Clearly even though Israel had asked for a king instead of a priestly judge, God intended the throne to be a spiritual position. So what can we see about Saul’s spiritual heritage?
Let’s look at the big picture of the spiritual climate of Israel first.
We don’t know how old Saul was when he became king, so it is hard to peg dates precisely. I am guessing that it was a decade or two before his birth that the Philistines defeated Israel at Aphek and took the Ark of the Covenant. It spent seven months in Philistia before it was returned to Israel, eventually ending in Kiriath Jearim, over the mountain range, to the southwest of Gibeah.
I have not found any reference to the Tabernacle after that battle, until it is mentioned as being in Nob, during the reign of Saul. Nob was between Gibeah and Jerusalem. One possibility is that Shiloh was sacked after the defeat at Aphek and the Tabernacle was relocated to a region with more stability, but that seems unlikely based on how far apart the two communities were.
Another option is that Saul had the Tabernacle moved closer to his capital during his reign.
Regardless, the emotional focus of the people of Israel shifted from the Tabernacle to the work of Samuel. He was an early circuit rider, traveling from Bethel, to Gilgal to Mizpah and then retreating to his home in Ramah. All of these places are in close proximity to Gibeah.
In fact, it was at Mizpah that Israel had their last victory over the Philistines. It is quite possible that Saul was alive then, as a young child. At the very least, it would be common knowledge to him as his parents would have certainly been aware, if not involved in that solemn assembly that morphed into a battle.
At that time, the Ark had been gone from the Tabernacle for 20 years and all Israel mourned over that fact and sought after the Lord. God refused to respond to the pursuit of Him, to the national unity, or to the grief over the national situation.
Finally Samuel called the people together and told them to add a little repentance to all the rest they were doing and to divest themselves of their idols. They did. God accepted their repentance though He had refused to accept their religion without repentance. The Philistines got upset and invaded, and God shattered them at that time.
The balance of power shifted as the Philistines gave back to Israel some cities they had dominated for a long time, and Israel was the primary military force in the region for a season.
By the time Saul was selected by God to anchor the monarchy season of Israel’s history, that victory had long begun to slip. The Philistines were ascendant and the Israelites were definitely being exploited by them in Saul’s day.
This suggests that the holiness of Israel may have begun to slip as well.
In that milieu, what about Saul? There are two things that shout. The first is hard data. He did not know the prophet Samuel personally. The servant had to tell Saul where he lived and what he did. But Saul had enough knowledge of protocol to know that when you saw a seer, you needed to leave an offering.
That clearly says that he was not religiously active. While there was a low-level of religious activity going on in towns around him, he was quite outside that circle.
Second, we have an argument from silence. It stands as a remarkable reality that Saul is never associated with idolatry. While this was the nemesis of Israel, and her kings were not exempted from frequent forays into forbidden territory, Saul seemed to be utterly immune to that temptation.
In fact, his loyalty to God was so high that he made it a central part of his reign to drive the witches and mediums out of the nation or underground.
When he was at the end of his life and desperately needed a spiritual connection, he crossed the line and went to see a medium, but even then, he did not solicit any foreign god — only Samuel, his lifeline to the God of Israel.
Isn’t that a fascinating picture? When laying the foundation for the monarchy, God deliberately selected a non-religious man, yet one who had a passion for the centrality of the God of Israel.
If Samuel made the rounds of his three towns with some degree of regularity, then there had to be a significant number of people who were religiously active. It is obvious that in his home town there were a significant number of religiously practicing Israelites.
Yet God passed all of them by and selected a non-religious man as the very best choice for the grand new chapter in Israel’s history.
Copyright July 2011 by Arthur Burk
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