I don’t know how familiar you are with the story of the anointing of Saul as first king of Israel, but I’ll be the first to admit that until recently I only had a passing familiarity with this story from Israel’s history. I’d heard the story in Sunday School, flannel graph and all, and I’d occasionally read the account in passing. But I’d never really taken the time to reflect on the story in depth.
That’s exactly what I’d like for you to do today.
As the story opens, the first glimpse we get of Saul is that of an incompetent herdsmen. He’s on a mission from his father, tracking down some donkeys that had gone missing — donkeys which, it turns out, find their own way back home by the time the story is over. (I can’t help wonder if that simple task shows the lack of confidence his own father had in him; send the boy to find the donkeys, because even if he fails, they’ll probably turn up on their own.)
Long story short, Saul comes off looking thoroughly unfit to be the Shepherd of God’s people Israel. He can’t find the donkeys, doesn’t think to ask God for guidance, and doesn’t recognize a prophet even when one stands right in front of him. He even expects the servant he brought along to foot the bill when he suggests maybe they should ask Samuel. (Could this be the first recorded instance of the I-left-my-wallet-at-home ploy?)
Nonetheless, Samuel knows this is the man God has chosen to be the first King of Israel, the King, just like all the other nations have. So after telling Saul not to worry about the donkeys and inviting him to the seat of honor at an exclusive meal, Samuel takes Saul aside as they part ways for a word in private. The old prophet anoints the young man to be King, and then gives him three ways to know that this is anointing is of God and not a man-made scheme. And “as Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart and all these signs were fulfilled that day.”
You’d think with the inner witness and the outward confirmation, Saul would have gone forth in confidence into the future God had planned for him. However Saul does no such thing. In fact, he does just the opposite. When he gets home, he keeps the news of the anointing to himself, telling an inquisitive uncle only that the prophet told him the donkeys were safe. And when Samuel summons all of Israel to Mizpah to make public what he had already done in private, Saul hides out among the luggage, almost as if he hopes if he’s not available the old prophet will choose someone else.
Even after Samuel publicly anoints Saul king and all Israel shout his praises, Saul heads back home almost as if nothing had happened. When an Ammonite army surrounds an Israelite village and demands the right eye of every citizen in exchange for their survival, they send messengers to the newly anointed king hoping for help. But when they first arrive, they have to wait to speak to Saul because the king is busy; he’s out plowing his own fields. (Not the most royal past-time, I know.)
Yet when Saul comes in from the fields and hears the report of the messengers, something happens.
When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger. He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, “This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.” Then the terror of the Lord fell on the people, and they turned out as one man. (1 Samuel 11:6-7, NIV)
I don’t know about you, but I immediately notice two things about this turning point in the life of Saul. First, God, through His Spirit, does inwardly what Samuel had already done outwardly, anointing Saul as King of Israel. But the God’s Spirit leaves room for Saul’s obedience. Saul himself has to take the next step, and he does when he slaughters his oxen to summon Israel to himself.
Think for a moment what those oxen meant to Saul. Granted, the Bible says he came from a wealthy family, and more likely than not his father had more oxen in the stable to replace those on the butcher block. But up until this point, the oxen had been Saul’s fallback position, a refuge he ran to when God’s clear direction seemed too difficult, to frightening, too far outside his comfort zone. But when the Spirit moved, Saul discovered that God’s call doesn’t always leave room for our comfort zones. For Saul, slaughtering the oxen meant making a break with his past, cutting ties with his plans to follow in his father’s agricultural footsteps in order to follow God’s plans for his life.
Slaughtering the oxen gave Saul the freedom to follow God’s call on his life.
What about you?
What oxen are keeping you from following God’s lead?
What fallback position do you keep running to when God’s Spirit points you toward what seems too big, to hard, too frightening?
What ties to the past do you need to cut?