Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Samuel 9
by Kory Plockmeyer
When preaching the story of Saul, we pastors have a hard time not beginning the sermon with the end in mind. We know where the story is going – we know who the man of God is and we know that by the end of the story the “message from God” (9:27) will reveal Saul to be Israel’s first king.
If we limit our text to just 1 Samuel 9, however, we end before the anointing. The crucial information is delayed and we are left with a narrative set-up to help us understand the man who will be king. The extended introduction to Saul leaves the reader with little doubt of God’s providential guidance even as Saul’s qualifications for the kingship are called into question.
On the one hand, 1 Samuel 9 is a story of God’s providential guidance. From the moment that Kish’s donkeys go missing, Saul sets off on an adventure that will change his life. He and his servant search and search to no avail and just at the moment when he is about to give up, his servant convinces him to try one last-ditch effort in the region of Zuph. Saul and his servant happen to run into a group of women who point to their seemingly serendipitous time of arrival, right in between the blessing and eating of the sacrificial meal. They happen to run into Samuel, just the man they were looking for.
The first fourteen verses of the chapter present this as a series of events, one after the other with seemingly little guidance. Once Saul meets Samuel God’s divine guidance becomes clear – God had already told Samuel that he would meet the future king of Israel. Upon seeing Saul God reveals to Samuel that this is indeed the man he has in mind. God’s hand has been guiding all of the action to this point, directing Saul’s footsteps throughout the search for this missing donkeys who, it turns out, have already been found and returned to their owner. God knows Saul’s heart before Saul even does, prompting Samuel to tell Saul, “In the morning I will tell you all that is in your heart,” even though he immediately tells Saul the information he needs about the missing donkeys – the ostensible reason for his visit.
God’s choice of Saul as king reflects the theological tension surrounding the kingship of Israel. The hope for Israel had been God’s divine leadership, the people’s request for a king comes in response to a desire to be like the nations around them. God’s response to Samuel makes it clear that this is not the preferred path for the nation of Israel: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7).
At the same time, one of the dominant themes of 1 Samuel is that God exalts the lowly and brings down the proud. Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2 functions as a theme for the whole of the book: “The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (1 Samuel 2:7-8).
The introduction of Saul manages to fulfill both of these narrative needs. On the one hand, the choice of Saul fits with the theme of God exalting the humble. At the same time, the introduction to Saul raises significant concerns about Saul’s suitability for the kingship and, by proxy, the very office of the King.
Saul is a Benjamite. Samuel asks Saul, “And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and your whole family line?” Saul’s answer is not false modesty: “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin?”
The tribe of Benjamin is a dubious choice for the king of Israel. Benjamin is indeed the smallest tribe, as Saul describes it. Why would God choose a king from the tribe with so little influence? Benjamin was the youngest of the children of Jacob. To make matters worse, the tribe of Benjamin had rather recent notorious history – the last three chapters of Judges record the horrifying account of the Levite’s concubine, raped to the point of death by Benjamite men, and the subsequent revenge by the rest of Israel that eventually killed so many Benjamites that they had to forcibly steal women from another city to ensure the continuation of the tribe of Benjamin. These events, presumably still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, would seem to preclude the possibility that one from the tribe of Benjamin would indeed be the person to whom “all the desire of Israel turned.”
Saul adds to this that his clan is the least of the clans of Benjamin. Clans were made up of a “larger group of related families, usually living in close proximity” who “exhibited a certain level of independent behavior in matters political and religious” (Cartledge’s commentary in the Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary series). To be from the smallest clan would have meant that Saul’s family has little authority and little influence in the matters of the tribe of Benjamin.
All of this paints a picture of how God’s selection of Saul fits clearly within the broader scheme of 1 Samuel – God uses unexpected people for extraordinary purposes.
At the same time, the introduction of Saul raises some questions about his suitability for the kingship.
For instance, Saul looks the part. Verse 2 describes Saul as “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” In the selection of David as king just a few chapters later God makes clear that such outward considerations should not be considered qualifications for king: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Saul reveals a lack of wisdom in his ill-preparedness for his journey in search of the missing donkeys. Kish, Saul’s father, is described as “a man of standing,” apparently of some wealth. When Saul’s servant suggests that they visit the man of God for assistance in locating the donkeys, Saul objects, “If we go, what can we give the man? The food in our sacks is gone. We have no gift to take to the man of God. What do we have?” Despite coming from a family of means, Saul is dependent upon the providential good fortune that his servant finds a small bit of silver that would be sufficient for payment. Saul should be the one to have payment for services, not his servant.
First-time introductions to Biblical characters matter. In ancient literature, character is more or less fixed – people do not really change over the course of their lifetimes. The manner in which they are introduced often functions as a shorthand summary of their life.
If we are to understand 1 Samuel 9 as such a shorthand introduction for Saul, we should not be surprised to find that when the people of Israel are hard-pressed by the Philistines and Goliath, Saul needs the young David to offer help (1 Samuel 17).
In the same way, Saul depends upon his servant to offer the suggestion of finding Samuel in the first place. As Cartledge suggests, “The reader is left to wonder why the servant, and not Saul, is so well informed about the holy man, whose extensive reputation included the ability to predict the future, so that ‘whatever he says always comes true’ (v. 6).” Saul’s first inclination is not to turn to God for help and he apparently has no idea who Samuel is, despite his fame and influential position in Israel.
1 Samuel 9 introduces the reader to Saul as a man who is not likely to turn to God, and so it comes as little surprise when he chooses not to obey God’s commands and is therefore rejected by God as king a short while later (1 Samuel 15).
While this is all well and good, what we have so far is largely a moralistic character study of Saul. To see this story in light of the good news of the Gospel and the grace of God is another challenge entirely. We can connect this story of Saul to the Good News of Jesus Christ through the broad picture of redemption history – Saul’s place functions in many ways as the necessary precursor to the king who will be a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
For evidence of the grace of God within 1 Samuel 9, we return to the providential guidance of God. Saul certainly does nothing to merit God’s favor. In fact, as we saw, we see in this chapter precursors of the ways he will ultimately reject God. Yet God still providentially upholds and rules the life of Saul. God’s sovereign hand is not limited to those who meet certain requirements. God’s grace invites all of us, regardless of where we have been or where we are going, regardless of what we are searching for, even if we don’t know it yet, to see God’s hand guiding and directing our steps.
Cartledge notes that the servant’s discovery of the quarter of a shekel of silver underscores God’s providential hand in the narrative, suggesting that the phrase “Look… I have a quarter of a shekel of silver” has the sense of “Look what I found!”
For the idea of how introductions to a person are used as shorthand for the character of that individual, consider the common childhood myth about George Washington who “could not tell a lie” and admitted to chopping down a cherry tree. The story is meant to show stability to the character of George Washington, that the man who could not tell a lie in childhood similarly was a trustworthy leader through his adult life.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.