David is a compelling character. David’s slaying Goliath is among a child’s earliest engagements with Scripture. Other David stories fascinate us as adults: Jonathan’s loyalty to David, or the king’s murderous lust for Bathsheba.
Lost in all this is Saul. Not the Saul who became Saint Paul, but rather he who was king of Israel before David; who disobeyed God’s command; who took the handsome young shepherd David into his service; and who was punished by God with madness and murder. Consider whether, in our sin and alienation, we are more like Saul than the more social-media-ready David.
If the Bible were crime fiction, David entering Saul’s court would be a more kingly version of John D. MacDonald’s private eye Travis McGee. McGee is often invited into the client’s inner sanctum, only to be disinvited when he brings the truth. McGee brings the word, the gumshoe-logos, whether the client (or anyone else) cares for it or not. He is flawed, but he represents righteousness (or at least a shade of it in a fallen landscape).
Saul is like the client who doesn’t want to hear McGee. Saul is in the tradition of kings and dictators whose power has left them or is threatened. They turn paranoid, murderous, and destructive of self, crown, and kingdom: think of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, or Julius Caesar, who fears the photogenic Cassius as much as Saul fears David. According to Johnny Cash, “the Man comes around” (from American IV ). The Man comes around for Saul; he comes around for us, too, because we are more like Saul than we wish to admit.
Why has God “torn the kingdom of Israel from [Saul] and given it to a neighbor?” Why has “a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him”? The Amalekites were a nomadic, plundering tribe that had harmed Israel. God tells Saul (1 Sam. 15) to “go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and enfant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Saul kills everything that moves—except he “spares” Agag the Amalekite king. Plus, Saul and the people keep the best sheep, oxen, and fatted calves. These they would sacrifice, but there would also be some good barbeque to be had. Maybe Agag had political value.
Because Saul spares the king and seizes the spare-ribs, God condemns Saul. But which one of us, given such a horrific charge by God, would not have taken a little off the top? Especially when we followed the command to 98.5 percent of the divine letter.
Who among us would not self-justify a small commission, a political gain, a moment of rest, or a reward for wading hip deep in blood, entrails, and dust? We make such accommodations daily—at least, I do—in matters of God’s law that carry much less freight than the annihilation of ancient nomads.
Yet, David supplants Saul because God’s law is just in all its particulars. The small transgression is punished along with the great. God’s law is fully just, and impossible to fully satisfy.
We prefer to see ourselves as David, of whose house and lineage was Jesus. In truth, we are more akin to Saul. We avoid his fate only because the Cross rises up; the Savior’s blood runs down; and our fatal accommodations are swept away in the tide we call grace.
Jack Sharman is an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, and a Vestry & Chapter member of the Cathedral Church of the Advent.