Saint Paul issued special warnings to the Christians at both Rome and Corinth. To the Romans he wrote:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
To the Corinthians he went into more detail:
Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance.” We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:6-12)
In other words, we are called to learn from the experiences of our forefathers, and not make the same mistakes they did—or else, reap the same results! The story of Saul is just one of many important examples.
Samuel had been a good and faithful Judge of the people of Israel, though his two sons were not following in his footsteps—they were the worst of PKs! So, anticipating the leadership passing on after Samuel’s imminent demise, the people demanded, for the first time in Israel’s history, an earthly king. Samuel was beside himself, but God told him, “Samuel, don’t get your knickers in a twist; they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me.” As a result, Salvation History had reached the lowest point so far in the history of Israel: they not only had rebelled against their leaders, and disobeyed God’s commandments, but were rejecting God as their King, demanding an earthly king and an earthly kingdom. And God relented.
Scripture suggests that God chose their first king out of the most despised tribe of Israel, Benjamin, and not particularly for his faithfulness, but to meet the peoples’ standards: for his appearance. Saul was wealthy, handsome, and “from his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). Guess he had a long neck.
Upon his installation as Israel’s first king, we read:
Then Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their enemies round about. … Then the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.” … When [Saul] turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs came to pass that day. (1 Sam. 10:1,6,9)
So, the first kingly leader of Israel was appointed through the laying on of hands, anointed with oil, given the gift of the Spirit, and even given “another heart” so that he might have the gift of prophecy and “be turned into another man.”
What follows, though, is an important reminder that, no matter how many gifts God might give a leader of His people, the leader always remains free to respond to these gifts: he never becomes a mere puppet or zombie now controlled by God. He is called to respond to these gifts of grace through faithful obedience and trustworthy leadership.
Almost immediately Saul proved to be an unfaithful king. As a result, “The word of the LORD came to Samuel: ‘I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments’” (1 Sam. 15:10-11).
Even though Saul eventually repented, his heart must not have been in it, for “Samuel said to him, ‘The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you’” (1 Sam. 15:28).
God then spoke to Samuel:
How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons. (1 Sam. 16:1)
This time, however, God chose a leader not based on the standards of the people:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)
So, guided by God, Samuel eventually located the next leader of Israel:
And [Jesse] sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah. Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” (1 Sam. 16:12-14)
David, the new chosen king of Israel, was anointed with oil and, as a result, filled with the Spirit. In this, we also read, very significantly, that, at the same time, the gift of the Spirit was removed from Saul, and also that from then on, an evil spirit was given to torment him.
The rest of the story is that, like Saul, David retained his freedom to respond to these gifts, and, yes, failed many times, drastically. And like Saul, David also turned and repented, but unlike Saul, David’s heart was always turned towards God. We hear this powerfully expressed in David’s moving penitential prayer, Psalm 51. In this context, it’s interesting to note that David, maybe in reflecting back upon the failure of Saul, pleaded, “take not thy Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11b).
Another disturbing part of the story, however, is that even after God had rejected Saul, taken back the Holy Spirit from him, and sent demons to torment him, Saul remained in office as king until he died.
So, what kind of things might St. Paul have said we need to learn from these Old Testament warnings?
- A man chosen for leadership in the Church may look like a most appealing leader, handsome, charismatic, and “from his shoulders upward … taller than any of the” other candidates, but what is most important is the condition of his heart. To some extent, this is ultimately known only by God, but as Jesus warned, “you will know them by their fruits.” Which is why every one of our leaders in the Church needs our constant prayers and support.
- When a man is ordained through the laying on of hands and anointed with oil, and as a result receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and even the promise of a new heart leading to the possibility of becoming “another man”, he yet retains the complete freedom to respond to these gifts of grace—he can freely fall away and fall far. This is why he is always, like Saul and David, and even especially like David’s son Solomon, called to remain faithful, to abide in God’s grace, to obey and defend God’s laws, and by grace and sincere repentance, keep a “clean heart” in the eyes of God.
- If his heart remains faithful, humble, and repentant, like David’s—even when he falls—the Spirit of God, that he received in his ordination and anointing, will remain, guiding, strengthening, and protecting him for his continued service.
- But if, like Saul or so many of the other Old Testament leaders of Israel, he turns away and his heart becomes hardened—even if on the outside to the world he appears faithful to his calling and appointment—God can take back the Spirit and gifts he once received, and even, to test him, send demons to torment him, even if he remains in his Office until the day he dies.
When one becomes “deep in history”, as Saint John Henry Newman encouraged us, one sees that what I have just described has happened, not only many times in the Old Testament, but hundreds of times throughout the history of the Church, and may be happening in our own day.
Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:6-12)
For this reason, we must never cease praying for our leaders, for they have upon their shoulders great and grave responsibilities, and for their hearts, which, though hidden from us, are wide open to the eyes of God.
I pray for Pope Francis, my former pastors, my current pastor, all priests and bishops everyday.
Thank you for this. I stumbled upon this article and it’s exactly what I needed to read! May God continue to bless you! Peace 🕊️🙏