Saul and David both had humble beginnings. Saul came from the smallest tribe of Israel (1 Sam 9:21); David was the youngest son in his family (1 Sam 16:11). By Godâ€™s grace, both Saul and David were chosen from the bottom rung of the social ladder and exalted to kingship. At Godâ€™s command, Samuel anointed them with oil in their respective times, during which the power of God descended upon them in power (1 Sam 10:1,9f and 16:13).
Even so, both of them were still susceptible to human failings and were punished for their sins. But why did David find favor in Godâ€™s sight despite his failings, while Saul ultimately did not? The answer lies in the differences between David and Saulâ€™s attitude toward God and His commandments.
Obedience & Faith
Obedience and faith are two essential ingredients in building a strong relationship with God. Unfortunately, Saul was never fully obedient nor did he ever truly rely on God because he was proud and took Godâ€™s commands lightly. Saul valued his own reasoning and will over Godâ€™s. As a result, he made three major mistakes which ultimately cost him his kingship and his life.
Mistake #1. Saulâ€™s first mistake was to make offerings despite God-given instructions to wait seven days for Samuel. Saul did wait for Samuel, but the seven days were not completely over yet and his men began to scatter. Saul panicked and was more concerned about pleasing man than God. Relying on himself rather than God, he impulsively made the offerings. Samuel arrived shortly after and reprimanded Saul. He told Saul that his kingdom would not endure as a consequence of his disobedience (1 Sam 13:13f).
Mistake #2. Saulâ€™s second mistake was to place his men under oath, saying, "Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies" (1 Sam 14:24). Saul instituted this command without stopping to think if it was Godâ€™s will for the troops to fast. Unaware of the oath, Jonathan ate some honey.
Afterwards, Saul suspected that someone had broken the fast because God was not responding to his inquiries. As they cast lots, Saul made another foolish oath, saying, "though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die" (1 Sam 14:39). Jonathan was found to be the culprit. To save face, Saul said, "God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan." (1 Sam 14:44). The troops, however, came to Jonathanâ€™s rescue and spared his life. Saul made these empty promises without regard to Godâ€™s warning to "not swear falsely" but "perform your oaths to the Lord" (Mt 5:33ff).
Mistake #3.Saul made his third mistake when he disobeyed Godâ€™s command to "attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have" (1 Sam 15:3). Though Godâ€™s explicit instruction was to destroy everything, Saul defied the Lordâ€™s command in order to keep the goods and riches. He also spared Agag king of the Amalekites to augment and bask in his own glory.
Saulâ€™s pride and vanity got in the way of fully obeying God. In the end, "Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the LORD?he did not inquire of the Lord; therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse" (1 Chr 10:13f).
Seeking Godâ€™s Will. David, on the other hand, constantly kept Godâ€™s will in mind and never instituted his own decrees or went to battle without consulting God first. David always inquired of the Lord before making any decisions. He did so at Nob (1 Sam 22:13ff), at Keilah (1 Sam 23:2,4,10-12), and at Ziklag (1 Sam 30:7f) to name a few examples. Is it any wonder that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands"(1 Sam 18:7)
Another example of Davidâ€™s reliance on God is when David asked God if the citizens of Keilah would betray him (1 Samuel 23:9-14). Davidâ€™s was in a life-or-death situation, one more precarious than Saulâ€™s situation mentioned earlier in Samuel 13:11f. But unlike Saul, David still managed to keep his head and take the time to seek Godâ€™s will and blessing.
Trust in God. Davidâ€™s simple heart of reliance and confidence in God was evident from the time of his youth. The most renowned incident is his encounter with Goliath. Despite his brotherâ€™s disparaging remarks (1 Sam 17:28), Saulâ€™s doubts because of Davidâ€™s youth and inexperience (1 Sam 17:33), and Goliathâ€™s crude insults (1 Sam 17:43f), David remained confidentÂ¡Xnot in himself, but in God. He told Saul, "The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (1 Sam 17:37).
Unlike Saul, David did not care what other people thought and therefore was not intimidated. Instead, he turned to God for help. In answer to Goliathâ€™s snide remarks, David answered (again with confidence not in himself but in God), "You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts..." (1 Sam 17:45)
Obedience and Faith. David was able to achieve success in everything because of his obedience and simple reliance on God. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths." Proverbs 16:3 says, "Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established." Solomon probably received inspiration for these verses by witnessing his fatherâ€™s demonstration of obedience and faith in the Lord Almighty.
Both Saul and David committed grave sins. But why did God remember David and his descendants (1 Kgs 11:12f) but not Saulâ€™s? The difference was their responses to the Lordâ€™s rebukes.
Shifting the Blame. Whenever Saulâ€™s mistakes were pointed out, he justified himself and even lied instead of admitting his sin against God. For example, when Samuel finally arrived to offer the sacrifices, he asked Saul, "What have you done?" In response, Saul futilely explained, "When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed?I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering" (1 Sam 13:11ff).
Saul tried to shift the blame on Samuel for not arriving sooner. Moreover, he lacked faith in the Lord Almighty. To cover it up, he feigned to be pious by mentioning his desire to offer the sacrifice. Little did he realize that "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heartÂ¡XThese, O God, You will not despise" (Ps 51:17).
Refusal to Admit Wrong. Another incident where Saul refused to admit his wrongdoing was when he disobeyed the Lordâ€™s command to completely destroy the Amalekites. He fooled himself into thinking that he had faithfully carried out Godâ€™s instructions and said so to Samuel.
But Samuel asked him, "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?" Saul replied "They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed" (1 Sam 15:15).
Saul tried to cover up his disobedience by mentioning his seemingly good-intentioned sacrifice to God. Saul was could not understand that "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams." (1 Sam 15:22).
Insincere Repentance. Unfortunately, by the time Saul was ready to admit that he had sinned (1 Sam 15:24), he had already crossed the line. In reality, he only confessed with his mouth, but in reality he was not sincere, and both God and Samuel knew it.
Saul never knew how to truly repent. His actions did not reflect his words. Saul repented to David after he had spared his life, "You are more righteous than I... You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly" (1 Sam 24:16ff). Although he admitted that he was wrong, afterward he still continued to seek Davidâ€™s life. That is not true repentance. As a result, the spirit of God left him, and in its place, an evil spirit filled his heart (1 Sam 16:14).
Davidâ€™s Sincere Repentance
Admitted Wrong. David, on the other hand, had true respect for the Lord and was sincere in his repentance. Every time he realized that he had sinned, David would either immediately pray to God for forgiveness or rectify the situation. He never tried to cover it up, justify himself, or blame someone else. Instead, he humbly and bravely accepted the consequences of his actions.
When Nathan the prophet rebuked David for committing adultery and murder, David immediately said, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam 12:13). What a contrast to Saulâ€™s response to rebuke! David gave no excusesÂ¡Xno ifs, ands, or buts. David simply admitted that he had sinned, and afterward, he never committed the same sin again. That is true repentance.
A Contrite Heart. Another time, David stealthily cut off a corner of Saulâ€™s robe as Saul relieved himself in a cave. Afterward, Davidâ€™s heart troubled him for what he had done. He told his men, "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lordâ€™s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him..." With those words, he rebuked them and kept them from harming Saul (1 Sam 24:4-7).
An example of Davidâ€™s malleable and contrite heart is when he was conscience-stricken after he counted the number of his fighting men. Immediately, he prayed, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly" (2 Sam 24:10). This time, he did not even need the prophet Gad to point out his sin. Although David was never exempt from punishment, the Lord was merciful to him because of his sincere repentance.
Praise and Glory to God
Yet another difference between Saul and David is that the former sought glory for himself whereas the latter gave all the glory to God. Saul did not know how to worship the Lord and was rather stingy in giving praise to God, but David was the complete opposite.
Why was there for the contrast? Perhaps it was because David always meditated on Godâ€™s words (Ps 119:148). In fact, he thirsted after God (Ps 42:1ff, 63:1) and loved His commandments (Ps 40:8, 119:127). His personal experience and close relationship with God enabled him to humbly give credit where it is due and to be grateful to the Lord.
Saulâ€™s Pride. The Bible only records one instance where Saul built an altar to the Lord (1 Sam 14:35). Other than that, Saul only sought to glorify himself. For example, he erected a statue in his own honor (1 Sam 15:12) and lied about wanting to give God the glory. Not once did he praise or give glory to the Lord.
Davidâ€™s Humility. Unlike Saul, David never built a statue in his own honor despite his many achievements. On the contrary, he desired to build a temple for "the ark of the covenant of the Lord" (1 Chr 28:2) and made preparations to build it. Although God did not permit David to build it, he made sure that his son, Solomon, would carry it out to completion (2 Chr 6:7ff).
Though David had an extremely difficult life, he never complained or ceased to give praise and glory to God. He often rejoiced in the Lord and offered prayers of thanksgiving. He danced, played the harp, sang, prayed, and acknowledged Godâ€™s greatness in public and in private.
Despite the mistakes they made, David found favor in Godâ€™s sight while Saul did not because of their different responses to Godâ€™s calling, discipline, and commands. Saul was disobedient, didnâ€™t have faith in God, was too proud to admit his wrongdoings, and sought glory for himself. Although God gave Saul time to redeem himself, he chose to depart further and further until he was finally cut off.
It is such a pity that Saul had such a promising beginning only to go through life and end it in misery and dishonor. God gave him so many chances to repent, but he let these opportunities slip through his fingers.
Let us learn from Saulâ€™s mistakes and Davidâ€™s virtuesÂ¡Xobeying and trusting in God, truly repenting, and praising and glorifying Godâ€™s holy name. By doing so, we too can ultimately be a person after Godâ€™s own heart (1 Sam 13:14).