Monday, June 20, 2005


King Saul's Godly Leadership

King Saul is famous for what he did wrong: jealousy, disobedience, resort to witchcraft. These actions are worthy of condemnation and certainly are not characteristics we would look to for leadership in the local church. Scripture endorses and praises, however, the leadership Saul showed before he turned away from his divine calling.

When Samuel anointed Saul to be king, as described in 1 Samuel 10, he told him “the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, . . . and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” When we read with our eyes open, we see that God really did change Saul’s heart, giving him the equipment he would need to be Israel’s leader.

Saul demonstrated the effects of this changed heart in the early actions of his reign. In chapters 10 through 12 we read of at least four traits that mark his leadership. Then in chapters 13 through 15 we find that all four traits were reversed in Saul’s downfall.

1. Humble Reluctance
At the very beginning, Saul shows a reticence to assume power. He seems unwilling to thrust himself into the leadership role. Perhaps the initial protests Saul offers to Samuel (9:21) can be attributed to formal politeness, and his withholding information from his uncle (10:16) to strategy and timing, but his hiding among the baggage (10:22) is definitely an uncalculated reluctance to seize a position. Later, Samuel recalls to Saul, “though you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel?” (15:17).

Wisdom urges us to beware of the person overly eager to become a leader. Such a leader may well bring his own agenda that is contrary to the work of the Lord. Too much confidence in human ability has often kept people from their proper trust in the Lord and in his power.

Such was the later experience of Saul. 1 Samuel 13 describes Saul’s impatience in waiting for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifice. In Saul’s own words, he “forced himself” into the unauthorized role of priest (13:12). Gone is the humility that made him hold back from the kingship. It is replaced by presumption, the ruin of godly leadership.

2. Spiritual Standards
Saul began his reign with a spiritual understanding of leadership. Following his coronation and return to Gibeah, he gathered around himself a group of men “whose hearts God had touched,” (10:27). They were valiant men, but they were spiritually sensitive. Saul seemed to know that the power of the kingdom was not in its armies but in its God. What a wise way to build a leadership team.

In the church today we also need a spiritual standard for leadership. The temptation is to grab leaders who are successful in secular jobs or who can perform a specific task, whether or not they are full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.

Saul’s standards eventually slipped into the secular approach. By 14:52 he is taking any soldier who is brave and looks good in armor. It is interesting to contrast the response to Goliath’s challenge of Saul’s valiant men (chapter 17) with that of David, whose heart God had touched.

3. Commitment to God’s Honor
After Saul’s victory over the Ammonites, some of the people urge him to take vengeance on his earlier detractors by putting them to death. Saul’s response (11:13) is “No one shall be put to death today, for this day the LORD rescued Israel.” He clearly wants the glory to go to God and not to himself. He knows enough about God’s honor to realize that killing off his own citizens will not honor God or strengthen his own position.

It is not long, however, before Saul becomes obsessed with increasing his own glory, at the expense of his own people. His jealous attacks on David are well known, but even his rash vow in the battle, “Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies” (14:24) indicates he has reversed his godly commitment. It is now his victory, not God’s, and he does not care what price others must pay By the time we get to 15:12 Saul is building monuments to himself.

Even at the local church level it is easy to begin to build monuments to ourselves. It gradually becomes “Pastor So-and-so’s church,” or we equate the success of our ideas and “visions” with the greatest glory to God.

4. Whole-hearted Obedience
Along with the rest of the nation, Saul joins with Samuel in a renewal of commitment to “fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart” (12:24). This is perhaps the central element in godly leadership. It recognizes that God is the ultimate leader and we take our orders from him. For Saul, this means a commitment to the covenant between God and Israel and a willingness to trust that God knows what he is doing.

By chapter 15, however, Saul is fulfilling only part of his assignment to wipe out the Amalekites, deciding to spare the king and the best of the animals. This is the final blow to Saul’s kingdom and dynasty. It is telling that his best excuse is that he feared the people—he who made a commitment to fear the LORD and obey him with all his heart. Then, in his rejection by God, Saul begs Samuel to keep up appearances so the people would not know anything was wrong (15:30).

May God protect us from the mindset of pleasing people at the expense of disobeying God, of keeping up appearances after the reality is gone. In churches that elect their officers and take up a collection to pay their pastors, it takes courage to fear God more than we fear the people. May God give us the equipment of changed hearts and the Holy Spirit to make us godly leaders in the positions we hold under him: humility, obedience, spiritual understanding, and the desire to glorify God.

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