Summary: In the short term Saul’s reign was a failure. But in the longer term God had a king in mind for Israel, who, through his death and resurrection, would bring the salvation, the leadership, the rule that the nation needed and who, in fact, would extend that
Well, today we come to the end of the history of Saul, Israel’s first king. The question that faces us as we think about the life of Saul, is just how much of a failure was it? And what’s more, did God make a mistake in making him king? In fact, should God have refused the Israelites request for a king altogether? As we think about those questions I want us also to think about the events recorded in our gospel reading, because there too, we have the record of a king who appeared to have failed, yet in the end succeeded. There we have the record of the last in the line of kings that began with Saul.
So what I want to do today is to think about Saul in the context of the events of the first Easter. In particular I want to spend some time contrasting the end of Saul’s life on earth with the end of Jesus’ life on earth. What we’ll find as we think about it is that there are some contrasts and some similarities between the lives of these two men and that in the end, it’s actually the life of Jesus that brings some meaning into the history of Saul.
So first let’s think about the contrasts.
Well, obviously, Saul was the first king of Israel, while Jesus was the last. Saul begins a long line of kings, some of whom are failures, others are more of a success, but none fully meet the need for a king who will lead his people in complete righteousness and serve God in complete faithfulness. None, that is, until Jesus Christ who is the last and great king of Israel.
Saul ends his life as one of those failures. At the end of his reign Israel is no better off than before. In fact it’s probably worse off. The people are scattered, the Philistines are in the ascendancy and the nation is without a leader.
By contrast, Jesus is found to be the true king, the Messiah who has come to save his people. Although his life appears to end on a cross, there’s more to it than that. He rises to life again. he ascends to heaven where he is now, seated at God’s right hand on high, having done all that God asked of him.
Mind you, although Saul dies in battle, it’s still a valiant death. He never gives up, never stops trying to fulfill his role as leader of his people.
By contrast Jesus dies a death of weakness, dragged away in naked shame by Roman guards, hung on a cross, the sign of being cursed by God. When the opportunity to fight for his freedom arises, he turns it down. He rebukes Peter who would willingly have died to defend him. He kisses the cheek of Judas as he comes to betray him. Here is no valiant warrior king. Here is a king whose reign is born out of weakness. There’s no glory in the Good Friday story. It contains only shame and sadness.
I heard about a parent at a Church school recently, coming up to the Religious Education teacher and asking whether she really needed to tell the children the Good Friday story. She said "It’s such a sad story. Don’t they have enough sadness in their lives already?" And she was right. This is not the sort of story you would tell to rally the troops. This is not an Anzac Day story of courage and valour. It’s a story of weakness and shame. But I guess, in the end, the death of Saul isn’t much better. You see, along with the contrasts there are also similarities between Saul and Jesus’ deaths.
Saul is wounded by an arrow, but isn’t quite dead, so he asks his armour bearer to finish him off before the Philistines capture him and torture him to death. But the armour bearer won’t do it. He has the same sort of respect for God’s anointed king that we saw in David a few weeks ago. He won’t raise his arm against the king even in these circumstances. Or perhaps it’s just the sanctity of life that he’s concerned about. The 6th commandment was quite clear, "You shall not murder." What Saul’s asking is different to killing on the battle field where there are other ethical principles to consider. This is killing someone in cold blood.
Well, I wonder what you think about that. What Saul asks this man to do is the sort of thing that’s portrayed on our cinema or TV screens fairly regularly: the mercy killing that saves someone from torture or the prolonged agony of a long death. It’s not much different in fact from the sort of solution that Dr Nietsche and other euthanasia proponents would advocate. A quick and relatively painless end to avoid possibly worse suffering later. But, no, he refuses to do it. He won’t be the one to take another man’s life in cold blood.