Broken Characters for Broken Readers

I have been studying the book of 1 Samuel over the last two weeks. Something interesting has been happening as I read. I have found myself connecting to an unlikely character in the narrative: Saul. Some have argued that Saul was an evil king and his primary function was to be a “foil for King David.” I must disagree with this simplistic understanding of this biblical character. Saul was a complex man. His journey was marked by real conflict and tension. The inner battle of faith and unbelief was authentic. Sin and repentance overlapped in his journey. He experienced the peace of the Holy Spirit and the harassment of evil spirits. He knew both the favor and anger of God.

It will not suffice to neatly box Saul as an evil king or dismiss him as a mere preparatory character for David. First, he was a human being made in the image of God and thus infused with tremendous value. This fact alone should give us pause in passing so quickly over any biblical character. Second, the text does not lend itself to a shallow reading of this man—it pushes us into the conflict that can characterize faith and it forces us to sit with Saul in ambiguity. Third, the redemptive historical position of the narrative requires us to handle the text with care. For example, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the text is primarily concerned with vocation and kingship. This helps us understand that the departure of the Spirit in these stories is not concerned with salvation, but with the task of being God’s chosen king. This lens changes the way we read the entire narrative.

The fourth reality that challenges me to read Saul differently is the New Testament’s affirmation that all Scripture is intended to give hope, warning, instruction, correction, and training (Rom 15:4, 1 Cor 10:6, 2 Tim 3:16-17). Saul is not outside of these pedagogical intentions. The New Testament also encourages that readers connect themselves with biblical characters, even very flawed ones (Heb 11). The truth is, broken characters are for broken readers. This includes the one’s limping around with barely a sliver of goodness and faith left. The Saul’s and Samson’s have been placed in God’s story for our benefit—for our encouragement and warning, for our solace and chastening.

To be honest, my reading of this story five years ago would have looked very different. I would probably have read it like a Pharisee. “Oh thank you Lord that I am not like this pathetic Saul with all his anger, bitterness, and spear throwing. Thank you that I am never overtaken by jealousy and rage. Thank you that I am so patient and long suffering when things don’t go my way” (Lk 18:11-12).  But not today, I connect with Saul. I resonate with his fractured existence. I connect to his experiences of abandonment, jealousy, envy, and anger. I can sit comfortably with Saul, empty handed and confused. No self-justification, only an admission of brokenness and a need for mercy (Lk 18:13).

I do not commend the attitudes and actions of Saul, but I do connect with many of them. Ultimately, I resonate with the depth of his need for divine intervention and transformative grace. Only in the knowledge of brokenness are we situated to receive healing. Saul invites us to meet him in fallenness so that we can encounter the God of grace.

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One comment

  1. I thought it would be important to throw out another important qualifier when we are discussing the life of Saul and connecting with him. As was mentioned, the redemptive historical context of Saul’s life is very important for rightly understanding what is happening there. Salvation and vocation are not as tightly intertwined as some have thought as the text has been interpreted. However, this is not to say that there is no connection. How one lives out one’s vocation is representative of his posture before God and one’s posture before God inevitably drives one’s engagement of vocation. There is a text that pulls these two strands together and thus advises caution as we think about a complete separation in the discussion of vocation and salvation.

    1 Chronicles 10:13-14 states, “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”

    The text is quite clear—Saul’s shortcomings as a king were directly tied to his broken faith, his disobedience, his witchcraft, and the fact that he eventually ceased to seek the face of God for guidance. The text gives us two angles on his death. His death was his own responsibility for his disobedience. His death was the direct result of God’s action. Notice also that the result of his death was a transfer of kingship. We see from this reference that vocation and faith do overlap.

    At the end of the day, the text is not vocal about Saul’s eternal state or his final stance before God. Was he a believer or unbeliever? The text does not seem interested in that question. The text is clear that Saul got worse and worse. He disintegrated as David rose to power. He broke faith—implying that it was not broken at one time. He failed miserably and he was put to death for it. Yet, severe discipline and even death does not negate salvation. In fact, sometimes God kills in order to keep one alive (1 Cor 11:29-30). The waters are a bit muddy here at the end of Saul’s life. But sometimes we are called to swim in muddy waters. We all prefer clear water. We like to see the bottom. We want to know the depth. We want assurance of what we are swimming around with.

    Ambiguity and mystery are much needed categories for our theology. We must learn to grow comfortable in places of ambiguity and tension. We must learn to be okay without having clean, nice solutions and answers.

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