By Scott Nelson – Lead Pastor
Why David Not Saul? Part 1: The Bible’s Complicated Characters
Our church has started a new devotional on the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. To prepare for the writing of this devotional, I read through an entire commentary as well as scholarly articles on these books, characters, and themes. I also devoted a lot of time to prayer. We don’t interpret the Bible as much as the Bible interprets us, and these books—with their complex characters and interwoven themes—invite a variety of different interpretations.
One of the biggest questions that has been asked for centuries is, “Why did God accept David and reject Saul?” At first the answer seems straightforward: David is a man after God’s heart (1 Sam 13:14), and Saul rejected the word of the Lord (15:26). But David seems to make much worse mistakes than Saul. King Saul disobeyed the Lord, consulted a medium, and tried to kill David. But David committed adultery, ordered one of his closest friends to be killed in war, and refused to punish a rapist. The question returns, why did the Lord make an eternal covenant with David (2 Sam 7) and not Saul? For the next two weeks I will be looking at this question, starting first with the Bible’s answer then moving to the answers given by modern scholarship. My goal is for us to gain insights into the Bible and how we read the Bible—as well as how the Bible interprets our own lives.
The story in 1-2 Samuel does not give a single-sentence answer to our question. Rather, like a good story, it allows the characters and their choices to gradually drive home the point. Saul was tall and handsome but terribly insecure. When he gained power, this insecurity turned into fear, people-pleasing, and jealousy. He disobeyed the Lord because he worried about people thinking less of him and leaving him. Looking through the text, he disobeyed multiple times (13:9-13; 15:3-24; 19:10; 20:33; 28:3-7). He was aware of his sin (15:24; 24:16-21; 26:21), but he refused to return to the Lord or change his choices. He was commanded to defeat the Philistines (9:16) but used his military strength for his own personal and jealous vendetta against David. This left his nation open to attack (23:1; 28:1), and one of these attacks cost Saul his life. The book of 1 Samuel paints a picture of Saul who is insecure and did not fully trust in the Lord. Saul rejected the way of the Lord. He made poor choices, blamed others, and walked away from the Lord.
David was far from perfect, and even when David is noble and heroic there is often a trace of selfishness present. For example, before he goes out to fight Goliath, David asked what would be given (as a reward) to the one who won the battle (v.26). He asked this more than once (v.30). His brother accused him (unfairly I think) of pride and deceit (v.28). David was a youngest son but not lacking in ambition. Yet we see in this story a man who almost recklessly trusts in the Lord and fights for the honor of His Name. He takes the field with no armor or sword, willing to lay down his life for God. This is more than ambition or selfishness—this is bold faith. The books of 1-2 Samuel do not paint David as a perfect character, but they show that his faith was larger than his failures. The Bible is very candid about David’s many sins—which to our view seem bigger than any of Saul’s sins. But David was always willing to repent and return to the Lord. He accepted the consequences of his actions rather than fight against God. While we are looking for perfect heroes, the Bible presents us an example of a normal person of faith—full of mixed motives and mistakes—who sets an example in his willingness to admit he was wrong, repent, and return to the Lord. David was a complicated character, and so are we. God accepted David with his faith and failures, and that can give us comfort and security.
Readers long for David to be perfect, but he isn’t. The Lord is the perfect (and often overlooked) character in the book. His faithful love for David is an example of what the Lord can do if a person is willing to admit their own imperfection. David was accepted because he fully trusted the Lord, even when he made huge mistakes. God’s word speaks today, warning us not to repeat the mistakes of Saul (or David). We cannot look to any human for a perfect example—even in the Bible (except Jesus). Only Jesus (the perfect Son of David and Son of God) is perfect and will never let us down. When we make mistakes, we can choose to follow the example of David, admit our faults, and trust in the mercy of our loving Savior.