Saul was to become the first king of Israel, partial because of the period that he grew up in. He was the son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, a powerful and wealthy chief but from a family of small importance. The circumstances of Saul’s birth are not given. However, it was the period when the Israelites were under the rule of the judges since Joshua; these were men raised up by God to meet emergencies that arose through defection and idolatry by the people. «In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes» (Judges 21:25).
The corrupt administration of Samuel’s sons furnished the Hebrews an occasion to reject theocracy (1 Samuel 8). Besides the corruption there were other circumstances that prompted the people’s demand for a king: these were the invasion of the Ammonites and a love for something new. Samuel, being instructed by God, permitted their desire but warned them of the evils that would follow. The people still persisted in their demand, and Saul was introduced into history. His monarchy experienced two stages: the establishment and vigorous development (1 Samuel 8-15), and its decline and overthrow (1 Samuel 16-31).
The meeting of Samuel and Saul occurred after the elders of Israel had negotiated with Samuel concerning the appointment of a king. Saul was on a mission from his father to find some strayed asses. Saul, with his servant, had searched through the mountains of Ephraim, the though the land of Benjamin. When arriving at Zuph, Saul decided they should return home because his father by now would be worried about them. But the servant suggested they should consult a man of God in a nearby city, and from him be instructed as to what they should do. Samuel, being forewarned by God of Saul’s coming, met him at the city’s gate and told him that he was the one he looked for. Samuel then invited Saul to a feast while assuring him the asses for which he searched were found. Samuel further awakened expectation in Saul by asking, «And on whom is the desire of all Israel? Is it not on thee and on all thy father’s house?» (1 Samuel 9:20).
Early the next day they arose. After the servant left, being sent on before, «Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it upon Saul’s head (anointing him), and kissed him, and said, ‘Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?'» (1 Samuel 9:27; 10:1). To confirm this consecration Samuel gave Saul three signs: First, two men at the tomb of Rachel should meet him, and tell him of the finding of the asses and the anxiety of Saul’s father for him; second, three men should be met in the plain of Tabor, going with sacrifices to Bethel, and they should give Saul two loaves of their offering; third, at Gibeah he should meet a company of prophets, and he himself should prophesy (1 Samuel 10:2-13).
This mysterious interview with Samuel did not seem to suffice for the full acknowledgement of Saul becoming king. Therefore, Samuel called a national assembly at Mizpeh, and there instructed the tribes to choose a king by lot. The result of the lot was regarded as a divine decision, Saul was accredited by this act in the sight of the entire nation as the king appointed by the Lord, and he himself more fully assured of the certainty of his own election on the part of God. It did no good for Saul to hide, for he was found, and brought before the people, and introduced to them by Samuel, and received by them with the cry, «God save the king!» Saul returned to his home in Gibeah followed by a band of men who were not moved by God. He already began tasting the bitterness of royalty when hearing some say, «How shall this man save us?» (1 Samuel 10:13-27).
Saul first conquered the Ammonites after hearing of their king, Nahash, laying siege to Jabesh in Gilead. The king only agreed to spare the inhabitants on the condition that they put out their right eyes. They asked for seven in which they could seek help from their brethren. They dispatched messengers to Gibeah, probably unaware of Saul’s election as king, who stated their case to the people. After returning from the field, Saul heard their grave news, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. Deeply angered, he hewed in pieces a yoke of oxen and sent them throughout all of Israel, calling the people to rally around him in defense of their countrymen. This call was answered when three hundred thousand stood together at Bezek. On the following day Saul arranged the army into three divisions, who forced their way into the enemy’s camp from three different sides, and routed then completely (1 Samuel 11:1-11).
After this victory Saul gained the people overwhelming enthusiasm, so much that they demanded death for anyone speaking against him, their king. Saul refused to grant their request, saying, «There shall not a man be put to death this day: for today the Lord hath wrought salvation in Israel.» Then Samuel called the people to Gilgal, where the election of Saul was confirmed (1 Samuel 10:12-15), which signaled the renewal of the monarchy.
In the second year of his reign Saul worked systematically to free Israel from their enemies. He gathered three thousand select men (the beginning of a standing army), two thousand being with him, and one thousand with Jonathan. Jonathan had smote the garrison of Philistines at Geba, which was the signal for war; Saul summoned the people to assemble in Gilgal. The Philistines possessed a great army consisting of thirty thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and foot soldiers as the sand by the seashore, which was encamped at Michmash. Saul was to wait for Samuel’s coming, he had waited seven days and the prophet had not come, the people began to disperse and leave. Saul, then, decided that he would offer the sacrifices himself without the presence of Samuel. Scarcely was the ceremony over when Samuel arrived and asked Saul what he had done. Saul answered that he was in danger, and wanted to secure the favor of heaven; but the prophet rebuked him, saying his kingdom was not to continue onto his descendants (1 Samuel 13:1-14).
Saul soon recognized his transgression. He had not even achieved the objective of his unreasonable sacrifice, which was to prevent the dispersion of the people. For when he mustered the people still with him, he discovered most had deserted him because there was only six hundred men (1 Samuel 13:15). The Philistines overran the country, and the Israelites could not offer a successful resistance, for the Philistines possessed the secret of smelted iron, and «there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears» (1 Samuel 13:19).
It was Jonathan, with a few faithful followers, who assaulted the Philistine garrison at Michmash, which caused panic in the camp, so they killed one another. Hearing of the situation Saul called for the ark and the high priests with whom he consulted for guidance. As the turbulence in the Philistine camp increased Saul drove them away as far as Aijalon. But, then by a rash denunciation Saul impeded his own success (1 Samuel 14:30), involved the people in a violation of the law (1 Samuel 14:32, 33), and unless prevented by the people, would have put Jonathan to death for tasting innocently of the food. Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines (1 Samuel 14:1-46)
With this triumphant victory over the Philistine Saul first really gained regal authority over the Israelites. Afterwards he was victorious over Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, the Philistines again, and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:47, 48). Also is mentioned is his family and his commander-in-chief, Abner (1 Samuel 14:49, 50).
Samuel, by divine commission, commanded Saul, as the king anointed by Jehovah through him, to destroy Amalek. He was to smite and ban everything belonging to it, man and beast (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul mustered two hundred ten thousand men. «And he smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur that is over against Egypt.» But he disobeyed the divine injunction by taking Agag, the king, alive, and sparing all the best cattle and all that was valuable, destroying only that which was vile and refuse. Instead of pursuing the campaign and completing the destruction of the fugitives, Saul returned to Gilgal. Samuel, informed by God of the king’s disobedience, went to Saul, who informed him that he had carried out the divine command; but the bleating of sheep and the lowing of the oxen revealed his crime. Saul pleaded that the people wished to offer sacrifice to the Lord in Gilgal. Samuel then reminded the king of the low estate from which God had brought him, of the superiority of obedience to sacrifice, and, although Saul acknowledged his sin, reiterated the sentence of rejection. When turning to leave, Saul seized the prophet’s mantel with such despairing energy that it was rent; whereupon Samuel told Saul that his action made no difference because Jehovah had already rent his kingdom from him and given it unto another. Samuel then sent for Agag and hewed him in pieces before the Lord, and left Saul never to see him again (1 Samuel 15:15).
The irremediable consequences which this rift between Samuel and Saul were not immediately seen in the king’s attitude but they soon began appearing; the consequences were thought to have arisen because of God’s rejection which Samuel foretold. An attitudinal change took place, «The Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.» When sensing this, his attendants advised the king to have the spirit charmed by music. Upon Saul consent, they advised that David, a shepherd working for his father should be sent for. David came and played upon the harp. «So Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him» (1 Samuel 16:14-23).
Next came David’s overthrow of the Philistine giant Goliath, and when this feat was brought to Saul’s attention, it won for David the love of Jonathan, Saul’s son. David continued fighting with Saul’s army, his wisdom in battle that led to the Philistine conquest won for him the admiration of the soldiers and the Israelite women. This aroused the jealousy and rage of Saul, who began to plan a series of murderous attempts against David, who he seemed to consider a rival. Saul twice tried assassinating David by his own hand (1 Samuel 18:10, 11; 19:10); he sent him on dangerous military missions (1 Samuel 18:13-17); he promised in marriage Michal, his daughter, to David, hoping that the dowry of one hundred foreskins of Philistines demanded would endanger the latter’s life (1 Samuel 19:22-27). Saul seemed obsessed; he was willing to make any sacrifice in order to affect his purpose against David. His plans against David, even those under the guise of partisanship, failed. David finally became a fugitive and outlaw to escape Saul. Saul still gave Michal to another in marriage (1 Samuel 23:44), although David, while a renegade, had Saul in his sight but spared his life. The King knowing this acknowledged his fault to David, when they met, by saying, «Blessed be thou, my son, David: thou shalt do great things, and also shalt still prevail.» Saul trailed David no more (1 Samuel 26).
Following this there was another Philistine invasion of Israel which drove Saul into deep despair. Saul felt utterly helpless. He, therefore, went against Jewish religious laws, laws which he himself reinforced when he «put away those that had familiar spirits; and the wizards, out of the land» (1 Samuel 28:3). He resorted to an evil means of inquiring into the future, for Samuel was dead, and he received no oracle from God. Being desperate and infatuated Saul commanded his servants (1 Samuel 28:7) to find a woman with a familiar spirit. They directed him to the woman of En-dor. After being assured by Saul that no harm would come to her, she asked, «Whom shall I bring up unto thee?» He answered, «Bring me up Samuel.» The woman began her conjuring arts (see Necromancy), and «when she saw Samuel, she cried aloud, ‘Why hast thou deceived me? for you are Saul.'» Then the king quieted her fears and inquired what she had seen. From her answer he immediately recognized Samuel. Saul then communicates with Samuel himself. Saul describes his depression because of the Philistine invasion. Samuel then tells him that Jehovah had torn the kingdom out of his hands and given it to David, because he had disobeyed him in sparing the Amalekites. He foretold his defeat by the Philistines, and added that on the next day Saul with his sons would be among the dead. At hearing this Saul fell prostrate on the ground, faint with terror and exhaustion, for he had fasted all the day and night. With urging from the woman and his servants he partook of food and returned to his camp (1 Samuel 28:7-25).
Both armies arrayed each other and were soon engaged in battle on the plain of Jezreel (1 Samuel 29:1); but the Israelites, forced to yield, fled into the mountains of Gilboa where they were pursued and slain (1 Samuel 31:1). The most earnest pursuit was after Saul and those traveling with him. His three sons, Jonathan, Abindab, and Melchi-shua, were slain, and Saul was mortally wounded. He begged his armor-barrier to slay him; that he might not die at the hands of the uncircumcised. On the barrier’s refusal, Saul fell on his own sword and died.
On the following day as the Philistines stripped the dead they found Saul and his three sons. They cut off their heads and hands for trophies and sent them to their own land. Their bodies were fastened to the wall of Beth-sham; but later men from Jabesh-gilead removed the bodies, burned them, and buried under a tree in Jabesh. The news of Saul’s death reached David at Ziklag, who deeply grieved, and killed the Amalekite who claimed he had slain the king (2 Samuel 1). Besides the children already mentioned, Saul left another son, Ish-bosheth, who was shortly after proclaimed king by Abner, and two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth, by his concubine Rizpah. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 973-976
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 863-864