Was It Humility or Fear?
I used to see the story of King Saul as a story of a humble man becoming arrogant and too big for his own good. However, as I have studied the story through the years, I am beginning to wonder if Saul was neither humble nor arrogant, but timid and fearful.
Most Bible students are familiar with King Saul, the first king over Israel. The nation of Israel had rejected God as their leader. To answer their request for a king, God chose Saul, the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin to be their king. However, over the course of time, Saul would end up disobeying the Lord. Because of Saul’s disobedience, God took the kingdom away from Saul and his sons. Saul met his end in death on the battle field.
There are several incidents and statements which lead me to think Saul was more of a fearful man, not a humble man. When Samuel first showed honor towards Saul, Saul asked, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?” (1 Samuel 9:21). Admittedly, Saul appeared humble, feeling undeserving of the honor which Samuel showed towards him. However, the second incident took place when Samuel was attempting to present Saul to the nation of Israel. Samuel records the following, “When he had caused the tribe of Benjamin to come near by their families, the family of Matri was chosen. And Saul the son of Kish was chosen. But when they sought him, he could not be found. Therefore they inquired of the Lord further, ‘Has the man come here yet?’ And the Lord answered, ‘There he is, hidden among the equipment’” (1 Samuel 10:21-22). While the account does not say Saul was hiding because of fear, it would be a distinct possibility.
After Samuel anointed Saul as king, Saul does not take the throne until after the Ammonites came up against the city of Jabesh Gilead. Once Saul received word of the Ammonites actions, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul and Saul led the men of Israel against the Ammonites and rescued Jabesh Gilead (1 Samuel 11:1-13). After this event, Samuel placed Saul in the roll as king and the people accepted Saul as their king (1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:25).
A couple of years after Saul began reigning as king, he transgressed the law of the Lord. The transgression involved Saul offering an offering and a sacrifice because he feared the Philistine army. (Saul was waiting on Samuel to arrive and to offer the offering and sacrifice. However, Saul, out of fear, grew impatient and offered the offering himself.) The problem with Saul’s offering was his lack of authority. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin and, therefore, could not offer the offering and sacrifice to the Lord. Here is Saul and Samuel’s conversation once Samuel finally arrived: “And Samuel said, ‘What have you done?’ Saul said, ‘When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.’ And Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever’” (1 Samuel 13:11-13). Take notice in Saul excusing himself due to the fear he seemingly felt. Saul saw the people scattering from him and he also saw the Philistines gathering their forces at Michmash. Saul seemed to be very afraid at this point and did not trust Samuel to arrive in time to offer the offerings to the Lord.
Saul’s second transgression initially does not appear to be motivated by fear. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, we see the Lord commanding Saul to destroy Agag and the Amalekites and all of their belongings. However, instead, Saul “and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed” (1 Samuel 15:9). This disobedience greatly angered the Lord. When Samuel confronted Saul, Saul blamed the people, saying, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (1 Samuel 15:15, also see verse 21). However, Saul finally accepted responsibility for his actions saying, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:24). Take notice of Saul’s statement, “because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” Is it possible this is what actually took place and Saul is finally admitting it? In other words did the people pressure Saul into disobeying the Lord and Saul, fearing the people, gave in? If Saul is telling the truth, then yes, he finally admitted the problem: He feared the people, just as he also had feared the Philistine army.
There is a strong possibility my assessment may be off. We do not have enough details from Saul’s life to say for certain if Saul’s failure was fear or arrogance. However, let’s consider for a moment the position that his failure was in his fear. How many times have we been faced with situations which challenge our obedience but, due to fear, we fail to obey God? When it comes to obedience, we should never fear what man may do to us. Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, ESV). Those who fear man over God will never faithfully serve the Lord. While much of their life may be spent in service, when those moments of challenge arise, they will buckle under and disobey the Lord. Learn this lesson from King Saul’s life: Choose to fear and obey the Lord and do not fear those who would oppose your faithfulness to the Lord.