Poor old Saul. One of the notorious tragic-comic figures of the bible. A man who never really knew who he was. Chosen to be king for his physical attributes – as if being tall and handsome was the best qualification for leadership! – we first encounter him wandering around the desert searching for his father’s lost donkeys. One senses that this sense of aimlessness was not lost on the marvellous writer of 1 Samuel, whose deadpan style reveals as much by what it does not say as what it does. I like to imagine the author pursing their lips and raising an eyebrow as they write…
Nevertheless, Samuel finds Saul (v1) and – ignoring his protestations of unworthiness: ‘am I not the least of the smallest?’ (9:21) etc etc – anoints him king. Samuel declares that the Spirit will come upon him (v6) and it duly does (v10), confirmed by the fact that Saul starts to prophesy – a sure sign of spiritual connectedness.
What is interesting is that Samuel declares that being filled with the Spirit will ‘change Saul into a different person’ (v6); and we know that, for a while, it does. Saul makes an unexpectedly good start as king: he leads an army to rescue Jabesh and is filled again powerfully with the Spirit (11:6) In fact, he starts well enough for Samuel formally to lay down his leadership straight after that victory.
But, as we know, things go rapidly downhill from there. Saul never internalises his true identity: despite the early promise, he remains deep in his soul a lost young man wandering after his donkeys and hiding in the luggage (10:22).
This reminds us that our spiritual journey is a lifelong journey. Yes, we need the Spirit every day, every hour. But ultimately, it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish. We may look back at great seasons in our lives, but the question is always: what is God doing in me now? How am I growing? Where will He lead me next? Do I still know who I really am?
Saul’s spiritual awakening was not without its detractors. Those who knew Saul by reputation mocked his prophesying (v11-12). And we too must be ready to face those who will pooh-pooh our spiritual growth, or continually reduce the spiritual journey to one of human effort. What begins as a work of God must remain a work of God – as St Paul warned the young church in Galatia: ‘After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’
But the real issue was not those who teased Saul. When the freshly anointed, Spirit-filled Saul returns to his uncle (v14), he is unable to tell him the big news. And this is the heart of the problem: the problem of Saul’s heart. Saul’s spiritual journey remained skin-deep. He did stuff, but he never knew who he really was.
Today, let’s give thanks for all that God has done in us thus far. Let’s receive that precious truth that we are, and remain, God’s beloved children. But most of all, let’s ask for grace to keep on keeping on. To be led by the Spirit. To listen, and learn, and let God continue to work His will in us. After all, it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish.