A legacy of unfinished business: Lessons from the life of Saul

The choices and actions we take today not only will impact our future, but also the lives of those who come after us.

“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you,… being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3, 6, NKJV).

Tall and handsome, Saul stood out in the crowd (1 Samuel 9:2). At 30, he was chosen king of Israel, and God proposed that he should save His people from the Philistines. Now, at the beginning of what would be his 40th year of reign (Acts 13:21), Prophet Samuel instructed Saul to precede him to Gilgal and wait there for a special worship celebration. After seven days, Samuel would join him to offer sacrifices and offerings (1 Samuel 10:8).

This was a harrowing time. The armies of Israel and Philistines were raging against each other. While Saul was waiting for the arrival of Samuel, his army of 3,000 dwindled to 600. Out of fear, they scattered to caves, holes, rocks, tombs, and cisterns; some even escaped across the Jordan River (1 Samuel 13:1, 6, 15). The Philistine army included 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horseman, and so many infantry that they looked like sand on the seashore (1 Samuel 13:5). Finally, on the seventh day, out of frustration for Samuel’s delay and desperation over nearly losing his whole army, Saul presented a burnt offering, seeking God’s help. But sacrifice is an act only priests are authorized to do. When Samuel showed up, he let Saul know how foolish he had been not to obey God’s instructions! Israel’s kingship would be given to someone who would obey.

Saul was given another opportunity to demonstrate unquestioning faith and obedience to God’s Word and show his worthiness to lead Israel. The Amalekites were the first to attack Israel as they left Egypt. With cowardice and cruelty, they attacked from the rear, killing the weak, the faint and weary, the elderly and the stragglers (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Amalek had scoffed at the fears of God’s people and made sport of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, boasting that if the Israelites had been their captives, the Israelite God would not have been able to deliver them — after all, their wise men and magicians could perform all those wonders! The Amalekites despised Israel and had taken a vow not to rest until there was not a single Israelite left.

Because of this, God instructed Saul to blot out completely the memory of the Amalekites from under heaven (Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 25:19). Saul was given a mission: to lead Israel in a war to exterminate the Amalekites. The Israelites were not to add to their own possessions from the loot, or to get glory for themselves for their success, but were to fulfill the word of the Lord and remove all traces of this people from the earth. The instruction from God through Samuel was: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3).

So Saul attacked the Amalekites with 200,000 infantry plus 10,000 military men from Judah who responded to the battle call. The text says the people were utterly destroyed, along with everything that was despised and worthless. However, the best of the animals and all that was good was saved, and King Agag was brought back as a war trophy!

The next morning, Saul set up a victory monument in his own honor at Carmel before moving on to Gilgal. When Samuel caught up with him, Saul proudly greeted Samuel, “God’s blessings on you! I have accomplished God’s plan to the letter!” (1 Sam. 15:13, Message). Samuel then confronted Saul for his disobedience, for doing evil and swooping down on the war loot rather than destroying it all. But Saul insisted that he had obeyed the word of the Lord. The mission was accomplished. The people were utterly destroyed, and Agag was brought back as a war trophy!

You can read the rest of the story in 1 Samuel 15, seeing how Saul was confused and tried to shun responsibility by blaming the disobedience on the people. Samuel delivered God’s response: “God does not want sacrifice at the expense of obedience. Rebellious disobedience is equated with witchcraft and persistent justification of disobedience is like the sin of idolatry. Disobedience for a presumed good cause is still disobedience. The end does not justify the means! Today you have judged yourself. Because you have rejected God by refusing to follow the simple plain instructions he gave you, you have shown yourself to be unworthy of leading God’s people” (1 Samuel 15:52, 53, paraphrase).

A continual threat

Because Saul failed in his mission against the Amalekites, they continued to be a threat to Israel. David had to fight the Amalekites while he was on the run from Saul (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1-19). It was an Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul (2 Samuel 1:1, 8, 13). The Amalekites were one of the nations David had to subdue (2 Samuel 8:11-12; 1 Chronicles 18:11), and 500 men from the tribe of Simeon went to Mount Seir to defeat the rest of the Amalekites who had escaped (1 Chronicles 4:43).

Is it possible that Amalekite remnants show up in the book of Esther? Recall Haman, the Agagite? Was he a descendant of the King Agag whom Saul saved as a war trophy? If so, perhaps Haman had some deep-seated feelings against the Israelites, for we see him requesting Ahasuerus to do to the Jews what God had told the Israelites to do to the Amalekites: now, if you have the best interests of your subjects in mind, Haman tells the king, you will give the order to utterly destroy this people group, and not leave any remaining – even as captives or for use as slaves.

Josephus suggests that when the Jews were allowed to defend themselves, 77,800 Amalekites were killed (Josephus 11:6:12)! But the Israelites did not lay hands on the plunder of those they killed (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). After all, taking the booty during the conquest of Canaan and during Saul’s kingship had caused Israel to lose sight of their divine instructions and had resulted in great disaster. Did the Israelites during the time of Esther finish the unfinished business of Saul? If so, then Balaam’s prophecy was finally fulfilled: “Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be, that he perish forever” (Numbers 24:20).

Far-reaching results of disobedience

From the story of Saul, we can again see an example of the far-reaching results of one person’s disobedience to the Word of God. As leaders, will we leave behind a legacy of “mission fulfilled,” by living a life of unswerving obedience to God and His Word? Or will we, like Saul, leave behind a legacy of “unfinished business,” by choosing to follow our own judgment rather than God’s explicit command?

Ellen White gives us insight into the life of Saul and helps us see how we may achieve where Saul failed: “When called to the throne, Saul had a humble opinion of his own capabilities, and was willing to be instructed. He was deficient in knowledge and experience and had serious defects of character. But the Lord granted him the Holy Spirit as a guide and helper, and placed him in a position where he could develop the qualities requisite for a ruler of Israel. Had he remained humble, seeking constantly to be guided by divine wisdom, he would have been enabled to discharge the duties of his high position with success and honor. Under the influence of divine grace every good quality would have been gaining strength, while evil tendencies would have lost their power. This is the work which the Lord proposes to do for all who consecrate themselves to Him” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 632).

The decision is ours. Will we fulfill the high calling God has for us, and leave behind a legacy of “mission fulfilled”? The choices and actions we take today not only will impact our future, but also the lives of those who come after us. The Holy Spirit is eager to be our guide so that the good work God has begun in us will be brought to completion.

Herb Giebel (DTM&H London School of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene) is director of postgraduate medical education for the West Africa Division, based at the Seventh-day Adventist hospital in Nigeria. E-mail: giebelnet@gmail.com.