It is doubly sad for Saul because he is the divinely conceded choice for the first king, yet he is by the end of his life the divinely rejected king, displaced by a new divine choice, David. For David (c. 1000 b.c.e.) there is good evidence of his existence, but for Saul all that historians have is the biblical narrative.
Saul’s story is told in 1 Samuel 8–31. The text speaks of public dissatisfaction with Israel’s lack of the centralized and continued authority that other nations have because of their kings. The main motivating factor is that Israel is disunited in the face of many neighboring hostile nations.
The age of the charismatic Judges was over. Samuel as popular leader is the bridge figure between the era of leadership by the Judges and leadership by kings. He is the last remaining judge of his day—also a prophet—and he seeks to find someone who can facilitate the unity and security of Israel.
Samuel’s choice, Saul, seems like a natural candidate for kingship: He is physically head and shoulders above his compatriots, meek in judgments, courageous in battle, and magnanimous in victory. This first phase of Saul’s career as king stunningly accomplished, Samuel, who has dominated the first part of the book of 1 Samuel, now exits the scene.
However, once Saul is on his own, the unraveling of his kingdom begins. Three times he specifically ignores or rejects a royal mandate given to him by Samuel, and three times Samuel reappears in the text to reject Saul’s decisions.
What is interesting is that Saul does what kings of other nations around Israel do: He wins battles, gives terms of surrender, and presides at national celebrations, but what Samuel faults him for revolves around specifically religious obligations.
He should have not presided at a religious sacrifice, he should have slaughtered the enemy king Agag as a sacred vow, and he should not consult with witches: These are actions that Samuel as prophet finds such fault with that he announces the divine rejection of Saul.
Now the divine choice would find another and more unlikely candidate, one who put religious devotion above the human expectations for kings. That new choice would be David, "a man after God’s heart". The rest of Saul’s story is intertwined with his rival and erstwhile page David. He fights a civil war with David and chases him out of his kingdom into the land of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines.
The sense of inescapable Greek tragedy envelopes the last phase of his life, as popular opinion, many of his family members, and even his own sanity often desert him. At the end of his troubled life he is surrounded in battle by the Philistines and commits suicide. Yet, the narrative of his life does not end in complete darkness.
The people whom he had gallantly rescued at the beginning of his reign risk their lives to retrieve his body from the victorious enemies. And David, his rival, grieves his tragic death, lifting up an elegy of praise for his fallen "hero" at the national funeral.