Two Sauls and a Cyrus
There has been a lot of talk lately in Christian circles about whether God can use a very flawed man, an ungodly man, to accomplish God's purposes (the backdrop of these discussions being the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency). The obvious answer is yes, deeply flawed and ungodly people can be used by God. The more important question is, how do we know when such a person is being used by God? The answer to that is also simple: We know in retrospect.
Saul of Tarsus was such a man. A highly educated and zealously religious Jewish Pharisee, Saul went out in 1st century Judea under orders from the theocratic Jewish government to find and imprison fellow Jews who had become followers of the crucified heretic Jesus. Saul had a nasty reputation and was greatly feared among these earliest Christians. He was fervent and determined in his mission. The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction," and that is an apt description of Saul of Tarsus.
But on his way to Damascus to hunt down more Jewish Christians, Saul experienced a life-altering visionary encounter with the very Christ whose followered he had been persecuting. Saul was struck blind and knocked off of his horse. He was radically transformed and emerged a new man with an entirely different way of seeing things. Not only was he now a believer in the risen Christ, but he had a mission to take the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles (whom he would have previously despised as godless idolators). Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle. His eyesight never fully recovered and for the rest of his life he referred to himself as "cheif among sinners" and "least among the apostles." Paul poured out the remainder of his days taking his message of God's love and acceptance to the Gentiles. He considered it a privilege to endure great suffering in order to walk the new path that he was set upon that day en route to Damascus. Paul described some of his suffering in a letter to friends in Corinth:
"Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked..." (2 Corinthians 11) He was ultimately incarcerated and executed by the Roman government.
There is another Saul in the Bible, who lived 1,000 years before Paul. This Saul is a tragic figure. His story is told in the book of 1 Samuel. The Israelites wanted to have a king of their own, like the neighboring nations did. They were suffering from "king envy" and were also legitimately concerned about the powerful nations all around them. The people told their religious leader, the prophet Samuel, to appoint a king for them. Samuel was not happy about it. He believed God had told him that for the people to appoint a king was tantamount to rejecting God. Samuel warned the people that having a king would lead to their own oppression: "This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights," Samuel told them, "He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8)
But, chapter 8 of 1 Samuel continues, "the people refused to listen to Samuel. 'No!' they said. 'We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'” Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." This seemed to have been the bargain that the Israelites were willing to make.
God, through the prophet Samuel, acquiesced and agreed to give the people a king. The man selected was Saul, a very popular local hero and "an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites--a head taller than any of the others." (1 Samuel 9) There is nothing in the text initially to indicate that Saul was a bad guy. He seems quite humble and is surprised when the prophet anoints him to be the first king of the Israelites. As king, Saul depended on the prophet Samuel for guidance. But gradually things began to unravel. Saul, it appears, was not temperamentally suited to the role of king. He became insecure and mercurial. He worried too much about what other people thought of him. When the young hotshot David came on the scene, Saul's obsessive jealousy drove him to irrationality and paranoia. Saul conspired (repeatedly) to have David assassinated. He began to commit atrocities, slaughtering a group of priests who assisted David and then killing their families and even their cattle!
Ultimately Saul is depicted as a broken man, prone to fits of madness, rejected by God and eclipsed by David. As Israel's national enemies, the far more powerful Philistines, invade, Saul--the story goes--resorts to visiting a sorceress and having a seance to get guidance from his deceased mentor Samuel. Samuel's ghost tells Saul that he and his sons will die in battle and will lose to the Philistines. This comes to pass. At the decisive battle Saul sees his army routed and his sons fall. Wounded by arrows, Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword.
One more ancient figure who has been receiving attention of late in certain Christian circles is the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great. As the Babylonian empire began to crumble in the 6th century BC, Cyrus--the king of the Medo-Persians to the north and east--invaded and took over Babylon, thus establishing the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Cyrus is remembered as a remarkable ruler. Among his progressive policies was religious tolerance. He allowed people of the various nations and cultures within his empire to worship their own gods in their own temples. One small nation that this policy profoundly impacted was the Jews (Judahites) who had been conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile from Judah into Babylon. For roughly 50 years, the Jews in Babylon dreamed of returning to their homeland and rebuilding their ruined capitol of Jerusalem and restoring their fallen temple on Mount Zion. Under Cyrus, this dream became reality. Cyrus had a policy of repatriating people back to their homelands under imperially ordained governors who would keep the peace and keep tax revenues and commodities flowing back to the heart of the empire. Although a great many Jews decided to remain in Babylon--arguably the greatest city on earth at the time--a remnant returned in successive waves to Judea and began the hard work of rebuilding. The Jews believed, and recorded in their writings, that God used Cyrus to return them to their land. They came to believe that Cyrus was mentioned by name in a prophecy (in Isaiah 45) which pre-dated the emperor by roughly 100 years and that Cyrus released the Jews from exile after reading the prophecy (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, chapter 1). In actuality, most critical biblical scholars recognize the prediction about Cyrus in Isaiah as having been added at a later date--during the time of the Jewish return from exile.
Each of these historic figures--Saul of Tarsus/Paul the Apostle, King Saul of the Israelites, and Cyrus the Great--were seen by many to have been selected and used by God. Paul had a profound impact upon the world by giving up all that he had and wandering throughout the Roman empire telling Gentiles that they too were invited into the Kingdom of God. King Saul showed great promise and was elevated as the people's choice but ultimately failed tragically. Cyrus the Great was a visionary emperor who's influence echoes down through history.
Who would have thought at the time that Saul the persecutor would become the apostle of grace? Or that the other Saul who seemed to have everything going for him would fail so miserably as a king? Or that the pagan emperor Cyrus would be remembered thousands of years into the future as a great liberator of the Jewish people? We can only make these types of assessments in retrospect. Multitudes have come and gone across the stage of human history claiming (or claimed by their followers) to be divinely appointed. Some did great things. Some were failures. Some were monsters. Some were a mixture of all of these. Most quickly evaporated into obscurity.
The danger, as the tale of King Saul (or David Koresh or Jim Jones) shows us, is in trying to presumptively ascribe divine favor upon an individual before they have had their chance to demonstrate it. Jesus said, "By their fruit you will know them," (Matthew 7:16) meaning that we have to wait to see what they produce before we can conclude that they are in tune with God's purposes. It also means that we can look at the fruit they have already produced to get an indication of what to expect, while allowing for the possibility that they may surprise us, for better or for worse.