Did King Saul Truly Repent?
One of our subscribers writes, “Saul confessed his sin in I Samuel 15. Saul desired to worship God (25, 31). Samuel obliged Saul by returning with him before Israel and the elders (30-31). Does this not confirm that Saul genuinely repented and sought the Lord’s mercy alone? Is this not the confession of a regenerate heart?”
The passage referred to reads, “Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel. And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent. And Samuel said unto him, The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou. And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent. Then he said, I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord thy God. So Samuel turned again after Saul; and Saul worshipped the Lord” (24-31).
It is clear that Saul’s repentance and worship of God were not genuine. His sorrow was not a “godly sorrow” but the “sorrow of the world” (II Cor. 7:10). His was the kind of worship that God abhors, not the worship of a poor and contrite spirit (Isa. 66:2). It was the worship of those who choose their own ways (3), do not listen to Jehovah’s speech and do evil before His eyes (4).
What is the evidence for this? There is abundant proof in I Samuel 15: (1) Saul’s attempt to excuse his disobedience by blaming it on the people even after being rebuked (24); (2) Saul’s asking only Samuel’s pardon and not God’s (25); (3) Samuel’s refusal to accept Saul’s repentance and his insistence that God would not change His Word but would take the kingdom away from Saul (26-29); (4) Samuel’s refusing to have anything more to do with Saul (35); (5) God’s repenting that He had made Saul king (35); and (6) Saul’s request that Samuel honour him before the people by worshipping with him (30). Saul was not interested in God’s glory but only in his own reputation (John 5:44), and his worship was only to maintain his standing before the elders and the people.
If this were not proof enough, Saul’s subsequent behaviour abundantly proves that he was not a regenerate man. If Saul really repented in I Samuel 15, why was he forsaken by the Spirit of God and troubled by an evil spirit, Jehovah’s judgment upon him (16:14-16)? When Samuel was commanded to anoint David king, he was afraid Saul would kill him if he found out (16:2)! In the remaining years of his rule over Israel, Saul repeatedly tried to slay David (e.g., 18:11; 19:10-18; 23:15-29; 24:1-22; 26:1-25) and once even his own son Jonathan, David’s friend (20:33). Saul massacred 85 priests of Nob for helping David (22:9-23). Before his last battle, Saul consulted the witch of Endor (28:3-25) and ended his life by committing suicide (31:3-6).
After the self-murder of Israel’s first king, I Chronicles 10:13-14 concludes, “So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the Lord, even against the word of the Lord, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it; And enquired not of the Lord: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse.” No wonder Israel “enquired not at it [i.e., the ark of the covenant] in the days of Saul” (13:3).
There is further proof in the Psalms. Psalm 18, a Psalm written when God delivered David from Saul, numbers him among the ungodly. Saul is referred to as a worker of iniquity in Psalm 59:2, a Psalm penned when Saul tried to kill David at his house. None of this is the behaviour of a true penitent and worshipper of the Lord.
Applying this to ourselves so that we sincerely and truly repent before God, we note that Saul’s sorrow is characterized by grief merely over the consequences of sin but is never sorrow for sin as sin against God. Saul asks Samuel for pardon (I Sam. 15:25) but David pleads, “Have mercy upon me, O God” (Ps. 51:1), and “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (4). Godly sorrow submits to the consequences of sin but the sorrow of the world does all it can to smooth over those consequences. Saul said, “Honour me … before Israel” (I Sam. 15:30) but David cried, “Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God” (Ps. 51:14).
True sorrow seeks its refuge in the atoning work of Christ but the sorrow of the world does not seek forgiveness in the Lord Jesus. David prayed, “According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (1-2). But Saul never echoed such sentiments and never looked to Christ. David’s sins, in our estimation, might seem greater than Saul’s, but Saul could not have written Psalms 32 and 51.
What does all this mean for you and for me? It means this: “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (16-17). Believing those words, we respond with David, “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities” (9), and we pray this in the confidence that our sins are, and will be, forgiven for our Redeemer’s sake. Rev. Ron Hanko