The death of Saul – when there’s no way back to God

From our daily Bible reading: 1 Samuel 28-31
April 4, 2019

The book of 1 Samuel ends with what I think is one of the saddest endings to any story in the Old Testament, and that is the death of Saul.

In this book, we’ve seen Saul’s beginning from a humble and somewhat timid man from a small clan of the tribe of Benjamin, to a man named by Samuel to be king. He unites the tribes of Israel to some degree and has a good deal of success in defeating the armies of the Philistines. But Saul’s character has a fatal flaw that eventually led to his downfall.

By today’s standards, some would consider Saul to be a man of faith. He did a lot of positive things in Israel such as clamping down on idolatry and sorcery and other pagan elements, which continued to influence Israel because of the surrounding nations. We see a man who seems to have at least some desire to be right with God, and does take some steps to follow God’s law and lead the people in that direction as well.

But Saul had two issues: he wanted to hold on to his kingdom above all else, and he lacked a true faith in the God who had given it to him in the first place. That has led him to focus on pacifying and uniting the people over doing God’s will. It has led him to make rash vows, desperately trying to convince the people of his own righteousness and worthiness to hold the throne, even as he proved himself unworthy by disobeying God’s commands and then attempting to justify that disobedience by citing extenuating circumstances, or by blaming the demands of the people.

Saul’s wants to serve God, but how badly?

By the time we get to chapter 28, Saul has degenerated into a paranoid, isolated man who sees his kingdom slipping away, knows exactly why God has deserted him, and yet is unwilling to do the one thing that might save his life, which was to acknowledge his sin before God, truly repent of his actions, and gracefully hand the kingdom over to David.

Saul finds himself isolated after Samuel’s death, having ordered the high priest and his family killed in a fit of jealousy and having been essentially cut off from God’s council. Facing a huge invading Philistine army, Saul goes to a seer to speak with Samuel. It’s hard to imagine what he expects to hear, as Samuel had told him time and again what he needed to do while he was alive. But we see Saul at a level of desperation that he is clinging to hope that he might hear something by which he could get back into God’s graces and win this last battle. And it fits the pattern of Saul’s life – a man who generally wanted to have a relationship with God and likely would have seen himself as serving God, and yet one who continually put God’s law aside in order to obtain God’s blessing, thinking that God would excuse him due to his station or due to the severity of his need.

It’s reminiscent of how we read about Esau, a prophane man who sold his birthright and lost his blessing, as Hebrews 12:16 says he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” But the true tragedy is that Saul had every chance to repent. He simply refused to do it, because as much as he wanted God’s blessing, he wanted his kingdom more, and he wanted the esteem of the people more. And so Saul violates God’s law yet again, visits the seer, who calls up Samuel to tell him exactly what he already knew: that Saul and his sons would die, and that his kingdom would be given to David.

Is there a point of no return from sin?

We often ask if there’s a point where God will no longer take us back, and we see passages like Hebrews 10:26-29

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? Hebrews 10:26-29

Saul gives us a perfect example of how this passage comes about, because the problem is not that God would not forgive Saul. The problem is that Saul couldn’t see a way back to God that would allow him to continue in his current state. The moment we’re ready to turn away from sin is the moment God is ready to take us back. But we can get to a point where we’re simply unwilling to let go of the thing that’s causing us to be lost.

Next reading: 2 Samuel 1-3

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