1 Samuel is a book of the Bible, found in the section of the Old Testament that contains much of the Bible’s history books, and it can be summarised with the phrase, ‘a tale of two leaders’. From chapter 8, where Israel as a nation asks for a king (despite the warnings of God and Samuel, Israel’s leader at the time, of the consequences – vv. 7-18), through to the books ending, a story unfolds of Israel’s first king, Saul, and his young rival, David, both of whom have been anointed by Samuel as the God-approved king of Israel, Saul in chapter 9, and David in 16.
How could both men have been appointed king? Saul was appointed first, as a young man, before David was born. For a time, it seems like he didn’t do a lot wrong, either. Despite the warnings of God and Samuel, Saul led Israel into a time of military success and relative security in their contested homeland. However, Saul disobeys the command of God in not waiting until Samuel’s arrival for a burnt offering (1 Sam: 13:8-12). This does not seem to be too bad, on the face of it. After all, it’s not like Saul has sacrificed to an idol instead of God, but it leads to God rejecting him as king. Why? Samuel puts it like this in 15:22, ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams’. Saul, the anointed ruler of Israel, had not obeyed the word of God, and therefore he was rejected as king.
In this is an indication of the kind of devotion that God asks of us and an indication of what actually pleases Him. He is not looking for people who focus on things, even if those things are sacrifices. The people God is looking for are those who value what God is actually trying to say to them, who pursue a relationship with Him and take it seriously. Those who ‘say a prayer and let the good times roll’ (to quote Fallout Boy), have completely missed what it means to follow God. Following God is about valuing what He has to say, and trusting in Him no matter what the situation is.
Thus, we come to David, anointed by Samuel as king after God’s rejection of Saul, even though the king was still alive. The first major appearance of David after his anointing is in that famous story, dubbed ‘David and Goliath’. What that title misses out is the most important player in those events: God. The key line in that story from 1 Samuel 17 is in verse 45, when David says,
“You come against me with swords and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
So we can see that in his first appearance as a warrior, David is not only humble (volunteering to fight Goliath so that other Israelites may be encouraged, v. 32), he is confident in God, saying as much to Goliath, as we have seen, and Saul (v. 37). It is immediately made clear that for David, the shepherd boy, God is central to his life and to his confidence.
For a time, David and Saul live peacefully with one another. David is a close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, and Saul values David’s military and musical skill. However, when the people start praising David more than Saul, the older man turns bitter and pursues David around the land. During this time, David is twice in a position where he could kill Saul (chapters 24 and 26), but his refusal to harm the Lord’s anointed king stops him. This also shows his deep respect for God and God’s word – the quality that Saul apparently lacked earlier in the book.
These two men embody two different models of leadership. There is Saul: tall, handsome, authoritative and eager to be the best, and then there is David: the least of his siblings, deferential to Saul, humble before God and men, and eager to serve the Lord. It seems that these two models of leadership represent, respectively, the ideas of men and God regarding what makes a good leader. Saul is the man anointed after the people asked for a king and God warned them of the consequences; David is the man anointed after the people’s king has failed in God’s sight. Furthermore, Saul is a flawed human being, and his failure to escape from these flaws leads to his downfall. David, however, whilst also flawed (as we see particularly in later books and the Psalms), is able to repent thanks to his humility before God, and is therefore able to be described as a ‘man after God’s own heart’ (1 Sam 13:14).
Importantly, through David we are able to see a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, the ultimate God-appointed ruler. There are similarities in their humility, their roles as ‘shepherds’, and in their humble clashes with existing authority. In Saul, we simply see a foreshadowing of the consequences of Israel’s impious demand for a king – a human ruler who is not obedient to God. The message of 1 Samuel, however, is that the ruler committed to serving God comes out on top in the end.