The first king of the Israelite nation. He was of the tribe of Benjamin and was the son of Kish (probably his only son, and a child of prayer, “asked for”).
The unique providential circumstances connected with his election as king are recorded in 1 Samuel 8-10. His father's she-asses had strayed, and Saul was sent with a servant to seek for them. Leaving his home at Gibeah (10:5, “the hill of God,” Authorized Version; literally, as in the Revised Version marginal note: “Gibeah of God”), Saul and his servant went toward the northwest over Mount Ephraim, and then turning northeast they came to “the land of Shalisha,” and thence eastward to the land of Shalim, and at length came to the district of Zuph, near Samuel's home at Ramah (9:5-10). At this point Saul proposed to return from the three days' fruitless search, but his servant suggested that they should first consult the “seer.” Hearing that he was about to offer sacrifice, the two hastened into Ramah, and “behold, Samuel came out against them,” on his way to the “Bamah,” i.e., the “height,” where sacrifice was to be offered; and in answer to Saul's question, “Tell me, I pray thee, where the seer's house is,” Samuel made himself known to him.
Samuel had been divinely prepared for his coming (9:15-17), and received Saul as his guest. He took him with him to the sacrifice, and then after the feast “communed with Saul upon the top of the house” of all that was in his heart. On the next day Samuel “took a vial of oil and poured it on his head,” and anointed Saul as king over Israel (9:25-10:8), giving him three signs in confirmation of his call to be king.
When Saul reached his home in Gibeah the last of these signs was fulfilled, and the Spirit of God came upon him, and “he was turned into another man.” The simple countryman was transformed into the king of Israel, a remarkable change suddenly took place in his whole demeanour, and the people said in their astonishment, as they looked on the stalwart son of Kish, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”, a saying which passed into a “proverb.” (Compare 19:24.)
The communication between Saul and Samuel was as yet unknown to the people. The “anointing” had been in secret. But now the time had come when the transaction must be confirmed by the nation. Samuel accordingly summoned the people to a solemn assembly “before the Lord” at Mizpeh. Here the lot was drawn (10:17-27), and it fell upon Saul, and when he was presented before them, the stateliest man in all Israel, the air was rent for the first time in Israel by the loud cry, “God save the king!”
He now returned to his home in Gibeah, attended by a kind of bodyguard, “a band of men whose hearts God had touched.” On reaching his home he dismissed them, and resumed the quiet toils of his former life.
Soon after this, on hearing of the conduct of Nahash the Ammonite at Jabeshgilead (q.v.), an army out of all the tribes of Israel rallied at his summons to the trysting-place at Bezek, and he led them forth a great army to battle, gaining a complete victory over the Ammonite invaders at Jabesh (11:1-11).
Amid the universal joy occasioned by this victory he was now fully recognized as the king of Israel. At the invitation of Samuel “all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.” Samuel now officially anointed him as king (11:15). Although Samuel never ceased to be a judge in Israel, yet now his work in that capacity practically came to an end.
Saul now undertook the great and difficult enterprise of freeing the land from its hereditary enemies the Philistines, and for this end he gathered together an army of 3,000 men (1 Samuel 13:1, 2). The Philistines were encamped at Geba. Saul, with 2,000 men, occupied Michmash and Mount Bethel; while his son Jonathan, with 1,000 men, occupied Gibeah, to the south of Geba, and seemingly without any direction from his father “smote” the Philistines in Geba.
Thus roused, the Philistines, who gathered an army of 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen, and “people as the sand which is on the sea-shore in multitude,” encamped in Michmash, which Saul had evacuated for Gilgal. Saul now tarried for seven days in Gilgal before making any movement, as Samuel had appointed (10:8); but becoming impatient on the seventh day, as it was drawing to a close, when he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Samuel appeared and warned him of the fatal consequences of his act of disobedience, for he had not waited long enough (13:13-14).
When Saul, after Samuel's departure, went out from Gilgal with his 600 men, his followers having decreased to that number (13:15), against the Philistines at Michmash (q.v.), he had his headquarters under a pomegranate tree at Migron, over against Michmash, the Wady es Suweinit alone intervening. Here at Gibeah-Geba, Saul and his army rested, uncertain what to do. Jonathan became impatient, and with his armour-bearer planned an assault against the Philistines, unknown to Saul and the army (14:1-15). Jonathan and his armour-bearer went down into the wady, and on their hands and knees climbed to the top of the narrow rocky ridge called Bozez, where was the outpost of the Philistine army. They surprised and then slew twenty of the Philistines, and immediately the whole host of the Philistines was thrown into disorder and fled in great terror. “It was a very great trembling;” a supernatural panic seized the host.
Saul and his 600 men, a band which speedily increased to 10,000, perceiving the confusion, pursued the army of the Philistines, and the tide of battle rolled on as far as to Bethaven, halfway between Michmash and Bethel. The Philistines were totally routed. “So the Lord saved Israel that day.”
While pursuing the Philistines, Saul rashly adjured the people, saying, “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening.” But though faint and weary, the Israelites “smote the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon” (a distance of from 15 to 20 miles). Jonathan had, while passing through the wood in pursuit of the Philistines, tasted a little of the honeycomb which was abundant there (14:27). This was afterwards discovered by Saul (verse 42), and he threatened to put his son to death. The people, however, interposed, saying, “There shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground.” He whom God had so signally owned, who had “wrought this great salvation in Israel,” must not die. “Then Saul went up from following the Philistines: and the Philistines went to their own place” (1 Samuel 14:24-46); and thus the campaign against the Philistines came to an end. This was Saul's second great military success.
Saul's reign, however, continued to be one of almost constant war against his enemies round about (14:47, 48), in all of which he proved victorious. The war against the Amalekites is the only one which is recorded at length (1 Samuel 15). These oldest and hereditary (Exodus 17:8; Numbers 14:43-45) enemies of Israel occupied the territory to the south and southwest of Israel. Samuel summoned Saul to execute the “ban” which God had pronounced (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) on this cruel and relentless foe of Israel. The cup of their iniquity was now full.
This command was “the test of his moral qualification for being king.” Saul proceeded to execute the divine command; and gathering the people together, marched from Telaim (1 Samuel 15:4) against the Amalekites, whom he smote “from Havilah until thou comest to Shur,” utterly destroying “all the people with the edge of the sword,” i.e., all that fell into his hands. He was, however, guilty of rebellion and disobedience in sparing Agag their king, and in conniving at his soldiers' sparing the best of the sheep and cattle; and Samuel, following Saul to Gilgal, in the Jordan valley, said unto him, “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he also hath rejected thee from being king” (15:23). The kingdom was rent from Saul and was given to another, even to David, whom the Lord chose to be Saul's successor, and whom Samuel anointed (16:1-13). From that day “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.” He and Samuel parted only to meet once again at one of the schools of the prophets.
David was now sent for as a “cunning player on an harp” (1 Samuel 16:16-18), to play before Saul when the evil spirit troubled him, and thus was introduced to the court of Saul. He became a great favorite with the king.
At length David returned to his father's house and to his wonted avocation as a shepherd for perhaps some three years.
The Philistines once more invaded the land, and gathered their army between Shochoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim, on the southern slope of the valley of Elah. Saul and the men of Israel went forth to meet them, and encamped on the northern slope of the same valley which lay between the two armies. It was here that David slew Goliath of Gath, the champion of the Philistines (17:4-54), an exploit which led to the flight and utter defeat of the Philistine army.
Saul now took David permanently into his service (18:2); but he became jealous of him (verse 9), and on many occasions showed his enmity toward him (verses 10-11), his enmity ripening into a purpose of murder which at different times he tried in vain to carry out.
After some time the Philistines “gathered themselves together” in the plain of Esdraelon, and pitched their camp at Shunem, on the slope of Little Hermon; and Saul “gathered all Israel together,” and “pitched in Gilboa” (1 Samuel 28:3-14). Being unable to discover the mind of the Lord, Saul, accompanied by two of his retinue, betook himself to the “witch of Endor,” some 7 or 8 miles distant. Here he was overwhelmed by the startling communication that was mysteriously made to him by Samuel (verses 16-19), who appeared to him. “He fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel” (verse 20).
The Philistine host “fought against Israel: and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell down slain in Mount Gilboa” (31:1). In his despair at the disaster that had befallen his army, Saul “took a sword and fell upon it.” And the Philistines on the morrow “found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mount Gilboa.” Having cut off his head, they sent it with his weapons to Philistia, and hung up the skull in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod. They suspended his headless body, with that of Jonathan, from the walls of Bethshan. The men of Jabesh-Gilead afterwards removed the bodies from this position; and having burnt the flesh, they buried the bodies under a tree at Jabesh. The remains were, however, afterwards removed to the family sepulchre at Zelah (2 Samuel 21:13, 14). (See David.)