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TitleThe Tragic Dimensions of Saul
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1990
AuthorsEllsworth, Richard G.
Issue Number6
Date PublishedJune 1990
KeywordsKing Saul; Warfare

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The Tragic Dimensions of Saul

By Richard G. Ellsworth

Among Old Testament narratives, the life of King Saul stands out in its tragedy. Saul’s life consists of a series of situations and decisions that, because of his character, cause his own death, the deaths of his loved ones, and the destruction of all his hopes.

Traditionally, tragedy presents an account of a man in high position, often placed there beyond or even against his own will, who, because of some fault in his character, or some folly, or even some unintentional mistake, meets personal catastrophe and falls. The story tells of his choices, his recognition of his dire situation, and his final struggle against the inevitable.

Tragic heroes may be both good and bad. They are often foolish, shortsighted, and ambitious, yet brave and courageous. They are sometimes wicked. They are people torn apart by their struggling within traps they themselves may have made.

The tragedy of Saul, seen in this classical perspective, is further enhanced by the Hebrew concept that loss of rapport with God is the worst of mortality’s hazards. Nothing is worse than having God depart from one’s life; no punishment is as bad as isolation from the Divine Presence. In Greek tragedy, to fight against one’s fate, even the dictum of the gods, is the highest of tragic effort—a noble enterprise. But for the Hebrews, to fight against their God was never admirable, never noble. It was rebellion, arrogance, and unthinkable pride. It was the very height of foolishness. Tragic Saul meets both classical and Hebrew perspectives. What makes his story truly tragic, however, is the fact that Saul is not a fictional character; he actually lived and suffered the consequences of his tragic failures.

Saul’s tragic flaw was pride, often manifested as a fear of criticism and a love of popular approval. This flaw resulted in a tendency to make significant errors in judgment that consistently resulted in complication and misfortune. But Saul also had great strength and courage. Faced with God’s condemnation, Saul did not duck or hide but turned toward his future with violent and almost foolhardy bravery, yet without repentance, and determined to fight the Lord’s condemnation. In his attempt to force God to reverse the divine decision against him, Saul changed from one who was humble and pure, chosen of the Lord to receive great promised blessings, to one who stood angry, alone, and impenitent.

Saul was elevated to high position almost against his will. Chosen by God, he was literally brought in off the street by Samuel the Prophet and notified of his calling. He was reluctant, and Samuel, as a sign of validity, told him not only what would happen to him on the way home, but also that he would be chosen by lot at the meeting of the tribes at Gilgal and publicly anointed king. When the lot fell upon him at Gilgal as Samuel had foretold, Saul was hiding, and the Lord had to reveal his whereabouts. This was a foreshadow of the pattern to come.

The high position Saul was brought to was difficult, to say the least. As the newly anointed king of Israel, he was actually a substitute. Jehovah was the true king of Israel. Samuel made this ominously clear to the people in his discourse to them on kingship before Saul was ever chosen. Saul, too, was clearly told of his tenuous position. He was to be the civil representative of the true king, Jehovah, whom the people had rejected. When Saul overreached his place as vassal to the real king, God rejected him. It is in Saul’s determined struggle against this fateful pronouncement that his character achieves tragic dimension and consequence.

Saul had many good qualities. At the beginning of this real-life drama, he showed a simple faith. Searching for his father’s lost asses, he was willing to ask Samuel, the seer, for revelation to find them. Later, after accepting his kingship, he proved wise in managing the people who opposed him. He was a strong leader and a courageous warrior. Victorious in battle at Jabesh-gilead, he was quick to give God the honor. In these early years, he was humble and exemplary, leading the people to know God’s superior will and power, willing to ask the prophet Samuel for counsel. And the Lord approved of Saul and gave him the spirit of prophecy and a new heart.

But, as time passed and Saul’s reign solidified, character traits appeared in Saul that resulted in catastrophe. He was impetuous, often rash in his judgments, almost thoughtless in his conclusions. Passionate, he was swift to anger, quick to violence. He stubbornly held strong allegiances that, at times, led to mistaken judgments, while at the same time forsaking other allegiances that would have helped him. He slowly became insensitive, even calloused, in his relationships with other people. To achieve his ends, he was willing to manipulate others, even his own loved ones. He feared criticism. He developed a great need for popular approval. This last weakness was the major consequence of his stubborn pride, which was his tragic flaw.

Saul’s insecurity showed early in the drama. Too often, under pressure, he chose to do what he thought would give him popular approval, regardless of an opposing commandment of God. For example, faced with an immense Philistine invasion—thirty thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and innumerable foot soldiers—Saul made such a decision. With only six hundred men, he had great need for divine help. Samuel had told him that he would come to make the required offerings before the battle. But as the Philistine horror built, Saul saw his people leaving. He took it upon himself to offer the required sacrifices as a means to hold people to him. When Samuel arrived, he condemned Saul. Saul said defensively that the people were scattering from him and that he “forced” himself to make the offerings, but Samuel answered, “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord.” (1 Sam. 13:13.)

In the battle that followed, Saul’s need for popular approval showed again. In a moment of zeal, Saul proclaimed a day of fasting. “Cursed be the man,” he cried, “that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies.” (1 Sam. 14:24.) Saul’s motive was good. He meant to secure the help of the Lord in winning a victory. But impetuously, he ruled that anyone who broke the fast should die. And that very morning, his son Jonathan, unaware of his father’s proclamation of the fast, had begun the battle with a heroic exploit against the Philistines. In the course of the battle that developed, Jonathan scooped some honey from a honeycomb and ate it. The soldiers who were with him told him of his father’s oath, and Jonathan replied that the fast was foolish—that soldiers should not go into battle on empty stomachs. Immediately, the soldiers took this as justification for breaking the fast, killing the animals they captured, even eating the meat with the blood, contrary to the law of Moses. When King Saul heard this, he quickly called for all to come to a central place so the meat could be rightly slaughtered and cooked, and the proper offerings made.

After the victory feasting was over, Saul again sought guidance from the Lord, but God did not answer. Saul blamed his separation from the Lord on the broken fast instead of on his own disobedience. He cried out that the man who caused this should die. The blame fell upon Jonathan, and when Jonathan reported what he had done, Saul said stubbornly, “Thou shalt surely die.” (1 Sam. 14:44.) But the people called out for Jonathan, saying that he had caused a great victory that day and that he shouldn’t die. Saul then changed his mind, granting his son amnesty. Not only was his proclamation of the fast not wise, but the threat of death to the violator of his edict was excessive and totally undeserved; it was meant to prove Saul’s devotion, and as such was dishonest and hypocritical.

Saul’s final rupture with the prophet Samuel and with the Lord was caused by this same weakness. The Lord commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites—every man, woman, and child; every ox, sheep, and camel; everything that belonged to the Amalekites. So Saul chased the enemy from Havilah to Shur, but he allowed his people to bring home the best sheep and oxen. Saul himself captured the Amalekite king, Agag, and proudly brought him back alive.

Confronted by Samuel, Saul made many excuses. He tried first to say that he had fulfilled the commandments of God, but Samuel rejected that—“What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Then Saul tried to blame it on the people, saying that the people had spared the best sheep and oxen “to sacrifice unto the Lord.” (1 Sam. 15:14–15.)

This is a high, climactic moment in the drama—the old prophet, loving Saul as a father loves an erring son, yet determined to deliver his fateful message from God, and Saul, desolate, convicted, lamely trying to justify himself but unable to do so. In words that surely would have been heavy with emotion, Samuel said, “I will tell thee what the Lord hath said to me this night.” And Saul, fearful, but determined to press on, replied, “Say on.” (1 Sam. 15:16.)

Samuel reminded Saul that the Lord had taken him when he was nothing and made him king over Israel, but now, when the Lord commanded him, he did not obey. Saul argued, “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord,” again blaming the people and ignoring the fact that he, the king, was responsible for the people bringing back the animals. Samuel answered him, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam. 15:17–22.)

Saul broke. He admitted his transgression, murmuring that he did it “because I feared the people, and I obeyed their voice.” Then he begged Samuel to forgive him, to turn again toward him, to be with him as of old that he might again be acceptable to the Lord. But Samuel would not: “Thou has rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to leave, Saul clutched at his mantle. It tore. Samuel prophesied, “The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.” (1 Sam. 15:24–28.)

This was the tragic moment of truth for Saul. Plaintively, Saul begged Samuel to stay to make offerings “before the elders of my people, and before Israel.” Samuel acquiesced in this, but, before doing so, he himself killed Agag, as the Lord had commanded Saul to do. And when the sacrifices were over, Samuel left, never to see Saul again in this life.

In fiction, tragic heroes struggle valiantly against their reversed fortune. In Saul’s case, truth shadows fiction, for he spent the rest of his life struggling against just such a reversal. Saul was no quitter. He was no coward. But he was proud and would not repent. Realizing that his blessings and kingdom had indeed been given to another, he looked about to see who this might be.

Before long, he decided that it was his foster son David, youthful hero of the combat with Goliath. After David’s victory, Saul had taken David into his own household. In time, David had grown to be a successful army commander, one whom Saul trusted. The realization that David was the one chosen of the Lord came as a shock to Saul. As Saul and his soldiers returned from victory, the people came out to meet them. Dancing and singing, the women proclaimed that Saul had slain his thousands, but that David had slain his tens of thousands. With mounting anger, Saul realized that David had the popularity he had so much wanted but had never fully received. From that moment on, Saul sought to take David’s life.

In his struggle against God, Saul’s efforts reached great intensity. His heart was torn; he saw not only his people leave him, but even members of his own family turn against him. Saul had hoped to use his daughter Michal as a temptation to get David killed by the Philistines. But David survived and married Michal. Later, she lied to her father and helped David escape when Saul commanded his soldiers to kill David while he slept.

Saul’s son Jonathan, his favorite and apparent heir to the kingdom, also loved David, admitting freely that he knew David would rule in his place. He beseeched David not to destroy his children when that time came. Old King Saul, heartsick and angry, struggling to maintain the kingdom and give it to Jonathan, spoke to his son: “As long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom. Wherefore now send and fetch him unto me, for he shall surely die.” (1 Sam. 20:31.) But Jonathan defended David, and Saul, angered beyond control, cast his spear at his own son.

Jonathan helped David flee into the wilderness. There David’s followers gathered about him, hiding in the hills and mountain fortresses by the Dead Sea. David had already sought out Samuel the prophet for counsel and advice. He also went to the priests at Nob for help, and Saul, hearing of this, had the priests and their families put to death.

Saul had lost all control. As he struggled against the decision of God, personified in David, he became more and more aware that his efforts were futile. But this dawning recognition was at war with his stubborn will. There was no fault in David—David respected Saul as the anointed of the Lord. Twice he spared Saul’s life—first in the dark cave at En-Gedi, and second in Saul’s camp in the wilderness of Ziff. Realizing this, Saul wept and cried aloud, admitting his evil to David and calling out plaintively to him that he, too, knew that David would surely be king over Israel.

The final days of Saul’s tragic life are heightened by his growing paranoia and his terrible need for help outside himself. Formerly, he had been able to appeal to God, to the prophet Samuel, and to the priests. Now, however, “when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” (1 Sam. 28:6.) He was completely alone. Samuel was dead, and Saul himself had murdered the priests. Saul’s own family no longer respected him. The people whom he had sought to serve refused to support him.

“All of you have conspired against me,” Saul cried at Gibeah. “There is none of you that is sorry for me.” (1 Sam. 22:8.) Yet Saul did not repent; neither did he change.

At the last, faced by a vast horde of Philistines gathered at Mount Gilboa to do battle against him, Saul was filled with fear. Crazed and abandoned, he turned at last to those he had formerly condemned. In disguise, he went to the witch of Endor, a spiritualist, and asked her to call up Samuel from the dead.

This is the great culminating event in Saul’s descent to evil. Saul had completed his personal tragedy. Originally clean and pure, chosen by the Lord himself and given a new heart, Saul had been personally directed by the prophet of God. But now he sought revelation through a witch. He had become a liar, an equivocator, a cheat, a thief, and a murderer. Now, confused in mind and darkened in spirit, he sought help from satanic sources. It was a powerful moment. A deceiving spirit, appearing as Samuel, rebuked Saul and pronounced the final curse: “The Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines … Tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me.” (1 Sam. 28:19; see also 1 Sam. 28:15.)

It was the end. But Saul did not weep or don sackcloth in ashes. Beyond repentance, he turned deliberately toward the impending battle, perhaps in the dreaded hope that he might yet disprove this last prophecy. But in the great battle that followed, as he looked around and saw his three sons lying dead beside him, Saul himself, already wounded by archers, fell upon his sword and died.

Tragically, the ironic spiral of Saul’s life ended where it began. It was at Gilgal that young Saul was ordained king; it was also at Gilgal that he was condemned by the Lord. And it was by Mount Gilboa where, in the power of the Lord, Saul had won his first great battle against the Ammonites, rescuing Jabesh-gilead, unifying Israel, and establishing his reign. It was again by Mount Gilboa that he fought his last battle—but this time under God’s condemnation. The battle, kingdom, and Saul’s life were lost.

Saul’s tale is full of tragic cyclic ironies, from his initial unwillingness to accept the honor of being king to the final irony of his dying by his own hand in order to maintain that honor. It is ironic that he should take into his own house David, his already anointed successor, and that David should marry Saul’s daughter and become a prince in Saul’s own household. It is ironic that Saul’s great son Jonathan, obviously Saul’s choice as heir, preferred David, his rival, even over himself, and willingly and even thankfully saved David’s life while Saul sought to destroy him.

It is ironic that Saul, seeking to destroy David, only heightened David’s popularity and strengthened David’s position. Saul, having been given the great calling (“for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel forever”) and the freedom to function within it, allowed himself through pride and fear, jealousy and anger, to lose control and compel his own destruction (“but now thy kingdom shall not continue”). Saul, in seeking to force the original blessings, found himself at last at war against the very forces that could have granted them. Ironically, his actions forced Samuel, who loved him, to condemn him and tell him that the Lord had deposed him.

The life of Saul, king of Israel, as we have it in the Bible, contains many of the elements of tragedy, making it one of the most moving and instructive accounts in all the scriptures.

Richard G. Ellsworth, professor emeritus of English at Brigham Young University, serves as high priests group leader in the Oak Hills First Ward, Oak Hills Utah Stake.