As we saw last week, Saul was a fearful man. He was afraid of his enemies. He was afraid of his friends. He was even afraid of being king. Sadly, the one fear he lacked was a fear of God.
When we left Saul, he was in bad shape. His fears had led him to disobey God. As a result, God had rejected him as king over Israel. Now let’s pick up the story in 1 Samuel 16. When Samuel goes to anoint David as Saul’s successor, we’re told at “the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.” At the same time, “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” As far as heaven was concerned, David was king and Saul was not. However, it would take years for this truth to work itself out on Earth. In the meantime, Saul manages to go from bad to worse. Reading the next few chapters, I tried to feel sorry for the guy, but what I really wanted was to whap him upside the head!
The next major event occurred at yet another fight with the Philistines. We all know the story. The Philistines have a weapon of mass destruction: Goliath. Saul and the rest of the Israelites are once again “dismayed and terrified.” David arrives, is disgusted with the 40 day old stalemate, and goes out and beans Goliath, knocking him out so he could lose his head. Yay, David.
Did David have any special skills? Yes, he explains that he’s killed lions and bears, and he later goes on to practically annihilate any Philistines he comes across. But the most important weapon David carries is faith. He is on the good side of God, and that gives him the courage to depend on God’s faithfulness in the battle. Saul lacked this weapon because he knew God was against him.
Now Saul’s fear has led to military weakness. What happens next?
As David becomes more and more successful, Saul gets more and more upset. Not only is he jealous, but now he begins to fear that he’ll lose his kingship—the kingship God has already given to David.
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul. … David led the troops in their campaigns. … When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him. (1 Samuel 18:12)
This new fear—the fear of being usurped by David—leads him to attempt murder. David finds himself repeatedly dodging the spear that Saul seems to always have in hand. (How many kings carry a spear in their own castles?) Using a strategy that David would later imitate in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah, Saul sends him out to battle, hoping that the Philistines will do his dirty work for him. In David’s case, this doesn’t work. (Uriah wasn’t so lucky.) Instead, his fame builds, exacerbating the issue, while Saul stays home. Has Saul now become afraid of war?
Time passes. Saul’s fear becomes full-blown paranoia:
[Saul] said to them, “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds? Is that why you have all conspired against me? No one tells me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is concerned about me or tells me that my son has incited my servant to lie in wait for me, as he does today.” (1 Samuel 22:7-8)
Of course, none of this was true. No one was conspiring against the king. Jonathan didn’t incite David to lie in wait for Saul. And it goes on…
Saul said to [the priest Ahimelek], “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, giving him bread and a sword and inquiring of God for him, so that he has rebelled against me and lies in wait for me, as he does today?” (1 Samuel 22:13)
Ahimelek is confused. All he had done was provide David—Saul’s son-in-law, captain of his bodyguard, loyal and respected in Saul’s household—with food and a sword. But Saul is so irrational at this point that he slaughters not only Ahimelek but the entire town of Nob, where the priests lived with their families. Now his fear has led him to become a mass murderer.
1 Samuel 22 through 27 is full of story after story of Saul pursuing David. Finally, we come to Chapter 28 where once again Saul faces a much larger Philistine army. We can predict his reaction: “When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.”
Once again, Saul is desperate and afraid. When God doesn’t answer his prayers, he turns to a medium, an abomination in God’s sight. She “calls up Samuel” (probably a demon), who asks,
“Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel’s words.
Giving in to his fears hasn’t helped Saul at all. In fact, the more he listens to, and acts upon, his fears, the more afraid he becomes. Even at the end of his life, he is fearful that the Philistines will torture him as he dies, so he kills himself:
Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. … The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. (1 Samuel 31:1-6)
What did Saul’s fear gain for him? Willful disobedience to God. Murderous pursuit of the best man in his kingdom. Fear of his calling to lead his people, then fear of losing it. Fear of others, both friends and enemies. Paranoia. Evil. Suicide.
The opposite of fear is faith. May we always have confidence in God, who is for us.