The Difference Between Good and Bad Kings: David and Saul (Story of Scripture 10)

Listen to the newest podcast here, as we dive into Saul and David!

Last week we saw Israel reject God as their king and ask Samuel to give them a human king like all the other nations have. This was both a rejection of God as their king and a rejection of their purpose to be a kingdom of priests, blessing the nations around them. Instead, they wanted to be like the nations around them. Israel is a lot like us today: we are quick to reject the way of Jesus in favor of governments or presidents that promise us safety. Rather than influencing the world around us as salt and light, we tend to be just as similar. Perhaps we could put it this way: instead of our faith in Jesus shaping our politics, our politics – being Republican or Democrat – shapes how we view faith.

But enough about us, for now. Let’s get back to our story!

The first king of Israel was a man named Saul. Saul has a pretty negative reputation but I think he gets a bum rap sometimes. First of all, you may have heard people say that Saul was human’s choice but David was God’s choice. This is not true. In 1 Samuel 9:15-17 it is pretty clear God chose Saul. That said, Saul is a reluctant king. When Samuel was set to announce Saul as the king, they could not find him! Saul was hiding (10:22). Saul rises to the occasion, leading the people to a great victory over the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11) and the people accept him as their king.

Unfortunately for Saul, things go wrong after this. In preparing for another battle, he loses patience waiting for Samuel to show up and makes the sacrifice to God which only Samuel was supposed to do. Samuel says because of this God will choose a different person to be king after Saul (13:13-15). Later on Saul defeats the Amalekites but spares their king. Saul was supposed to kill all the Amalekites, so his disobedience here leads to God again rejecting Saul as king.

To replace Saul, God chooses David as king. Of course, Saul is still king. The timeline and the stories here are kind of odd, as we read that David would play music for Saul to calm him down and Saul did not know David had been anointed king. Then when David meets Saul later, he seems to meet him for the first time. Such details do not take away from the main story of course.

Shortly after being introduced to David we read that Saul has led the Israelites into battle against the Philistines. The two sides are lined up across the field and ready to fight. Instead of charging into battle, the Philistines send out a champion, a giant of a man named Goliath. Why have thousands die when two champions can fight, each representing one of the armies? Yet no Israelite will step up and fight Goliath.

David’s older brothers are fighting in the army. Jesse, David’s father, sends David with food and supplies for his brothers. While visiting the army, he witnesses Goliath’s taunting of God’s people. David asks why no one has accepted Goliath’s challenge. He then says he will go out and fight. Rejecting the usual weapons and armor a soldier would utilize, David chooses stones from a nearby stream. When Goliath approaches and mocks him, David launches a rock from his sling right into Goliath’s head. The giant falls to the ground. David takes Goliath’s own sword and chops his head off.

You can read the whole story in 1 Samuel 17:20-58. It is a familiar story for all who grew up in church. But the significance is deeper then we first expect. Growing up in church, the lesson of this story was to simply have faith like David. The problem is, the Old Testament is not there simply to provide moral lessons, sometimes on how to live and sometimes on how not to live. It is more profound than that. Goliath is representing the Philistines and David represents Israel. In this David seems to be acting as the true king ought to act. Saul is still king, but he cowers in fear while David fights for the people. This is the beginning of David’s popularity. That should not surprise us for he fights for the people. He saves them. Of course they will love him! The real lesson of the story here is that David is already acting as the true King.

If we go back into the story, we recall that it was God who fought for the people in Exodus. God was their king which meant God fought for them. David is not just outdoing Saul, he is acting as king in the way God acted as king. David fights on behalf of the people and wins a great victory as their representative.

The True King Represents the People and Fights Their Enemies

After this battle, David’s popularity with the people soars. Saul fears David’s growing popularity and tries to kill David. David flees and refuses to kill Saul even when given opportunity. Within this is an amazing friendship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan, even more amazing when you realize Jonathan would have been king. But he bears David no ill will and supports him. Sadly, Jonathan and Saul die in battle on the same day.

We’ve looked at the story of David from front to back, now let’s look at it from back to front. We see a direct pointer in this story from David to Jesus. Just as David represented the people and fought the battle they could not fight, so Jesus acts as the ultimate representative of all of humanity, fighting the battle against sin and death none of us can fight.

Colossians 2:15 says Jesus, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” David had disarmed Goliath to win the victory and Jesus has disarmed all the powers that hold us in their grasp. To go further though, in the midst of the similarities between David and Jesus there are differences. David won his battle by fighting with a sling and a sword. Jesus won his battle by laying down all weapons and allowing himself to be killed on a cross. This is why we cannot simply make the story of David a moralistic example story. Our ultimate and primary example is Jesus. Where David points to that, we celebrate, and where David and Jesus differ, we go with Jesus.

David is not someone we want to emulate in all he did anyway. His story is topsy-turvy. As king, David makes some extremely poor decisions. Specifically, he sleeps with a married woman (Bathsheba) and has her husband (Uriah) killed to cover it up. This sin defines the rest of his reign, ultimately leading to his son rebelling and nearly conquering the kingdom. David’s adultery, murder and its aftermath makes perceptive readers pause, for this seems worse than anything Saul did. I mean, Saul made a sacrifice and didn’t kill the Amalekite king. Is this worse than adultery and murder by David? The difference is, David demonstrated sorrow and repentance. This is why David remains a hero of the Bible story, connected forever with the book of prayer and worship, Psalms.

David’s story reminds us of how important it is to rely on God. David was not a much better man than Saul, but the difference is that he admitted his brokenness. Psalm 51 is one example of David crying for forgiveness. This Psalm was written after David’s confession of his sin in sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. What do you need to confess to God?” (Psalm 51:1-2).

David was a deeply flawed person. In this he is no different from his predecessors. Abraham lied, saying his wife was his sister to save his own life. Moses killed an Egyptian. Rahab was a prostitute. Achan stole what was God’s. Saul disobeyed God’s commands. What we see is that the thing that separates these people is not their morality, for they are all flawed. What separates them is their honesty about their brokenness and their willingness to confess and ask for forgiveness.

David dies as the exemplary king and passes on the throne to his son Solomon.

Just as David fought for Israel, so Jesus fought the battle for us. May we recognize our own weakness and brokenness, even our own sin, and trust in Jesus to save us. May we remember that as much as there is to admire in David’s courage, we admire and worship the greater David. We follow David’s descendant, Jesus, into life knowing that life in the way of Jesus is the way that gives life to the fullest.

Questions and Action Points:

How does our understanding of the Old Testament story change if we do not see the characters as moral examples, but as broken people pointing us to (or away from) Jesus?

Why do you think God used broken, messed-up people?

Is there anything in your life you need to confess to God?

David is noted as author of 73 of the Psalms (3-9, 11-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145). The purpose of the Psalms is to teach us to pray and worship. Read a few of those Psalms this week. Think about what they teach you about God, humanity, prayer and worship?

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