1 Samuel 9 introduces us to a very promising young man named Saul, a young man who we soon find out has been destined by God to become Israel’s first king. He is from a good, highly-respected family with wealth and influence (1 Sam 9:1). He himself is physically impressive, tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:2). But this young man has a problem – his father’s donkeys have wandered off, and he and his servant have already spent three days looking for them without success.
At this point, we come to an interesting discourse that gives us a window into Saul’s spiritual formation up to this point in his life.
When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Come, let’s go back, or my father will stop thinking about the donkeys and start worrying about us.”
But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.”
Saul said to his servant, “If we go, what can we give the man? The food in our sacks is gone. We have no gift to take to the man of God. What do we have?” 1 Samuel 9:5–7 (NIV)
Robert Bergen, is his New American Commentary, observes that Saul’s profound spiritual ignorance is clearly demonstrated in this passage. The prophet Samuel has been serving as Israel’s judge (leader) for many years (1 Sam 7:15-17), and has been highly influential in turning the people back to worshipping Yahweh (1 Sam 9:2-6). From his youth, Samuel has been recognized from Dan to Beersheba (the northern and southern boundaries of the Israelite territory) as a prophet of the Lord, to whom God revealed himself regularly. So how come Saul does not seem to know that this prophet and leader lives in Ramah, only 5 miles from Saul’s home town of Gibeah? It appears that Saul has had no prior relationship with this prophet. Secondly, Saul’s spiritual immaturity is evidenced by the fact that he has not thought of asking for God’s help in finding these donkeys until his servants mentions the possibility. Thirdly, Saul mistakenly believes that the man of God would only help them if they could pay him, revealing again how little he knows of grace and God’s readiness to help in time of need.
Up to this point, Saul had not really needed God, and although he was not totally ignorant of Israel’s God, he seems to have been a passive spectator, not an active worshiper or one who sought the Lord in his youth. He had no spiritual mentors prior to meeting Samuel. He had not developed spiritual discernment.
In contrast, Saul’s successor, David knew Samuel from his childhood, and sought his help when he was in trouble (see 1 Sam. 19:18). The Psalms repeatedly show that David’s instinctive response in times of trouble was to call out to God for help. Even in his youth, he recognized that God had delivered him multiple times as he took care of his father’s sheep (1 Sam 17:34-37). Furthermore, David never thought of seeking God as a financial transaction, recognizing that he had nothing to offer God but a spirit of dependence. In one of his flights from Saul’s wrath, he came to Nob and unapologetically asked for free food and a sword from the priests who served in the sanctuary (1 Sam 21:3, 8).
Like David, Saul has all kinds of potential to become a great leader. He receives abundant signs and confirmation from God that he is the chosen one. The Spirit of God powerful came upon him and changed him into a different person (1 Sam 10:6, 9). But he was a failure as a king. He did not finish well.
We can conclude from Saul’s story that it is too late to begin one’s spiritual development when one is chosen for leadership or faced with a national crisis. Spiritual formation and spiritual dependence and sensitivity must be nurtured throughout one’s life, and they are often best developed in extended times in the wilderness. Saul never had a formative wilderness experience, unlike David (1 Sam 23:14, 25:4, 26:3) or Moses or Paul or Jesus. Although his upbringing in a family of wealth and influence had probably taught him some valuable lessons about leadership, spiritually Saul was still an infant at his appointment to be Israel’s first king.
So why did God choose someone as spiritually unready to become Israel’s first king? Maybe because Saul was representative of the vast majority of the people in Israel. Maybe God chose Saul, as unprepared spiritually as he was, to show Israel the importance of ongoing spiritual formation throughout one’s life, not just in times of national crisis.
In training new missionaries for cross-cultural service, we stress the importance of practising regular spiritual disciplines and knowing how to feed oneself spiritually before one is thrust into the stresses of cross-cultural living and ministry. Inevitably, times of crisis and opportunities for leadership will come for all cross-cultural workers. God’s grace is sufficient to carry you through those tough times. But spiritual discernment, dependence on God and a network of prayer partners and mentors needs to be developed now so that we will know how to draw on those spiritual resources when the tough times come.