The following pages, begun several years ago, and now, in the mercy of God, completed, are an effort to give a brief series of notes upon the first book of Samuel. The title, "King Saul: the man after the flesh," shows us the central figure of the book, a type too of the fleshly condition of the nation as a whole.
The lessons connected with the rise, reign and end of King Saul are many, and all point to the utter unprofitableness of the flesh in its greatest excellence to be aught that is acceptable to God.
The subject in one sense is a depressing one, and the proper effect should be to turn us from the contemplation of the man after the flesh to the man after God's own heart, David, who comes upon the scene in the latter part of the book and shows the contrast between faith and nature. As a type of Christ, he is the antidote to the baleful example and influence of poor Saul, and thus shows how God would ever lead, even through the knowledge of sin in ourselves and of the evil about us, not to occupation with that, but with Him who is the Deliverer of His people. May the Lord use this effort to trace the workings of the flesh and the triumphs of His grace to the blessing of His people!
A word of explanation may not be out of place as to the character of Jonathan spoken of in the body of the book. The matter is one of great delicacy, and the writer shrinks from taking the edge off any wholesome lessons that have been connected with the character and position of Jonathan, but would only call attention to what is said in the body of the book and leave each reader free to draw his own conclusions.
In a certain sense, a king is the product of the times in which he lives. He represents the thought and condition of the masses, and while he may be beyond the individuals composing the nation, he will represent the ideal, which they exhibit but partially in their several lives. The king, though above the masses, must be one of themselves, only a greater. Just as the gods of the heathen are but the personification of their own desires and passions enlarged.
In a similar way, every man is a representation of the world at large — a microcosm. He is a sample, as we might say, of the whole, having certain characteristics in greater or less proportion, certain ones obscured by the overshadowing prominence of others; but all features which compose the mass as a whole, present in greater or less degree. It is a solemn thought, and illustrative of our Lord's words to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh."
We are now looking simply at the natural man and from a natural standpoint. Every observant and thoughtful man will confirm what has been said. Water will not rise higher than its source, and the great leaders of men have been but great men, like the rest of their fellows, only with enlarged capacities and greater force. In fact, the world would boast of the truth of this, and glory in the fact that their great ones are but the exhibition of the qualities that mark all. They make demigods out of their heroes, and then claim kinship with them, thus climbing higher and exalting themselves. It is man's effort to make good the lie of the serpent, "Ye shall be as gods."
It need hardly be said that there is a distinct limit to all this greatness. Between man and God there is still the "great gulf" impossible to pass. Nor is this merely the gulf between creature and Creator, fixed eternally, and which it is the joy of the child of God to recognize — for our happiness is in keeping the creature place of subjection and of infinite inferiority to "God over all blessed forever" — but sin has made the impassable gulf between man and the true knowledge of God. All his development, knowledge, excellence and greatness is on the side away from God, and every fresh instance of human greatness but emphasizes the fact that man is away from God. "Ye must be born again."
Looking, then, at this mass of humanity, "alienated from the life of God" — solemn and awful thought — we see here and there, towering above the rest, some prominent and striking character who naturally attracts our attention. Opportunity, ability, force of character, have separately or unitedly put him in the place of eminence. It will surely give us a clearer idea of humanity to study it in this more excellent form, just as the mineralogist would seek for the richest specimen of ore to determine the quality of the entire deposit. Having found that, he would then remember that this was the best, the rest not yielding so much as his specimen.
So we take up the great men of earth to see what is in man. We take the best specimen, where natural character, opportunity and education have combined to produce the nearest approach to perfection, and having learned thus what he is, we remember that the mass of humanity are but poor specimens of the same class. We will have to confess with the psalmist that "every man at his best state is vanity."
Nor must we leave out the religious element in all this, but rather expect to find it prominent. Man is a religious being, and we will see where his religion leads. This may be a religion based upon God's revelation, and in outward connection with the ordinances of His own establishment. It may make "a fair show" in all this, and under the influence of God-given ministry seem well nigh to have reached the true knowledge of God, and be born anew. We will find food for most solemn thought in all this.
Such a man was king Saul, the ideal of the times in which he lived, and combining in himself traits of character which all admire, and all possess in some degree. Added to this natural excellence, he was the favored son of a favored nation, with abundant opportunities for the knowledge of God, both by revelation and prophecy. He will be found to have possessed in himself those qualities of ability and excellence most admired by man, and added to them the nearest approach, at least, to the true knowledge of God. It will be our duty to decide, so far as man can decide, whether he was in any measure a true subject of grace.
But we have said that every man is but a specimen of the mass — possessing in greater measure what are the common characteristics of all. We can thus get help in determining the character of Saul by seeing the general state of the nation, more particularly at the time just prior to his reign; and our knowledge of Saul will in turn enable us more fully to put a just estimate upon the people.
We must also remember that Israel was representative of the whole human family. A vine was taken out of Egypt and planted in a fruitful hill, surrounded by a hedge and tilled with all the skill of a divine husbandman. He asks, "What could have been done more in My vineyard, than I have done in it?" (Isa. 5:4.) But it was a natural vine. It was simply the vine of earth given every opportunity to show what fruit it could produce. Saul was a representative Israelite, and Israel was but the best nation of earth. We, therefore, and all humanity, are under review in this examination of king Saul.
So far we have looked merely at the natural man, leaving out of view that gracious work of God which imparts a new life and gives new relationships with Himself. This has doubtless gone on from the time of the fall; God has always had His children — "the sons of God" in the midst of an apostate, godless world. These, His children, have been born of the Spirit, and faith has ever been the characteristic of their life. Whatever the dispensation or the circumstances, faith has been the mark of the people of God, those possessed of life from Him.
We find, therefore, in the history of Israel, no matter how dark the days and how great the apostasy, a remnant of the true people of God who still held fast to Him. It will be for us also to trace the workings of this faith which marks out God's people from the mass of humanity; and here too we will find, no matter how bright the individual instance may be, that this divine life has a character common to all the saints of God. We may see it very clearly in a Hannah, and very dimly in an Eli; but there will be the same life in each. To trace this in contrast to the activities and excellences of the natural man will help us to understand each more clearly.
But here again we will find that our subject is more than a question of persons. We will find that in the same person both these principles may exist, and that this will explain the feebleness of manifestation of the divine life in some, and apparent inconsistencies in all. We will find, and Scripture confirms the truth, that the nature of man remains unchanged — flesh remains that, and spirit also remains spirit; "that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
May we not, then, expect real profit from this study of Israel's first king? Should it not give us a clearer view of the helpless and hopeless condition of the natural man, of the utter incorrigibility of "the flesh" in the believer, and enable us to discern more accurately than ever between these two natures in the people of God? Thus we would answer more fully to the apostle's description of the true circumcision: "who worship by the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh."
Lastly, we will more fully understand the dispensational situation, and see how fully is illustrated the fact that all things wait necessarily for God's true King, for the Man after His own heart, of whom David was the type. King may succeed king, but it will be but the ever varying forms of human excellence as displayed in king Saul. Alas! the true King did come, and the people desired one of the class of Saul — a Barabbas — rather than the True, for their king is but the expression of their own heart and life. Therefore it is only the "righteous nation" who will desire and have that King who shall "reign in righteousness."