Saul is at length brought to put himself into the dress of the penitent; but it is too evident that he only acts the part of a penitent, and is not one indeed. Observe,
I. How poorly he expressed his repentance. It was with much ado that he was made sensible of his fault, and not till he was threatened with being deposed. This touched him in a tender part. Then he began to relent, and not till then. When Samuel told him he was rejected from being king, then he said, I have sinned, 1 Sam. 15:24. His confession was not free nor ingenuous, but extorted by the rack, and forced from him. We observe here several bad signs of the hypocrisy of his repentance, and that it came short even of Ahab’s. 1. He made his application to Samuel only, and seemed most solicitous to stand right in his opinion and to gain his favour. He makes a little god of him, only to preserve his reputation with the people, because they all knew Samuel to be a prophet, and the man that had been the instrument of his preferment. Thinking it would please Samuel, and be a sort of bribe to him, he puts it into his confession: I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and thy word; as if he had been in God’s stead, 1 Sam. 15:24. David, though convinced by the ministry of Nathan, yet, in his confession, has his eye to God alone, not to Nathan. Ps. 51:4 Against thee only have I sinned. But Saul, ignorantly enough, confesses his sin as a transgression of Samuel’s word; whereas his word was no other than a declaration of the commandment of the Lord. He also applies to Samuel for forgiveness (1 Sam. 15:25): I pray thee, pardon my sin; as if any could forgive sin but God only. Those wretchedly deceive themselves who, when they have fallen into scandalous sin, think it enough to make their peace with the church and their ministers, by the show and plausible profession of repentance, without taking care to make their peace with God by the sincerity of it. The most charitable construction we can put upon this of Saul is to suppose that he looked upon Samuel as a sort of mediator between him and God, and intended an address to God in his application to him. However, it was very weak. 2. He excused his fault even in the confession of it, and that is never the fashion of a true penitent (1 Sam. 15:24): I did it because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. We have reason enough to think that it was purely his own doing and not the people’s; however, if they were forward to do it, it is plain, by what we have read before, that he knew how to keep up his authority among them and did not stand in any awe of them. So that the excuse was false and frivolous; whatever he pretended, he did not really fear the people. But it is common for sinners, in excusing their faults, to plead the thoughts and workings of their own minds, because those are things which, how groundless soever, no man can disprove; but they forget that God searchest the heart. 3. All his care was to save his credit, and preserve his interest in the people, lest they should revolt from him, or at least despise him. Therefore he courts Samuel with so much earnestness (1 Sam. 15:25) to turn again with him, and assist in a public thanksgiving for the victory. Very importunate he was in this matter when he laid hold on the skirt of his mantle to detain him (1 Sam. 15:27), not that he cared for Samuel, but he feared that if Samuel forsook him the people would do so too. Many seem zealously affected to good ministers and good people only for the sake of their own interest and reputation, while in heart they hate them. But his expression was very gross when he said (1 Sam. 15:30), I have sinned, yet honour me, I pray thee, before my people. Isa. this the language of a penitent? No, but the contrary: “I have sinned, shame me now, for to me belongs shame, and no man can loathe me so much as I loathe myself.” Yet how often do we meet with the copies of this hypocrisy of Saul! It is very common for those who are convicted of sin to show themselves very solicitous to be honoured before the people. Whereas he that has lost the honour of an innocent can pretend to no other than that of a penitent, and it is the honour of a penitent to take shame to himself.
II. How little he got by these thin shows of repentance. What point did he gain by them? 1. Samuel repeated the sentence passed upon him, so far was he from giving any hopes of the repeal of it, 1 Sam. 15:26; the same with 1 Sam. 15:23. He that covers his sins shall never prosper, Prov. 28:13. Samuel refused to turn back with him, but turned about to go away, 1 Sam. 15:27. As the thing appeared to him upon the first view, he thought it altogether unfit for him so far to countenance one whom God had rejected as to join with him in giving thanks to God for a victory which was made to serve rather Saul’s covetousness than God’s glory. Yet afterwards he did turn again with him (1 Sam. 15:31), upon further thoughts, and probably by divine direction, either to prevent a mutiny among the people or perhaps not to do honour to Saul (for, though Saul worshipped the Lord, 1 Sam. 15:31; it is not said Samuel presided in that worship), but to do justice on Agag, 1 Sam. 15:32. 2. He illustrated the sentence by a sign, which Saul himself, by his rudeness, gave occasion for. When Samuel was turning from him he tore his clothes to detain him (1 Sam. 15:27), so loth was he to part with the prophet; but Samuel put a construction upon this accident which none but a prophet could do. He made it to signify the rending of the kingdom from him (1 Sam. 15:28), and that, like this, was his own doing. “He hath rent it from thee, and given it to a neighbour better than thou,” namely, to David, who afterwards, upon occasion, cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:4), upon which Saul said (1 Sam. 24:20), I know that thou shalt surely be king, perhaps remembering this sign, the tearing of the skirt of Samuel’s mantle. 3. He ratified it by a solemn declaration of its being irreversible (1 Sam. 15:29): The Strength of Israel will not lie. The Eternity or Victory of Israel, so some read it; the holy One, so the Arabic; the most noble One, so the Syriac; the triumphant King of Israel, so bishop Patrick. “He is determined to depose thee, and he will not change his purpose. He is not a man that should repent.” Men are fickle and alter their minds, feeble and cannot effect their purposes; something happens which they could not foresee, by which their measures are broken. But with God it is not so. God has sometimes repented of the evil which he thought to have done, repentance was hidden from Saul, and therefore hidden from God’s eyes.