From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 4 – The meaning and importance of faithfulness
Saul was the first King of Israel. He began well and showed great promise at the start. However, in the end, he was removed from power. God regretted making Saul King. That wasn’t because he failed, made mistakes or lost battles. He could have failed and made mistakes repeatedly, and still have kept God’s approval. The reason King Saul had his position as King taken away from him was because God was not satisfied with his level of personal faithfulness. That was the issue, not his level of success. When he was under pressure he let God down and became disobedient and unfaithful.
The prophet Samuel, who was a priest at the Temple, had told King Saul to wait for him and that he would meet him at Gilgal. At that time Samuel would have offered sacrifices and prayed for God’s help in the battle against the Philistines. However, Saul became impatient in waiting for Samuel to come. Therefore, he usurped Samuel’s priestly role and gave the offerings himself, even though he was not a priest and had no right or authority to offer the sacrifices.
King Saul acted impetuously and went beyond his proper authority. He did what he knew to be wrong because he was in a highly stressful situation and felt he could not wait any longer for Samuel. When Samuel arrived, immediately afterwards, and saw what Saul had done, he announced God’s judgment on Saul for his disobedience and lack of faithfulness:
5 And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude; they came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth-a′ven. 6When the men of Israel saw that they were in straits (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, 7 or crossed the fords of the Jorda] to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and salute him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the LORD’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 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. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”1 Samuel 13:5-14 (RSV)
10 The word of the LORD came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night.1 Samuel 15:10-11 (ESV)
God was displeased by Saul’s ongoing unfaithfulness and disobedience. Things reached a head when Saul disobeyed God’s commands in relation to how he was to deal with the Amalekites. God then decided to remove the kingship from Saul. God did so even though Saul attempted, belatedly, to repent.
The problem was that Saul’s repentance came too late, even assuming that it was genuine. Note also that Saul’s disobedience arose because he feared the opinions of his people and tried to please them rather than please God. That was a fatal error. Nobody can be faithful to God if they also aim to please people. You can please one, or the other, but not both:
22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the LORD.” 26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.1 Samuel 15:22-28 (ESV)
Even worse, Saul also consulted a medium, (the witch at Endor) rather than seek God’s guidance. God was not willing to tolerate that unfaithfulness. Therefore God took away not only Saul’s throne, but also his life:
13So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance, 14 and did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD slew him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.1 Chronicles 10:13-14 (RSV)
Saul could have continued as King if he had operated differently. He didn’t need more skill or more cleverness. He just needed more faithfulness. In particular, he needed to repent quickly when he did wrong, instead of hiding or denying his sins. The next King, David, probably made just as many mistakes as Saul did. He also committed some major sins. But the difference was that he knew how to repent and how to restore his intimacy and fellowship with God. That is why God thought so highly of David.