The Biblical story of Israel’s first King – Saul – contains two instances in which God sent forth a spirit into Saul’s heart. In the first, it was none other than God’s Holy Spirit which filled Saul when he was anointed King. But later on, God withdrew His Spirit from Saul’s heart and sent in His place a murderous evil spirit.
God’s Holy Spirit Comes Upon King Saul
God never intended for Israel to have a king. The LORD himself was to be their king. God instead anointed judges beginning with Moses to manage the administration of the affairs of the nation. The judges administered Israelite affairs for some 400 years from Moses’ calling to lead the people out of Egypt to the anointing of Israel’s first king – Saul (Exodus – 1 Samuel). The history of the time of the judges after Joshua is a tragic one with a repetitive cycle…
- The people fell into rebellion and idolatry.
- The LORD allowed them to suffer defeat and oppression by their enemies.
- The people cried out to the LORD for rescue.
- The LORD raised up a new judge to rescue them.
- The people returned to obedience and devotion to the LORD for a while.
- The cycle repeated.
The judges themselves weren’t all exactly paragons of righteousness either. For example, Samson (Judges 13-16) who was dedicated to the LORD at birth, was nevertheless a man primarily driven by sexual lust, whose main claim to fame was the number of people he killed, and the bizarre and perverse manner in which he took revenge upon his enemies. Eli – Samuel’s predecessor as judge – was so weak in the discipline of his ungodly, abusive sons – Hophni and Phinehas – that God wiped out Eli’s entire family in a single day (1 Samuel 1-4). By the time one finishes reading the book of Judges, the sweet love story of Ruth the Moabitess and her kinsman redeemer – Boaz – is a welcome respite.
The last verse of Judges sums up the problem quite well…
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.Judges 21:25 – NKJV
Samuel judged Israel his entire life following the death of Eli. When he was old, Samuel appointed his sons as his successors, but Samuel’s sons were so unrighteous that the people demanded that Samuel name a king for them. Samuel was unwilling to do so, knowing that the LORD God is Israel’s true King, who reigns over all things and all people. Nevertheless God directed Samuel to grant the people their request for a king (1 Samuel 8).
At first blush this might seem a strange thing for the LORD to do. However, it is a model of His overall plan of salvation. Just as the LORD allowed Israel to appoint a king for themselves although God Himself is their proper sovereign, even so God allows all people to choose to either accept or reject His Gospel of salvation through Jesus death and resurrection, even knowing that some (even most) will reject it and thus be eternally condemned in their sin. Who among us has the forbearance of the LORD to allow our children to wander down the path of their own destruction? How it must grieve His heart!
Stranger still is God’s choice of the man to reign over His chosen people – Saul the son of Kish, a Benjamite. It is clear from 1 Samuel 9-10 that God Himself chose Saul to be Israel’s first king. This is odd for two reasons.
First, Saul was not chosen for his particular leadership acumen or for his prowess in battle, but rather because of his physical appearance.
1There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bechorath, the son of Aphiah, a Benjamite, a mighty man of power. 2And he had a choice and handsome son whose name was Saul. There was not a more handsome person than he among the children of Israel. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.1 Samuel 9:1-2 – NKJV
Given the outcome of Saul’s reign (as we shall see shortly), perhaps God was using Saul as an example of how badly things may go if we choose our leaders based upon their outward appearance rather than their devotion to serving God.
More significantly though, God had ordained hundreds of years before that Israel’s kings were to come from the tribe of Judah – not from Benjamin. Jacob had first pronounced this messianic prophecy in his final blessing of his sons.
9Judah is a lion’s whelp;Genesis 49:9-10 – NKJV
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He bows down, he lies down as a lion;
And as a lion, who shall rouse him?
10The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
Of course, Jesus – Israel’s true King – was also ordained to be descended from the line of Judah – particularly from the house of David. Recall from the Christmas story in Luke 2 that Joseph “…went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.” [Luke 2:4-5 – NKJV]. Later on, King Herod (who – like Saul – was not of the tribe of Judah) inquired of his scribes and priests where the Messiah (Christ) was to be born, they answered with a quotation from the prophet, Micah.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,Micah 5:2 – NKJV
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
Caveat – We need to always keep in mind that Jesus’ human heritage through Joseph (and even through His human mother – Mary), is entirely irrelevant to His own being even in the flesh of a man. Jesus was indeed born in the flesh from the womb of the virgin so that Isaiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled…
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.Isaiah 7:14 – NKJV
But Jesus, even in human flesh was fully God – born without our innate sinful nature so that He could become the spotless Lamb of sacrifice required for the remission of our sins.
But I digress…
Even Saul himself made a point of recalling his own lineage to Samuel on the day before Samuel anointed him king, knowing that Samuel would be well aware of the prophecy that Israel’s kings would come from Judah.
And Saul answered and said, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?”1 Samuel 9:21
So why did God choose a man of Benjamin as Israel’s first king? Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of the division of the kingdom following the reign of Solomon when Jeroboam son of Nebat – an Ephraimite – rebelled against Solomon’s heir – Rehoboam (1 Kings 12-15). Recall that even this rebellion of the ten northern tribes and the subsequent division of the kingdom was also in accordance with the will of God due to Solomon’s idolatry in his later life with the gods of his many foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-13).
But regardless of God’s motivations for choosing Saul as Israel’s first king, the Word of God is clear that God did truly choose and anoint Saul as king, even knowing that He would eventually replace Saul with a descendant of Judah – David. We know that God’s hand of strength was initially with Saul in his reign. God commanded Samuel to anoint Saul as king (1 Samuel 9-10). Furthermore, God poured out His Spirit upon Saul on that day. Immediately after anointing Saul king, Samuel pronounced a prophecy upon him which came about later that day.
5After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. 6Then the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. 7And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. 8You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”1 Samuel 10:5-10 – NKJV
9So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. 10When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.
It seems that this spiritual anointing that Saul received was a pre-incarnation instance of what we in the Christian church call “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The first time this happened among Christians was on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2). The prophet Joel also refers to the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon all flesh in “The Day of the LORD” – a prophecy which remains to be fulfilled at some time in the future.
28“And it shall come to pass afterwardJoel 2:28-29 – NKJV
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
29And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
Clearly God’s Spirit has been part of God’s nature since before the beginning. We know this from the reference in Genesis 1:1 to אֱלֹהִים‘elohiym – the Triune God. We also see God’s Spirit active in the creation of the universe in the next verse.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness wason the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.Genesis 1:2 – NKJV
Saul’s case is not the first we find in the Old Testament of a person upon whom the Spirit of God came. Pharaoh’s servants recognized the indwelling of God’s Spirit in Joseph when he correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream about seven years of impending famine in Egypt (Genesis 41:38). God’s Spirit even came upon the unwilling prophet Balaam after God had spoken to him through the mouth of his donkey (Numbers 24:2).
In the book of Judges we find God’s Spirit coming upon several of Israel’s leaders – Othniel (Judges 3:10), Gideon (Judges 6:4), Jephthah (Judges 11:29), and Samson (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, and 15:14). In each of these cases, God’s Spirit strengthened these men physically against their enemies. Perhaps the most well-known of these is when the Spirit of the LORD enabled Samson to pull down the roof-support pillars of the Philistine temple in which he had been chained, thereby killing himself and many others.
In several instances, the Old Testament speaks of the Spirit of the LORD speaking through various prophets (2 Chronicles 20:14, Ezekiel 11:5, Micah 3:8). John the Baptist’s father – Zacharias – was moved by God’s Spirit to prophesy on the day his son was circumcised (Luke 1:67-79). We know that prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
7But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.1 Corinthians 12:7-11 – NKJV
Indeed, Paul admonishes us to desire the spiritual gift of prophecy above all others.
1Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. 3But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.1 Corinthians 14:1-5 – NKJV
Aside – We normally think of the gift of prophecy as the ability to foretell future events. But this is not the sense of the word “prophecy” about which Paul speaks in this verse. In this context, Paul is speaking of prophecy as the ability to proclaim the Truth of God with power – power not of our own, but undeniably within our own hearts emanating from God Himself who empowers us to speak His Truth.
Without doubt the most astounding instance of God’s Spirit coming upon someone occurred at Jesus’ baptism. On that day His Spirit descended upon Jesus when He came up out of the water. John had been previously given a word from God foretelling this.
29The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ 31I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.”John 1:29-34 – NKJV
32And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. 33I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
Nevertheless, John was initially reticent to baptize Jesus, knowing the He was indeed God Himself, come to Earth in the flesh of a man.
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. 14And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”Matthew 3:13-15 – NKJV
15But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
Then, as Jesus came up from the water, the witnesses saw Jesus God the Son and God’s Spirit descending upon Him as a dove, and they heard the voice of God the Father from Heaven – all three members of the Holy Trinity manifest together.
16When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. 17And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-17 – NKJV
These events were the fulfillment of the ancient Messianic prophecy of Isaiah.
1There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,Isaiah 11:1-2 – NKJV
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.
The fulfillment of this prophecy is what Jesus meant when He said to John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Recall that Jesus confirmed His fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies in the synagogue in His home town of Nazareth, for which the townspeople tried to kill Him.
16So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. 17And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:Luke 4:16-21 – NKJV
18“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
19To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”[Isaiah 61:1-2]
20Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
As we have seen, Saul’s reign began well. God Himself chose Saul to rule over the people as they had requested over Samuel’s objections. God directed Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then gave Saul the seal of His own Holy Spirit as confirmation. But Saul’s kingship turned sour when he allowed his pride to blossom into disobedience, arrogance, and jealousy. Soon after Saul became king, God sent him to battle against the Amalekites
1Samuel also said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD. 2Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. 3Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”1 Samuel 15:1-3 – NKJV
Saul did lead the people up to battle as God commanded, and utterly defeated the Amalekites, but in his pride and lust for glory and the spoils of war, Saul disobeyed this command from the LORD – allowing the king of the Amalekites to live, and keeping spoils from the defeated Amalekites.
7And Saul attacked the Amalekites, from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is east of Egypt. 8He also took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. 9But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.1 Samuel 15:7-9 – NKJV
There is an important lesson for us in this. God’s commandments may not always make good sense to us. They might even sometimes seem wasteful, cruel, and unnecessary as His command to utterly wipe out the Amalekites seemed to Saul and those under his command. But God’s will is always perfect. He knows the end from the beginning, and we may rest assured that His intentions toward us are always in our best interest even when we might not be able to foretell the end results. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so aptly said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.“
But not only did Saul disobey God’s direction, he then compounded his sin by first lying to Samuel about it, and then blasphemously claiming that the spoil had been taken as an offering to the LORD.
13Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”1 Samuel 15:13-15 – NKJV
14But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
15And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.”
All sin is rooted in pride. Lucifer’s pride caused him to desire to take God’s place (Isaiah 14:12-15). When he tempted Adam and Eve in the garden, he appealed to their pride with the lie that they would be like God if they ate of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-5).
The LORD God despises our pride.
16These six things the LORD hates,Proverbs 6:16-19 – NKJV
Yes, seven are an abomination to Him:
17A proud look,
A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
18A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
19A false witness who speaks lies,
And one who sows discord among brethren.
Jesus repeatedly encouraged humility, and condemned pride.
“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”Luke 14:11 – NKJV
So it was with Saul’s disobedience as Samuel pointed out to him. But instead of repenting of his disobedience and seeking God’s forgiveness, Saul further compounded his sin by first denying it altogether, then trying to shift the blame onto those under his authority, and finally blaspheming the Spirit of the LORD within his heart by claiming that the spoil had been plundered as an offering to the LORD.
17So Samuel said, “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the LORD anoint you king over Israel? 18Now the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the LORD?”1 Samuel 15:17-21 – NKJV
20And Saul said to Samuel, “But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.”
To be fair, maybe it was true that the taking of the spoil was not Saul’s idea, and he just went along with the desire of the people. But as king, Saul had both the responsibility and the authority to lead the people away from disobeying God’s command. Thus, the consequences and God’s punishment for this disobedience rightfully rested entirely on the king.
There is an important lesson for us here – when you mess up, own up!
8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.1 John 1:8-10 – NKJV
Perhaps the most effective weapon in the arsenal of the enemy of our souls is his lie that our sins are so horrendous that they can’t be forgiven. Jesus tells us otherwise.
“Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.Matthew 12:32 – NKJV
But the forgiveness of our sins is contingent upon two conditions.
First, we must recognize our sins. This conviction is the work of God’s Spirit within our hearts, as Jesus foretold when He made His promise to send the Holy Spirit to His disciples.
7Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. 8And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 9of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; 11of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.John 16:8-11 – NKJV
Note – Sometimes God uses fellow believers to accomplish the work of His Spirit in convicting us of sin. We see an instance of that here in 1 Samuel 15 as God used Samuel to convict Saul of his sin. A similar case is found in 2 Samuel 12 when God sent to King David his trusted adviser, Nathan the prophet, to set before the king the truth regarding his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent vile, cowardly murder of her husband, Uriah, in an attempt to cover up the adultery. God has given us the gift of Christian fellowship partly so that we may gently and lovingly restore our brethren who have strayed away from faithful obedience to God. May we all be open to such conviction and ministry from our fellow believers.
Second – having received the conviction of our sins – we need to confess our sins and repent of them. Otherwise, God tells us through Isaiah He will not listen to our prayers.
15When you spread out your hands,Isaiah 1:15-18 – NKJV
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.
16“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
17Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.
18“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.
Caveat – Whenever we study God’s Word seeking the lessons we may find there to apply them to our own lives, it is of paramount importance that we bear in mind the context of the passages under study. This word from Isaiah was given to the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom) prior to the Babylonian captivity. Isaiah’s primary focus throughout his prophecy was to warn the nation of Judah and the nations surrounding of God’s impending judgement upon them. Of course we know in hindsight that God’s judgement was fulfilled on them when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and carried the Jewish people captive to Babylon.
Nevertheless, this passage in Isaiah is also relevant to us. On the night I became a Christ follower (having already been a Gospel believer for some years prior), I was praying to God. I can’t even remember what I prayed about specifically, but it was very likely to do with the stark reminder of my own mortality when I visited my father’s grave earlier that afternoon. During my prayer, God spoke to me asking, “How can you expect me to hear your prayer when you continue in your sin?” I knew exactly what sin God was reminding me of, having been convicted of it by His Spirit. But it was not until that evening all alone in my friend’s home that I made the commitment in my heart to confess my sin before God and to turn from it. Having believed in my heart for many years prior that God raised Jesus from the dead, finally that evening I confessed with my mouth Jesus as my own LORD. Because I was able to do that, God was then able to hear my prayer, and to truly adopt me as His faithful child. This spiritual re-birth within my very heart of hearts happened long before I first encountered this passage in Isaiah seeking the lesson it might teach me. Clearly it is relevant to my own life, as I’m sure it is to all believers.
God Replaces His Own Spirit with an Evil One in Saul’s Heart
It is clear from 1 Samuel 15 that Saul failed to repent of his disobedience. It is possible (although very unlikely) that he didn’t even know that what he did was wrong. But clearly after Samuel reminded him of it, Saul should have repented before the LORD. Even after he finally did confess the sin to Samuel, he still didn’t truly repent, but asked Samuel to go with him to worship only so that he might save face before the elders of the people (1 Samuel 15:24-31).
This brings us to the most unsettling part of the story of King Saul, and one of the most disturbing verses in the entire Word of God.
But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him.1 Samuel 16:14 – NKJV
It is clear from the passages we have just examined that God’s Spirit indwelt Saul’s heart on the same day Samuel anointed him king, in much the same way the Holy Spirit indwells the hearts of Christians at the very moment we first believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and confess aloud Jesus as our LORD – thus being born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-5, Revelation 3:20, John 15:1-5). But following Saul’s disobedience the Bible says that God regretted having chosen Saul as king.
10Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, 11“I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the LORD all night.1 Samuel 15:10-11 – NKJV
This idea is disturbing because it implies that God can change His mind. It flies in the face of one of our most cherished beliefs – the immutability of God – that the psalmist declares.
24I said, “O my God,Psalm 102:24-28 – NKJV
Do not take me away in the midst of my days;
Your years are throughout all generations.
25Of old You laid the foundation of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of Your hands.
26They will perish, but You will endure;
Yes, they will all grow old like a garment;
Like a cloak You will change them,
And they will be changed.
27But You are the same,
And Your years will have no end.
28The children of Your servants will continue,
And their descendants will be established before You.”
God Himself reiterates His unchanging nature speaking through the prophet Malachi regarding the permanence of His choice of Israel from among all the nations to be His own special people despite their disobedience and idolatry.
“For I am the LORD, I do not change;Malachi 3:6 – NKJV
Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.
But if God changed His mind about His choice of Saul, could He not also change His mind about our own salvation in Christ if we – like Saul – sin against Him and disobey His commands? Jesus own words regarding His sheep are reassuring.
27My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30I and My Father are one.”John 10:27-30 – NKJV
How then can we explain God’s apparent choice of Saul as king, and His subsequent abandonment of Saul? As with many other passages throughout God’s Word, we have here an attempt to explain and describe the workings of God’s unsearchable nature in terms fathomable by our feeble human minds. We believe that God is eternally unchangeable. Furthermore, we believe that God is everywhere at all times, and has known everything from eternity past to eternity future. Thus we can deduce that God must have known that Saul would rebel even before He chose him to be king. This shouldn’t frighten or disturb us. On the contrary, it is reassuring when we realize that God’s choice of Saul was given as an object lesson for us – that God will be faithful in HIs fulfillment of the prophecy that Israel’s kings would come from the tribe of Judah, and that God looks upon the heart rather than the outward appearance in His judgments.
Furthermore, when God chose David to take God’s place (1 Samuel 16), He already knew that David would later commit adultery and murder, but that (unlike Saul) David would sincerely repent of those sins (Psalm 51). If we carry this consideration of God’s immutability and omniscience even further, we find that on the first day of creation, when Jesus – the Word of God – said “Let there be light,” He already knew that doing so would ultimately lead Him to the cross where He would suffer and die for the remission of our sins. Yet He loved us so much even then that He chose to continue with His plan of creation and salvation.
But perhaps even more disturbing than God’s removing His Spirit from Saul, is that God then sent Saul an evil spirit in His place. Note that the NKJV misses the mark in translating this verse in my opinion. The Hebrew word we find translated as “distressing” in the NKJV rendition of 1 Samuel 16:14 is
רַע ra`. It means bad, evil, or wicked. In fact, the KJV translates the word in this verse as “evil,” as do most of the modern English translations. There is no Biblical way to describe the exact nature of this spirit, although we do know that it brought bouts of murderous anger into Saul’s heart (e.g. 1 Samuel 18). Was this spirit one of satan’s fallen angels (demons)? We know from multiple accounts in the Word of God that demons are able to indwell people. Was it some other sort of disembodied spirit that beset Saul? There is no way to answer these questions Biblically, so it would be pointless to speculate.
It is unsettling that 1 Samuel 16:14 makes clear that this evil spirit was from the LORD. Yet in another sense it is reassuring to be reminded that all things are under God’s dominion, including the minions of satan, and even satan himself. He has been given partial dominion over the earth for a time, but it is strictly limited to what God permits.
Another question that naturally arises is why did God allow Saul to remain on the throne of Israel for so long after removing His Spirit from Saul’s reign, and commanding Samuel to anoint David in Saul’s place? I think the answer may be found in the very trials that David suffered at Saul’s hands over the following decade. These were needed to mold David into the ruler that he eventually became, subduing the Philistines, and leading Israel to become a great political force in the region.