Human beings love to be lead. We may treat our politicians with contempt, but it’s only because we desperately want someone with backbone to take charge and say “I’m here now, it’s all going to be ok”. Yet human leadership always seems to fall short. I only need to say the word “Obama” and you’ll know what I mean.
The Old Testament is full of ‘shadows’ that hint at the shape that the coming Messiah will take, and few are as crucial as that of The King. Like a game of Top Trumps, the Bible encourages us to examine these human figures and compare them to God’s heavenly king, Jesus, and see how they stack up. As we do so, we see more and more clearly just how awesome Jesus is. So in today’s round of “Bible Top Trumps” we’re going to be pitting Jesus against Israel’s first king: Saul. Our chosen stat is going to be the fear of God.
I have a bit of a soft spot for Saul because he’s sort of the anti-hero of my Old Testament adventure game, Ebenezer. When he was appointed king, everybody was so full of high hopes, including us as readers. The people were under threat from all kinds of external enemies and feeling desperately vulnerable. Saul’s name literally means “asked for”: they urgently wanted God to provide a king for them, and it seems clear that Saul is God’s provision. Before the prophet Samuel first lays eyes on him, he is told by God that “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 9:16). And initially things seem to go well: anointed by the Spirit of God, Saul leads the Israelites to victory against the Ammonites and against the Philistines.
But in no time at all things take a nosedive. However physically impressive and strong in battle he may be, Saul turns out to be weak in the fear of God. When God has commanded him to go one way, his fear of man kicks in and overrides. Take the incident in 1 Samuel 15. God has commanded him to devote to destruction the Amalekites and all their livestock, in judgement for their opposition to God and his people several hundred years earlier during their wanderings in the wilderness. When Samuel shows up after the battle, Saul bounds up to him and proudly announces: “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” In a moment of black humour comes Samuel’s unforgettable reply: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
It turns out that Saul has not performed the commandment of the Lord at all. Despite being clearly told not to spare any of the livestock, Saul is persuaded by the people to save the best of the sheep and the oxen. It’s okay though, he’s got a really godly excuse: “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord”. How he expected to get away with it is mind boggling – it’s not like it’s that easy to hide flocks and flocks of sheep! The explanation for his behaviour comes a few verses later in v24:
“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:24)
Samuel has to remind him who he is: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (v17) He’s the king! He’s supposed to be leading the people in godliness and in the fear of the Lord, and yet here is is, desperately afraid of their opinion, desperately craving their recognition and approval. Instead of leading them, the people are leading him. The result is catastrophic.
What a joy then, when one thousand years later Jesus shows up and demonstrates his perfect fear of God. Time after time he refuses to bow to pressure from those around him who want to shut him up and rid Jerusalem of his teaching. The night before his crucifixion, at a moment when he had every reason to fear what man could do to him, he chose instead to perform the commandment of the Lord and walk willingly to his death. “Father, not my will, but yours.” In a game of Bible Top Trumps he absolutely wipes the floor with Saul in the fear of God. For fearful people like me, having a King like that is something that makes me very happy indeed.