•  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
“ Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights;
Who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle.” (2 Sam. 1)
The lamentation of David over Saul discovers a spirit the lack of which may well humble us. There is not a secret word in it suggestive of triumph over a fallen enemy, not an expression of selfish satisfaction at deliverance from his persecution. The cruelly unjust treatment which he had received at the hands of Saul for years, his many personal wrongs are all passed over. David remembers only the brilliant natural qualities which might have adorned a throne but were wholly powerless to shield him from the consequences of his headstrong will.
But if we may not consider the history of Saul in a hard spirit, still less ought we to do so in a careless one. In every view of it the subject is serious. As a warning, there is nothing more solemn, no record of a life with more exalted privileges, the morning of which opened with fairer promise, yet whose night closed in darker despair. But its interest does not end here. It throws light upon subjects the importance of which cannot be overrated.
Saul, as David celebrates in this touching requiem, was “the beauty of Israel “; for natural qualities are only in question. His lofty stature and physical strength, the modesty which he displayed when he was little in his own eyes, his occasional warm and generous impulses, his special endowments for his office, his achievements in war and his munificence as a king, all combine, as we think upon his end, to impress the mind with the sense of the inefficacy of the most splendid advantages to remedy the effects of the fall. How important it is to know the true character of the flesh, to be convinced that the result of every trial has been to prove that man is ruined, and, apart from Christ, is hopelessly ruined by sin! But the pride of life (1 John 2:1616For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)) is that element of our fallen nature which, encouraged in the world, refuses to admit the extent of our disgrace. A carnal, unawakened, man will never admit that in his flesh dwelleth no good thing. In the New Testament, especially in the Pauline Epistles, the question is fully and exhaustively considered. While maintaining the responsibility of man and establishing the law, we are taught that on this ground we are lost, and that God in His love has provided for faith another and a totally different ground in Christ for all who believe in Him. The law made the blessing of God conditional and pronounced a curse on the evil doer. Not so the grace of God. It brings salvation (Titus 2:1111For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, (Titus 2:11)). In Saul and David we shall find these fundamental principles illustrated and confirmed. The mercies of David were “sure mercies.” Saul's were taken from him (2 Sam. 7:15-1615But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. 16And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. (2 Samuel 7:15‑16)).
It is undeniable that God in His sovereignty has blessed man unconditionally. On what ground have the many millions of our race from the days of Noah enjoyed seed time and harvest, summer and winter, day and night? Have these been conditional blessings? John Newton said, “If the most patient man that ever lived had the ruling of the earth, he could not stand it for a single day.” What a mercy it is then that these millions have every day to do with God and not with men. It is clear from Gen. 8:20-2220And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And the Lord smelled a sweet savor; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. 22While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (Genesis 8:20‑22) that it is solely on the ground of sacrifice, of Noah's burnt offering, a type of Christ, that we have these blessings. If bestowed on that of the conduct of men, they would have been forfeited long ago. This establishes the principle.
Now the blessings bestowed on Israel and on their first king were not unconditional. Samuel, as we have seen was most explicit as to this. “If ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king.” They were under probation. God went on with them that the flesh might be fully put to the test and its true character declared, and that in the most public way, that none should boast or trust in it. When Christ came, He broke with it from the first (John 3). To this day we speak of “the prodigal son” (Luke 15). Like the elder brother, we dwell on his doings. The father said, “My son was dead... was lost.” This is a far more serious view of our case. Would that men saw it!
But to our subject. As a youth, Saul seems to have been very indifferent to the things of God. Though Samuel had labored among the people for years, he appears to have had no knowledge of him until his servant in their extremity suggested inquiry of him: and when, shortly after, he was seen among the prophets and prophesying with them, all who knew him were astonished at finding him in such company and so occupied; so much so that, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” became a proverb, said commonly when anyone was observed in an unusual character (1 Sam. 9:6; 10:11-126And he said unto him, Behold now, there is in this city a man of God, and he is an honorable man; all that he saith cometh surely to pass: now let us go thither; peradventure he can show us our way that we should go. (1 Samuel 9:6)
11And it came to pass, when all that knew him beforetime saw that, behold, he prophesied among the prophets, then the people said one to another, What is this that is come unto the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets? 12And one of the same place answered and said, But who is their father? Therefore it became a proverb, Is Saul also among the prophets? (1 Samuel 10:11‑12)
But Samuel spared no pains with him, and stood by him as long as it was possible. From the first he sought earnestly to press upon him that it was the Lord Who had raised him to the rank and office of king, and to the Lord he must look for all that this exalted position required. As he poured the oil of consecration on his head and kissed him, he said, “Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain [prince] over His inheritance?” He then foretold what would happen to him as he returned to his father's house, “signs” given to him to lead him to mistrust himself and to convince him of the interest which the Lord took in all his matters.1
As for the seed of Jacob and of the tribe of Benjamin, few places would be more deeply interesting to him than Bethel, and Rachel's sepulcher. That Jacob desired they should be kept in memory, is evident from the fact that he set up a pillar in each. It is now said that Saul must have gone out of his way to reach Rachel's tomb. Be it so. It was the way Samuel directed him, and, we must think, purposely, however much out of his way. He was to learn his first lesson in the presence of the grave of one who, like himself, was beautiful and well favored, yet, alas! who indulged a rebellious will as he did. Her passionate cry for children, without the smallest recognition of the will of God (Gen. 30:11And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. (Genesis 30:1)), contrasts unfavorably with Hannah's subject spirit and humble prayer to the Lord, and prepares us for the despair that overwhelmed her when that which she fondly dreamed would be a spring of happiness proved a bitter and a fatal draft of sorrow. How profound, how absorbing must have been her grief when she sought to make her innocent babe carry the remembrance of it all through life! “It came to pass as her soul was in departing, for she died, that she called her child's name Ben-oni” (the son of my sorrow). But the child never bore the name. His father covered it at once and forever with that of Benjamin (the son of my right hand).
Ben-oni is a true name for man through sin (Gen. 3:1616Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Genesis 3:16)). We are, as David said, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” yet “shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin;” and “the Lord knoweth our frame and remembereth we are dust.” So Abraham confessed, “I am but dust and ashes.” Saul, in all the fresh vigor of life, needed to be reminded of his true status as a man, that he might carry the consciousness of it when a king. But God had revealed himself to Jacob as “the God of Abraham his father, and the God of Isaac,” and “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” His faith therefore looked beyond sorrow and death, while feeling both acutely, for he loved Rachel. She was right according to nature, but he was emphatically so according to resurrection; and now that Christ has come, it is our privilege to possess the clearest light on the truths which are only shadowed forth in these names.
Jesus, to accomplish the purposes of grace, in voluntary humility and infinite love became Ben-oni, the Son of His mother's sorrow; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; but, raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, He is revealed to faith, the Son of His right hand. Rachel's sepulcher should have reminded Saul that, with all his advantages, he was still a Ben-oni, and, if he would cover that name with Benjamin, if his future course was not to be characterized by human sin and sorrow, but by divine power and blessing, it must be by faith, faith in the God of his father Jacob. The Christian is directed by the Spirit to another sepulcher (Rom. 6:44Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4), Col. 2:1212Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12)), How many, alas! have had this sign, and professed to have been buried with Christ in baptism, yet have given as little heed to it as we fear Saul did to his.
There was, however, yet further instruction for him. Samuel told him that two men would meet him by the sepulcher who would say to him, “The asses which thou wentest to seek are found.” Why had he failed in so trifling a service? He was about to supersede a man of prayer, a judge where Ebenezer should never be forgotten. Was he competent to take his place? Could he judge the many thousands of Israel? The sign ought at least to have raised the question in his mind and led him to look away from himself, a hard thing perhaps for such a man to do; yet, if he had learned this lesson, he would have welcomed the second sign given to make known to him the provision made by divine grace for all he would need. From Rachel he is now to turn to Jacob, and from the tomb, man's house, to Bethel, the house of God.
Jacob's circumstances when he first reached Luz, the place he afterward called Bethel, might well compare with those of the most wretched on earth. Deservedly exiled from his family, homeless and friendless, his future uncertain, his possessions a staff, his bed the ground, and his pillow a stone, he lay down to sleep. But the Lord was in that place, and never had he such a revelation of Him and of His infinite resources in heaven and on earth, or of richer promises of constant, watchful care and of future blessing than in Bethel, and he proved Him faithful Who had promised.
There were still some in Israel who put their trust in the God of Jacob, and Samuel told Saul that three of these would meet him on their way to Bethel, their hands filled with their offerings: that they would seek his fellowship and would share these offerings with him if he had a heart to go with them. Would he, with a chastened spirit because of the first impressive sign, begin the new and untried path of leader and commander with an acknowledgment of dependence on the God of Bethel, Whose faithfulness to Jacob was seen throughout his life, and filled his soul to overflowing with worship and blessing when “a-dying” (Heb. 11:2121By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. (Hebrews 11:21))?
Scripture offers us no answer to the question. The fulfillment of these two signs is briefly, very briefly, stated; but not a word is added as to their effect on Saul. We must gather this from his subsequent course. `