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The Leadership of Saul: Fearful weakness/Angry strength

As I was telling the Bible stories of the Old Testament to my four-year-old son this week, we came upon the character of Saul. I have often thought he was a very interesting man, because he is the sterotypical weak leader whom we have all worked for at one point in our careers. Also, he is the person us leaders are sometimes tempted to be.

In the past I saw him as a brooding tough-guy. A man of war that let the violence of his occupation get to his personal life. And that may be true in part. But as I read it this time, it especially stood out to me how his whole life was characterized by outward and hidden cowardice. His brightest moments were when he compensated for his anger through blind rage. And this potent combination of weakness and rage ultimately lead to his downfall.

Here is a sketch of his life:

1) Saul is appointed as King by Samuel, but too afraid to tell anyone

2) Saul is identified as King by Samuel in a national convention, and hides with the baggage

3) After the convention, he does not take up the reigns of leadership, but returns to his farm and keeps on with his work

4) As he is working, the news spreads througout the reagion that the Philistines have attacked a small town, and are threatening to gouge out the right eye of every man in the village in order to shame all of Israel. Everybody is weeping over the news, but in what may be the highlight of his career, Saul gets angry. He takes a sword and slaughters the oxen he is ploughing with, then hacks them into small pieces. He hands the small pieces of flesh to the stunned onlookers, instructing them to give the pieces to every tribal leader and head-of-household in Israel, with the dire threat that if they do not follow him to battle, he will do the same to their oxen. (…perhaps he could have just blown a trumpet to summon the troops….did Israel need the dire warning, or was it all a show to get Saul’s courage up?). At any rate, Israel assembles, and they march through the night, triumph over the enemy, and Saul is finally positioned as King.

5) Saul leads Israel into battle with some success, but….

6) At their first real battle, Saul got impatient waiting for Samuel to show up with the offering. He offered it himself and brought a curse on himself.

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7) After the sacrifice was arranged, he did not march out and attack anyways, but seemed just to hang around camp. His son, Jonathan, went out on his own to attack, and God used him to deliver Israel that day.

An interesting side-note: as he was rushing out to follow his impetuous son Jonathan, Saul made a stupid vow. What is it with weak people and harsh rules and petty legalisms? He told the people that they could eat nothing until they had “avenged Saul” on the Philistines. Johnathan did not hear this curse because he was busy out fighting the enemy. As a result, Johnathan took a curse upon himself when he innocently ate some honey – a crime for which his father was about to kill him until the people intervened. Of course, Saul was too afraid to contradict the people…

8) He disobeyed God in not slaughtering the sheep from the Amalekites because, as he said, “I feared the people.” At that time, Samuel told him that God would take his throne away and give it to someone more deserving

8) When Goliath calls him out personally (note: Saul was a “head and sholders” taller than the average person. And he was the king! there is no doubt that Goliath was personally calling out Saul when he asked to fight their “champion”) he huddled in his tent, offering rewards for “someone else” to do it.

9) David stood up to the challenge. Believing the promises and power of God, David marched against Goliath and killed him. As a result, Saul forever missed the opportunity to redeem his fading image among the people. In his cowardice, he raised up his greatest nemesis, “David, the Giant-Slayer.”

10) Saul needed good men, so he appointed David to his army. But he soon came to fear his popularity with the people. He tried to have David killed by assigning him to more and more desperate missions – but his fear backfired because David always succeeded, and his popularity skyrocketed with the army and with the people.

11) Saul finally decides that David “just has to go” and he twice attempts to assassinate him personally, then embarks on a massive internal military campeign, using precious military resources to chase a non-aggressive member of his own army all over the country.

12) As Saul is chasing David, he realizes that the priests have innocently aided David. (They did not yet know David was a refugee, and thus offered him normal assistance and prayers.) Enraged, Saul slaughters the priests and their small village.

Now, the anger which was an aid to his weakness at the beginning of his life is dominating and ruling him. He’s out of control! Now he is a mass murderer! 

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13) David finally leaves the area entirely. But Saul has no time to relax! The Philistines – perhaps sensing their advantage, with the hero David gone – assemble a huge coalition army to attack. Saul turns to a medium, who tells him he will die in this battle. Terrified, he falls to the ground like a dead man. Finally, he is encouraged to go and fight, and he does indeed die – but only by being wounded. Afraid of being tortured at enemy hands, he asks his armour bearer to kill him. The armour bearer refuses, and Saul ends his life with the death of a coward – suicide.

Some observations:

1) A weak leader is a fearful leader (if God grants time, it would be fascinating to contrast Saul’s life with David’s – he was fearless in personal doings as well in military exploits)

2) Normally, his fear motivates him to absolute passivity: he does nothing, or continues in the old rut of doing things

3) The weak leader has learned that he acts best when angry. Therefore, he carefully cultivates his emotion of anger, keeping it in reserve for situations when he knows he must act, but may lack the personal strength to go through with it.

4) The weak leader sins. Primarily, he sins by acts of omission: he is too scared to act, and so he does nothing at crucial times. However, as the anger in his bosom begins to get out of control, he also begins to sin by acts of commission. Because the highlights of his life – his best words & actions – have been done in anger, he tends to think that anything done in anger is right. He assumes that although he may cause a mess initially, he does the world a favor by stomping around, yelling, and “putting everybody in their place.” However, inevitably, his rage gets out of control and he does terrible things in his anger. (Note that “rage” is not a fruit of the spirit, but a deed of the flesh, Gal. 5)

5) Repentance takes courage. A weak leader has none of that, and so he does not repent, but blame shifts when confronted by God, his people, the Word or a higher or equal authority. Because he does not repent, his sins grow bigger, God’s Spirit has less and less influence. The man begins to spiral into darkness.

6) The weak leader gravitates towards harsh and arbitrary rules and legalisms, to, a) compensate for the fact that he has little relationship with God anymore, and b) exert his dominance over people. It is also a convenient trigger. By this time, he is looking for excises to get angry from time to time, since this is the only way he has learned to speak authoritatively. If there are rules, he can become angry. Since he feels that he is “leading” when he is angry, he feels that “snapping” from time to time is actually a good thing.

7) The weak leader becomes obsessed with his image and popularity with others. Sensing that people inwardly despise him, he becomes increasingly moody and irritable.

8) The weak leader becomes unsure of himself, and places all his confidence in his position. He thinks to himself, “If I am no longer ____, I will be nothing!” He decides to cling to his position (which initially he survived quite well without, and which he even inintially may have resisted receiving) as though it is his last hand-hold on reality, or life itself.

9) The weak leader will tolerate NO threats to his position. Rather raising up a successor (note: David groomed and appointed the next king in his lifetime – a thing almost unheard of in the annals of the kings), the weak leader ferrets out and deposes of his most promising employees when they are shining too brightly. He destroys his most talented people by his own insecurities.

10) The ultimate end of a weak leader is shame, defeat, utter ruin, and ostracism.

So how do we avoid being a weak leader? 

BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS! As so often told to one of the great leaders – Joshua – of the Bible, the primary characteristic of good leadership is courage. Courage to lead, courage to confront, courage to repent, courage to be humble, courage to raise up leadership to surpass you, courage to do the right thing.

And so if you are a leader today, be bold and strong, and don’t be a coward!

And whatever you do, don’t default to anger as a crutch for your personal weakness! 

Learn to have the guts to do it without being angry. That is the key to being a very good and Godly leader in God’s sight.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this and I got a lot out of it.

    This stood out to me the most:
    “5) Repentance takes courage. A weak leader has none of that, and so he does not repent, but blame shifts when confronted by God, his people, the Word or a higher or equal authority. Because he does not repent, his sins grow bigger, God’s Spirit has less and less influence. The man begins to spiral into darkness.”

    The world is seeing a lot of darkness today. Repentance and turning back to what is right/back to the Lord and the principles taught in the Bible is almost a rarity; even among Christians. Christians no longer look/act/behave like Christians used to. They blend in with the world and behave as though sin doesn’t exist. It’s easier to shift the blame to someone else; other than ourselves. And you’re right; repentance does take courage. It takes humility and it is often painful but it is sooo worth the long-term effects and benefits. Repentance brings restoration and unity once again. I know this to be true in my own life. It’s because of repentance that I have a testimony for the Lord.

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