He made it to the top. Power and prestige were his. No record exists of his having any problem with women. Spiritually, he was chosen and gifted by God as a leader—and the Holy Spirit came upon him powerfully at various times. Yes, King Saul was the man God knew the people wanted. In effect, he was the people’s choice. But God rejected him, despite his tenure in leadership lasting forty years! He lacked inner character—he was all style, but no substance. At the heart of it all, he had no heart for God.
As an elder of God’s people, the one thing I fear most is being disqualified from serving the Lord. I am not alone in this, even Apostle Paul had this concern (1 Cor. 9:27). The study of the King Saul’s life provides a sober check list for the shepherds and leaders of God’s people—things not to do.
From the negatives of Saul’s life, we can infer certain positive principles that will help us develop whole hearts for God and his people.
1. Our security must be in God.
Notice when the people gathered to recognize their new king, Saul was hiding, huddling in the baggage (1 Sam. 10:20-22). What an odd thing for him to be doing. Did no one catch Samuel’s biting irony: “Do you see the man the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people” (10:24)? Samuel had previously informed Saul of his appointment from God (9:20, 10:1), but fear seemed to grip the soon-to-be-king at this juncture. There is no record that Saul looked to the Lord in this matter.
A natural reticence may affect most of us when faced with the formidable task of leading God’s people. However, our security when facing fear must be found in God. What are our fears? Is it the cost in personal time or the opposition that comes with leadership? Is it a feeling of inadequacy? Saul’s successor, the one who had a whole heart for God (13:14), knew fear—but he also knew what to do with his fear: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
As elders of God’s people, we must stand strong and tall with God, not backing down from any challenge or difficult thing.
2. We must lead by love, not intimidation.
Notice how Saul in his first leadership situation used intimidation to rally the people (11:1-7). The small community of Jabesh Gilead was frightened by the invading Ammonites, and the rest of the Israelites were frightened as well. But instead of rallying the nation with a sense of care for their own countrymen and loyalty to God, Saul manipulated the people through fear of reprisal. Anyone not going to battle would have their oxen destroyed by Saul’s men (11:1-8).
This tactic worked, in the sense that he raised an army of 330,000 men and they defeated their enemies. But leadership by fear alone only works until a greater fear comes along. Compare that with Jesus: “ . . . he now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1 NIV). His “army” has grown continually through the centuries.
Yes, intimidation works for the short term, but as elders we are looking for long-term results. Love is mightier than fear (1 John 4:18).
3. Live by the truth rather than rationalization (13:2-15).
Fear continued to grip the troops into the next battle (13:2-7). Saul, himself beginning to fear, disobeys the command to wait for Samuel seven days. You know the story well. Upon completion of Saul’s insubordinate sacrificing, Samuel shows up and points the accusing finger at him. Saul tries to shade his disobedience through rationalization. He:
- “saw” the circumstances, rather than God’s command (13:11)
- “thought” human thoughts rather than God’s thoughts (12a)
- “sought” God’s blessing rather than God’s guidance (12b).
The consequence? He was convicted by God of a terminal heart condition (13:13-14). A small infraction? Hardly! As elders, we must tenaciously hold ourselves to the truth; we must be hard on ourselves in this area. Like teenagers who clearly see the hypocrisy in parents, the congregation can clearly see hypocrisy in elders. Our commitment to walking in truth lends credibility to our message.
4. Admit fault rather than self-justification.
Saul must have thought he got away with his rationalization, for his disobedience became a habit. Subsequently, God had told him to completely destroy the wicked Amalekites, including all people and all their livestock (15:1-3). Saul, seeking to justify himself, recasts his disobedience as an improvement on God’s word. He saved the best of the people (King Agag) and the best of the livestock to offer as sacrifices to the Lord. And then he had the gall to claim faithfulness to God’s word (15:20)! The Lord is grieved and proclaims through the prophet that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (15:22b, see Hosea 6:6).
When confronted with rationalization, elders (of all people) should admit their failings. This may be one of the hardest things to do, because it involves acknowledging that we are covering up our sin. We fear people will reject us, when in reality it is God who will reject us for our hypocrisy. Yes, we are to resolutely hold to God’s Word, but we must vigorously hold ourselves to the humble standard of honesty when we fail.
5. Promote God rather than self.
Did you notice in this story that Saul sets up a monument in his own honor (15:12)? Then after his inescapable conviction by Samuel, he offers the self-promoting confession: “I have sinned, but please honor me” before the people (15:30). At the heart of the matter, our ministry as elders is for God’s glory, not our own.
Eldership is not a position to which we ascend for personal glory. Our one and ultimate goal is to bring glory to God, no matter the expense to ourselves. The apostle Paul, with great satire, chides the competitive, self-glorifying Corinthians: “I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men” (1 Cor. 4:9). His goal was like that of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 NKJV).
Elders must be vigilant in the character aspect of leadership. It is an impossible task, because every one of these principles requires humility. Yet that is exactly what is needed to lead God’s people. Peter, just after addressing elders, charges both young men and elders, “[C]lothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s might hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5b-6).