Fear is the hallmark of Saul's reign as first king of Israel. Although the narrative in the book of Samuel gives God credit for selecting him as king, right out of the gate he's told that God is disappointed in him. The Jewish folklore recorded in the Bible paints Saul as a madman, possessed by demons that induced fits of rage. Perhaps he had a bona fide psychiatric condition. Or perhaps if there was a historic King Saul, he became a fictionalized caricature to serve as a literary foil to David, arguably ancient Israel's most legendary folk hero. Whatever the case, the writers of the book of Chronicles relegate Saul's entire existence to a suicide and posthumous humiliation contained in a single chapter. This was not the great leader the Israelites had in mind when they asked to have a king appointed to keep order.
Still, there are a couple of things we can learn from the story of Saul. To begin with, he displayed a profound lack of trust in the people who were in his life to help him. Fear that his army would desert him led him to take over Samuel's job, fear about the might of the Philistines paralyzed Saul on the battlefield, and fear about David's popularity and cunning drove Saul to spend a significant portion of his reign chasing David around the countryside. Fear that God was on David's side provoked Saul to kill all the priests that could have guided him, and fear that God had abandoned him led him to consult a medium, against his own proclamations. When he was mortally wounded in battle, alongside his son, he took his own life out of fear that he would be humiliated if his enemy killed him. The Philistines took his corpse and humiliated him anyway.
Saul accomplished nothing, according to the biblical narrative. He was so subject to fear that his entire reign was spent reacting to it. It must have been a frustrating and exhausting life, constantly fearful and paranoid, never quite realizing that his reactions were only going to make matters worse. Saul could have addressed his fears differently, but unfortunately there was no one in his life who could be trusted to tell him how. Samuel was all but useless as a spiritual advisor, ready to condemn Saul the first time he stepped out of line. And as far as we see in the story, Samuel is the only real spiritual presence after Saul's coronation. If Saul had recognized divinity as an inner characteristic rather than an external entity, and if he had been guided by some insightful spiritual teacher, his fears may not have had such power. Of course, Saul's behavior was an important aspect of the story to show how incredible David was by contrast, but we aren't bound by the same rigid cultural identity as ancient Israel.
Imagine for a moment that Saul is a real, flesh-and-blood human being with choices. In every moment, he can choose whether to react or respond, whether to take action without thinking or contemplate his options and their consequences. If Saul believes that divinity is an intrinsic part of his identity as a human being, he might be more inclined to reach inward and find meaningful, centered guidance. But, if Saul has been told that everything in his life is under God's control, that he is essentially powerless to accomplish anything on his own, that belief might contribute negatively to his leadership ability. If Saul is told that God made a mistake in appointing him to his position and that God now stands against him, what ammunition does Saul have against his fears? Given the culture of his time, Saul's inability to conceive of personal power and personal responsibility cripples him when his concept of the divine is turned against him. Placing God outside of ourselves means that he abdicates his authentic control over and responsibility for his own life and choices.
People aren't born knowing how to take personal responsibility, though. People do not automatically see clearly the bounds of their own control. Some people want to control more than they can, and some people give up more control in their lives than they have to. Most people benefit from meaningful wise counsel in order to hone their ability to accept appropriate control over their own lives and decisions. Based on the story told by the biblical writers, Samuel was the one person Saul should have been able to count on in his early kingship, and Samuel was unfortunately poor support. Perhaps he was insecure in his own ways, too preoccupied with his own fears to be of service to Saul. That doesn't change the fact that their relationship could have been something more.
For the ancient Israelites, it was a challenge to acknowledge personal responsibility. It isn't often in the biblical narrative that consequences are logically connected to the actions of human beings. Instead, consequences are a response from God when he is upset about what one of his subjects has done. He punishes and rewards with fickle intelligence in the Bible stories. In reality, consequences are directly tied to the actions that produce them. We muddy the waters of our own personal responsibility and control when we place an imaginary intermediary between our actions and their results. Once Saul was convinced that an imaginary all-powerful being was unhappy with him, there was no possibility of dealing with his fears rationally. We are not characters in a story, and we are not limited to the worldview of the ancient Near East. What we do matters, and the consequences are ours to own.
When we realize that we are ruled by fear, we can take some actions to start doing things differently. We don't have to conclude that we are doomed or cursed. When we realize that things are not working out for us the way we want, we can examine our own behavior and make adjustments. We don't have to look for someone or something more powerful than ourselves to blame. We don't have to throw up our hands and assume that God must have a different plan for our lives. And when we know that we want to do things differently and don't quite know how, it's alright for us to find other people that can provide meaningful insights. The trick is that we have to be discerning. People that just tell us what we want to hear are not valuable. And people that tell us that there is something inherently wrong with us are not going to empower us to take personal responsibility in our lives. We are responsible for the lives we create, and we are responsible for the impact we have on others.
One last note about Samuel and his relationship to Saul. We sometimes fail to recognize when there are people around us who could benefit from our graceful and loving support. We get caught up in our own lives, our own fears, our own insecurities, and we forget that we are in relationship with one another. Samuel is a warning for us. Saul could potentially have been a much better leader if Samuel had been a better mentor. We do not always see clearly the boundaries of their personal responsibility and capability. We need one another. Our own clarity is refined through meaningful connection with each other.
Eighteen chapters is a large chunk of the biblical narrative to take in at once. We could dig into Saul's decisions in greater detail, but ultimately I believe we will find the same dynamics at work time and again. Fear can cripple us. We are personally responsible for handling our fear healthily and finding a way to assess our circumstances more honestly. We are responsible for our actions and their consequences. Our integrity matters. And we need one another to stay sharp in all of this, because it isn't always easy. If we all just did a little more to take appropriate responsibility in our lives, just imagine what kind of impact that could have in our families, our communities, our world.