In the Ancient Near East physical attributes were important for those who would rule others. Pharaoh Ramesses II, for example, was described as “a beautiful youth who was well developed”. He had muscular arms and was a gifted athlete who excelled at rowing and archery and horsemanship. When his mummy was discovered archaeologists saw that he had been exceptionally tall for an Egyptian, and his frame showed he had been a very strong man. I suspect these characteristics are more important when picking teams in gym class than when choosing a leader, yet in the ANE, these characteristics mattered. So it was that Saul, Israel’s first king, appeared to have been chosen due to his extraordinary height. 1 Samuel 10:23 tells us,
And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward.1 Samuel 10:23b ESV
If Israel were picking teams for an ancient game of basketball, this sounds like a great attribute. George Mikan, after all, forever changed the NBA as the league changed a number of rules due to his height advantage. Israel was not picking a basketball team. They were picking a leader. Saul’s responsibility was to obey the Lord in all things while leading the nation wisely.
Consider his call to be king. His father had lost some donkeys so Saul set out to find them. Along the way he ran into the prophet Samuel who assured him the donkeys had been found. After having a feast in his honor, the next morning Samuel anointed Saul with oil and declared he would be the king of Israel. This is quite a claim yet Samuel offered Saul a sign that would verify that God had called him to be king:
Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. When you depart from me today, you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah, and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has ceased to care about the donkeys and is anxious about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’ Then you shall go on from there farther and come to the oak of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from their hand. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you.”1 Samuel 10:1–7 ESV
Have you ever asked God for a sign? We often do this when we need wisdom and direction from God. Samuel offers Saul a sign to verify that he is, indeed, the king of Israel, and this sign is oddly specific: he will meet two men in a very specific location. These men will tell him the donkeys have been found and that his father is concerned for him. He will then run into three men—one carrying goats, one carrying bread, and one carrying wine. They will give Saul two loaves of bread. Then he will arrive at Gibeath-elohim, “where there is a garrison of the Philistines”. Shortly after he will run into some prophets and the Spirit of the LORD will come upon him and Saul will prophesy, and then notice what Samuel says: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you”.
This isn’t a sign; these are multiple signs, and they are very specific! If this doesn’t confirm to Saul that God has called him to be king of Israel, then what could?! Similarly, if this series of oddly specific events happening doesn’t reveal to Saul what he should do about this garrison of enemies in their midst, then what could? All of these signs were pointing Saul, now filled with the Spirit of the LORD, to remove this threat from the land. It is clear that God was empowering Saul to defend the people—now his people—by defeating this garrison of Philistines. So what happened?
When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day.1 Samuel 10:8–9 ESV
Everything happened exactly as Samuel said they would, thus confirming that God had called him to be king, and that his first task as the anointed king was to attack the garrison at Gibeath-elohim, knowing that God was with him and would give him the victory. So what did Saul do? Well, he prophesied with the other prophets, and then…
When he had finished prophesying, he came to the high place.1 Samuel 10:13 ESV
After all these signs came true, including Saul prophesying with the prophets, he finished prophesying and then went to the high place. That is, he went to worship the Lord instead of attacking the garrison. Yes, it was good and right to worship the Lord. Perhaps Saul thought it best to worship the Lord before attacking the garrison, except Saul never attacked the garrison. He replaced obedience with religious activity.
How easy is it for us to do this? We replace obedience to the Lord with religious activity, thinking that if we could just check things off on a list, that somehow we’re all right. We have this mistaken notion that external behaviors can cover up for internal disobedience. In the case of Saul, his internal disobedience, his refusal to do what a king must do, was covered up by his “worship” of the Lord. On the outside, who could fault Saul? Yes, worshiping the God of Israel was good and right! He had, after all, rescued them and had chosen them to be his people. The right response to this work of God on their behalf should always be worship, but the activities of worship must never replace a life of worship.
In this era of the new covenant we recognize just how different our sacrificial offerings are:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Romans 12:1 ESV
Our religious activities do not replace a life of worship. As God spoke through the prophet Hosea,
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.Hosea 6:6 ESV
God did not mean the people could then ignore the required sacrifices and burnt offerings. He meant that these activities of worship were not the sum total of a life of faith. They were to be an expression of that inward reality of love for and faith in God. Our life of worship must exhibit love for God and love for neighbor, and this love is seen in our obedience, but our obedience is never a replacement for love. If we truly love God, then our external obedience will flow out of that love, and this flow is always and only one direction. As our Lord Jesus said when he criticized the Sauline behavior of the Pharisees,
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’…”Mark 7:6 ESV
Over and over again Jesus taught that if the heart is transformed, the behavior will follow, but the reverse is not so. Many “obey” the Lord with their behavior while inwardly are rebellious and stubborn. As Tim Keller has said, we need to repent of the wrong things we do, but we also need to repent of the good things we do for the wrong reasons.
Only external obedience that flows from internal love for God and faith in him is a life that honors the Lord. Let us strive to honor him in all things. Good behavior does not excuse internal disobedience. Let’s love God from within, and that love will flow out.