An excerpt from A Very Present Help
It was dark, appropriately so—the darkest night of Saul’s life. Behind him his armies were pitched on Gilboa, ready to face the Philistines massed against them. With two servants, he crept stealthily along the barely discernable path that led to an isolated hut. This night Saul was disguised. Never must it be known that Israel’s king, who by his own decree had outlawed the occult craft, was on his way to consult Endor’s witch.
For Saul, it was the ultimate loneliness. From the far side of an unbridgeable chasm he reached across to the God who was no longer there. He sought and he couldn’t find. He knocked and no one answered. In an extremity of anguish, he groped at the edge of the abyss, and like the shepherd boy who would sit on the throne after him, his cry might have been, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
David knew, however, that his cry of despair, uttered in a weak moment, was addressed to One who was there after all—One who would assuredly answer. “Be not silent to me,” David had pleaded, “lest…I become like them that go down into the pit.” With him, it was a cry to a God who was definitely there and infinitely to be desired. He knew that no loss, whether it was the throne that had eluded him so long, or friends, or reputation, or life itself, could compare with the loss of that relationship. For Saul, however, there would be no answer, and it was just at the brink of that great fixed gulf that Saul trembled on this dark night.
The very fact that God’s Spirit had once rested on Saul and had made His voice known made it all the more bitter. That guidance had assured success beyond his wildest dreams. Not only had God’s Spirit come and gone according to the need, but there had been faithful Samuel to give him counsel and encouragement. Now Samuel was dead—the prophet who had anointed him to be king and deliverer of Israel, and upon whose counsel he’d once depended. The Philistines, whose destruction he’d been elevated to accomplish, were waiting for the kill right now. That thought haunted him. David, the sweet singer he’d once loved and who he knew would be king after him, was with those armies, anointed, and ready to take the vacant throne. That thought haunted him, too. The great things he’d been meant to accomplish for Israel tortured him. Everything had come full circle for him this night, and the worst of all was that there was nowhere to turn. No one to reach out a helping hand. No one even to confess to. In hell, he lifted up his eyes and from an unfathomable distance saw everything that was really worthwhile and had once been his—or at least obtainable—totally and forever beyond reach. Only the powers of darkness were at his disposal now and he was helpless even to summon them without the aid of the despised woman to whom he was hurrying. Without God and without hope in this world, he merely went to have his doom confirmed. Hell.
What was a nice boy from Gibeah doing in a place like this? What, after all, is anyone doing at the gates of hell? The ingredients of the tragedy are in most cases frighteningly similar: a very ordinary human being expected by man and society to perform in a capacity for which he was never designed. The emergency is and was real. Our present world is in a mess. Israel stood in grave peril then as it does now. The debacle of the ark’s removal from Shiloh had had devastating results. Even after its recovery, the Philistines had continued their inroads, taking town after town in a series of demoralizing aggressions. With the death of Eli and his sons, Samuel had taken over the spiritual leadership of Israel, and, in a dramatic display of divine power, God had routed the Philistines at Mizpah. It was an affirmation of what God could do in answer to one man’s righteous prayers. When the victories weren’t immediately followed up, the demand came that sparked the disaster, “Appoint us a king to govern us like all the nations.”
Samuel’s first impulse was to feel sorry for himself. But no, God assured him, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me that I should not reign over them…. Yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.”
That’s where the isolation had begun with Eve. Had God really said (Gn 3:1)? Wasn’t there another way to go than total obedience? For the nation of Israel, Moses’ deathbed charge and Joshua’s challenge to decision at the entrance to the land, and now Samuel’s warning, would add up to a monumental witness against the people, when those calamities of which each spoke would indeed fall on them. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Into this tragedy-in-the-making fell Saul, and a more appropriately chosen victim one couldn’t find. Handsome, tall, a pleasing personality—he was all of these. Surely if the people must have a king, he was the best available. Still, he was no substitute for God, and that’s what the people wanted—and still do. Nevertheless, God was going to be with him. Samuel promised it—if. One of the big ifs had to do with obedience to God’s prophet: “And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt be turned into another man.” Humbly Saul began by following directions. It was all so new.
It wouldn’t be too difficult to replace Saul with any of today’s millions of bewildered “kings” who are trying to rule a personal universe over which they were never meant to have dominion. With all the looks, talent, and good intentions in the world, Saul knew he didn’t have enough to make it, and on the day of his presentation to the tribes he had hidden. It was quite possibly the most completely honest act of his life.
Sin was no new thing in Israel’s national life. It isn’t an isolated occurrence in ours, either. But Israel’s king was already a fact when Samuel’s final grim forecast was made (1 Sm 12:13-15). Though the people were smitten with remorse, it was too late to remedy the evil. Still, there was an out: “Fear not: ye have done all this wickedness: yet turn not aside from following the Lord.” Graciously, Samuel continued to comfort his conscience-stricken people. “God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you…. Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart:...But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king.”
It wasn’t too auspicious a beginning for the young seeker of asses from Gibeah. Nevertheless, God’s promise of help rested upon him if he’d pick up the already marred fabric of the new kingdom and walk in humble dependence upon God.
How often we, too, must pick up the broken pieces that even a confessed sin leaves. God does help us to cope with the wreckage, and, with His beautiful if, He presents a way of escape. As Samuel prayed for Israel, there is One who prays for us, “with groanings which cannot be uttered.” And then there is God’s promise as it came on this occasion: “For the Lord will not forsake his people for his great name’s sake: because it hath pleased the Lord to make you his people” (1 Sm 12:22). The reliability and glory of God’s own name is at stake in the quality of help He gives. Add to that the pleasure He gets in making us His.... Nothing shall separate us from the love of God—ever. Neither would the Son allow anything to come between Himself and the joy that was set before Him in having us forever in His keeping. With all the certainty of God’s love to bolster and all the skill of the Great Physician to heal, we too can turn even a tragic mistake into a point of departure for a deeper and more chastened walk with Him.
Granted, Saul was in an uncomfortable spot—in fact, in the spot that only God should occupy. Still, He was faithful to His promise, and the electorate’s choice began his reign with all the popularity and goodwill that a new king could well expect. Could we stretch the point enough to suggest that he occupied just about the same position as a new Christian born into a marred world? It isn’t the best of all possible worlds. That one was left behind long ago in the Garden. But it’s the one we have, and with the help of the Holy Spirit to guide and Jesus to stand surety to God’s promises, we actually can make it. Saul definitely wasn’t alone in this problem-riddled situation.
How important the first steps are for an infant. Compulsively, it clutches the outstretched hand. How terrifying the world appears from the height of those two chubby and now-upright legs. The infant dares because Mother is there, or Dad. We dare walk in this marred universe only because the Holy Spirit provides that helping ministry for us the moment we’re born into God’s family. We’re not left alone. Any separation thereafter is by our own choosing. Saul’s link with God and everything right in Israel’s national life depended upon obedience—the if that spelled the difference between disaster and success.
It didn’t take long for the man who had everything—except the right to rule—to alienate himself from the help he needed. A crucial battle with the Philistines loomed. The instructions were clear. Saul was to draw up his armies and wait for Samuel to come to present an offering and enquire of the Lord. The days passed. When Samuel didn’t appear, Saul’s men panicked and scattered. Saul couldn’t wait. Militarily, the time for attack was right, and to get on with the action, Saul offered the sacrifice himself. When Samuel did appear, the excuses fell flat. Foolish Saul. The rule was his only under God. He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, whether it involves the ordering of one’s own affairs or those of a kingdom. Both realms were lost to Saul that day. Thereafter it was “…war against the Philistines all the days of Saul.”
Is this the story of your life? War—nothing but total and unremitting warfare? Life is a battle. We’re told that. But we were never meant to fight the good fight of faith alone. Equipped with a will, we can say yes or no or maybe or someday. Saul took a calculated risk that day. “My good sense against Yours, Lord. My armies are scattering. Samuel is lingering. I’ll take his place this once and do what I think is best!” Oh, yes, Saul thought it was best. It made all the sense in the world—that act of disobedience. Poor, miscast Saul—and Joe, and Sam, and Jane.
It had been a mini-test, with dynamic repercussions. Part of Saul’s hell was knowing exactly what to expect....When he next took the field, he knew he’d lost the battle already, if not the war.
The final rupture in Saul’s lifeline to guidance had come when he failed to utterly destroy the Amalekites. Their armies he beat; it was the king he spared—the one who had the power to direct and command and influence. He and the best of his goods he spared. Nothing vile or shoddy or reprehensible for Saul. No, just the sins of quality—the kind that only Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, would think of tempting him with.
That night saw Agag, king of the Amalekites, dead by Samuel’s hand, and the angry prophet gone up to Ramah to stay. In Saul’s hand lay his torn mantle, a visible reminder of Samuel’s prophecy: the kingdom was already as good as in the hands of David. Better to be hunting asses still.
It’s been surmised that one of the more exquisite tortures of hell is the realization of what might have been. From the time that the evil spirit from God began troubling Saul, there were dangled before his vision, in the shape of David, all the beautiful impossibilities. The boy with the sling, or the harp, or the song outclassed him every time. Fear gripped Saul’s heart because he saw that the God who had forsaken him was now with David. It was no contest.
From now on, it was the vain and often ludicrous pursuit of what had already been lost. The close fellowship of one who is walking in God’s favor isn’t too welcome a sight for any of us when we’re out of touch ourselves. And if that person is kind to us in our need, it’s doubly painful. Saul found David’s magnanimity when he had Saul in his power unendurable: “My lord the king,” David respectfully addressed him. But for how long? “I will not put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed,” David declared. That’s generous, but I’m not the Lord’s anointed anymore.
The gracious words seared Saul’s conscience. He had known the quality of God’s mercy. It was being reproduced in the one who would take his place upon the throne. Understandably, it was hard to say please and thank you. “After whom dost thou pursue? After a flea?” David appealed. Yes, and you’re just as elusive. I’ll never catch you, and still I’ll pursue.
Saul wept. What else was there to do? One last request. It was that his house might not be destroyed, though he should die. It was the plea of defeat. With David’s solemn promise, the broken king had turned homeward.
Once again these two met—in similar circumstance. Unbelievable that Saul, the morally vanquished king, should bless the one he pursued and reaffirm his right to reign. He seemed to be marking time at the gates of hell. Literature is full of the less-than-tranquil statements of men who stand alone at the hour of death. Addressing the one in whom he didn’t believe. Voltaire cried, “O Christ! O Lord Jesus! I must die—abandoned of God and of men!” Thomas Paine cried out in his death agony, “Send even a child to stay with me, for it is hell to be alone!” For atheist Thomas Hobbes, death was “a great leap in the dark.” The darkness...descends again when man cuts himself off from the light.
In the darkness of the witch’s hut, Saul knew the alienation from one’s Creator that cancels everything else out. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? The news that Saul learned that night denied him even a small part of that world. All the mighty exploits and even the time taken from the battle to track the fugitive David wouldn’t make the slightest difference when he and his sons lay dead on the battlefield the next day. It was Samuel’s final message. The prophet whom the witch had called up from the dead couldn’t resist a final dig. “What’s the point of asking me for advice if God himself won’t speak to you?”
It took all the persuasive powers of the despised but compassionate witch to get Saul on his feet again. However terrible it was to know the magnanimity of David, it must have been more than humiliating for the King of Israel to sit on a bed in a smoky mountain hut, being persuaded to down a hastily prepared meal by the solicitous woman who knew his terrible secret.
The final battle would be a matter of going through the motions—a ritual that would finalize what had been decreed long ago. In this context, it’s easy to see how those outside Christ are dead in trespasses and sins. He that doesn’t believe is “condemned already”—a life in death. Eternity without Christ has begun for those who refuse Him. There could scarcely be a more pitiful figure in all the world than the disguised Saul staggering back into the night to face a battle that was already lost. He’d have to put on a good front tomorrow. Review the troops. Harangue his men. Inspire them with courage. Lead the charge. And die.
Is this all there is to life, and is this really the way to die? The Bible speaks of another death—the death to self that awakens life. It means the rooting out of Amalek, the sin principle. The Bible speaks of One whose right it is to reign and who is equipped for the job. It speaks, too, of a choice to be made and of the consequences when man tries to manage that kingdom on his own. It was voiced by Moses as a death charge before the children of Israel crossed the Jordan, the symbol for us of our entrance into our own Christian heritage:
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live…. But if [thou] turn away, so that thou wilt not hear…I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish…I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life. (Deuteronomy:30:15-19)
Saul suffered the only kind of loneliness that God in His Word guarantees we need never feel. No lack of self-esteem for him, or prestige, or admiring friends. Just the alienation, by choice, of the One whose presence makes every other loss endurable, even of life itself.