Taken in tandem, Saul and David represent not opposite sides of the same coin, but two halves of a process. Saul, the first king of a united Israel, has the makings of a great king but is incomplete, ultimately lacking the wisdom, righteousness, and even temper necessary for greatness. David fulfills Saul’s promise by first winning the Lord’s favor, then by surviving Saul’s’ attempts on his life and becoming a wise, accomplished king – albeit one with glaring character flaws of his own.
In essence, Saul represents only part of what a great Hebrew king should be, with some fatal flaws in his character. Like David, he clearly looks like a king, being introduced as “a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel” (NASB 409, 1 Samuel 9:2) When chosen by the Lord (through the prophet Samuel) to become a united Israel’s new ruler, he initially reacts with an appealing humility when hearing this prophecy. Saul reminds the seer of his obscure origins, and that he comes from “the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and . . . the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (NASB 411, 1 Samuel 9:21). Humble both in origins and before God, he appears a good choice as the future king, capable of both strong rule and righteousness.
Though Saul’s selection offends some, he keeps silent out of humility and a forgiving spirit, while the righteous rally around him, showing their obedience to God through allegiance to the new monarch. Saul conveys strength and shows willingness to invoke God to enforce his will, as when the Israelites do not immediately rally behind him when the Ammonites threaten. After winning the battle, the new king displays a forgiving, generous side of his character by showing no bitterness toward those who doubted him (1 Samuel 10:27). His humility as an ordinary man has translated into humaneness as king, though he does not sustain this in later life.
Though Saul is righteous and temperate early in his rule, his ultimately fatal character flaws appear and his righteousness wanes as he ages. Though he unites Israel, the unity is at best tenuous and his own fiery nature divides the people, as he gives unwise orders for his son Jonathan’s death. Also, signs of his defiance and rejection of prophecy become apparent, marking the beginning of his downfall. Saul becomes less righteous when he defies God’s order to slaughter the Kemites and the Amalekites’ king Agag (whom he spares, along with the livestock God commanded him to kill). Samuel rebukes him, saying, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (NASB 421, 1 Samuel 15:22), and foresees a split in the kingdom – perhaps symbolic of Saul’s loss of control over himself. His refusal to obey God’s word and heed Samuel’s wisdom costs him God’s love, letting David gradually win favor.
Saul also become jealous and paranoid in old age as David, newly anointed to become Israel’s next king, gains favor and even becomes Saul’s son-in-law. The aging king becomes angry at Jonathan’s bonds to David, complaining, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” (NASB 427, 1 Samuel 8:18) Beset by an unnamed, explained “evil spirit” (perhaps madness), Saul becomes increasingly irrational; his efforts to kill David and his order to kill the priests at Nob demonstrate how his righteousness has fallen away and seal his fall from God’s grace.
His suicide at the battle of Gilboa ends a life that began with immense promise but was squandered; Saul’s defiance of God’s wishes, his increasing resentment at losing God’s favor, and his jealousy at David’s superior qualities diminish him as both person and king. He becomes a more arbitrary and brutal ruler, losing the hearts of his own people and eventually failing to prevail on battle over his enemies. His suicide is appropriate, for it marks a tragic end to a life that had potential, but ultimately Saul’s own limitations prevailed.
Stories of the two rulers overlap in the scripture, as if to show not only the succession of kings but also the contrasts between the fading, doomed Saul and the ascendant, much nobler David. The latter is in ways a much more admirable figure, yet also complex and clearly flawed. Throughout his reign, he proves himself more righteous than his predecessor, never descending into madness and much less defiant of God or his prophets, though his own lustful nature has unhappy (though not fatal) consequences.
The young David seems very much like the young Saul; tall and brave, he initially presents the same characteristics that his predecessor showed, though he distinguishes himself by killing Goliath and by being able to soothe Saul’s “evil spirit” with harp music. In addition, David shows a merciful quality in his youth similar to Saul’s, when the then-young ruler refused to kill his doubters. In this case, David refuses to kill Saul when the old king attempts to hunt him down. David tells him that “my eye had pity on you. . . . Know and perceive that there is no evil or rebellion in my hands” (NASB 437, 1 Samuel 24:10-11). Though David could easily have killed his errant father-in-law and seized the throne, his righteousness drives him to spare Saul, even risking future attempts on his life.
When David rises to the throne, he appears an even more dynamic ruler than Saul, as well as a more righteous one. He is never beset by evil spirits or madness, and he lacks Saul’s jealousy and volatility. Also, he does not defy the Lord but builds the temple in Jerusalem, in response to the Lord’s promise to forever protect Israel. David speaks humbly to God, not referring to himself in the first person but as “Your servant” (NASB 458-59, 2 Samuel 7:18)
Though David lacks the sins of wrath and envy, his chief flaw is lust. Captivated by Bathsheba, he impregnates her, sends her husband Uriah on a mission that ends in his death, and marries the unfortunate man’s widow. The scripture comments, “But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord” (NASB 463, 2 Samuel 11:27). The Lord punishes David by claiming the life of their infant, but David repents, unlike the more willful Saul, and thus avoids Saul’s slow descent in disfavor and an unfortunate death.
The scriptures say much less about Saul than about David, giving the impression that Saul is a much less accomplished individual than his successor, being a capable warrior, peacemaker, musician, poet, and righteous man. Saul is clearly capable, certainly in his youth, but he lacks the righteousness and dynamism that David displays almost from his first appearance. In addition, Saul’s problems seem to be his own creations, particularly his jealous nature and devious efforts to undermine David (which, because David is anointed to be the next king, also undermines Saul’s own faith in God). David’s lust brings him grief, though God tests his faith more frequently and more rigorously; after the loss of his first child with Bathsheba, his greatest trial comes from the rebellion led by his son Absalom. David still does not surrender his faith or become embittered and irrational, like Saul, and the remainder of his life is not a tragic tangle of jealousies, paranoia, and untimely death. Instead, he is not far from being the ruler the Lord cites, repeated in David’s dying words: “He who rules over men righteously, Who rules in the fear of God, Is as the light of the morning when the sun rises” (NASB 486, 2 Samuel 23:3-4)
The two kings are a study in contrasts of character. Though both begin as similar figures, Saul’s character degenerates as he ages, leading to the impetuous actions that lead to the tragic end of both his life and reign. Meanwhile, David has lapses and is prone to lust but is more penitent and self-controlled, and his righteousness and even-keeled behavior are rewarded with a long life with far less tragedy and a glorious rule over a united Israel. While the former has the potential for greatness, the latter fulfills it.
New American Standard Bible. Anaheim CA: Foundation Publications, 1995.