Israel has just requested a king like all the nations to judge them and fight their battles. Their request is a rejection of Yahweh as Israel’s king for the reason that he was Israel’s judge through the revealed word of the prophets, the religious council of priests, and the decisions of local judges, by the standard of his holy law. It was also Yahweh that went before them to fight their battles. Requesting a king like the nations means that they no longer want Yahweh to be the standard of justice nor do they trust him to win battles against their enemies. Chapter eight concludes with the Lord granting Israel’s request.
Chapter nine is the historical record of how God called a man named Saul to be Israel’s national leader. The story is meant to communicate several points: (1) God asserts his sovereignty over what appears to be random events to accomplish his will, in this case, lost donkeys (v.3); (2) even though Israel has rejected God as the one who fights their battles, he still recognizes their need to be delivered from the threat of the Philistines (v.16); and (3) God chooses a leader from the most insignificant clan from the most insignificant tribe of Israel so that he alone will receive glory (v.21).
“whose name was Saul”(1 Sam 9:2)
The story begins with an introduction to Saul and his family background. His name means “asked for” or “requested.” This is ironic considering the previous chapter describes the Israelites as “asking” the Lord for a king (1Sam 8:10). In his farewell address, Samuel twice refers to Saul as the one people “asked for” (1Sam 12:13, 17). By their own admission, the people acknowledge they have sinned by “asking for a king” (12:19).
“Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost”(1 Sam 9:3)
The plot sets in when Saul’s father loses his donkeys and sends Saul and one of his servants to find them. This situation performs a twofold function in the story: first, it illustrates how God, in his sovereignty, orchestrates what appears to be random circumstances to accomplish his purpose. Searching for the lost donkeys leads Saul to Samuel. Second, the account paints a portrait of Saul’s character that is less than flattering.
“Come, let us go back…”(1 Sam 9:5)
After traveling through several provinces with no success in finding the donkeys, Saul tells his servant who is his search companion, “Come, let us go back” (v.5). Saul seems to be hesitant to carry out the task his father sent him to do. His first words in the story portray him as a quitter.
When the servant suggests they inquire of the prophet Samuel, Saul initially raises the objection that they have nothing to offer him as a gift (v.7). However, it is the servant who manages to find a gift, rather than Saul.
It is evident that Saul is a follower, not a leader. His tendency is to impede action rather than strive to press on. This begins a pattern in Saul’s character in the following chapters.
“all that he says comes true.”(1 Sam 9:6)
Saul’s servant declares Samuel’s reputation as reliable and widely respected. The previous chapters have already established Samuel’s credibility as one of God’s prophets to Israel. Samuel’s word has already been demonstrated to be true and will once again be proven reliable when he later predicts Saul’s rejection and death (13:13-14; 15:28-29; 28:16-19).
“he must bless the sacrifice”(1 Sam 9:13)
After they arrived at the city where Samuel would be located, they encounter women who are on their way to draw water. They ask if they had seen the seer (Samuel) and the girls tell them that Samuel is just ahead of them about to enter the city for the reason that “he must bless the sacrifice” about to be made there.
The statement made by the women have a foreshadowing effect: Their statement anticipates Saul’s unlawful sacrifice made in disobedience to Samuel (see 10:8; 13:8-14).
“you shall anoint him to be prince”(1 Sam 9:16)
Samuel is expecting to meet Saul because of a word he received from the LORD instructing him: “you shall anoint him as prince” (v.16). The word translated “prince” is nāḡîḏ which differs from meleḵ which is the term for “king” in chapter 8. Nagid is a more general term used of anyone in a position of leadership. Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon defines the term this way:
The term “prince” makes its debut appearance in chapter 9 and “king” is completely absent here, even though it occurs nine times in chapter 8 (vv. 5-6. 9-11. 18-20). What exactly is the significance of this?
God is not going to give his people what the requested after all, despite his apparent decision to do so in the previous chapter. When nagid is used of the leaders of Israel, it has in mind the connotation of one who is officially appointed by God to serve as his vice-regent over his covenant people (1Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 13:14; 25:30; 2Sam. 5:2; 6:21; 7:8; 1Kings 14:7; 16:2; 2Kings 20:5). By using the term nagid (prince) indicates that God will indeed honor Israel request for a king (8:4-5), but he will do so on his own terms, not theirs.
The LORD shows his commitment toward his people by referring to them four times as “my people” (vv.16-17). In chapter 8 he refers to them as simply “the people” (v.7). This is an additional sign that even though God regards Israel’s request for a king as a rejection of his own kingship (8:7), he is not going to reject them.
Furthermore, God’s grace in this matter is confirmed by the responsibility this prince is supposed to carry out: “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines.” Even though his people have rejected him, God is bent on delivering his people from the hand of their enemies.
“He it is who shall restrain my people”(1 Sam 9:17)
Another task God delegates to this prince is to “restrain my [God’s] people” (v.17). The verb translated “restrain” (ʿāṣar) is not used in chapter 8. We might have expected the term meleḵ from the previous chapter (8:9) which is translated “reign.” Its absence might be further support for the idea that God is not giving the people of Israel exactly what they asked for.
The verb ʿāṣar does not mean “reign” per se. It often means simply to “restrain, detain, or withhold” (1Sam. 21:5; Job 12:15; 29:9). Perhaps this is insinuating Israel’s tendency to disregard God’s law or to forget the LORD and chase after other gods. Either way, the role of the prince is to keep God’s people together and lead them to justice and righteousness; restraining them from evil. This could be God graciously giving his people a chance to have a king like the one described in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
“Why then have you spoken to me in this way”(1 Sam 9:21)
The future king of Israel and her prophet finally meet in the city at which point Samuel proves his prophetic gift to Saul by supernaturally revealing that the two donkeys had been found.
Immediately following his statement, Samuel tells Saul that he is everything the nation of Israel desires. Apparently aware of Israel’s request for a king, Saul protests that he is unqualified to be Israel’s king because of his insignificant status as a Benjaminite. This is shown in his question, “Why have you spoken to me in this way?” (v.21). His humility might seem commendable, however, it is more evidence of Saul’s lake of character. He cannot even entertain the possibility that God uses humble means to accomplish his will.
“It was kept for you until the hour appointed”( 1 Sam 9:24)
Samuel invites Saul and the servant to eat with him and seats them at the head of his other guests which number around thirty. A special portion of the meal is reserved for Saul which Samuel says “was kept for you until the hour appointed” (v.24). This is further confirmation of God’s providence at work in the story. From Saul’s perspective, he was just trying to find a couple of lost donkeys. But Samuel knew that God had especially appointed him to be at that feast.
In the previous chapter, it appears as if the LORD is willing to allow Israel to elect a king like all the nations which would ultimately result in oppression and enslavement (8:10-18). However, in this chapter, it appears that the LORD has other plans. He does choose a leader for Israel, but it is on his terms. God does this purely out of grace, mercy, and commitment toward his covenant people. There may still be a day in which he will not answer the cries of the disobedient (8:18), but that day has not come yet.
This event is a significant milestone in the Gospel Narrative. Although Saul’s poor character makes him less than qualified to be the Messiah (Gen 3:15), the establishment of his office is another step toward Jesus, the better king who will put all God’s enemies under his feet (Psa 110).