Advent Art, Day 12: King Saul


About the Art: Rembrandt van Rijn, David Playing the Harp for Saul, 1629, oil on panel, 50.2 x 61.8 cm, Private Collection.

Light comes in from the upper left, showing King Saul looking down with suspicion and judgment on a young man who has come to play his harp to soothe the King’s anxiety. This king, spear in hand, is large and imposing, draped in layers of regalia and adorned with gold. David himself is hidden, represented only by his hands and his harp—which is to say, David’s presence is represented here as the music he is playing.

The image is rich with drama. We know from the Biblical text that Saul summoned David to play his harp because the music comforted him. The irony is that Saul’s fear was that the Lord would remove him as King, which is why he needed to be calmed. The tension resides in the fact that the young man who plays the comforting melodies will be the very one who will depose Saul and assume his throne.

When you know the story of the tumultuous transition between Saul and David, and how Saul brought the hardships on Israel of which the Prophet Samuel had warned, then the look of distrust on Saul’s face and the spear in his hand leave us fearing what is about to happen to David. We know that on at least two occasions, Saul threw that spear at David as he played. (1 Sam 18:10, 19:9)

This painting is Rembrandt’s editorial of the Biblical text. When you read the story of David and Saul, Rembrandt offers this paints as if to say, “I imagine the moment before Saul threw his spear at David looked something like this.” This simple painting of two men shows a kingdom being torn in two.

(The excerpt under the heading “Consider” is from my book, The Advent of the Lamb of God.)


“Samuel gathered the people and told them, ‘God is going to give you a king. But know this: your king will rule over you. He’ll make you farm his land while he taxes you for your crops and vineyards. He’ll take the best of your fields, livestock, and women and use them to build his kingdom. He’ll send your sons off to war and your daughters off to make clothing and perfume. You’ll become slaves again, and you’ll cry out to the Lord for help. Again. But this time God won’t deliver you. Is this really what you want?’

“The people answered, ‘It is. We want to be like the nations around us. We want a king on a throne, full of power, with a sword in his fist—someone to rule us, fight for us, and establish us.’

“It might have occurred to Samuel that perhaps one of his own sons could succeed him, were it not for the sad fact that they didn’t appear to be following in his footsteps. He didn’t presume that the Lord meant to call one of his sons to rule over Israel, so he asked the Lord to lead him to the one who would.

“There was a wealthy man from the tribe of Benjamin named Kish, and Kish had a son named Saul.”[1]


In your own words, why do you think the people of Israel really wanted a human king to ruler over them? What would that figurehead provide for them?

What are some areas in your life where God had promised to take care of you, but you would still prefer a more tangible form of provision?

What do you think the people of Israel felt God was withholding from them by not giving them a king?


[1] Ramsey, Russ. The Advent of the Lamb of God. IVP, 2018. pgs. 79-80.

David playing harp for Saul *oil on panel *62 x 50 cm *ca. 1630
David playing harp for Saul
*oil on panel
*62 x 50 cm
*ca. 1630
Russ Ramsey
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process. Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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