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Lessons from the Old Testament

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The Corruption of Saul

by Aneel Aranha

Over the past three years I have come across many people in ministry who appear to have lost their way completely (and going by the actions of some of them, their minds too!). I found myself wondering how men who were apparently so blessed when they began working for God could lose the special anointing they seemed to have and end up worse than "ordinary" people. Scripture has answers to all questions, and the first book of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 8-31) provided many. These are answers that we can all learn from, not just those of us in ministry, and we'd be wise to apply them to our lives.

At the time of Samuel, Israel had been ruled by judges for over 200 years. The people had seemed fairly content with their rule, but when the prophet Samuel's sons—whom he had appointed as judges—turned out to be corrupt, the people began clamoring for a king. Despite warning them of the dangers of being ruled by a king the people persisted in their demands until God finally gave in and told Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel.

Saul was a young man who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. Described as being without equal among the Israelites, he was an impressive man, standing a head taller than any of the others. Though he was a reluctant ascendant to the throne, it wasn't long before he settled into his new avatar and took to doing what kings were supposed to do—going to war.

God granted Saul a series of spectacular victories and it is here that the seeds for the king's eventual downfall were sown. Instead of being humble and acknowledging God's role in the battles he won, Saul began to think it was all his doing. The adulation he started receiving from the masses only served to feed his rapidly bloating ego and it wasn't long before he sought all the glory, to the exception of nobody else, not even his son, Jonathan.

On one occasion, Jonathan attacked and destroyed a Philistine outpost in Geba, but Saul took credit for the victory, unwilling—or unable—any longer to let someone else get acclaim. He should have let Jonathan take the credit for it, because this little escapade was to cause a great deal trouble. The Philistines, eager to avenge their defeat, put together a massive army and set out towards Israel.

Saul Makes the Sacrifice by J James Tissot Saul knew that there was no way on earth that the Israelites would be able to withstand the attack, but the prophet Samuel told the king not to fear; God would grant him a victory. He, however, needed to wait until Samuel returned and made an offering to God.

Saul waited seven days, the time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come and Saul's men began to scatter. Panicking, as many of us tend to do when faced with difficult choices, the king decided to offer the sacrifice himself. It was a horrible mistake. Not only was this against the express instructions of Samuel, it was against God's laws about sacrifice: only priests were allowed to make sacrificial offerings to God. It is quite probably that, by now, Saul had begun to feel equal to priests, if not greater.

Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel made his entrance and he was horrified at what Saul had done. He told the king he had blown the chance to establish his kingdom over Israel for all time, and God was going to hand it over to somebody else. If there was ever a time for repentance, it was then, but Saul tried justifying himself instead, something else that many of us tend to do when we make mistakes (read: when we sin).

God, however, being the merciful God that he is, decided to give Saul a second chance. He granted the king a limited victory over the Philistines, then a quick succession of victories over his other enemies, but when it came time to do battle with the Amalekites, God tested him again. He told the king that he would give the enemy into his hands, but that he was to destroy them completely, sparing nothing whatsoever from the blade.

Saul attacked the Amalekites and God granted him the victory that he promised, but the king was disobedient again. Rather than destroy everything like he was told to, he decided to keep the best of the sheep and cattle and everything else that was good for himself. When confronted by Samuel, he justified his actions yet again, saying that he had kept the calves and lambs to sacrifice them to God!

But Samuel replied:
"Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD ?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king."
(1 Samuel 15:22-23)

It was all over for Saul. This time he did apologize, but his remorse was the remorse of one who realized that he had made a severe miscalculation and was going to lose everything for his mistake, [see The False Repentance of Esau], not the abject contrition of the truly repentant, and God didn't buy his apology. He called back His Holy Spirit, poured out in those days only on a select few, and that signalled the beginning of the end for the king.

With the Holy Spirit gone, Saul began to be tortured by evil spirits. Realizing that music helped soothe his soul, he asked for somebody who could play the harp be brought to him. This was his introduction to a young man named David, whom God had privately anointed to be the new king of Israel. David proved to be more than a musician, however; he turned out to be a brave warrior too, and in the first public display of his courage he slew the Philistine giant Goliath, who had terrorized the Israelites for six long weeks, with a shepherd's sling.

Impressed with the young man, Saul sent him into battle and David fought so bravely, Saul gave him a high rank in the army. David then regularly began leading the Israelites into war, but any fondness the king might had for David quickly turned to jealousy, when he realized the Israelites had begun to hold David in higher esteem than they did him. The next time David played the harp for him, Saul hurled a spear at him, narrowly missing the lad by inches.

In the days that followed, Saul continued to contrive methods to kill the young man, eventually forcing David to flee the city. The king continued to seek out David to kill him, while simultaneously sinking deeper and deeper into degeneracy, until death finally put an end to the decay. The death wasn't a noble one: after suffering a horrible rout in battle, Saul impaled himself on his own sword.

Pride. Arrogance. Disobedience. Justification. Jealousy. They will destroy us, just as they destroyed the king. And though all of us who believe in Christ are blessed with the Holy Spirit for eternity (Ephesians 1:13), we can put out his fire (1 Thessalonians 5:19) and end up dispirited. And when we do, just like the king, we too will end up tormented by jealousy and anguish—and, sometimes, even turn insane.

May the Spirit always be with you.

Aneel Aranha (February 28, 2007)

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