Gilgal to Gilboa

Next to Judas Iscariot, there is no more tragic figure in all the Scriptures than Saul, King of Israel. No man ever got off to a better start. And no man ever had a sadder finish.

   Saul was tall and good-looking, which is not to be despised. Once in a while—not often—God makes a handsome man, just to relieve the monotony. Saul had gifts of leadership, for there followed him a band of men whose hearts the Lord had touched. On occasion, he could use good sense. While his critics scoffed, he held his peace. Blessed is the man who can restrain himself when the children of Belial revile him. He was reticent at proper times, as when his uncle asked him what Samuel had said. Some of us tell all we know—and more.

   Yet Saul was a tragic failure. He had his good moments and mastered a good many situations, but he never mastered himself. His days ended in the weird setting of a spiritist seance followed by suicide on dark Gilboa. All the way through his career from Gilgal to Gilboa various incidents showed him up, but they were only symptoms of a malady that lay deeper. He was impatient, could not wait on Samuel but offered the sacrifice himself. When Samuel appeared—he had

Page 73

a habit, like Elijah, of showing up at most embarrassing moments—Saul tried to explain instead of repenting. He displayed a violent temper toward Jonathan and jealousy because of David's success.

   But the episode that really furnishes the key to his trouble has to do with the slaughter of the Amalekites. God commanded the utter extermination of both people and possessions. Saul spared their king. Agag, with the best of the sheep and oxen. Once again Samuel appeared right at the critical moment. It was a dramatic meeting, loaded with significance. Saul started on a high key: ''Blessed art thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord.''

   Just then a sheep bleated or an ox lowed. And Samuel bluntly demanded, ''What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?'' Something always happens to betray the man who professes to be what he is not. He may maintain that everything goes well, but one day there will be the telltale bleating of the sheep. The worst thing about our sins is not that they will be found out but that they will find us out, show us up, at some awkward moment. Here God used a lowly ox to confound a king, and no matter how well we think we have concealed the matter, somewhere in our life of disobedience the sheep we should have slaughtered will bleat at the most inopportune moment and show up the farce our pious chatter cannot hide. Saul's procession included things God had told him to destroy. The man who insists on lugging along idols and affections and wedges of gold and sheep and oxen God has commanded him to exterminate will stand confused

Page 74

by those very accursed things on some day of judgment.

   The worst of it is that when Saul was caught up with, he did not humble himself and repent. True, he said, ''I have sinned,'' but he brought forth no fruits meet for repentance. It is a mark of the unyielded self to argue the case, to try to explain, to justify oneself. Saul tried to explain that the sheep and oxen had been spared to sacrifice unto God at Gilgal. But the end did not justify the means. Money made the wrong way is not sanctified by giving God a tip out of it on Sunday morning. God will not accept an offering of the fruits of disobedience.

   Samuel's immortal answer clears that up forever: ''Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.'' One may give up worldly amusements, give his goods to feed the poor, give God time and talent, and never obey God at the heart of the matter by giving himself. The Macedonians first gave themselves to the Lord. Our Saviour said, ''If any man will come after me, let him deny himself. . .'' The trouble with Saul was that he never gave up Saul.

   But Samuel went deeper in his immortal answer and analyzed Saul's trouble with one word: ''For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.'' We do not classify stubbornness with iniquity and idolatry, but God does! He says, ''I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and

Page 75

bridle, lest they come near unto thee'' (Ps. 32:8, 9). We are frequently compared to various animals in the Scriptures, and some of the comparisons are not very complimentary! God wanted to instruct Saul in the way he should go and guide him with His eye, but Saul was as stubborn as a mule. Someone has said that a mule is always backward about going forward. Certainly Saul would not be guided by the will of God.

   He said, ''I feared the people and obeyed their voice.'' Samuel had just spoken of ''obeying the voice of the Lord.'' Samuel was the voice of the Lord, but Saul obeyed the voice of the people. We have an old adage, Vox populi, vox Dei (''The voice of the people is the voice of God''), but it isn't the voice of God. The man who listens to vox pop is doomed from the start.

   Saul pretended to be sorry, but only to keep the support of Samuel. He begged the prophet not to leave him, but the chapter ends with the king rejected of God and hastening on to ruin. A few pages farther we come to the sad finish. We read that Samuel was dead, and, try as he would, Saul could get no answer from God. In desperation, he turns to spiritist medium, the very thing he had outlawed earlier. Put it down as a sure mark of the man who fights the will of God, he will turn back to something he once ruled out. I have seen it done again and again.

   Here we have the story of a king trying to call back his lost opportunity. Saul had his Samuel. David had his Nathan. Ahab had his Elijah. Herod had his John the Baptist. Blessed is the man who listens to his prophet and heeds his oracle. Most of us have had a Samuel, maybe a good pastor, godly parents, a faithful wife, a loyal friend, someone through whom God

Page 76

would help us toward a better life. Thank God for them, but God pity the man who treats his Samuel as Saul treated his! Men trifle with those voices, and there comes a day when Samuel no longer warns us and we are left to our own doom. And how many miserable Sauls today would like to call back a presence departed and hear a voice now still!

   When Nathan faced David with his sin, you remember, the king repented, and in the immortal Fifty-first Psalm cried to God, ''Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. ''The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.'' Where Saul failed through stubbornness, David won through submission.

   God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that sheds forth perfume. It is Jacob limping from Jabbok who has power with God and men. It is Peter weeping bitterly who returns to greater power than ever.

   We hear that stubborn wills need only redirection, but God says they must be broken. A little boy whose mother made him sit still said, ''I may be sitting down, but I'm standing up inside!'' What a lot of inner rebellion is hidden under external religion these days!

   Sin is having one's own way instead of accepting God's way. ''We have turned every one to his own way.'' The sinner is not asked to give his heart to God. God gives him a new heart, then says, ''Son, give me thy heart.'' We have a generation of unbroken Sauls on our hands today. They grow up stubborn in the home and

Page 77

are disobedient to parents. They go to schools where the natural man is glorified. They never learn to say, ''I'm sorry,'' to man, and it is not surprising that they will not say it to God. It is deemed a mark of weakness. So they make their stubborn way—personality must not be thwarted but grow uninhibited and unhampered!

   Stubbornness breaks more hearts, wrecks more homes, divides more churches, fills more hospital beds and suicides' graves than any other form of iniquity, for the root of most troubles is an unbroken self.

   In the New Testament there was another man named Saul. Once he was just as stubborn as the Old Testament king. But one day God met him on the Damascus road, knocked him down, broke him up, and made him over, and named him Paul. The Old Testament Saul started with a crown and ended under a cross of his own making. The New Testament Saul submitted to a cross, was ''crucified with Christ,'' and ended with a crown of Glory. Both were headstrong fellows, but one took the path of stubbornness to suicide, while the other chose the way of submission and became the greatest preacher of all time.

   The Gilboa Road and the Damascus Road! The tendency today, even in many pulpits, is to invite young Sauls to become Christians without any repentance, any breaking down before the Lord, any crucifixion with Christ, any unconditional surrender to the will of God. They join our churches with heads erect and wills unbroken, with stiff necks and proud looks and hard hearts. So we have thousands of church members lugging their sins along, unsanctified flesh pretending to serve God, the old Adam parading under

Page 78

religious auspices. It is Saul and not Paul. The mourner's bench may have been misleading sometimes, but it was better than proud sinners walking down church aisles pure in their own eyes and yet not washed of their filthiness. Young people gaily ''accept Christ'' and with joy receive the Word, but afterward show no evidence of a new heart. We are trying to produce blessedness without any preceding bitterness, rejoicing without repentance, making the house of God a delightsome place before it has ever been a dreadful place where repentant sinners meet God.

   God help our young Sauls today! Part of the blame is on us that we have failed as Samuels. We have humored their headstrong stubbornness and failed to declare that God demands the sacrifice of a broken heart. They will learn it, but for many it will be too late. Let us try to save them at Gilgal lest they come to Gilboa.

Chapter 11  ||  Table of Contents