Saul’s nondescript background, without confidence or political acumen, did not prognosticate how he would turn out as Israel’s first king (15:17). Over the prophet Samuel’s objection, Yahweh gave in to the Israelites’ desire for a king to rule over them (1 Sam 8). He even invested His Spirit in Saul to give him a head start (10:6; 11:6). How does a normal person like Saul, the hope of a budding nation, turn into someone who abused his divinely appointed powers, was accountable to no one, deviously transparent and ultimately, consorting with witches? The Amalekite incident gives us some insight into his self-destruction (15:1-33).
God’s instruction through Samuel was plain and direct – strike down every living thing among the Amalekites, as He was severely judging them for their atrocities, injustices and vindictiveness (Ex 17:16; 15:2). Although they were descendants of Esau and related to Israel, they were bent on Israel’s total annihilation, and took the earliest opportunity to attack a defenseless ragtag people just coming out of slavery, as they left Egypt at Rephidim. Barring God’s intervention, the well-armed Amalekites would have decimated them (Ex 17:8-15). After defeating the Amalekites, Samuel confronted King Saul, and immediately pronounced God’s judgment. God’s expectations were clear – unlike the nations’ kings who were not accountable to Him, Saul was to explicitly obey His instructions to the letter. The existing model of empire building, with the acquisition of wealth by conquests and enslavement were contrary to the truth and justice principles of God’s central basis for wars. Wars for Israel were never about the spoils, the power plays, or territorial expansion. Saul’s disobedience was such a serious infraction because it was a step backwards after all the battles fought on God’s terms earlier, with the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines and others (13-14).
The last conversation between Samuel and Saul sounded like they were on different wavelengths. Saul chose to hide behind religiosity as his excuse for saving the best Amalekite sheep and oxen (15:21-22), but did it never occur to him that what he did amounted to rebellion and insubordination (15:23): would not a soldier-king be even more cognizant of that? Like all self-deceptions, he denied and rationalized away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical thinking, ultimately making himself believe something that isn’t really true (Jer 17:9). There lies the root for the eventual justification for evil.
Further delusion about himself was displayed at Carmel, when he set up a monument to proclaim himself as the mighty victor over the Amalekites, surfacing his deep insecurity in God. One would have thought he had no basis for that, after all God had accomplished through him! When cornered, he arrogantly blamed his subjects for his actions (15:12, 24). Of course God knew that Saul would be self-deceived, but this costly lesson were for the fledgling Jewish nation and us. Self-deceptions are reminiscent of our deep human character flaw portrayed by Adam and Eve at their fall, masquerading as an obsessive need for self-approval, despite God deeply valuing us. To be secure in Christ is to be able to humbly handle disappointments and criticisms (Heb 10:1-10), as we intentionally work through our blind spots and anxieties within a community of faithful believers who are graciously transparent and accountable to each other, and who dare challenge our inconsistencies, habits and lifestyles. To be without such close friends is to be deceived by our own self-sufficiency and individualism, which goes against the very tenets of our position in the body of Christ.