“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, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19)
Moses told the children of Israel that they had two paths they could choose. He had set before them first the path of obedience to the Word of God. It is a path of life and blessing. But he had also presented the path of death and cursing. Moses could only tell them about the two paths, but they must choose. The same is true for us. The Bible tells us how to live so that our joy might be full. The Bible also warns us of the misery of choosing our own path.
“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Prov. 14:12)
It is this choice I would like to speak about today.
Sometimes we wonder what causes a person to choose one path or the other. We see someone at the end of their life, full of joy in the Lord, and we wonder what is the secret? Or maybe we see someone at the end of their life and they’re miserable, and we wonder how did they get like this? It did not happen instantly. They made choices – one after another – that led them to their final destination.
I would like to examine the lives of two people in the Bible who had a similar beginning but had very different endings. Both men were Israelites. Both were very religious. Both were of the tribe of Benjamin. Both of them were from good families. Both had a promising future. In fact, both men had the same name, at least in English! In English, both are called Saul. Saul of the Old Testament and Saul of the New Testament. The name Saul means “asked for”… it means ‘a sought-after, privileged, or popular person’. Saul of the Old Testament and Saul in the New Testament both began as very popular people. The Bible describes in great detail the lives of both of these men; and they couldn’t have been more different!
Saul the Son of Kish
Let’s look first of all at Saul of the Old Testament. Saul had a very promising beginning.
In 1 Samuel 8, the people asked for a king. Samuel warned them what their king would be like, but they were adamant. 1 Sam. 8:19-22. Saul was the king the Lord chose for the people, because of their desire for a king. In 1 Samuel 9:1-3 we find that Saul was rich, tall, handsome, and popular. Do we think, “I want to be like him?” Wait… this is only the beginning.
Saul started out humble. When the people were seeking him to make him king, he hid himself.
“Therefore they enquired of the LORD further, if the man should yet come thither. And the LORD answered, Behold, he hath hid himself among the stuff.” (1 Sam. 10:22)
If only he had remained humble! In the first few chapters, Saul does very well. He is made king over Israel, and in battle has victory over the Ammonites. But very soon afterwards. Saul began making choices that defined the course of his life. We all have choices to make as well, and we can let Saul’s life be a warning to us, to choose the better path.
Impatience (1 Samuel 13:8-14)
The first incident is in ch.13. It might seem at first like a small problem, but the Lord took it very seriously. It was a matter of patience. He was to wait for Samuel to come, and the seven days passed, and no Samuel. Saul took things into his own hands. If we don’t like the way things are going, rather than wait for God’ timing, we take things into our own hands. This is sin, and how easy it is to fall into the sin of impatience. Do I trust God? Can’t I simply rest, knowing that His way is perfect? The moment I act impatiently, I am acting as if I know better than God. Although it seems like such a small error, God says “your kingdom will not continue”.
Open Disobedience (1 Samuel 15:12)
The Lord decided that it was time to punish the Amalekites for what they had done many years earlier when Israel came out of Egypt. If you remember, they laid in wait for Israel and attacked the weak and slow moving travellers. The Lord told Saul to kill all of the Amalekites, including their animals. Instead, Saul spared the king and the animals. Even though Saul had disobeyed the Lord, he still maintained an outward facade of obedience;
“And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Sam. 15:13)
Saul was a person who wanted to give others the impression that he was following the Lord, but in reality he was doing his own will. Saul tried to make the excuse that the people saved the animals to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord.
“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.” (1 Sam 15:13, 21-22)
Obedience is the highest test of our love. Do you love God? Then you will obey God. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God doesn’t want our worship without our obedience. Worship is empty, hollow, and fake unless it comes from a heart that is submitted to God’s will. God determined that because of Saul’s disobedience, his kingdom could not continue;
“And Samuel said unto him, 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.”
In the following chapter, Samuel was sent to anoint David to be king in the place of Saul. Notice that Saul, though he acknowledged his sin, wanted to maintain a good appearance to the people;
“Then he said, I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD thy God.” (1 Sam. 15:28, 30).
Envy and Bitterness (1 Samuel 18:6-11)
After David defeated Goliath, Saul began to envy David, because the women started singing his praises; “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands”. Down deep, Saul wanted to be the greatest. He resented David because the people were praising him more than Saul. Envy is a serious sin, because it can become a root of bitterness, which leads to other forms of sin. Remember, it was envy that led the Jews to crucify the Lord Jesus (Matt. 27:18). If unjudged, envy can turn into bitterness, and bitterness is a root that ruin lives.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31)
But Saul was so full of himself, that David’s success bothered him. Is there someone in our life that we are envious of? Be careful… envy can destroy our life.
“And Saul eyed David from that day and forward” (1 Sam. 18:9-11).
Saul’s envy led to him attacking David with his javelin multiple times, which David avoided. Envy led Saul to hunt David for years through the countryside of Israel. Envy led Saul to give Michal, David’s wife, to another man, while David was on the run.
Saul’s wickedness rose to new heights when he had the priests of the Lord killed for helping David (1 Samuel 22:6-23). Twice (1 Sam. 24 and 1 Sam. 26), while Saul was hunting David in the woods, David had a chance to kill Saul, but refused to injure the king, because he was “the Lord’s anointed”. In both cases, Saul said that he was sorry, but then later continued to hunt David. The flesh is incorrigible. Saul had many opportunities to repent, but he continued on in his path of self will.
The Power of Darkness (1 Sam. 28)
In ch.28, Samuel died, and Saul was facing a battle with the Philistines. He cried to the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him. How awful! Saul was terrified. Rather than submit to the government of God, he turned to the power of darkness (1 Samuel 28:6). The witch of Endor was able to summon a familiar spirit, which was a demon that knew about the dead person, and could imitate them. Both the witch and Saul were shocked when Samuel himself appeared! It was the power of God that brought up Samuel, but his message to Saul was.solemn; “the Lord has already spoken” (1 Sam. 28:16-19). Saul ate his last supper in the house of a witch.
Suicide (1 Sam. 31)
In ch.31, Saul and his army were defeated by the Philistines. Three of his sons were killed, and Saul was wounded. Totally alone, miserable, and afraid, Saul took his own life (1 Samuel 31:1-4).
How sad! How did Saul end up this way? It didn’t happen in an instant. Step by step, he chose a path that led toward an awful end. He had chose the “way which seemeth right unto a man,” but the end thereof was the way of death. He chose to act according to his own mind, rather than submitting to God. It started out with impatience. Unwilling to wait for God’s time. Then it proceeded to open disobedience. Then he became envious of David, and that envy consumed the rest of his life. Finally, he turned to the power of darkness, and then took his own life.
Saul’s problem at the root was self-importance. He thought the rules didn’t apply to him, therefore he could disobey. He couldn’t stand David’s success, because he thought it made him look weak. Above all, God wants reality in our lives. God chose another king, David, who was “a man after God’s own heart”. David wasn’t perfect, but he was genuine. And when David sinned, he repented.
Saul of Tarsus
No we turn to the other Saul (Acts 7:58; 8:1). He too a good beginning, as far as the world was concerned. He was well educated, and well-qualified as a young Jewish leader. But God stopped Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, when a light from heaven shined around him, and a voice that said “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul of the Old Testament persecuted David, but Saul of the New Testament persecuted the church, which is the body of Christ!
Submission and Obedience (Acts 9)
The first thing we see with Saul of Tarsus is is immediate submission and implicit obedience to the voice from heaven (9:3-8).Saul did not know who the Lord was;
“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:5-6)
Saul immediately accepted that Jesus was his Lord, and was willing to do His will. This is a complete contrast to Saul in the OT who grew impatient and “forced” his own way. How is it with us? Are we willing to submit to the Lord’s will? Are we willing to say, like Saul of Tarsus, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”
Saul went through a total transformation. Naturally, Saul had much to boast in.
“Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:4-8).
When you look at Saul’s resume, it is quite extensive. Ceremonially, ethnically, and religiously, he had much to boast in. From a religious standpoint, Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee. The word ‘pharisees’ means ‘the separate ones’. Concerning zeal or religious energy, Saul of Tarsus went so far as to lead the persecution against the church. Morally also, Saul was “blameless” as far as keeping the commandments and ordinances of the law. All of these things were what the flesh could boast in. Like Saul of the Old Testament, Saul of the New Testament could remain outwardly “blameless” (v.6) while at the same time being “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Religious flesh is insidious, because it is sin disguised as a cloak of godliness (John 16:2; Matt. 16:23).
Before he was saved, Paul thought of his successes in Judaism as “gain” or “advancement” (Gal. 1:14), but when he was converted he counted it “loss for Christ”. He even changed his own name from Saul to Paul. Saul means ‘asked for’, but Paul means ‘little’. He had become little in his own eyes. Grace makes us humble. What a change took place when that voice spoke to him from heaven, and the light shone around him! From now on, we will call him ‘Paul’!
Paul never lost as sense of his own sinful past. He could speak of himself as ‘the chief of sinners’, ‘the least of all saints’, and ‘not worthy to be called an apostle’. But is was this humility, as opposed to his former pride, that made the apostle Paul so different from Saul of the Old Testament.
Suffering and Joy
After his conversion, Paul went on to become perhaps the greatest servant of Christ. He received great revelations from the Lord. He unfolded the doctrine of the church, and out union with Christ. He took the gospel of God’s grace to the Gentiles, travelling thousands of miles. But his path was not without suffering.
He suffered first of all for the sake of Christ, and His church. The Lord said about Paul, “For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). But Paul rejoiced in it. He was happy for the privilege to suffer for Christ.
“Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).
Before he was saved, Saul of Tarsus “persecuted” the church, and the Lord spoke to him about it when the light shined down of him from heaven; “why are you persecuting me?” Paul viewed his sufferings in service to the assembly as following Christ in His sufferings. What man, other than Christ, suffered as the Apostle Paul did for the saints? Read 2 Corinthians 11. These sufferings were not only emotional, but real physical persecution; “the tribulations of Christ in my flesh”.
In addition to suffering for Christ, Paul was give “a thorn for the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:1-3, 7-9). This “thorn” was some kind of physical or medical problem. It was given to Paul to keep him humble; “that I might not be exalted by the exceeding greatness of the revelations”. We don’t know what the “thorn” was exactly, but it could be something that was a natural barrier to Paul’s teaching and preaching, because he asked the Lord three times to remove it. In 2 Cor. 10:10, the Corinthians were saying about Paul; “his presence in the body [is] weak, and his speech [is] naught”. But after praying three times, the Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for thee”.
We find in 2 Cor. 4:7-8 that God had another purpose as well, in allowing Paul to suffer so much.
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us: every way afflicted, but not straitened; seeing no apparent issue, but our way not entirely shut up; persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed; etc.”.
God’s power is amplified through our weakness. The knowledge of the glory of God is called a “treasure”, contained in “earthen vessels”, which are our human bodies. Paul here contrasts the treasure and the vessel. It was very wise of God to place the life of Christ in the power of the Spirit of God into frail human bodies, so that God would get the glory, and not man. Others looking on, knowing the weakness of the vessel, will be forced to see the hand of God at work. Our “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In fact, the weaker the vessel, the more obvious the power of God. Physically, Paul was passing through deep trials. The vessel – his body – was being broken down; “troubled… perplexed… persecuted… cast down”. Nevertheless, God was with him, sustaining him! “Yet not distressed… yet not in despair… yet not forsaken… yet not destroyed”.
Christ was everything to Paul; more important than himself.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Paul’s pathway was not easy. In addition to the persecution that he suffered, he also experienced betrayal, abandonment, and assembly problems. But no matter how difficult the pathway, Paul had a joy that could not be taken from him;
“At midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them” (Acts 16:25).
The End of the Path
At the end of Paul’s life, he knew that he was going to be killed. Earlier, Paul said that he wanted to finish his course with joy (Acts 20:24). In his final letter, he said:
“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
Many had abandoned Paul; “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1:15). Even one of his personal friends; “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world”. He felt the loneliness when he stood in court before Nero;
“At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me” (2 Tim 4:10, 16-17).
Paul could never be alone. Saul of the Old Testament was truly alone. He ended his own life in complete fear and despair. But Paul could never be alone. He had committed his life to the Lord, and enjoyed a deep relationship with God his Father.
So, which Saul do we want to be like. Remember, there are two paths before you. The path that leads to life, and the path that leads to death. Someone who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ can never be lost, but if we live according to our own will, our life can become shipwrecked.
If we live our lives like Saul of the Old Testament (religious, proud, and disobedient) we are sure to end up miserable. But if we live our lives like Saul, or Paul, of the New Testament (obedient, repentant, and humble) we are sure to end up rejoicing. Which path will we choose?