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Cover image via PBS.
The stories of the kings Saul and David have particular significance to Latter-day Saints. Both men were anointed as rulers in the House of Israel, which applies equally to all those who obtain the ordinances of the temple. Once the anointing is received, however, the fulfillment of the promised blessings depends upon strict faithfulness to our covenants. The examples of Saul and David are therefore vitally instructive to us.
Also, the accounts of these two kings illustrate the importance of relying on the Savior. We can succeed as the Lord’s anointed if the Lord is in our hearts. Jesus Christ will fight our battles for us as we demonstrate our faith in Him.
The Anointing of Saul
We learn that Saul was a “choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulder and upward he was higher than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). This tall, striking youth, we are told, was sent out one day to find his father’s lost donkeys. He searched everywhere but could not find them; at last he sought the counsel of the Lord’s prophet, Samuel, who lived nearby.
This story had great meaning in the ancient Near East. Scholars tell us that kings were often depicted as riding on donkeys. In its stubborn refusal to do its master’s will, the donkey symbolized the king’s errant subjects—and therefore the necessity for a strong royal hand.[i] The stubbornness and disobedience of Israel were legendary. They had already in a sense rejected the kingship of the Lord by demanding a mortal king, so it is appropriate that the Lord sent a man like Saul to seek out the “donkeys”—that is, to corral them and rule them. It is also appropriate that Saul should ask for the prophet’s help to find them.
We learn from this that anyone in authority in God’s kingdom needs the prophet’s guidance to do God’s work.
The story also reminds us of another King who entered the holy city riding on a donkey. When Jesus did so the week before the Crucifixion, a great crowd greeted Him and laid palm leaves (symbols of submission to royalty) before Him. Why? Because they sensed in Him the great King who would master Israel as a man masters the stubborn animal he rides. The symbolism of the Lord riding upon a donkey was not at all lost on the people of Jerusalem.
Samuel tells Saul not to concern himself with the donkeys; they are already found. But then the prophet anoints Saul with oil and reveals that the Lord has chosen him “to be captain over his inheritance” (1 Sam. 10:1). The physical anointing is accompanied by the anointing with the Holy Spirit:. “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee,” Samuel tells him, “and thou shalt prophesy . . . and shalt be turned into another man. . . . and God gave him another heart” (1 Sam. 10:6, 9-10).
The anointing should have the same effect on us. Through our faithfulness, we too can be anointed with the Spirit of the Lord. We can receive revelation. We can receive “another heart” redeemed by the Savior from the prison of the natural man.
Saul Loses the Anointing Due to Disobedience
But to be anointed is not automatically to be a ruler. Saul needed to demonstrate through faith and courage his worthiness to rule and reign in Israel. Tragically, within only two years, this once goodly, humble man demonstrated otherwise.
After defeating the Philistines in battle, Saul is ordered to wait at Gilgal (the holy place sanctified by Joshua) for Samuel to arrive and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord. Saul “tarried seven days . . . but Samuel came not to Gilgal.” So, in his impatience, Saul offers the sacrifice himself. Just as he concludes the ordinance, Samuel arrives.
“What hast thou done?” Samuel asks. “Thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God. . . . for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam. 13:8-14).
After a later battle with the Amalekites, Saul ignores the Lord’s commandment to take nothing from them. Still, he confiscates “the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the lambs” and brings them home, ostensibly to sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel’s response is one we should commit to memory:
“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” (1 Sam.
15:9, 15, 22).
By usurping the authority of the priesthood in offering sacrifice, Saul committed a serious blasphemy. He also continued his pattern of disregarding the prophet’s instructions. Because the Lord cannot trust him, Saul loses his anointing to rule in the House of Israel: “”Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23). The same will be true of us if the Lord cannot trust us to honor the priesthood and give strict heed to the prophets.
There is a fundamental principle that many people never grasp in Samuel’s great maxim that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” It’s true that the Lord instituted the ordinance of the sacrifice. He also commanded that the best of the lambs be offered. But the higher principle is to do as the Lord asks now through His prophet. “That which is wrong under one circumstance,” the Prophet Joseph taught, “may be, and often is, right under another. . . . Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”[ii]
Therefore, Samuel tells Saul, “The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou” (1 Sam. 15:28). As the disobedient lose their blessings to those who are more worthy, Samuel is sent by the Lord to anoint Saul’s replacement.
The Anointing of David
Guided to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, Samuel is tempted to anoint Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, who reminds him of the once-noble Saul. But the Lord whispers to him, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Explaining this insight, Elder L. Tom Perry observes:
“The Lord has used the heart as a way of describing the innermost nature of His children. The scriptures are filled with references to the heart, such as the pure in heart, an abundant heart, a cheerful heart, and so forth. . . . In our hearts do we feel a sense of gratitude and devotion to the Father? Are we of one heart with Him to whom we owe everything? The test of our devotion to the Lord seems to be the way we serve Him.”[iii]
In our hearts, there must be love, gratitude, devotion for the Lord, and a determination to serve Him. These are the qualifications of the Lord’s anointed.
In Jesse’s youngest son, David, the Lord found one with these qualifications. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).
Once again, however, the promise of the anointing ordinance is only fulfilled if we have faith in the Lord and the courage of our commitments. David demonstrated both in the fabled story of his battle with Goliath.
Confronting the Adversary
At the war front, King Saul confronts a deadly challenge from the Philistines. There has been “sore war” against these enemies of Israel all the days of Saul (1 Sam. 14:52); but Saul has lost the guidance of the Spirit and the Philistines are advancing. Now the two armies face each other across the narrow Valley of Elah for a decisive battle.
“And there went out a champion out of the camp of Philistines, named Goliath, whose height was six cubits and a span” (although the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of 1 Samuel says “four cubits”). Depending on the interpretation of the measures, the gigantic Goliath was 6 ½ to 9 feet tall. We read of Goliath’s brass helmet and armor and his spear “like a weaver’s beam; his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron” (1 Sam. 17:1-7). As a Biblical shekel equaled about half an ounce, the point on his spear weighed roughly 18 pounds or 8 kilos; and his 5,000-shekel coat of mail more than 150 pounds or 70 kilos.
Goliath challenges Saul or any Israelite to single combat so the winning side can enslave the other. But Saul, a man of great stature himself and the obvious choice to face the giant, has lost the confidence that “waxes strong in the presence of God” from virtue and obedience to the commandments (see D&C 121:45).
Like his people, Saul could only be “dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Sam. 17:11).
In many respects, Goliath is a type of Satan. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the name “Goliath” is Assyro-Babylonian for “Destroyer.” Legend says Goliath was the Philistine warrior who stole the Ark of the Covenant and installed it in an idolatrous temple. At Elah, he challenges the Israelites every morning and evening in order to disturb them at the hours of prayer. His taunting goes on for 40 days, reminding us of the arrogant voice of Satan in the Savior’s ear during His 40-day fast in the wilderness. Goliath seeks to reduce Israel to slavery, just as Satan seeks to take from us our agency. Goliath’s gorgeous armor is made up of bronze “scales” (1 Sam. 17:5), the Hebrew word harkening back to the scales of the serpent of Eden.
When David hears the taunts of Goliath, he responds, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” Where Saul and his hosts look upon Goliath’s “countenance, and the height of his stature,” and are afraid, David sees as the Lord sees. David says to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:32).
In a sense, David is executing the judgment of God. Goliath has blasphemed the God of Israel, and the penalty for such blasphemy according to the Law of Moses is to be stoned to death (see Lev. 24:16). This David sets out to do to Goliath. So David takes five smooth stones out of the brook and puts them in his shepherd’s bag. “His sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:40).
David’s Courage and Faith
Where did David get such courage? In the first place, he was skillful with the sling, and he knew it. In defense of his father Jesse’s flocks, he had taken down a bear and a lion. The sling was a deadly weapon in the ancient world: it was said that the secret weapon of Hannibal of Carthage was his 1,000 Spanish slingers who could spray an enemy with bullets from a hundred yards. Saul probably knew the power of the sling, or he would not have allowed David to put the entire kingdom in jeopardy in single combat with Goliath. David was prepared for this encounter.
But the fundamental source of David’s courage is his trust in the Lord. In defending his sheep, he has learned what it means to rely on strength greater than his own. In the Psalms, David sang, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? . . . The Lord is my strength and my song, and is become my salvation” (Psalm 118: 6, 14). So he answers Goliath’s taunts, “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied” (1 Sam. 17:45).
David took a stone from his bag “and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead, and he fell upon his face to the earth” (1 Sam. 17:49). David then beheaded Goliath with his own sword; the Philistines, shocked, were routed and fled back to the gates of their own cities.
In this story, we see re-enacted the great War in Heaven that began in the pre-mortal world and continues today between the Savior and His Adversary. Goliath stands in the place of Satan, who is determined to enslave our Father’s children. David, whose Hebrew name means “Beloved,” stands in the place of the Father’s Beloved Son, who is determined to free us from the bondage of death and sin.
Ironically, the battle is over before it begins, for its outcome is certain. The stone that killed Goliath represents the “Stone of Israel,” the Savior. The stone is flung by a shepherd boy, reminding us of the Good Shepherd. (The story helps fulfills the patriarchal blessing given to Judah by Jacob, who prophesied that the Messiah, the “Stone of Israel, the Shepherd,” would arise in his family—see Gen. 49:24.) Our Savior, the Son of David, ultimately conquers His Adversary. Although Satan bruises His heel, the Savior crushes the serpent’s head—just as David crushes the head of the serpent-like Goliath.
For those who depend on the Savior, victory over the Goliaths of this world is sure.
Confronting Our Own Goliaths
In our mortal sojourn, we too will encounter Goliaths—as David did—and we will need the Lord’s help to overcome them—as David did. President Gordon B. Hinckley observed, “There are Goliaths all around us. . . . not nine-foot-tall men, but people and institutions that control attractive but evil things that may challenge and weaken and destroy us. Included in these are beer and other liquors and tobacco. Those who market these products would like to enslave you into their use. . . . There is pornography, seductive and interesting and inviting. It has become a giant industry. . . The giants who are behind these efforts are formidable and skillful. They have gained vast experience in the war they are carrying on. They would like to ensnare you. . . .
“But you need not fear if you have the slingshot of truth in your hands.
You have the stones of virtue and honor and integrity to use against these enemies who would like to conquer you. . . . You have the right to call upon God to protect you. Do not let Goliath frighten you. Stand your ground and hold your place, and you will be triumphant.”[iv]
[i] D. Rudman, ‘The Commissioning Stories of Saul and David as Theological Allegory,” Vetus Testamentum, 50:4 (Oct. 2000):519.
[ii] Cited in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, 508.
[iii] L. Tom Perry, “Youth of the Noble Birthright,” Ensign, Nov 1998, 73
[iv] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Overpowering the Goliaths in Our Lives,” Ensign, Jan 2002, 2