This kind of leadership crisis is familiar from past and current history. Israel wanted a good leader, one who was not corrupt and had integrity. However, there were other cultural influences at play, and the Israelites’ intentions were not completely pure as they asked for a king. 1 Samuel 8:4-5 tells us that “all the elders of Israel gathered together and they came to Samuel at Ramah.” They said to him, “You are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now, install for us a king to govern us like all the other nations.” This should bother us, because Israel had a king already, named Yahweh (remember Ex 15). He was trying to teach the Israelites how to become different from the other nations in order to become a blessing to those same nations. But, the cultural pressures to have a leader like the Canaanites proved more powerful. Their hearts were not aligned to Yahweh, and so He honored their request.
The Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in relation to all that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but Me they have rejected from reigning over them… Now then, obey their voice. Only you will testify against them and proclaim to them the judgment concerning the king who will reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:7, 9
Next, Samuel delivers a famous warning to the Israelite people (1 Sam 8:11-22), he then anoints Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam 9), giving the Israelites what they desired.
Saul was not a great king, nor was he even a good man. He was deeply flawed, and the entire first half of Samuel is dedicated to a character study about his failures. When reading through Samuel, you might have a tendency to become critical or judgemental of Saul at times; you’ll probably feel sorry for him at times too. But slow down, and be honest with yourself. If you’re open-minded, you’ll realize you likely have more in common with Saul than you’d care to admit. The whole point of exploring Saul’s failures is to warn us, so we don’t repeat his mistakes.
1 Samuel offers up a number of vignettes, some seemingly small, some big, that examine the missteps by Saul (see 1 Sam 13-15). You might wonder if God being overly hard on Saul is just an intentional creation of sympathy by the narrator. Well, yes. He wants us to feel sorry for him, so that we begin to see ourselves in him and learn our lesson through him.
In essence, Saul’s root character flaw is self-exaltation and self-deception. He thinks he knows better than everyone else, including God. The biggest tragedy is that he’s not even aware of it. The story shows he is completely blind to his arrogance and always believes he’s in the right.