King David, King Saul, and Me

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. On the surface, the two men had a number of similarities: Both were gifted leaders, both were valiant warriors, and both of them were chosen by God to rule the nation.

And both of them also committed grievous sins in course of their reigns, sins that threatened their families and the kingdom itself. Both of them were rebuked by prophets, and both of them deserved to die.

And yet, only one of them – Saul – lost his kingdom and eventually his life as a result of his sin. The other one, David, experienced some tragic consequences, but God allowed him to live and to remain on the throne of Israel.

Why? What was the difference between these two?

And why does it matter for you and me?

To understand the difference, we need to look carefully at the story of each man’s failure. The account of Saul’s sin is found in 1 Samuel 15. King Saul leads the Israelite army in battle against the Amalekites, and they win! In fact, he fights “valiantly,” like a true warrior should (1 Samuel 14:48). However, in defiance of God’s command, Saul spares the life of the Amalekite king Agag, and he keeps the best of the livestock as spoils for himself and his soldiers.

The prophet Samuel confronts King Saul with his disobedience, saying, “Why did you not obey the voice of the Lord?” Saul’s response? “ I did obey the voice of the Lord.” He denies his sin, and then goes on to explain why he feels like his way of doing things is better than God’s way.

Samuel persists, telling Saul, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (15:22). At this point, Saul admits that he has sinned, but he blames his sin on the people of Israel: “I feared the people and listened to their voice.” In other words, I acted this way because these people are too unruly and aggressive. It’s their fault, not mine!

Saul begs Samuel to go back with him to offer sacrifices and to worship God in front of the army, not because Saul wants to honor the Lord, but because he wants to save face. Saul says, “I have sinned, but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel.”

“I have sinned, but…”

Denial. Self-justification. Blame-shifting. Face-saving. Never does Saul simply own his sin without excuse. That sort of humility is just too much for him.

1 Samuel 15 ends with the tragic words, “And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.” Not long after that, God asks Samuel to anoint David to be the next king of Israel. Saul and his son Jonathan eventually meet their death in battle, ending Saul’s line once and for all.

The story of King David’s failure is found in 2 Samuel 11-12. You probably know it. Instead of going to battle with his army, David stays behind in Jerusalem. He apparently spends his days sleeping and strolling around on the roof of his palace, contemplating the greatness of his own kingdom. It’s during one of these rooftop walks that he spots Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, bathing in her own courtyard. The rest is history, as they say. David sends for Bathsheba, sleeps with her, gets her pregnant, and has her husband killed to cover it up. It’s a brutal series of crimes that will haunt David and his family for decades to come.

It isn’t long before God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David, just as Samuel had confronted Saul all those years before. Nathan tells David a parable about a rich man who abused his power to steal a poor man’s little lamb so that he could slaughter it and cook it for his guests. David, having a strong sense of justice, insists that the rich man must die.

“You are the man!” Nathan declares. “Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah…you have taken his wife to be your wife…you have killed him.”

David’s sin is just as terrible as Saul’s. Arguably more terrible.

But here’s where the stories diverge. Notice David’s reply in 2 Samuel 12:13:

“I have sinned against the Lord.”

Full stop. No buts. No blame-shifting. No explanations. Just a confession.

“I have sinned against the Lord.” Period.

As a result, God allowed David to live, and He allowed David to remain king. That’s the difference between these two kings.

Make no mistake: David’s sin still wrecked his family and brought violence and chaos into his kingdom. But he still had a family, and he still had a kingdom. His confession brought God’s mercy. His humility brought God’s grace.

“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Peter and James both say it, plain as day. It’s written all through the pages of Scripture.

And yet, it’s so hard to what David did, isn’t it? When we are called out for our sin, we are tempted to do anything to avoid accountability. Maybe it’s especially hard for those of us who lead other people. Leaders have more to lose, we reason. And if we’re the leader, after all, surely we’re in the right. So we pursue any strategy we can find to avoid owning up.

Blame somebody else – maybe the person who points out what we did! Deny we did anything wrong. Justify it. Hide from the truth.

Anything but confess. Anything but lose face. Better to be Saul than David, we reason. After all, Saul kept his pride, and maybe his reputation, at least for a little while.

But of course, Saul lost it all in the end.

Maybe it’s better to be David than Saul, after all.

David lost his pride, and perhaps his reputation. But in the end, he found God’s grace.

For your consideration:

Will you choose pride or humility? Judgment or grace? David or Saul?

Which way will you go? Which story will your life tell?

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