This is a tale of two names: Saul (Shaul in Hebrew) and Paul (Paulus in Latin).
Saul/Shaul was the name of Israel’s first King, from the Tribe of Benjamin. After the death and resurrection of Yeshua/Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon and within all who believed in Him, Shaul was the name of the leading Jewish persecutor of Jewish believers in Yeshua as the Messiah and Son of God, and who became arguably the leading Apostle, by the name of Paul, whom the Lord chose and sent out. He was also from the Tribe of Benjamin.
Ever since YHVH, the Creator God, chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to become their God, and the God of their descendants, He was their Judge, Lawgiver, and King, and would be their Savior. He was sovereign in the life and affairs of His chosen people Israel, and He appointed whom He would to rule under His authority. He chose Moses and Aaron; then Joshua and Eleazar; then Judges to deliver His people when they were oppressed too much by their enemies. This all lasted for about 500 years, until the people – who had difficulty remaining true to YHVH’s covenants and commandments – asked Samuel the Judge and Prophet and Priest to appoint them a King over them, like the Gentiles had. (Acts 13:16-23) In doing so, although the Torah foresaw Kings ruling the nation, YHVH told Samuel to tell the people that they had not rejected Samuel, but that they had rejected YHVH from being their King; and practically speaking, from being their God. They preferred to be led and ruled by a “normal” king – a sinner like themselves rather than the Holy God of Heaven and Earth, who knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart of every man – and to follow the gods of the Gentile nations around them.
God gave the people the man to be King that the people asked for: a man who “looked the part”. His name was Saul, which in Hebrew means, “asked for; desired”. (1Sam 9:1-2) (BTW, the root of the word is the same for Sheol/ Hades – the lower parts of the Earth for the dead awaiting the resurrection which they “have asked for” – either by faith to be with the Lord; or by unbelief not to be with God.)
Humanly speaking, Saul was a great king, and is considered as such within Judaism. But his heart was not genuinely after God’s. His downfall was determined when he failed to obey the Word of the LORD through Samuel to go to war against Amalek, and kill completely all that they had. (For those of us with our own sanctified understanding and sensitivities about this, who are we to judge YHVH and find Him guilty of anything?!) Saul and the soldiers did a good job at defeating their perpetual enemies (Amalek was a descendant of Esau), but they only captured their King, Agag, and they kept the best of the livestock alive for themselves to sacrifice them to YHVH after the battle. When Samuel showed up afterwards, Saul told him that he had done what the LORD had commanded and was very happy about that. Instead, YHVH revealed to Samuel what was on His heart, and said that He regretted that He had set Saul as King, for Saul had turned back from following Him and His commandments.
Samuel spoke the word of the LORD to Saul, saying (in part): “When you were small in your own eyes (1Sam 10:15-27), were you not head of the tribes of Israel, and did not YHVH anoint you King over Israel? … Why then did you not obey the voice of YHVH?”
Saul basically answered that he did do what God had commanded: he fought and defeated the Amalekites, captured their evil king, killed every body and the unsuitable of the livestock, saving the best to offer sacrifices to the LORD! [What’s the matter?! What have I done wrong?!]
Samuel said, without mincing words: God is not interested in sacrifices, but to be obeyed. (Ps 40:6-; Heb 10:1-10) To stubbornly act according to our judgment is as witchcraft, covetousness, idolatry. God would remove His Spirit from Saul, and the Kingdom, and give it to a man whom He knew had a heart for Him.
When Saul was small in his own eyes – despite his physical stature and abilities – God’s grace was with him, and to Israel under his rule and military leadership. But in his great pyrrhic-victory over the Amalekites, he esteemed himself more highly than was appropriate and built a memorial monument for himself. (1Sam 15:12-16) His pride preceded his fall, when he became great in his own eyes, and by not having a heart after YHVH’s, he never repented, but continued opposing the Holy Spirit and opposing YHVH God’s anointed man, David, who would succeed him as King, until his final battle and death.
When we come to the other Saul, the Pharasaic Jewish persecutor of the Jewish believers in the early years of the newly forming Body of Messiah (the ‘Church’), we have an opposite image of King Saul. Saul excelled in his studies and religion and zeal above all his peers. (Gal 1:13-14) He was well regarded by the ruling council of Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin. He had bona fide credentials as a ‘real’ Israeli Jew. And YHVH God knew his heart. He was zealous for the God of Israel and the traditions of the fathers, but without knowledge of the bona fide grace and righteousness of the God whom he served.
When the risen and glorified Lord Messiah Yeshua/Christ Jesus stopped Saul on his way to persecute and arrest, and perhaps kill, more followers of Yeshua in Damascus, He blinded him by God’s unapproachable light, and revealed Himself to Saul as the One whom he was persecuting and blaspheming, as he sought to kill Jews for blasphemy and for following a false prophet to serve other gods. Saul was doing what the Law required, if what he believed was indeed true. (Dt 13) But, praise God, Saul was converted by the revelation of the truth of who Yeshua the Messiah and Son of God truly is! And this revelation humbled this great-in-the-flesh man, an Israeli indeed. In his struggle with God and man – both before and after his conversion to being a new creation in Messiah – Saul/Paul was set free to let YHVH – and in the person of Yeshua — be the God and King of his life.
As Saul, Paul could boast of his worldly former life mehadrin kosher credentials (the highest standard of food acceptability). In the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ, Paul counted all of that as loss, rather than gain, and as refuse, which had hindered his acceptance of the promised Messiah, the humble Servant of YHVH, and Emanuel — God manifested in the flesh.
This was Saul’s conversion, which is expressed in his better known name, Paul. I believe that the Apostle to the Gentiles, and also to kings and to the children of Israel (Acts 9:15-16), received two names at his birth and circumcision, just as I did. He was born in Tarsus, a Gentile city in Turkey, outside of the Land of Israel, just as I was born in the Gentile country of the United States of America. I received an “American” name, and also a Jewish Hebrew name. (They both have meanings for which I thank God today.) I believe that Paul also received that Roman name – Paulus – and also his Jewish Hebrew name – Shaul.
As Shaul, which we saw means “asked for; desired”, he had much to be confident about regarding his pedigree and heritage and being a faithful son of his religious faith and culture. But as Paul, this was no longer his boast, but Christ and His cross became his boast and glory and confidence. What does the name, Paul(us) mean?: Small. Saul the proud persecutor became small in his own eyes, and soon after went by his God-foreseen name of Paul, empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel and build up the believers and churches to untold numbers of people, not only in his life, but through his New Testament epistles to far more all over the world since his death. Paul identified by this name not only because he was sent to the Gentiles (even the Apostle to the Jews, Peter, commended his brother Paul, and the wisdom from God that he had received), but because it expresses the spiritual reality of his encounter with the living God and Savior. (Jer 9:23-24; Gal 6:14-18)
Some translations of the New Testament, including the modern Hebrew translation, have insisted on calling Paul Saul, even though Paul himself calls himself Paul, other than when he gives his testimony of being saved. They think that somehow this might make the Jewish people accept Paul’s teachings more if they use his Jewish Hebrew name. Most of the Israeli believers say Shaul because that is what they are reading and learning. Brothers and sisters, let us learn, like Shaul/Paulus, to humble ourselves before the sovereign wisdom and righteousness of YHVH God, and not change the Holy Spirit inspired text of God’s word. We are missing a spiritual dimension that is significant to our own identity in Messiah. He knows what He is doing, and why it is important to Him – to obey Him, and not our own understanding and good intentions. Do not change the text; put whatever human footnotes that you might want, but, in the fear of the Lord, leave His Word as it is. Not all languages have enough words, but at least in English and Greek and Hebrew together we do.
May we all, too, see the Lord in His glory, and be changed into His likeness! Even so, come, Lord Jesus!