The Lord decides the form of leadership for his covenant community, yet he sometimes gives his people a taste of what they want as a form of discipline.
The Text in Context
In response to the people’s request, the Lord decided to give them a king, but he reserved the right to set the pattern for kingship. Recognizing the people’s need for security, he chose and commissioned a ruler to deliver them from their enemies. The plot tension of chapter 8 appears to be resolved, but new plot tensions appear in the story. Though Samuel presents Saul to the people as a qualified king based on superficial physical appearances (10:23–24; see 9:2), the narrator’s presentation of Saul reveals a serious character flaw that was foreshadowed in deficient leaders of the judges’ period. Despite his divine commission, Saul is hesitant to carry out the Lord’s purposes. Furthermore, some of the people, observing his hesitancy and realizing this is not the kingship arrangement for which they have asked, refuse to recognize Saul as king (10:27). These tensions will be resolved, ultimately in tragic fashion, as the story continues to unfold.
As noted above (see comments on 9:1), the stories of Samson, Micah, Samuel, and Saul all begin with the same formula. This formal linking appears to be by design, because there are parallels between the stories. There are several parallels between Samson and Saul: (1) The Lord intends to use both individuals to deliver Israel from the Philistines (Judg. 13:5; 1 Sam. 9:16). (2) The Lord’s Spirit rushes on both, empowering them for physical conflict (Judg. 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Sam. 11:6). (3) The Lord removes his enabling presence from both of them following disobedience (Judg. 16:20; 1 Sam. 16:14). (4) Both expire with a death wish on their lips (Judg. 16:30; 1 Sam. 31:5–6) and are humiliated by the Philistines, Samson before his death and Saul afterward (Judg. 16:21, 25; 1 Sam. 31:9–10). The parallels cast Saul in the role of a second Samson. Both are physically impressive and seemingly possess great promise, but both die tragic deaths after disobeying the Lord.
As commented earlier (on 1:1), the narrator contrasts Samuel and Samson. In contrast to Samson’s unnamed barren mother, whose son failed to recognize his role as the Lord’s deliverer and never rose to the level of an effective leader, barren Hannah gives birth to a son through whom the Lord restores effective leadership to Israel. Samson only began the deliverance of Israel (Judg. 13:5), but Samuel and then David, whom Samuel anoints as king, defeat the enemies of Israel (1 Sam. 7:14; 17:1–58; 2 Sam. 5:17–25; 8:1). By linking Saul with Samson, the narrator distances Samuel, who is unlike Samson, from Saul and paves the way for linking the prophet with David. This is a literary feature of the story that facilitates the narrator’s goal of presenting David, not Saul, as God’s chosen king.
The negative portrayal of Saul also contributes to the narrator’s goal of presenting David, not Saul, as God’s chosen king. Saul, ostensibly chosen because of his physical attributes, proves unfit to rule for a variety of reasons. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the Lord chooses Saul by using the people’s standard, perhaps to discipline them for their rebellion (see 10:17–19; cf. Hosea 13:10–11) and in the process to demonstrate the limitations of the human perspective they embrace when they demand a king like other nations. However, when it comes time to replace Saul, the Lord picks David on the basis of his own standard, which gives priority to inner character rather than physical attributes (1 Sam. 16:7). When the time comes to act decisively on the Lord’s behalf, David demonstrates no hesitancy (1 Sam. 17).
Historical and Cultural Background
Verses 23–24 focus on Saul’s physical attributes, especially his height (cf. 9:2). This stands in marked contrast to the account of David’s anointing, where the Lord focuses on David’s inner qualities (16:7). It also suggests that the choice of Saul reflects the people’s, not the Lord’s, standard, for human beings tend to judge on such a superficial basis (see 16:6–7 and “Theological Insights” below).
Key Themes of 1 Samuel 10:9–27
▪ The Lord implements kingship on his terms, not after the pattern of the nations.
▪ The Lord chooses a king who conforms to the people’s superficial idea of what a king should look like, but who is deficient in leadership qualities.