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.