Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,
It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
The battle of Michmash was a great turning point for the nation of Israel. Ending in the overwhelming victory which it did, it broke the strangle-hold which the Philistines had upon their land. So completely had the Philistines dominated their land that every weapon of war, except for those of Saul and Jonathan, had been taken from them and every smith capable of producing weapons too. In the eyes of the nations, Israel had been rendered entirely incapable of waging battle. But their God was with them, and with one sweeping blow all of this was changed. A great victory was won, and from the plunder of the battle more than sufficient weapons were gathered to supply a sizable army. Once again Israel was a force to be reckoned with in Canaan.
Neither was it only in the extent of their armament that the change was to be found. In Jonathan, the people saw the faith of God working and accomplishing things which by any other measure was utterly impossible. To it they responded. A new courage and confidence began to spread through the land such as had not been known for many years. The people began to recognize the heathen nations to be their enemies, and they were ready in the name of the Lord to go into battle against them.
In fact, even in Saul a certain change seemed to take place. It was true that he had not conducted himself particularly well at Michmash, even to the point of having to be countermanded by the people. But the feelings of the people were favorable, and they were quick to forget and forgive. With their new confidence over against the enemy, the people began to rally behind their king as never before; and it was to this kind of an attitude that Saul responded with his best. He was not a man of great discernment, he was not a man of courage, and he certainly was not a man of humility; but there was a certain graciousness of character about him which could come out when the circumstances were right. Feeling the surge of popular support behind him, Saul began to act almost as a king should. He recognized the religious nature of Israel and gave acknowledgment to Jehovah in words and ceremonial observances; he gathered behind him a large army and went out to war against all of Israel’s enemies; he began to develop and set forth the kind of pomp and circumstance which the people love to see in a king. The golden period of Saul’s reign had begun.
We do not know just how long this lasted. It must have been fairly long, for the accomplishments were considerable. Feeling the strength of Israel’s victory over the Philistines behind him, Saul gathered together a large army and sallied forth to do battle with the enemies of Israel on every side. It was a wonderful experience for: Israel as one by one the heathen enemies, before whom they had trembled so long, were found to be helpless against the strength of Israel and the power of Israel’s God. We are not given the details of this period; but we may well presume that Jonathan, his courage and his strength, played a large part in it all. But also Saul, apparently, was able to overcome his natural tendency toward cowardice so as to stand at the head of his army and reflect a certain valiantness in battle: Being king, these exploits of Saul received the greatest attention; and for every new victory Saul received the greater part of the credit. For the children of Israel, it was a new experience and almost unbelievable that their small nation could be so invincible. Day by day the adulation of Saul by the people grew; and, when the booty of battle began to pour in and the nation became wealthy besides, it went almost beyond measure. Stories were circulated of his every deed, Songs were sung to his praise. His name was honored by the lips of everyone.
It was this that Saul loved more than anything else. Although he never would have admitted it, it formed the real and basic reason for his wanting to be king. He was concerned about Israel as a nation, but only because he found in Israel the means for obtaining his own praise. He was ready to give religious recognition to Jehovah God, but only because he felt that somehow the ceremonial recognition of God held the key to his own glory. For Saul, his own glorification was the primary purpose of all life; and once he had actually tasted of its addicting sweetness, it drove him with compulsion to want more and more and more. He never tired of the praises of the people and their shouts of adulation. To obtain more and more of it, he moved from campaign to campaign and from battle to battle, always determined that each time his own reputation would surely soar to ever new heights of recognition. And it worked—until, that is, he came to the battle with the Amalekites.
Even this campaign began well enough. In fact, Samuel came to him with a special commission from God. He said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the word of the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel, and ass.”
To Saul’s way of thinking, this commission in itself was flattering enough. Traditionally the Amalekites had been among the most bitter and most repulsive of Israel’s enemies. Not only were they descendants of Esau the antagonist brother of their father Jacob, but when Israel was passing through the wilderness, they had made themselves abhorrent by attacking and practicing atrocities upon the weak and defenseless Israelites who straggled behind in the wilderness march. That he should be given the task of making reprisal for this and so justifying both Jehovah and His people over them, was a singular distinction and honor.
With enthusiasm and zeal, Saul gave himself to the preparing of the campaign against the Amalekites. He sent a special call throughout the land and brought together the largest army he had had for any campaign, two hundred thousand men plus ten thousand more from Judah. It was a wonderfully large army and a wonderful feeling to lead it out into the field of battle.
The battle itself was nothing spectacular. There was never any doubt but that Israel was in complete control of it from the very start. In fact, Saul even held up the battle for a time to allow the Kenites, a people traditionally friendly to Israel, time to escape. Once Saul gave the command to attack, the Amalekites were helpless before them and their armies were slaughtered at will. The difficulty came when Saul and his men returned from the battle to the task of annihilating what remained of the nation, both people and possessions. It was not particularly that Saul wanted the booty for himself. In the last few years he had gathered enough of that to be sufficiently wealthy, and besides, his ambitions, did not run especially along those lines. Moreover, Saul realized that the Amalekites were cursed in a special way by Jehovah and their annihilation was required just as Jericho’s had been in the days of Joshua. It was just that somehow it didn’t seem right to have to return home to his people with nothing but a verbal report of what had happened. How could they be expected to feel what a wonderful victory he had won? How would they be able to understand, what a great thing he had done in Jehovah’s behalf? If only he could bring back something visible, something tangible for them to see and feel and know what he had done. For example, there was Agag the king of the Amalekites bound and humbled before him. If he would slay him out here on the battle field, that would be the end of the matter and no one would think any more of it. But if he could parade him bound and fettered before the people, O how the people loved to see a monarch captured alive and humbled by Israel. Afterward he could still kill him, and what would be the difference? And then there were all the fattened cattle for which the Amalekites were famous. Already he had received several requests from the men to allow them to keep at least some. He realized that they had to be sacrificed for God; but why couldn’t he take them home and make of them a great sacrificial feast in which all of the people could participate? Already Saul could feel the excitement of such a great festival as all of Israel gathered about him in praise and adoration, feasting and gazing upon the mighty Agag whom he had humbled. Could even Jehovah fail to be pleased with that? With sudden resolve, Saul determined to do it, although underneath he knew full well that he might hope never to have to explain his decision to Samuel.
But even as Saul made his way back to Israel, God was preparing Samuel for just such a meeting. At eventide, He came and said to Samuel, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments.” It was a devastating blow. Oh, Samuel had felt all along that there was something terribly superficial about Saul, something insincere. But still he had come rather to like that man; and in fact he had not felt himself unmoved with the enthusiasm he inspired among the people. And he had really hoped that given a bit more experience Saul would come to understand his duty and responsibility to Jehovah more seriously. And even if he couldn’t, there was still Jonathan next in line for the throne. Surely he was a young man beyond compare. Could not the Lord wait for him to be king? It grieved Samuel no end, and all night long he spent in anguished petition for, Saul and Jonathan. But the word of the Lord was unchanging, and with the morning all Samuel could do was go to find Saul.
It took some hunting for Samuel. At times it seemed that Saul had purposely tried to avoid him; but at last he found him at Gilgal.
For Saul, the trip home had been a wonderful, exhilarating experience. Before his chariot walked Agag humbly dragging his heavy fetters; behind him came his men driving the best and most beautiful cattle of the Amalekites; about him flocked the people of Israel wildly shouting their praise and adoration, it seemed to Saul, as never before. This was for Saul sheer joy, so much so that his inward uneasiness at going against Samuel’s command at times almost seemed to disappear. Of this much Saul was sure, it was well worth it. Especially was this, so when he arrived at Gilgal and began to make plans for that great day of sacrifice and feasting when all Israel would be gathered about him to sing his praises. With heady excitement, Saul worked at making preparations, until, that is, he lifted his eyes and saw Samuel approaching.
At the moment he saw him, Saul knew that there was trouble in the old prophet’s eyes. And yet, for lack of anything better to do, he had to try to forestall it; and with a bold pretended innocence, he hurried to meet the prophet and said, “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
But Samuel was no one to be feigned from the point. His answer was a cold, cutting, rhetorical question, “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” The sheep themselves were beyond the range of human hearing; but Saul knew what Samuel meant. He had been discovered in his sin.