Character Study: Saul & David

What difference made all the difference?

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Saul, son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin, and David, son of Jesse from the tribe of Judah had a lot in common. They were both kings over Israel while Samuel was prophet but there’s much more than that.

For instance, they were both quite attractive. Saul was “a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel.” (1 Samuel 9:2) David likewise. “Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance.” (1 Samuel 16:12)

Both men had duties with their father’s herds: Saul was sent to find his father’s lost donkeys and David was shepherd over his father’s sheep flocks. Both were handpicked by God to be king. In each case the Lord revealed his choice through Samuel who anointed them both.

For Saul it went like this: “Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head kissed him and said ‘Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance?’” (1 Samuel 10:1) David’s anointing was in the presence of his father and brothers. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (1 Samuel 16:13)

What else? Both were men of war. They each led armies to victory over the enemies of Israel. Both were politically astute. Both operated prophetically. Goodness! With so much in common, why do we view Saul negatively and David positively? What was the BIG difference between them that made all the difference in the world?

Character Counts

Character. That’s it, isn’t it? Saul started off so well and had such a promising future. If he had continued in God’s plan there would have been no need to anoint David king to replace him. Samuel told him, “the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14) What did he do that was so terribly wrong that the kingdom was ripped from him? Yes he disobeyed but scripture records other cases of disobedience (even David) that didn’t have such disastrous results.

Maybe we can get some clues by examining the motive behind Saul’s disobedience. The first incidence occurred after Samuel told him to wait for him after a battle so he could sacrifice the prescribed burnt offerings. Well, Saul waited seven days but Samuel was still nowhere in sight. The people began to scatter and Saul could see that the Philistines were gearing up for another battle and Saul thought he needed THEM to win.

His eyes were on the people as his source—not God. He thought he needed to take matters into his own hands. Wasn’t this really Samuel’s fault, he reasoned? After all, he was late so Saul had to pinch-hit. Pride and presumption fueled by lack of trust in God!

The second incident revealed more poor character. The Lord was very explicit about what he wanted done. “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3) Again, Saul thought he had a better plan. “But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.” (Verse 9)

Saul’s character was mostly like a leaf on a tree branch, twisting whichever way the wind blew. David’s was more like the tree’s roots, settled and unswerving. It’s not that he never sinned in his life but his heart was always firmly fixed on trusting God--not his circumstances. Consider how easy it would have been for David to take the same path as Saul.

David's Choices

Many years transpired between the time David was anointed to be king and when he actually ascended the throne. They were not easy. There were plenty of occasions to take matters into his own hands. The best examples are the two times when he actually held Saul’s life and could have killed him and was encouraged to do so by his comrades. Maybe God arranged these opportunities so that he could rid himself of Saul and finally be king?

What was David’s response? “Behold, this day your eyes have seen that the Lord had given you today into my hand in the cave, and some said to kill you, but my eye had pity on you; and I said, ‘I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’” (1 Samuel 24:10) If God intended making him king, God would have to do it in his way and his time—no help from David.

Though Saul and David were both small insignificant men starting out in life they both had a divine destiny to be great men of God. One fell short and the other fulfilled his call. Their choices under pressure revealed their raw character. Saul was always taking short cuts, compromising, caring too much what others thought of him, and “helping” God out.

David fixed his heart on God alone so that every choice in life was passed only through that filter. That’s why God spoke to one of his descendants and said, “yet you have not been like My servant David, who kept My commandments and who followed Me with all his heart, to do only that which was right in My sight.” (1 Kings 14:8) David was not sinless but it appears God approved his upright character in spite of it.

Which king are you?

Saul and David are more than interesting historical figures. Their lives serve as mirrors for our own lives. We are wise if we examine our own choices (and underlying motives) in light of what character is revealed. Let’s be honest. If not, we fall in line with Saul’s character right off the bat. Compromise? Moral short cuts? People pleaser? If any of those ring a bell don’t despair. You too have a divine destiny to be a great man or woman of God and he yearns for you to fulfill it. Saul or David: whose character do you choose?


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