David or Saul?

Read 1 Samuel chapter 15 to start.

There are two well-known individuals that we are going to look at this morning. From what we read, you can probably guess the first one, which is of course King Saul. The second, and we’ll read his account a bit later, is David. We know David a lot better than we know Saul.

We often think of David in relation to someone else. David and Goliath is of course the obvious example. David and Jonathan, that’s another, and sadly, there’s David and Bathsheba, but we’ll get to that a bit later on.

David and Saul, we don’t think of them as a natural pairing, but as the first and second kings of the united kingdom of Israel, they have more in common than you might realize. The accounts we have these men two are intertwined, because David was a loyal retainer of Saul’s, until Saul’s paranoia reached the point where he feared David’s popularity and success, and he made multiple attempts to kill David. A number of chapters of the book of 1 Samuel describe the years that David spent on the run from Saul and all the damage and suffering that came as a result of that.

David and Saul were alike in many things. Both men were kings of Israel, both men rose from complete obscurity and as unlikely choices for such a loft position. Both men saw great successes, and both saw dreadful failures. Both were faced with hard choices, and both made mistakes. Their end results, however, were very different. Saul died on the battlefield, defeated by his enemies, killed either by a passing Amalekite or on his own sword, depending on whose account is more trustworthy, and he left a divided and scattered kingdom, with a weak and incompetent heir who lasted only two years. David died in old age, his kingdom strong and united, his rule passed along to a wise and trusted son who ruled for the next four decades.

The key difference that I would like to direct your attention to this morning, though, is how they dealt with failure. That is something which is relevant to us all, because try as we might, we all fail from time to time. How we deal with it, how we respond to it, makes all the difference.

Before I talk about Saul, David, and failure, however, I want to talk about my car. Well, van actually. I drive a minivan. It’s a nice van, it’s shiny and black and it’s not unpleasant to drive, which is something I had been afraid of before I ever owned a van. This one is comfortable and powerful, but it’s not hard on gas or particularly expensive to operate or maintain. I try to take pretty good care of the van, the plan is that it will last us a number of years, so I keep the oil changed and that sort of thing. One thing, though, is that I don’t wash it all that often, might hose it down from time to time, and a couple of times I think I’ve taken it through the car wash. Having a clean vehicle is not really a top concern for me. But having on that isn’t damaged, or dented, or scratched, that is a bigger concern.

When my children decided to wash the van, that was not a big deal, until I found out what soap they had used. Not a car soap, because of course we didn’t have that. Not a bar of Ivory or a bottle of Palmolive something for laundry. Nope, they went with powdered dish washer detergent. You know, the nice abrasive stuff.

Looking out at everyone, I’m getting a couple of different reactions to that. Some people are amused, some people are either saying “So what” and some folks are grimacing. For those who don’t know, you should never wash a car with something scratchy or abrasive, it will degrade the finish, possibly making it look dull or it may leave lots of marks and scratches. I asked the kids, rather angrily, I must admit, what on earth they were thinking with the dish detergent, and the idea was that it would do a good job getting tough dirt off the van. Thankfully, the paint on the van was undamaged, we hosed it down thoroughly and it did not appear to be any worse for wear. I explained to them that they need to ask before doing anything like that again, and if they had not been given instructions on how to do something, that the thing to do is to ask how before just going ahead and trying something their own way.

This was all well and good until a couple of weeks ago they decided it was a good idea to clean the van again. This time they used a spray bottle filled with double-strength cleaning vinegar. And no, they didn’t ask first.

You might be wondering what this has to do with the passage that we read. After all, Saul was not asked to go and clean a vehicle. But he was given a job to do. He was given specific instructions as to how to carry that out. And he didn’t follow them. He instead followed his own ideas. He used his own judgement.

The mission Saul had been assigned was not an easy or a pleasant one. In fact, it was a downright horrible task, one with no redeeming benefits. The Israelites were to exterminate the Amalekites, and leave no one alive. They were to take no plunder or spoil, they were not going to profit in this venture. This was a mission of divine retribution.

Before you start feeling too much sympathy for the Amalekites, keep in mind that they were not a nice group of people. They were not a particularly strong or numerous nation, but they were vicious and opportunistic. They had plagued the Israelites during their time in the wilderness, preying upon the most vulnerable. They had seen opportunities to attack the people of Israel during the days of the Judges, and had done so more than once, generally in confederacy with some stronger foreign nation. They continued to send out groups of raiders, we can see that in several instances in scripture. In the passage we read, at verse 33 Samuel describes the king of Amalek as having murdered children.  They had long been an irritant, a menace, and a scourge, and God had given instruction through Moses, as we have recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 25, as well as in Exodus chapter 17, that at some future date when Israel was established in the land to blot out all remembrance of Amalek from under the sun. That time had come, Saul was appointed to do this, but he messed it up.

Saul had started out so well. He gathered an overwhelming force, two hundred and ten thousand men, he ensured that innocent third parties would not be caught in the fighting, and he overran the enemy. Mission accomplished. Only not, because he didn’t finish the job. He left the best of the livestock, and he kept the king alive. Saul later claimed that the livestock were kept to offer as a sacrifice, and that may have been true, but it could just as easily have been a convenient excuse for not fulfilling his duty. Saul had no hesitation in using excuses, we read that he blamed “the people” for keeping the livestock. As for keeping the king alive, there were no excuses offered for this. His motivation may have been to display Agag as a trophy, a symbol of Saul’s conquering might. Or he might have taken pity on a defeated foe, as a professional courtesy, so to speak, king to king. In any case, Agag was left conspicuously alive, as were the sheep and oxen that Samuel overheard in verse 14.

Saul was not so thorough as he claimed, either. We see the Amalekites show up later in the book of 1 Samuel, a raiding party of them burned the city of Ziklag, where David had been living, for example. And in 2 Samuel we read of how David fought several battles against Amalekites. It’s not until the time of King Hezekiah, some 300 years later, that we read of the last remnants of Amalek being defeated. And of course there’s Haman the Agagite, enemy of the Jews in the book of Esther, whose precise heritage we do not know, but his family name suggests strongly that he was a descendant of an Amalekite king.  

Both from the chapter we read and from the further evidence I just mentioned, it is clear that Saul was given a task, and he failed in it. For this, he was rejected from being king. God says at verse 11 that it repented Him that He set up Saul to be king. When the creator of the universe considers you a regret, that is harsh condemnation indeed.

I’m going to let that sink in for a few minutes, and ask you to turn to the book of 2 Samuel. We’ve been talking about Saul for a while now, but as I mentioned, this sermon is about both Saul and David. Saul made mistakes, so did David. Let’s read about one of David’s failures now. Please turn to the book of 2 Samuel, chapter 12.

1 And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. 2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: 3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. 4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him. 5 And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: 6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. 7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; 8 And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things. 9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

The previous chapter gives us the entire account of what transpired, time fails me to read that all now, but if you want all the sordid details you can read it yourself later. The quick summary is that David saw a woman, Bathsheba was her name, he admired her beauty, and wanted her for himself. However, she was already married, married in fact to one of David’s soldiers, one of best soldiers, one of his mighty men, as listed in 2 Samuel chapter 23. But that did not stop David, he took Bathsheba anyway, and to cover up the resulting pregnancy he conspired to have Uriah, a loyal and capable man, killed in battle. David spun a web of adultery, deceit, and murder. The previous chapter closes with the words “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.” Of course it did. God is not pleased when we transgress His laws, and David had transgressed a bunch of them.

The story the prophet Nathan tells David is one of the most piercing and devastating parables in all of scripture. The idea of a wealthy man taking his poor neighbour’s precious lamb offends our sense of right and wrong, we demand to see justice done. One can only imagine how David’s face fell when Nathan proclaimed “Thou are the man.” David went from feeling righteous anger at a fictional wrong to experiencing deep shame and remorse for what he himself had done. God had been gracious unto him, had given David the kingdom, had given him all he should ever need, but David wanted more. He wanted something he could not have, and he completely disregarded and dismissed God’s laws and took it anyway.

There were consequences to David’s actions. The next verses tell of how David would be shamed, how his family would be plagued by violence and betrayal. There were immediate consequences as well, we can read from verse 13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. 14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. 15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. 16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. 17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. 18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died.

We’ll end our reading there for now. David’s sin and the consequences of it extended far beyond himself. The child born of his sin perished, and that was a direct result of David’s actions. Uriah died needlessly, and an unknown number of other soldiers no doubt died along with him, in what we would now call collateral damage. David’s general Joab, himself a capable and loyal soldier, was made complicit in this as well. We know that the rebellion of Absalom some years later happened as was foretold by the prophet’s warning. David’s sin had a great and lasting impact that reached far and wide.

David, however, was not removed from being king, and his line was allowed to continue. David is held in high regard, and the promised Messiah was born from his lineage. This is quite different from what happened with Saul. Why should this be? At first glance, it does not seem fair or just. You could argue that it looks like God was playing favourites, and Saul got the short end of the stick.

If anything, David’s sin was far greater than Saul’s. Saul was attempting to obey the Lord’s instructions, but fell short. David was actively disobeying God’s laws. From a human perspective, we would say that Saul had given it a good try, but didn’t really measure up. If Saul was a student in elementary school his report card, at least for that chapter, would probably have a mark of D or maybe C minus, with the comment of “Work needs improvement. Some tasks left unfinished.”

David on the other hand, he gets a big old F. We look at his actions and it’s easy to say that he messed up royally. He sinned, and he created opportunity for those opposed to God to mock and blaspheme. You can hear them now: There’s the man God put in place as king, he’s no better than anyone else, in fact he’s a lot worse. God sure knows how to pick ‘em.

There were no mitigating circumstances for David’s sin, no excuses offered, or even possible. He failed. Full stop. At verse 13, he freely acknowledged that, he says “I have sinned against the Lord.” David knew that he had done grievous wrong, and he admitted to it.

David was not flippant or dismissive of his sin, and he did not shrug off the consequences. The child, which Nathan told him was going to die, David prayed earnestly for the life of that innocent baby, but he died anyway. Sometimes our prayers are to no avail. God still hears, of course, but He may not answer in the way we would want. In particular, when we have sinned, we should not expect to be able to somehow pray away the consequences.

That’s where we see the difference between Saul and David. The one, he failed while attempting to obey. The other, he sinned wilfully and on purpose. But Saul, when confronted by Samuel, has no idea that he has come short. At verse 13 which we read to start, Saul says “I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” And even after Samuel points out that no, he has not done so, Saul says at verse 20 “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me…” He continued to blame the people with him, they were the ones who wanted to take the spoil, and he says he feared the people. That’s right, Saul, the king, claimed that he feared the people. That’s a backwards scenario if I ever heard one. It is only when Samuel has laid out the seriousness of the disobedience, and that God has rejected Saul from being king, only then did Saul agree that he has sinned. He still made excuses though, still tried to minimize and explain away his sin. He asked Samuel repeatedly to pray for him, and when it was all over, he went back home, and went about his business of being king. He accepted his fate, or he did not believe it, or he did not care. He did not see Samuel again, even though Samuel mourned for him afterwards.

David, on the other hand, made no bones about his sinfulness. Once confronted, he repented. There is the difference. He prayed earnestly, seeking to return to God’s favour. He wrote Psalm 51 not long afterwards.

We won’t read the entire Psalm, but look at the first few verses. 1 Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

David did not pretend that he had done nothing wrong. He knew that he had sinned, and he wanted not to ignore it, not to sweep it under the rug, but to deal with it. He sought God’s mercy, he sought forgiveness, and he sought restoration. He recognized the contamination which sin inevitably brings, and he wished to be washed from his wrongdoings. Instead of going about his business, he wanted to, if not make things right, at least make things better.

We all sin. That is unfortunate, but it is true. Young or old, male or female, parent or child, all of us do wrong from time to time, and probably a lot more often than we would like. Whether we fall short while we are trying to do the right thing, perhaps by not following instructions, or not paying good enough attention to the instructions we have been given, or if we purposefully go off the path, we all sin.

How we respond when we have sinned, though, that is what really matters. Are we like David, who admitted to his failings and earnestly sought redemption and restoration? Or are we like Saul, full of excuses and explanations and mitigating circumstances? We may admire David, but do our actions resemble his? I fear that all too often we look more like Saul. I see that in the world around, all manner of people do terrible things, but because of a rough childhood or a bad relationship or a mental illness or some other reason, well, it’s understandable why it happened. I see it in my children, it is common for one of them to make a mistake, and it is likewise common for them to excuse their behaviour or deflect to someone else or thing else. I see it in myself, as much as I would like to serve the Lord to the best of my abilities, I still frequently do wrong and try to excuse it.

Saul tried things his own way, and he made excuses when they went wrong. David, in the two accounts we read, we saw that he did far worse things than Saul, but he repented. He did not turn away from God, he turned to Him. Saul, as we read earlier, from the time Samuel told him that God had rejected him from being king, he never once saw the prophet again. Saul did not seek after God, he did not seek to change his ways. If we looked at the rest of Saul’s life, and it is a fascinating account that I would recommend you read for yourself, we would see a tragic figure who could have done so well had he only sought his creator. Saul in his later years descended into paranoia and violent madness, drawing farther and farther away from his maker.

Saul used the excuse that the people wanted to bring the animals for sacrifice, but God is far more concerned with obedience than with offerings. As we read earlier, to obey is better than sacrifice. Looking further down Psalm 51, we read at verse 16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

David’s sin was greater, but his repentance was real. His heart was broken and contrite. Saul’s was not. If you only remember one thing I say this morning, remember this: God is greater than your sin, and His forgiveness is wider than you can imagine. Don’t pretend that you are okay, that your sins are nothing to worry about. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, both great and small. Don’t let his forgiveness pass you by.