Chewing on King Saul this morning. Actually, he’s kind of gnawing on me.
First “aha”? Saul reigned as king longer than David did. Unlike my ESV, the CSB translators (along with the NASB and NIV translators) believe there’s a “typo” in the manuscripts they used for translation, so rather than talking about what Saul did after reigning “two years” (ESV, NKVJ), the CSB records that “he reigned forty-two years” (1Sam. 13:1) That’s in line with the inspired commentary found in the book of Acts (Acts 13:21).
So, Saul’s forty-two years on the throne surpassed David’s forty (1Ki. 2:11). Surprised me. Somehow Saul’s reign makes more of a “flash in the pan” impression on me than a generational era of leadership. Maybe that’s because things started going south for Saul relatively quickly after coming to power. And my observation this morning is that the little bit of leaven at the beginning of Saul’s reign, which would spread through the whole lump of his reign, was pragmatism.
Being pragmatic; we tend to view that as a good thing. After all who wouldn’t want to be known as being sensible, realistic, and practical? But when it comes to the things of God, when it comes to ways higher than our ways and thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9), maybe being practical is, at the end of the day, being sinful.
Case in point, 1Samuel 13 and Saul’s pragmatic approach to seeking the LORD’s favor.
The Philistines also gathered to fight against Israel: three thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and troops as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Michmash, east of Beth-aven. . . .
Saul, however, was still at Gilgal, and all his troops were gripped with fear. He waited seven days for the appointed time that Samuel had set, but Samuel didn’t come to Gilgal, and the troops were deserting him. So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” Then he offered the burnt offering.
Just as he finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel arrived. So Saul went out to greet him, and Samuel asked, “What have you done?”
Saul answered, “When I saw that the troops were deserting me and you didn’t come within the appointed days and the Philistines were gathering at Michmash, I thought, ‘The Philistines will now descend on me at Gilgal, and I haven’t sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I forced myself to offer the burnt offering.”
(1Samuel 13:5, 7-12 CSB)
Situation desperate. Soldiers terrified. Lord’s presence needed. Samuel running late. What’s a commander-in-chief to do? Well, because he’s the commander-in-chief, pretty much anything he thinks is necessary. Whatever’s practically needed. “Bring me the burnt offering!” says Saul. “What have you done?” says Samuel.
He was just being pragmatic.
But pragmatism has a way of placing oneself at the top of the food chain, putting our wisdom over God’s ways, doing what’s realistic over doing what’s right. Thus, pragmatism has a way of introducing a slippery slope when what’s sensible is contrary to what God has said. Chart Saul’s life and his “I know best” attitude and the resulting disregard for the priesthood, manifested in “just” the sacrifice of what only a priest should sacrifice, eventually devolves to the point where he slaughters a whole city of priests themselves, “both men and women, infants and nursing babies, oxen, donkeys, and sheep” (1Sam. 22:11-19). Pragmatism and power, it seems, can be a nitro and glycerin combination.
Later, after another act of disobedience by King Saul, Samuel would ask him, “Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice.” (1Sam. 15:22). And, I’m thinking, to obey is better than pragmatism.
After all, what makes sense about a King who would bear a cross before donning His crown? How realistic is it to save the world with a message the world considers foolishness? How practical is it to run an institution where the greatest of all is a servant of all or were the first shall be last and last will be first? How pragmatic is it to bet on our strength being realized in our weakness? Not very!
But oh, how it displays the purposes and power of God.
By His grace. For His glory.
Yes, Amen. Much easier said than done of course but that is what God requires. Especially difficult to discern at times by us “fixers”. Requires faith, prayer, counsel and staying in the Word to clarify what He requires.