A Trust that Saves: A Study of the Differences between David and Saul

tree in desert david and saul

One of the easiest traps to fall into when reading the Bible is to read it as a collection of hero stories and to try to extract “life lessons” from observing the characters within. (In actuality, the Bible is moreso an expansive, multi-millennia story about God’s actions on this Earth to bring the human race back into relationship with himself.) But, I do think there are lessons to be learned from study of characters in Scripture.

One of the clearest character juxtapositions in the Bible seems to be that of two of Israel’s kings, David and Saul, as detailed in the Books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: David has this intriguing, almost excessive trust in God whereas Saul, although a “religious” man, at the end of the day, won’t put anything in God’s hands.

I never noticed this until recently when I read through much of 1 and 2 Samuel quickly while studying the Message translation. There are handfuls of brilliant and sometimes comical details in the narrative which illustrate this. Let me start with Saul.

Saul’s Need for Control

There are some strange events that happen in Saul’s life as king. But one way to summarize these events is through the lens of Saul’s fundamental lack of trust in God. The first example comes early in Saul’s reign. While Saul is in preparation for one of the largest battles of his early career, Samuel, the prophet of Israel who anointed Saul as king, tells Saul to wait until he returns prior to entering the battle. However, with each passing day Saul becomes increasingly nervous and fearful that his troops will abandon him. So, contrary to Samuel’s orders, Saul calls another priest to his side and sacrifices an animal to God to try to earn God’s blessing before entering battle. When Samuel returns just a day later, he chastises Saul in a way that seems harsher than Saul perhaps deserves. But the fundamental thing about this situation is that it revealed a deep problem in Saul’s heart. Saul essentially believed that by using his sacrifice on the altar he could conjure up God’s power and favor to be used as he saw fit. Here we get the first sense that Saul views relationship with God as ritual or superstition, not all that different from how the surrounding nations interacted with their gods.

The next example where we see how Saul relates to God is after the battle commences. The Israelites are struggling yet Saul’s son Jonathan sneaks off with his companion and with a great deal of trust in God miraculously begins a promising route of the enemy soldiers (1 Samuel 14:6), simply believing that God can win even with a small army. Saul and the rest of the forces then join in. Next Saul, as if trying to make up for his earlier religious error of sacrificing the animal too soon, then orders that none of his soldiers can eat until they win—a strange and superstitious rule that is just foolish, for his army is depleted of energy. God had never commanded fasting and, in reality, God was already delivering the victory through Jonathan’s simple trust. Yet Saul somehow feels he needs to issue his superstitious edict about fasting. Again we see that Saul’s way of relating to God is not based on trust. It’s based on what Saul does—executing the perfect rituals—to gain God’s favor and achieve victory.

As the battle continues on, at one point Saul seeks a message from God and God does not answer. Saul is in turmoil and fears that someone has caused God’s silence by breaking Saul’s superstitious ruling to fast until the battle is won. Saul orders that if anyone has broken the fast, he is to be killed. Ironically, Saul’s son Jonathan had eaten some honey earlier that day, having not heard Saul’s edict not to eat until complete victory was achieved. When Saul discovers that Jonathan has broken the fast, Saul turns to kill his own son. Fortunately, the rest of the soldiers effectively tell Saul that he’s gone crazy with his superstitions and they protect Jonathan saying “Jonathan’s…been working hand in hand with God all day” (1 Samuel 14:45). In other words, it isn’t a silly thing like eating honey that reflects whether someone is with God or not, Saul needed to look at the big picture. Jonathan’s simple trust in God started the whole victory. It was Saul who was interacting with God in a wrong way, failing to trust in God and only resting in his pseudoreligious superstitions.

Interestingly, Saul’s life ends by consulting a medium. He prays to God but doesn’t get an answer through dream, sign, or prophet. So although he had earlier banished mediums from the land, he now seeks out one, demonstrating that in times of crisis, he’ll once again take matters into the only hands he trusts–his own.

David’s Extreme Trust

So how does Saul’s relationship to God differ from David’s? When I read the stories of David’s life, many of his decisions strike me as peculiar. The stories seem other-worldly, not something an actual human being would do. That is because David’s trust in God’s sovereignty so far exceeds almost anything we see in all of Scripture. To be certain, David commits a number of sins during his reign and his trust is not infallible, but he is nonetheless an outlier with his total belief in God’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty simply means ‘total power and control’, and that is what David believes God has in every situation. Here are some brilliant examples:

First, David faces off against Goliath without any fear. Some superficially see this story as perhaps a carefully constructed patriotic anachronism from Jewish history, but the story is completely in line with David’s character in every other part of Scripture. David simply and absolutely believes he can defeat Goliath, a seasoned enemy soldier, even though David is a mere boy. David is not overly confidant about his own abilities, instead, he believes that the victory will come from God. Before David heads out to the battlefield, he shouts that “Everyone gathered here will learn that God doesn’t save by means of sword or spear” (1 Samuel 17:47).

As an aside, one of the most peculiar things to me about the whole scene is the fact that after David kills Goliath the entire enemy army flees. From everything we know from the text, the Philistines were a more powerful army than the Israelites, and even though they lost one of their greatest warriors, the could have still overpowered the Israelites. But instead they run. What had terrified them so much was not David’s strength, but David’s spiritual claims. Before entering battle, David had shouted that his God would win the victory and that weapons were useless. And when Goliath fell in an instant from a tiny stone, the Philistines were swept with a fear of the supernatural. What David had claimed had just come true.

This was just the first example of David’s radical trust in God.

David is ultimately forced to flee Saul, who wants to kill him. During David’s many years living on the run in the wilderness, his total trust in God comes out in what seems to us to be strange ways. For example, David has already been anointed by Samuel the prophet and told that God will make him king. But David will not do anything to artificially speed up the transfer of power.

One time, when Saul and his army are out hunting David, David has a chance to kill the unsuspecting Saul when Saul enters a cave all alone. But rather than kill Saul and advance to the throne immediately, David let’s Saul go free, saying that God alone has sovereignty over Saul’s life: “God may avenge me, but it is in his hands, not mine” (1 Samuel 24).

Then, similarly, one evening David and one of his soldiers sneak into Saul’s camp and into Saul’s tent (1 Samuel 26). Presented with the opportunity to kill Saul, David does not do it and will not allow his soldiers to. David again, is overwhelmed with the conviction that God is in control of Saul’s life and David cannot end it. As David says, “As God lives, either God will strike him, or his time will come and he’ll die in bed, or he’ll fall in battle, but God forbid that I should lay a finger on God’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:10-11).

At multiple times someone comes to David having killed one of David’s enemies and expecting to get a reward (2 Samuel 4), yet each time David is appalled at their cold-blooded murder and their offense at trying to accelerate God’s timing and take matters into their own hands.

Even as David’s reign is overthrown in a coup by his son and David flees Jerusalem he exhibits this same perspective. For example, as they are fleeing, a man along the road pelts David with rocks and insults. When his companions offer to kill the man, David restrains them, acknowledging that perhaps God has orchestrated this moment for the humbling of David (2 Samuel 16:10). Even more astonishing, as David is fleeing, the temple priests start to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which held the ancient and spiritually powerful artifacts of Israel—such as the tablets containing the 10 commandments from the days of Moses. The leaders of Israel had long used the Ark as a way to summon God’s power and presence, such as bringing it into battle. But David, rather than trying to hold onto the Ark for his own benefit, tells the priests to return it to the city and the house of God, where it belongs. Radically, David tells the priests:

 “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 15:25-26)

As this passage shows, David even holds his position on the throne lightly; he is willing to turn it all over if God so desires.

The Lesson of David and Saul

The stories of Saul and David are multilayered. But at minimum, they raise profound questions for me to consider. Who is God to me? Will I relate to God like Saul—seeking God only when I need Him and relating to Him only through religion and superstition? And in the end, if He is slow to speak or silent, will I trust only in myself?

Or can I move forward to a place, like David, where I am placing extreme trust in His timing and control of my life?

Everything in Scripture points to a truer reality and foreshadows Jesus, so we know that these stories about Saul and David ultimately remind us of the two ways of relating to God. We either trust in ourselves, our hard work, and our religion for salvation or we can come to recognize that it is only God who saves. He has already sacrificed, He has already done it, we only need to learn to trust.

May I, like David, be known for an other-worldly reliance on God. It is really the only path to follow, both in this life and to the next.