Saul: A Strategy for Waiting
By Jonathan C. Brentner
Note: Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book Shipwrecked! Learning from the Bible Bad Guys. I provide it to encourage all those experiencing difficult circumstances.
With each step I took, I begged the Lord to work on my behalf. I had waited long enough; it was time for things to change. Surely God would listen to my desperate cries for help. I had recently interviewed for a promotion at work and was sure it represented the answer to my financial woes. As I awaited the decision of the hiring manager, I used my late afternoon runs to plead with the Lord to give me the position I so earnestly desired.
Something unexpected happened one day as I was running. God intervened; he changed the attitude of my heart. My self-centered prayers suddenly changed to something like this: “Lord, I have been through so many years of disappointment, pain, and turmoil. Surely you must have a purpose for all I have endured. I still want this job, but after shedding so many tears for all these years I don’t want to miss your plan for my life, even if it means losing out on this advancement. I want what you want for my life.”
Rather than trying to force God to act on my behalf, I finally came to the place of resting in his love for me. Once I said (and sincerely meant) that I wanted what the Lord wanted for my life, I experienced a closeness to him I had not felt for a long time. Although my wait did not immediately end (I did not get the job), I look back on that day as a significant turning point in my life.
King Saul, the first character in our study, reflects the impatience I felt before God showed up that day. When confronted with a dangerous and impossible situation, Saul foolishly plunged ahead without waiting for the Lord. As we will see, while his sacrifice appeared pious; it reflected both disobedience and a lack of faith.
We can learn much about waiting from King Saul’s example. This insight, however, does not come from his successes; he failed all the tests the Lord put before him. However, the excuses he offered after one great failure provide us with valuable lessons on avoiding the pitfalls of misguided reasoning and impatience.
Before we examine Saul’s excuses for his ill-fated decision, let’s look at Israel’s ominous situation as a large and well-armed Philistine army assembled and prepared to attack Israel (1 Sam. 13). The king had many good reasons to be afraid.
The story begins with a bold and successful attack by Jonathan, Saul’s son, on the Philistine outpost at Geba (1 Sam. 13:3). King Saul announced the victory (albeit taking credit for it himself) hoping the win would rally the Israelites to fight against their longtime enemy (vv. 3-4). It didn’t. Saul lost soldiers in his attempt to assemble a larger fighting force. The number of men with him dwindled from three thousand to six hundred (see vv. 2, 15).
The Philistines, on the other hand, had no problem putting together a large and mighty fighting force. 1 Samuel 13:5 says they had “thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” This show of power understandably struck fear in the hearts of the Israelites.
Instead of joining Saul, the “men of Israel” hid in caves, holes (or pits), behind rocks, or anywhere they could find protection (v. 6). Some of them crossed to the other side of the Jordan River (v. 7). Later, we discover that several potential soldiers even went over to the side of the Philistines until Israel later gained the upper hand (1 Sam. 14:21).
It gets even worse for the king. 1 Samuel 13:19-22 tells us that on the day of battle only Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear. The Philistines earlier took away Israel’s blacksmiths to keep the Hebrews from making weapons. The Israelites thus needed to rely on clubs, slingshots, and crude bows and arrows to fight against chariots and a huge Philistine army that actually possessed swords, spears, and bows with metal-tipped arrows.
It’s no wonder so many of the Israelites chose to hide rather than join Saul and fight against such a well-armed enemy. What good were their clubs against swords and chariots? How could they possibly stand against this huge Philistine army?
Previously, God told King Saul to wait seven days for the prophet Samuel’s arrival, after which Samuel would offer a sacrifice and tell Saul what he needed to do (1 Sam. 10:8). While this initial command for Saul to wait appears to be at the beginning of his reign, 1 Samuel 13:8 shows that the king clearly understood he needed to wait in this instance as well.
Saul Does Not Wait
The delay in Samuel’s arrival on this later occasion of confrontation with the Philistines posed a critical test for Saul. Faced with his first significant crisis, would he trust the Lord and wait for Samuel to arrive? It was the seventh day; could he wait just a few more hours for the prophet?
Saul, seeing his men scatter as the Philistine threat grew greater, gave in to the mounting pressure and offered the sacrifice himself (1 Sam. 13:9, 10). Samuel arrived shortly thereafter. With smoke still visible from the fire on the altar, the king went out to greet the prophet as though had done nothing wrong. He did not understand the significance of his disobedience. He had offered a sacrifice to God, what harm could there possibly be in that?
After listening to Saul’s excuses for his disobedience, Samuel told the king he had “acted foolishly” by going against the command of the Lord. Because of his disobedience, God would choose someone else through whom he would establish a lasting kingdom (vv. 13-14). Samuel left without giving the king any counsel from God regarding the upcoming battle. Surprisingly, Saul didn’t try to stop Samuel and plead for direction concerning the current crisis.
A Strategy for Waiting
We all face trying times when the Lord makes us wait for an answer to a prayer, a way out of a dilemma, or a pressing need to be met. Our situation may not be as desperate as that of Saul, but we nonetheless face the temptation to run ahead of God, seeking our own solutions to the challenge we face. This is where the king’s impatience helps us.
The reasons Saul offered to Samuel for his disobedience help us see where his thinking went awry and provide insight into how we can avoid the king’s faulty perspective. An examination of his excuses provides us with a strategy we can employ when God makes us wait, even in the midst of seemingly impossible circumstances.
1. Focus on Christ, not the mess. Samuel confronted Saul with a simple yet probing question, “What have you done?” In response, Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Micmash,…I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering (1 Sam. 13:11-12). As he waited for the prophet’s arrival, Saul fixed his attention on his deserting army, Samuel’s delay, and the huge force assembling against Israel. Saul focused solely on the mess. While his situation was indeed messy, he erred by taking his eyes off the Lord, who alone could deliver him from the Philistines.
I can almost hear Saul calculating and comparing his army to that of the enemy. “How am I going to make this work? How many more men can I afford to lose? I can’t let this situation get any more desperate. I have to do something.” In light of the Philistine threat, however, no amount of planning was going to help him.
Saul never reached the point where he fully realized the impossibility of his situation. Even if he had kept all his men, he would have had only three thousand unarmed soldiers. On a human level, what could they have done against the thousands of Philistine chariots and a multitude of soldiers armed with swords and spears? Saul sought in vain to hold on to his army, not fully comprehending the overwhelming odds against them. Only the Lord could save him in his current predicament.
Saul failed to understand that with God, there are no impossible situations. The level of our hopelessness does not limit the Lord’s ability to solve our problems. His power is infinite. He can deal with our messes regardless of how messy they are. As the Lord told the prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27). The Lord is more than able to deal with any problem we confront.
2. Avoid the world’s reasoning. Saul’s words in 1 Samuel 13:12 reveal another area where his thinking went off course, “I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” The king disobeyed because he thought it would prevent more troops from leaving him (see v. 11) and gain God’s favor. Saul did not understand the purpose of the sacrifice. It was not to gain God’s favor; Israel already had that in abundance. His excuse revealed his misplaced faith.
Rather than trust God to deliver Israel, Saul put his hope in the offering itself to keep his soldiers from fleeing, to please God, and to rescue the nation from the Philistines.
In other words, the ends justify the means. Since the sacrifice would lead to what he believed would be a positive outcome, Saul rationalized his behavior even though he was disobeying the Lord. He did not stop to ask himself how defying God could possibly help. He focused solely on the results; it didn’t matter how he achieved them.
Such pragmatic reasoning remains popular today. Many believe results determine whether an action is right or wrong. If everything turns out okay, we believe our behavior was the right thing to do. Such thinking, however, ignores the standard of God’s Word. The pursuit of positive results never justifies disobedience to the Lord. Instead, it displays devotion to temporal results.
The standard of right and wrong revealed in Scripture has lost its foothold in our culture today. Our society frequently ignores God’s standard and substitutes shifting values based on the need of the moment or the voice of the majority. Such relativism is rampant in our world.
Several years ago, Dr. Jeff Gilmore, senior pastor of the church I attended, said something that caught my attention, “In God’s way of thinking, success is just as much the process as it is the final outcome.” In other words, the Lord is just as much interested in our faithfulness during the storm as he is with the final outcome, perhaps even more so. Through our faithfulness, according to Dr. Gilmore, in God’s sight we can become heroes even before the end of the storm.
In the midst of troubling situations, we naturally focus on the light on the horizon and look forward to the time when the storm will have passed. God, however, looks at what he desires to accomplish in and through us during the tempest. The reasoning of world will cause us to become impatient and tempt us to take shortcuts to improve our situation. What harm would it do to cheat on taxes or misrepresent my qualifications to a potential employer? Such reasoning, however, ignores the fact that the Lord is just as interested in how our faith holds up during the storm as he is with what happens when it has passed.
In contrast to the results-orientated Saul, God desires that we become process-oriented people. He asks that we avoid the reasoning of the world, which looks at results rather than the process of getting to our destination.
Who can know where our walk of faith will take us? The Lord, through the writer of Hebrews, honors those the world despises as failures, stating that “the world was not worthy of them” (11:36-40). Lives that ended in what the world regarded as failure, God regarded as success stories because of their faithfulness during times of tremendous persecution. He did not lead them out of their tribulations, but used their afflictions for his glory.
3. Hold onto God’s promises. The nightmare seemed so real. I dreamed of my life fifteen years in the future, and everything was the same. I was still alone, struggling, and unable to pay all my bills. It seemed as though my current difficult circumstances would go on forever! Was this dream foretelling my future?
That morning, I determined to go for a run later in the day and have a long talk with the Lord about the troubling dream. Once back home from work, I started my run and asked him what my dream meant. Was I really destined to live with such turmoil in my life for the indefinite future?
As I ran, the Lord reminded me of a verse I had previously memorized, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” (Ps. 27:13 NIV)
As the Spirit spoke that verse into my heart, joy bubbled up inside me. The nightmare was not true; I would see God’s goodness in this life at some point in the future. I sensed there would be more waiting, but I knew the Lord would take care of me.
For months, I had held tightly to this verse for encouragement. I’m not sure why I forgot it earlier that day, but as the Spirit brought it to my mind I experienced great relief.
The third lesson we learn from Saul’s faulty thinking is to hold onto God’s promises. It’s not enough to simply know about them, especially if we do not believe them or rely on them when the going gets tough. The Lord’s command to wait for Samuel contained a promise: when Samuel arrived on the seventh day, he would bring the king guidance for the battle; he would tell him what to do (1 Sam. 10:8). God had a plan to deliver Israel from the Philistine threat, but the king grew impatient.
Merely knowing about God’s promises is not enough; we must make them personal, cling to them in times of despair, and find ways to repeatedly bring them to our attention. I found it helpful to write such verses on sticky notes and place them where I would often see them. I had done this with Psalm 27:13; I am not sure why I forgot this promise the morning after my nightmare.
There is one more consideration we also must remember in the midst of painful circumstances.
4. Trust God’s person, not religious behavior. For a long time, I wrestled with Saul’s behavior as he waited for the prophet. Something was amiss in his attempt at worship that day, but I couldn’t identify it. Suddenly it occurred to me that Saul was treating the Lord as though he were a good-luck charm rather than a personal God.
Saul’s excuses reveal that his hope for success rested in the sacrifice itself rather than in the God he was making the offering to. In essence, Saul trusted a religious exercise to deliver Israel. He didn’t stop to consider that victory rested with the person he was disobeying.
Activities such as prayer, Bible study, and worship are clearly essential for our walk with the Lord. However, when the storms of life beset us, it’s God, the object of our worship and faith, who provides the needed strength and delivers us from the perils that surround us. He, not our godly behavior, empowers and delivers. When we wait for God, rather than run ahead of him seeking our own solutions, we rest in the character of the God who dearly loves us and greatly desires the best for us, even when we cannot see it at the time.
In the end, it’s not our religious performance that gets us through the difficulties but God himself. It’s never a matter of trading our good behavior for his predictable and positive responses. That’s what a vending machine does. He is so much more than that. Even when our way seems dark, we trust in the One who is “able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). Nothing is impossible for him. Trust him, not your good behavior.
Today, I am thankful the Lord did not give me the job I begged him for during my long runs. He had a significantly better path for me. Yes, God’s track for my life involved more waiting and much added grief along the way, but the end result turned out so much better than could have ever been the case if he had said “yes” to my selfish prayers years ago. In the end, his plan for me far exceeded all I could have imagined.
Walking with God
Saul helps us understand that we walk with a living, personal God. The Lord often leads us through difficult times and makes us wait while our circumstances get worse, not better. In such cases, we must trust in his love for us, not in ourselves or in our good behavior.
Many of you know all about impossible circumstances. You have done all you can do—and more. Still, your problems persist with no solution in sight. You can’t imagine holding on much longer. I have been in the same situation and came to the realization that sometimes all we can do is wait, recognizing that the Lord doesn’t leave us to chance or enjoy watching us struggle. In his time, he will work on our behalf. He has a wise and loving purpose in all he does, even if it’s difficult to see in the darkness of the storm.
I am not advocating a do-nothing approach to problems. I am simply pointing out that there will be times when we find ourselves in predicaments, and all we can do is wait for the Lord.