Part II of the series on David’s life is a necessary aside and is not ‘in order’ in terms of his timeline. The next event chronologically for David after his anointing for kingship is the fight with Goliath, and that will be the subject of Part III. However, the strained relationship between King Saul and David was a consequence of the Lord’s rejection of Saul in favor of the young shepherd.
To understand the reason God put David on the throne, one must have some familiarity with his predecessor and the history of the nation of Israel. King Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by the prophet Samuel. Saul was the son of a wealthy Benjaminite as evidenced by his ownership of multiple donkeys (the heavy-duty farm trucks and tractors of their day) and employment of many servants (1 Sam. 9). Saul also had physical beauty and large stature. In fact, the Bible states, “Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2, ESV). The shoulders, neck, and head comprise about a foot of a person’s height. Saul would have definitely stood out in a crowd, as he was at least a foot taller than anyone else in the whole country. From the human point of view, Saul was a young man with everything going for him: money, good looks, and athletic stature—he was a man born to be king.
Saul came to the throne after the Lord warned the people of Israel against the idea of having a king (1 Sam. 8). However, the Lord allowed a transfer of governmental authority from a theocracy, where God had ruled the people directly through prophets and judges, to a monarchy, like the nations around them. Saul began the rule of the kings with a specific purpose which God had revealed to the Prophet Samuel, “’He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines’” (1 Sam. 9:16, ESV). The Philistines had oppressed the people of Israel with constant raids and theft as well as a push to expand their territory.
After Saul’s anointing to be king, the Spirit of the Lord allowed him great success in setting up his kingdom. Samuel declared over him, “’Then the Spirit of the Lord will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you’” (1 Sam. 10:6-7, ESV). God gave Saul divine success and promised to be with him. In the chapters of 1 Samuel following Saul’s ascension to the throne, the Lord allowed him enormous triumphs in turning a loose band of tribes, comprised of farmers and shepherds, into a victorious army against the hardened, professional forces of the Philistines as well as other nations.
People tend to think of Saul’s reign as short because of the introduction of David after only five chapters. Saul was a young man of thirty when he became king and ruled Israel until he was seventy-two (1 Sam. 13:1). His reign was longer than David’s or Soloman’s. Over four decades is a long time for a leader who answers only to the Lord through prophets and the priesthood. Americans tend to think of rulers in terms of limited power with a system of checks and balances, but Saul was the king—with absolute political, military, and legal authority. That kind of power can lead to self-reliance and pride.
So the natural question becomes ‘What happened to ruin the reign of Saul for God to replace him?’ Even though God had raised Saul up to the position and never failed him, his life was characterized by crippling fear. Saul directly disobeyed the Lord in two instances. One time, a combination of Saul’s men scattering and fear of the Philistines caused him to offer a burnt offering to the Lord (1 Sam. 13). This was in direct violation of God’s commands through Samuel. The second time, Saul was directed to kill every person and animal belonging to the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). He decided to spare the Amalekite King Agag and keep the best of the animals to offer in sacrifice. Saul later admitted to Samuel that he was afraid of the people if he gave the order to kill all the animals, a source of plunder and a way to make his army wealthy.
The fear revealed an aspect of Saul’s life that is noticeably absent: a deep, abiding relationship with the Lord. Where are the Psalms of Saul? Or his proverbs? Or a record of his prayers? They do not exist. Saul trusted in Samuel’s God when the prophet was present. However, Saul did not trust God personally or seek to know Him. Even with all the physical blessings and success the king had been granted in leadership and battle, Saul lacked a thirst for the Lord. The cares of life and the ever-present fear instead of faith choked out Saul’s spiritual life. Remember that Saul had a special anointing of the Spirit but no willingness to personally seek the Lord. Without faith in God, a person’s success will destroy him.
After the Lord rejected Saul as king, we meet David in 1 Samuel, chapter 16. The Bible says, “Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Sam. 16:12, ESV). Ruddy means ‘red,’ so David’s complexion was somehow different from the average person, possibly with red hair? David was also a musician by hobby and shepherd by trade from a humble family in a backwoods village. Apparently, those long days in the fields watching over the sheep had made him a good shot with a sling as well as gave him time to compose music on his harp. Many of the Psalms written by David reflect a shepherd’s heart. The young man bore few similarities to Saul in status, upbringing, or interest, and he was not the obvious choice, even in his own family.
The difference between Israel’s first two kings is their focus. David was brave and faithful from an abiding trust in God. In his time as a shepherd for his father’s flock, David had faced a lion and a bear and killed them both (1 Sam. 17). That is a level of bravery Saul never had, and I am sure many shepherds lost sheep to large predators in those days. Most probably opted not to pursue a creature that could turn on them. Not David! He struck them first (not sure if he meant with his staff or a rock from the sling) and attacked once he was able to get a hold on the creatures! David’s faith in God overcame any fear he had.
Young David is often portrayed as a wild man, running in the fields with a cowboy-like existence, and I believe that is somewhat accurate. But what made him the substitute for Saul? Why did God choose him? When Samuel told Saul his royal house will not endure, the prophet gave the description of who God called to replace him, “’The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart’” (1 Sam. 13:14, ESV). David was a man of faith, not fear. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him’” (Heb. 11:6, ESV). David, a faithful seeker with no great pedigree or physical prowess, displaced the obvious choice. He was the substitute that had the favor of God alone and went on to found an empire.
The historical account of Saul and David’s relationship is rich with detail and application, but the basic lesson is that a person can have all the right looks, status, and gifts and fail miserably without faith in God. The other side of the example is that God can raise anyone to any position if he or she has faith in Him.
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