on the demons? Does he feel compassion even towards those who are with the devil?

Also, though Jesus never sinned, why was it not wrong for Jesus to send the demons into the herd of pigs, thus driving the herd off a cliff, if he knew that it would cost the owner of the swine greatly to lose his whole herd?  Jesus could have just ordered the demons to the abyss, and that would not have cost the swineherd so much. Who knows, it might have ruined the swineherd’s livelihood and put him in great debt.  Why didn’t Jesus save the swineherd from losing all of his pigs, and keep the pigs from dying if he had the option to?

I personally don’t think that in this episode Jesus was showing mercy to the demons or having compassion on them.  The gospel writers typically tell us explicitly when Jesus is acting out of compassion (for example, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick”).  But there is no reference to this in any of the three parallel accounts of this episode, in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  Rather, Mark and Luke say that Jesus “gave them permission” to enter the pigs, and Matthew says that he commanded the demons, “Go!”

So if Jesus was not motivated by mercy or compassion, what might have been his motive in agreeing to the demons’ request to enter the pigs?  I believe he did this not because the demons asked, but because when they asked, he recognized that it would be strategic for the proclamation of the kingdom of God if he agreed.

The fact that the entire large herd of pigs—two thousand, according to Mark—rushed down the bank and drowned in the lake shows that Jesus indeed cast a huge host of demons out of the afflicted man.  (They called themselves “Legion, for we are many”; a Roman legion had several thousand soldiers.)  Presumably if there had only been one demon, or just a few, only that many pigs would have rushed away.  But when thousands of pigs were affected, this was evidence of a very powerful exorcism, showing that the kingdom of God had indeed come with great power in the person and ministry of Jesus.

To answer the second part of your question, it may be that Jesus realized that such a demonstration would be worth making to everyone in the area, including the swineherd, even if it cost the swineherd his entire livelihood.  Jesus told the parables  of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value to illustrate how finding the kingdom of God is worth giving up “everything we have.”  It’s a bit like when Jesus told his first disciples to “follow me” and they left behind their fishing boats and nets.  The one difference is that the disciples got to choose ahead of time to leave everything behind and follow Jesus, while the swineherd would have had to realize after the fact that losing everything was worth finding out about Jesus’ great power and love and choosing to follow him.

We don’t hear anything more about the swineherd in the story, but we do hear about the man who was delivered from the demons.  He wanted to leave his family, friends, and home country behind and travel with Jesus and his disciples proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But Jesus recognized that he would be a more strategic witness right there in his home country and so he told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”  Maybe Jesus had the same thing in mind for the swineherd, if he too realized that the kingdom he had just seen come in such great power, bringing  liberation, was worth everything to obtain.

James Tissot, “The Swine Driven Into the Sea,” c. 1886 (Brooklyn Museum)