It would be hard to read 1 & 2 Samuel (originally just one book), without getting the idea that the writer’s intent is to convey the events leading to a monarchy in Israel. Even more to the point, he would have us to understand how the Davidic kingship was established. That being the case, we see this theme pursued and developed through at least three threads:
1) Saul disqualifying himself (and his family), from ruling through his disobedience,
2) Jonathan, the one time king-to-be, giving his approval to God’s choice of David through his support and protection of him from his father, and
3) David’s refusal to take Saul’s life though he had opportunity and motive.
1 Samuel 13 belongs to the first thread and records the first of two glaring episodes of Saul’s disobedience. Up until this point, he has been a humble, unassuming leader (9:21). Saul tells no one of his initial anointing (10:1,14-16), and hides among the supplies when Samuel presents him to Israel (10:20-22). He leads them to victory over the Ammonites and shows mercy to the Israelites who opposed him (11:12-13).
But everything changes at Gilgal.
Samuel had told Saul to go ahead of him to Gilgal where after seven days he would join him, make the offerings, and give additional instruction (10:8). But things at Gilgal were probably not what he envisioned they would be. The Philistines were there with superior numbers and weaponry that have Saul and his army “hard pressed,” (13:6). Some desert, while those who remain are “quaking with fear,”(v. 7). Day seven comes and Samuel isn’t there. The men begin to scatter (v. 8). What will Saul do? He has waited until the seventh day—will he wait through it?
In a move that truly makes him Israel’s king rather than God’s, Saul decides he is willing to go into battle in disobedience to God’s instruction through Samuel, but not without offering the sacrifices. This is the equivalent of unfaithful Israel’s earlier action in getting the ark of the covenant when they were being defeating by the Philistines, rather than repenting and calling on God (4:1-4). It is choosing ritual over reliance.
What should also be clear is how difficult this test was. God set the bar high for Israel’s king. He had to obedient when it was disagreeable as well as when it was easy if he was to be a model for Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). We’re told in Scripture of another king who “learned obedience from the things He suffered,” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
There is nothing wrong with obeying God when it is agreeable. Indeed, this is what we should be striving for—to want for ourselves whatever our Father wants. The reality though is that there are areas in all of our lives where God’s will and ours are not yet on the same page. It is precisely at this point where obedience is truly tested. If we can submit when it’s not really what we want to do, then we have “learned” obedience. We have obeyed when we didn’t feel like it, when we desired another path. This is exactly what our King did (Matthew 26:36-46).
There’s a lot more in 1 Samuel 13 than the sad story of a failed king. There’s a challenge to all of us to follow in the steps of our King. May God grant us the grace to live as students of His in the school of suffering.