“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” God said to Samuel. “For it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their king.”
Thus, a young man named Saul from the tribe of Benjamin became the first king. In the beginning, Saul actually looked a promising prospect to be king. First of all, he had a “kingly appearance.” We are told that he was “choice and handsome, without equal among the Israelites.” He was tall—a head taller than any of the people.
We may know that appearance is not a fair indicator of character, but admittedly, people will more readily follow a leader who has an impressive appearance rather than someone whose appearance exhibits weakness. But Saul’s physical characteristics were not the only things that made him seem like he had been a good choice for king.
In the beginning, Saul seemed to be a rather humble young man. You will remember that when he met Samuel, the prophet greeted him by saying, “And upon whom is all the desire of Israel, if not upon you and all your father’s house?”
In his humility, Saul did not react to this high praise as if it were a compliment. Rather he said, “Am I not a Benjamite from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of Benjamin? So why would you say such a thing to me?”
Then, when Saul was named king in the presence of the entire nation, he could not be found in order for Samuel to present him to the people. Like a shy and timid first-grader, Saul had hidden himself, rather than stand before the crowd.
Also, once he had been found and all recognized him as their king, Saul did not then immediately begin to take full advantage of the “rights of kingship” that Samuel had spoken of earlier. The people themselves were enthusiastic about the choice of their king, but Saul himself seemed unmoved by his sudden popularity. He did not immediately begin to plan for a palace to set up for his kingship.
All the people shouted, “Long live the king!” But Saul simply went back to his home in the unassuming town of Gibeah, where presumably, he continued his life as if nothing had changed.
It was not until his people were threatened did Saul begin to presume his role as king of the land.
Jabesh-gilead is Besieged
Jabesh-gilead was a city some distance to the north and actually on the opposite side of the Jordan river from Saul’s home in Gibeah. To the east of the city of Jabesh was the land of the Ammonites. One day the Ammonites, led by their commander Nahash, came in force to lay siege to the city of Jabesh. The force of the Ammonites was so strong that the men of the city, sensing that they had no better option, said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.”
The commander agreed, but only on the condition that all the men in the city gouge out their right eye, thereby making them severely handicapped in fighting, and also bringing shame upon them.
“Hold off for seven days,” the elders of Jabesh replied, “and let us send messengers throughout Israel. If there is no one to save us, we will surrender to you.”
Feeling confident that this would never happen, Nahash agreed. Jabesh, after all, was an outlying territory of Israel, not on the same side of the river than the rest of the land and not even in the same region of most of the people of Israel. In addition, Nahash thought that after seven more days of hunger, the people of the town would no doubt be much easier to subdue.
War with the Ammonites
That was the news that came to Saul’s town of Gibeah: Jabesh was under siege and that the men were threatened in this way. The news was devastating to the people of Saul’s town, and they all began to wail and weep in loud voices. Saul at the time, was not doing “king stuff,” but was out working in the field behind the plow of his oxen. When he came in from the field and saw all the people weeping, he asked what had happened. They told him the news from Jabesh.
This was the moment that Saul began to assume his role as the king. “The Spirit of God rushed upon him,” we are told, “and he burned with great anger.” He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent them by messengers throughout the land of Israel with this message: “This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not march behind Saul and Samuel.”
As the Lord moved in the heart of Saul at this time, he also moved in all the people of the land. They came as one man and gathered at the town of Bezek, on the west side of the Jordan, opposite of Jabesh. Three hundred thousand men came from the grouping of the ten tribes of Israel, and thirty thousand from Judah and Benjamin.
Saul sent word back to Jabesh by way of the same messengers who had come to his town of Gibeah, “Tell the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Deliverance will be yours tomorrow by the time the sun is hot.’”
Hearing this news, the men of Jabesh rejoiced. They also stalled Nahash the enemy commander. They sent word to him: “Tomorrow we will come out, and you can do with us whatever seems good to you.”
The next day Saul organized the troops into three divisions, and during the morning watch they invaded the camp of the Ammonites and slaughtered them. When the hottest part of the day came upon them, the battle was over. Those Ammonite soldiers who had escaped death fled, but and it was said that they were so scattered one from another that no two of them were left together.
With Saul’s ability to call together such a large force of fighters on such short notice, and with this victory over the Ammonites, he had solidified his standing as king with the people. Enthusiasm for him was at an all-time high.
When Samuel first presented him as king, the people had cheered, “Long live the king,” but not every single person was satisfied with this choice of Saul. There were some who said, “How can this man save us?”
But now, after the victory at Jabesh-gilead, Saul’s popularity was so high that the people referred to those naysayers and said, “Who said that Saul should not reign over us? Bring those men here so we can kill them!”
At the first instance, Saul had remained silent about these dissenters, and now, with this call to put them to death, he simply said, “No one shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.”
That was the beginning of Saul’s time as king over the land of Israel. It was an auspicious beginning. Saul showed himself to be both humble and magnanimous. He had the makings of a good king, but his true tests were yet to come.
The first of these came at a battle in Gilgal.
Gilgal was a site on the west bank of the Jordan river where Joshua and the Israelites camped after first crossing the river. It was at Gilgal that they erected a memorial made from twelve stones that they had taken from the bed of the Jordan river, the stones memorializing each of the twelve tribes. Indeed, the name “Gilgal” means “circle of stones.”
The primary purpose of the twelves stones was to commemorate the miraculous stopping of the flow of the river so that the multitude of the Israelite people could cross with all of their animals and other possessions.
As Joshua explained to the people at the time, “In the future, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What is the meaning of these stones?’ you are to tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, just as He did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may always fear the LORD your God.” (Joshua 4:21-24 BSB)
Gilgal was also one of the three sites of Samuel’s annual circuit as he traveled around the nation, serving as a sort of “itinerate judge.” Every year, he brought the word from the Lord to these places (1 Samuel 7:16).
Thus, although in these days Gilgal is an insignificant stop at the side of the road, in the day of Samuel it was of great spiritual importance. It was a reminder, as Joshua had said, “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may always fear the LORD your God.”
Samuel had mentioned Gilgal to Saul at their very first meeting, the time when Samuel took the oil and anointed Saul’s head, naming him the king of Israel.
As they were parting, Samuel said to Saul, “You shall go before me to Gilgal, and surely I will come to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you are to do” (1 Samuel 10:8).
I do not know if Saul wondered about those instructions as he left Samuel. The prophet had not instructed him to go to Gilgal. Indeed, Samuel told Saul that he would first arrive at Rachel’s tomb in Zelzah at the border of the region of the Benjaminites, then to Tabor, and finally to Gibeah. These were all in the general region of Benjamin, but Gilgal was some distance to the east, by the River Jordan.
There was no mention of going to Gilgal nor when Saul was to expect this event; there was only, “You shall go before me to Gilgal, and surely I will come to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings.”
When and how was this to happen? Samuel did not say.
Renewal of Kingship
The next mention that we have of the site of Gilgal comes after the battle to rescue Jabesh-gilead. This was after the Lord had empowered Saul to lead the people of Israel, showing himself to be a strong king.
In this moment of joy of victory, Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and renew the kingship there.”
Could this be the time when Saul was to wait seven days? But no, all the people went together. There was no waiting for Samuel’s arrival. And why Gilgal? Why did Samuel want to go to Gilgal to renew the kingship of Saul? Certainly, Gilgal was one of the cities that Samuel visited on his annual circuit, but it was not necessarily the nearest of these.
I believe the reason that Samuel wanted to renew the kingship of Saul at this specific location was to bring to Saul’s mind the true test of kingship that he would one day face. The victory at Jebesh was indeed great, and Saul’s ability to lead the people had been proven, but this was not the true measure of a king. That test would come at Gilgal.
But the test would not come on this visit. On this visit to Gilgal, “all the people confirmed Saul as king in the presence of the Lord, and there they sacrificed peace offerings before the Lord, and Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly” (1 Samuel 11:14-15)
The Wait at Gilgal
The next time the city of Gilgal is mentioned is a number of years after this great celebration of Saul’s kingship. Saul is now well settled in as king. He has matured in life and has a family, including at least one son who is old enough to be the leader of his own contingent of soldiers.
Saul set up a station for himself at a place called Michmash in the hill country of Bethel, where he had a squadron of two thousand men. Jonathan was at Gibeah of Benjamin. With him were one thousand troops. To get a sense of these locations; they are only fifteen to twenty miles apart from one another in the region just to the north of Jerusalem.
In between these two military bases was a place called Geba. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it was at Geba, in the very same vicinity as Saul’s army and Jonathan’s army, that the Philistines had an outpost. This seemed not acceptable to the young and ambitious Jonathan. He decided that he must attack them, and so he did.
News of this raid into their outpost reached deep into the land of the Philistines, far to the west. When the news came, they sent horses and chariots in great number, along with thousands of foot soldiers. They set up their camp right in Saul’s region of Michmash.
Knowing that a great battle was about to take place, Saul sent messengers throughout the land with blowing ram’s horns and shouting “Let the Hebrews hear! Saul has attacked an outpost of the Philistines, and now Israel has become a stench to the Philistines!”
The people were summoned to join Saul at Gilgal. Gilgal was perhaps twenty-five to thirty miles to the east. It was away from the area of conflict, but it was the place where Saul would assemble the troops and create a battle plan.
But the men of the Israelites were not inclined to follow Saul in this fight against the Philistines. The Philistines had arrived with an overwhelming military force, and the Hebrew men were frightened. The men of Israel began to hide in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in cellars and cisterns. Some of them even decided to cross the Jordan, far away from danger.
Saul however, remained at Gilgal. With him were what troops remained, but they were all quaking in fear.
Saul himself was getting quite anxious, but he knew he had to wait for Samuel to arrive before he took any action. Somehow, he knew that this was the time of his great test as king. Although it was many years earlier, Saul remembered Samuel’s words to him at their first meeting:
“You shall go before me to Gilgal, and surely I will come to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Wait seven days until I come to you and show you what you are to do.”
The Test of the Seventh Day
Seven days: The first day came and went. Samuel had not yet arrived, but it was early in the period of time that Samuel had told Saul. Saul remembered that the prophet had told him that he would wait seven days.
Then the second and third day came and went. It was getting more difficult to reassure the men. This time of waiting was hard on them. When the fourth day came, they were getting increasingly restless, and in the fifth and sixth day, some began to desert. The evening of the sixth day came to an end. According to how the Hebrews marked the day, the seventh day began at the sunset of the sixth day.
On the dawning of the sun on the seventh day, Saul arose from his bed. He had not slept. He had stayed awake the entire night, listening for the arrival of Samuel, but the prophet had not come. Now the men were truly frightened, and more were deserting their post.
“Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings,” Saul told his attendant. Saul decided that rather than wait any longer for Samuel, he would offer up the burnt offering himself. This was something that no layman was allowed to do, even if he was king. It was to be done only by a priest.
Just as Saul finished with the offering, Samuel arrived. “What have you done?” Samuel asked the king.
Saul’s answer was timid and full of excuses: “When I saw that the troops were deserting me, and that you did not come at the appointed time and the Philistines were gathering at Michmash, I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will descend upon me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”
By stretching the definition of the day, Saul could say that he had waited the seven days. But it was only into a portion of the seventh day. The actual day would not end for some hours, and true to Samuel’s word, the prophet did arrive on the seventh day.
It is understandable that Saul was nervous, and even frightened, but in this moment of his great test, one for which he had years to prepare, he had failed. He had relied upon his own wisdom and judgement instead of the word of God.
“You have acted foolishly,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command that the LORD your God gave you; if you had, the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought a man after His own heart and appointed him ruler over His people, because you have not kept the command of the LORD.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14)
Our Own Testing
In these past weeks I have been speaking of failures in leadership, both in leadership in government and leadership in the church. These are tragic enough, but there is something even more tragic than those failures. It is our own failure.
If you have not already faced a severe testing of your confidence in what God has told you, you will. These testings will be especially brutal as we come closer to the end of the age.
Jesus warned us of this. “They will deliver you over to be persecuted and killed,” he said, “And you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and mislead many.”
So severe will the trials become, that many will not be able to stand up under the weight of the persecution.
Jesus continues, “Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:10-12)
Did I say that “many” will not be able to stand up under the trials? I correct myself. Jesus said that the love of “most” will grow cold.
We as a church have raised weak Christians. We have raised followers of Christ who pray mainly for healings and for blessings. We pray to God to make our lives easier.
But an easy life does not make one strong. I believe that the time has arrived that we need to begin to pray that we will be strong in the face of persecution and difficulties.
We saw that in the life of Saul. He began a humble and thankful man and by some standards, he was developing into a strong king. But it is easy to be strong when the people support you and you win battles. The true test come when the enemy is mighty and most of the things on which you have depended begin to desert you. The true test comes when God tells you to wait.
It is the same as when the ancient Israelites were fleeing the Egyptian army. At the point where they stood on the banks of the Red Sea, the faith of many in the word of God began to fail.
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians marching after them, and they were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us into the wilderness to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?
When the Israelites were in Egypt in the days before they left that land, and when they saw the plagues come upon the Egyptians while they themselves, the Israelites, were spared, it was easy to have faith in the words of the Lord. But now things looked different. The Egyptian army was closing in fast and they had nowhere to turn to flee.
But Moses told the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the LORD’s salvation, which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:10-14)
The New Testament writer James tells us, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
And after telling us that in the last days the love of most will turn cold, Jesus says to us. “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.”
He has warned us what to expect as we approach the last days:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, along with fearful sights and great signs from heaven.
But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. On account of My name they will deliver you to the synagogues and prisons, and they will bring you before kings and governors.
This will be your opportunity to serve as witnesses. So make up your mind not to worry beforehand how to defend yourselves. For I will give you speech and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death. And you will be hated by everyone because of My name.
Yet not even a hair of your head will perish. By your patient endurance you will gain your souls. (Luke 21:10-19)
In the beginning of the book of Revelation are seven letters written by Jesus to seven churches about what they will have to do in the last days. This is what he writes to the church at Smyrna: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will suffer tribulation for ten days. Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10 BSB).
Stand firm. Do not be afraid. Be still. Persevere under trial. Stand the test. Persevere to the end. Endure with patience. Be faithful even unto death.
The time is coming and is now upon us that these must be our prayers. We desire the blessing of God and we pray for the blessings of God, but we must also and especially pray for strength. We will need it to stand the test of the last days.