The Asked King and the Beloved King-to-be: Saul, David, and Ancient Israel’s Rejection of the Lord’s Kingship

by Matthew L. Bowen

The names of ancient Israel’s first two major[1] royal figures, Saul and David, have clear, distinctive meanings. Saul (šāʾûl) means ‘asked’ and David (dāwid or dāwîd) means ‘beloved.’ The Deuteronomistic editor and narrator[2] of the Book of Samuel used the meaning of these names to help tell the story of Israel’s formal rejection of the Lord’s kingship and the eventual rise of the Davidic dynasty in Judah. The meanings of their respective names figure not only into why each man became king, but also why their kingships ran aground and, in their respective ways, failed.

Israel “Asks” for a King (1 Samuel 8)

Hannah’s naming of her firstborn son is recorded thus: “Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord [mēyhwh šĕʾiltîw].” As biblical commentators have widely recognized, this explanation better fits the name Saul (Heb. šāʾûl, ‘asked’), at least in terms of scientific etymology. The narrator uses this cleverly interpretive explanation for Samuel’s name (‘His name is El’)[3] as a method of foreshadowing Israel’s “asking” for Saul, with whom Samuel’s life will be closely intertwined.

Hannah’s “asking” for a son anticipates Israel’s “asking” for dynastic sons in their demand for kingship.[4] Israel, unsatisfied with the leadership of the judges, including Eli and Samuel and their corrupt sons, makes a demand for kingship in 1 Samuel 8. The narrator reports, “Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord” (1 Samuel 8:4-6). Samuel appears to take people’s request as a personal affront and a rejection of his leadership.

The Lord, however, assures Samuel, that it is his own—not Samuel’s—leadership that the people are rejecting in asking for a king: “And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee” (1 Samuel 8:7-8). This formally certifies the rejection of his kingship that has persisted throughout the lawless period of the Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25; cf. 18:1; 19:1). This was not even the first time that they had asked for a dynastic ruler (see especially the request made of Gideon in Judges 8:22-23).

The Lord instructs Samuel to warn Israel against the dangers of human kingship, “Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9). Moreover, the narrator makes the onomastic connection between Saul and the people’s “asking” even more explicit in the next verse: “And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked [haššōʾălîm] of him a king” (1 Samuel 8:10). Samuel then foretells the many abuses to which the people will be subject under human kingship (see 1 Samuel 8:11-18), all of which come to pass sooner or later under Saul, David, and their successors. And yet the people will not be dissuaded from becoming “like all the nations” among whom they will later be scattered: “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). In other words, they rejected their divine king in favor of a human king.

Regarding the Israel’s “asking” or demanding a king on this occasion, President Ezra Taft Benson has famously observed the following:

God has to work through mortals of varying degrees of spiritual progress. Sometimes he temporarily grants to men their unwise requests in order that they might learn from their own sad experiences. Some refer to this as the “Samuel principle.” The children of Israel wanted a king, like all the nations. The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to the Lord about it. The Lord responded by saying to Samuel, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences if they had a king. Samuel gave them the warning, but they still insisted on their king. So God gave them a king and let them suffer. They learned the hard way. God wanted it to be otherwise, but within certain bounds he grants unto men according to their desires. Bad experiences are an expensive school that only fools keep going to (see 1 Samuel 8).

Sometimes in our attempts to mimic the world, contrary to the prophet’s counsel, we run after the world’s false educational, political, musical, and dress ideas. New worldly standards take over, a gradual breakdown occurs, and finally, after much suffering, a humble people are ready to be taught once again a higher law.[5]

In their human kings, Israel would get precisely what it “asked” for. For the narrator, it is no small irony that the Lord would grant their “asking” with a king whose name exactly means ‘asked’: Saul.

The Advent of the “Asked” King: Saul’s Anointing and Transformation (1 Samuel 9-10)

In brief, 1 Samuel 9 tells the story of how the Lord guided Saul the Benjaminite, the son of Kish, to Samuel the prophet and seer. Samuel was also guided in this process. In this chapter we see some of the ways in which a “seer” relates to being a prophet (see, e.g., 1 Samuel 9:9, 15-20).[6]

Samuel anoints Saul in 1 Samuel 10:1, a sacred ritual which makes Saul, in his own way, a type of Jesus the Messiah (Hebrew māšîaḥ or Christ (Greek christos)—the “anointed one.” He is Israel’s first anointed king. What subsequently happens to Saul is also typological. Samuel predicted that “the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy … and shalt be turned into another man” (1 Samuel 10:6). What Samuel predicts, comes to pass: “And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him [Saul] another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day. And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a company of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them” (1 Samuel 10:9-10). Saul’s reception of the Spirit of God constituted the sign that the Lord had legitimized him as king.

But things will not go smoothly for the new monarchy. Shortly afterward, Samuel gives a speech to Israel at Mizpeh that recalls their earlier request for kingship and formal rejection of the Lord’s kingship and makes it even more formal: “And Samuel called the people together unto the Lord to Mizpeh; And said unto the children of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all kingdoms, and of them that oppressed you: and ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto him, Nay, but set a king over us. Now therefore present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes, and by your thousands” (1 Samuel 10:17-19).

Saul begins humbly (“Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? wherefore then speakest thou so to me?” 1 Samuel 9:21). However, his diffidence begins to emerge when he does not tell his uncle about having been anointed king (see 1 Kings 10:16). Following his speech, Samuel has to find Saul, who is hiding in the baggage train, through divine inquiry: “Therefore they inquired [wayyišʾălû] of the Lord further, if the man [i.e., Saul] should yet come thither. And the Lord answered, Behold, he hath hid himself among the stuff [i.e., baggage train]. And they ran and fetched him thence: and when he stood among the people, he was higher than any of the people from his shoulders and upward. And Samuel said to all the people, See ye him whom the Lord hath chosen, that there is none like him among all the people? And all the people shouted, and said, God save the king” (1 Samuel 10:22-24).

The narrator thus ironically highlights how Saul had to be “asked” out of his hiding place in the baggage train through divine inquiry. Saul thus becomes ‘asked’ in another sense. In another speech recorded in 1 Samuel 12:17-18, Samuel again warns Israel (and Saul) and highlights the mistake Israel has made in “asking” for a human king, a sin to which Israel now confesses: “Is it not wheat harvest to day? I will call unto the Lord, and he shall send thunder and rain; that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking you [lišʾôl] a king. So Samuel called unto the Lord; and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask [lišʾōl] us a king” (1 Samuel 12:17-19). They have “asked” for Saul (‘asked’) and will now how to live with the consequences of human kingship, including the long-term consequence of exile from the promised land (see 1 Samuel 12:25).

Saul’s Rejection (1 Samuel 13, 15)

The good relationship between Samuel and Saul does not last long. The divine rejection of Saul essentially occurs in two stages. First, in 1 Samuel 13 the Lord declares that Saul’s kingship will not continue as a dynasty.

When Samuel delays in coming to Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:8), Israel is distressed in the face of the Philistine threat and begin to scatter from Saul (see 1 Samuel 13:5-7, 11). Saul acts in an attempt to keep his forces together by offering an unauthorized burnt offering. In response to this affront to his priestly and prophetic authority, Samuel responds to Saul’s explanation thus, “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee” (1 Samuel 13:13-14). Here Samuel states that the Lord would not establish Saul’s kingship as a dynasty. In other words, Saul’s descendants would not reign in perpetuity over Israel. Samuel’s response also implies that the Lord already has a specific replacement for Saul and his dynasty in mind.

Notwithstanding this, Saul continues to act presumptuously, selectively obeys, and caves to the will of the people. He violates the Lord’s requirements regarding the Amalekites, by “spar[ing] Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them” (1 Samuel 15:9). When Samuel comes to him, Saul falsely affirms his obedience: “Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:13). But when confronted with the physical evidence of his disobedience (“What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” 1 Samuel 15:14), he admits, “They [the people] have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (see 1 Samuel 15:15). Saul had began humbly (1 Samuel 9:21), but did not continue as he had commenced (see 1 Samuel 15:17). Even after being confronted by Samuel, Saul does not fully confess the truth (see 1 Samuel 15:20-21), evoking Samuel’s famed declaration regarding obedience: “And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23). Where Samuel had previously rejected Saul’s dynasty, he now pronounces the divine rejection of Saul himself. The ‘Asked’ now becomes the ‘Rejected’ or ‘Refused.’

Only at this point does Saul confess: “And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:24-25). Saul’s mea culpa avails him nothing: “And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel. And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent. And Samuel said unto him, The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine, that is better than thou.” From this point onward, every step that Saul will take toward preserving his kingship will be a step toward his (and its) undoing. Here David enters the narrative. Will the next chapter in ancient Israelite kingship prove better in the end than the first?

The Rise of David (1 Samuel 16-17)

After Samuel declares the rejection of Saul’s kingship, the Lord sends him to Bethlehem with the instruction that he is to anoint a new king from among the sons of Jesse. The Lord reveals to Samuel that it is not Jesse’s sons who are of Saul-like stature that that he has chosen, but his much shorter, youngest son (see 1 Samuel 16:11). The Lord chooses “him a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), by “look[ing] on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). David (at least) begins with his heart in the right place.

When Samuel anoints David, David receives the “the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Samuel 16:13) just as Saul did after his anointing (1 Samuel 10:6, 10). This presence of the Spirit of the Lord marks him as the legitimized replacement for Saul by the Lord, whereas “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him” (1 Samuel 16:14), which marked his delegitimization.

According to 1 Samuel 16:14-23, David first enters Saul’s royal service through his ability to play the harp and to drive away the “evil spirit” from Saul through music. The narrator explicitly makes the point that at first, Saul loves David: “And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he [Saul] loved him [wayyeʾĕhābēhû] greatly; and he became his armourbearer” (1 Samuel 16:21). Thus David, moves proximally closer to the kingship as “beloved” by Saul, before that love turns to jealousy and hatred.

In 1 Samuel 17, the editor/narrator inserts the story of David’s defeat of Goliath of Gath, the Philistine military champion in such a way as to leave the impression that this an alternative account of how David came to be in Saul’s service. In other words, the editor/narrator does not attempt to harmonize all the details in 1 Samuel 16 and 17, which sometimes happens when ancient editors combine even more ancient sources. As Moroni, the son of Mormon wrote regarding his and his father Mormon’s editorial work: “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God” (Book of Mormon title-page).

In this story, which is one of the biblical stories most commonly taught to children, David avers through both word and action the important truths that “there is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:46) and that “the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47). In “coming” to the combat with Goliath in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel,” David gives the Lord the opportunity to “deliver” his enemy “into [his] hand” or power (1 Samuel 17:45-46).

Having become the instrument of divine victory, David cannot escape the notice of Saul and Abner, his military general. Saul commands Abner, “Inquire thou [šĕʾal] whose son the stripling is” (1 Samuel 17:56). Thus unwittingly, Saul’s command leads to David being “asked” into the king’s court and innermost circles. David becomes not only ‘beloved’ but ‘asked,’ casting a narrative verbal foreshadowing of his replacement of Saul (‘asked’).

Everyone “Loves” David, Except Saul: David the Beloved (1 Samuel 18)

The narrator, well aware of the meaning of David as ‘beloved,’ thoroughly emphasizes how David becomes “loved” not only by the members of Saul’s family (Jonathan and Michal) and Saul’s servants, but also by all of Israel and Judah and thus the appropriateness of David’s name. This process begins with Saul’s son and royal heir, Jonathan: “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him [wayyeʾĕhābēhû] as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him [bĕʾahăbātô] as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1-3). Jonathan is fated to die at the hands of the Philistines with Saul his father. However, his covenant love for David will not only preserve David’s life, but also preserve the existence of Jonathan’s own posterity after David’s accession to the kingship over Judah and Israel (see 1 Samuel 20:12-17).

Every move David makes, at this stage of his life, seems to be the right one. Saul notices this and makes him both jealous and terrified: “And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and the Lord was with him. Wherefore when Saul saw that he behaved himself very wisely, he was afraid of him. But all Israel and Judah loved [ʾōhēb] David, because he went out and came in before them” (1 Samuel 18:16). David’s military success causes him to be “loved” by all of Israel and Judah, which begins to unhinge Saul even further.

David was not only ‘beloved’ by Saul’s heir, Jonathan, but by his daughter, Michal. David had been set to marry an older daughter, Merab, but Saul—in jealousy, hatred, and fear—broke off the marriage and gave Merab to another suitor (see 1 Samuel 18:19). However, another daughter set her love on David, and at first Saul sought to exploit this love: “And Michal Saul’s daughter loved [watteʾĕhab] David: and they told Saul, and the thing pleased him. And Saul said, I will give him her, that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him. Wherefore Saul said to David, Thou shalt this day be my son in law in the one of the twain” (1 Samuel 18:20-21). Saul pushed continues to push this agenda, also seeking to exploit the fact that his servants also love David: “And Saul commanded his servants, saying, Commune with David secretly, and say, Behold, the king hath delight in thee, and all his servants love thee [ʾăhēbûkā]: now therefore be the king’s son in law” (1 Samuel 18:22). Saul sought to orchestrate David’s death by requiring a bride-price that would place David in battle often against the Philistines (“Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines,” 1 Samuel 22:25).

None of it worked. The gambit fails and David becomes a part of the royal family: “And Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that Michal Saul’s daughter loved him [ʾăhēbathû]. And Saul was yet the more afraid of David; and Saul became David’s enemy continually” (1 Samuel 18:28). Michal’s love for David, like her brother Jonathan’s, will save David’s life in the face of Saul’s continued attempts to kill him (see 1 Samuel 19).

The sown seeds of Saul’s undoing have already begun to flower, but, ironically, so have the seeds of David’s downfall. Biblical scholars[7] have noted that the biblical narrator carefully avoids saying that David “loved” anyone (except in the case of his enabling love for Absalom). He is always love’s recipient. Even in his public lament for Saul and Jonathan after their deaths, David bewails Jonathan’s love for him.[8] After ascending to the throne, David will treat his wife Michal with cruelty after publicly exposing himself while “dancing before the Lord” (see 2 Samuel 6:14-23) and will subsequently “despise” the Lord through his taking of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (see 2 Samuel 12:9-10). David’s example of the mistreatment of women sets the precedent for his son Amnon who “loves” then rapes and “hates” his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22), for Absalom who will rape his father’s concubines on the roof of the palace (see 2 Samuel 12:11; 16:21-22; 20:3; cf. 15:16), and for Solomon who will “love” many foreign women and marry them outside of the covenant (see 1 Kings 11:1-2). “Love” is the verb that describes the unraveling of David’s household and the morality of his sons.

The story of kingship in both Israel and Judah afterward is extremely perilous and almost always tragic.[9] The destiny of the Davidic kingship, like Israel and Judah, is removal from the land of promise (exile). Political kingship in the northern kingdom of Israel ended in 722 BCE with Hoshea and exile into the Assyrian empire. Political kingship in Judah ended in 587/586 BCE with the exile of Zedekiah to Babylon. Only Jesus Christ—Jehovah—whose kingship was formally rejected in 1 Samuel 8 and who came in mortality as the rejected Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, can now fulfill the dynastic promises once made to David in any eternal sense.

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[1] This excludes Ishbosheth (or Ishbaal/Eshbaal) who reigned over Israel a short time after his father Saul’s death.

[2] On the Book of Samuel as (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) as part of a “Deuteronomistic History,” see Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, JSOTSup 15 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981). German original: Martin Noth, Uberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1943).

[3] See discussion in Matthew L. Bowen, “’If Ye Believe on His Name’: Wordplay on the Name Samuel in Helaman 14:2, 12–13 and 3 Nephi 23:9 and the Doctrine of Christ in Samuel’s Speech,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 46 (2021):49-76

[4] See Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomistic History (ISBL; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 22-26.

[5] Ezra Taft Benson, “Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” in BYU Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), 304–5.

[6] This chapter can be usefully cross-checked and cross-referenced with Ammon and Limhi’s dialogue on prophets and seers and Mormon’s subsequent description of “seer, after the manner of old times” (Mosiah 8:13-18 and 28:13-16).

[7] See, e.g., Tod Linafelt, “Private Poetry and Public Eloquence in 2 Samuel 1:17-27: Hearing and Overhearing David’s Lament for Jonathan,” Journal of Religion 88 (2008): 507.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Deuteronomistic History (including the book(s) of Samuel and 1–2 Kings, evaluates all the kings of Israel after David and most of the kings of Judah as evil. He singles out only a few of the kings of Judah as righteous (e.g., Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah). Kingship in Israel and Judah fails, because human kings are almost always unrighteous (see also D&C 121:39): “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”


Matthew L. Bowen is an associate professor of Religious Education at Brigham Young University–Hawaii where he has taught since 2012. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, where he also earned an M.A (Biblical Studies). He previously earned a B.A. in English with a minor in Classical Studies (Greek emphasis) from Brigham Young University (Provo) and subsequently pursued post-Baccalaureate studies in Semitic languages, Egyptian, and Latin there. In addition to having taught at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, he has previously taught at the Catholic University of America and at Brigham Young University. Bowen is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles on scripture- and temple-related topics as well as the recent book Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture. With Aaron P. Schade, he is the coauthor of the newly released volume The Book of Moses: From the Ancient of Days to the Latter Days. Bowen grew up in Orem, Utah, and served a two-year mission in the California Roseville Mission. He and his wife, the former Suzanne Blattberg, are the parents of three children, Zachariah, Nathan, and Adele.

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