Samuel: A Study In Character - "The Afterthought"
This week I am continuing to preach through the book of 1 Samuel, focusing on the life of the book's namesake: The prophet Samuel, himself. Strangely, so much of the life of Samuel is intertwined with two of the other great characters in the story: David and Saul. But as we discovered last week, the real main characters in these ancient narratives are a bit more elusive.
Let's start by diving right into the text for a change--1 Samuel 13:1-14:
1 Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years. 2 Saul chose three thousand men from Israel; two thousand were with him at Mikmash and in the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan at Gibeah in Benjamin. The rest of the men he sent back to their homes. 3 Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba, and the Philistines heard about it. Then Saul had the trumpet blown throughout the land and said, “Let the Hebrews hear!” 4 So all Israel heard the news: “Saul has attacked the Philistine outpost, and now Israel has become obnoxious to the Philistines.” And the people were summoned to join Saul at Gilgal. 5 The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Mikmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 When the Israelites saw that their situation was critical and that their army was hard pressed, they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns. 7 Some Hebrews even crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. 8 He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter. 9 So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” And Saul offered up the burnt offering. 10 Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him. 11 “What have you done?” asked Samuel. Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.” 13 “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”So let's recap just for a bit.
Saul and his swashbuckling son Jonathan attack the Philistines to provoke them. The Philistines start gathering their army and the Israelites soon realize they are outnumbered. Saul was supposed to wait for Samuel to arrive so that their efforts would be able to be blessed by worship and sacrifice. Samuel was the recognized spiritual leader of Israel, and it was his responsibility to do such things. Saul waits for seven days, which is what he was supposed to do. While he is waiting, his troops slowly begin to return home, mostly out of fear of the Philistines. Finally, out of desperation (and because the 7 days had passed), Saul conducts the worship himself and acts as priest as well as king. At that point Samuel shows up and delivers a harsh message that Saul had failed and that someone outside of his family would succeed him as king.
So here's a big question. Why was Saul treated so harshly here? He did what he was asked to do by waiting for 7 days. His army was leaving, he was about to face a superior force with no men, and only a couple of metal swords between them. It seems kind of harsh of Samuel to deliver such a hard core message to the guy, doesn't it?
Here's the thing. It wasn't the sacrifice that was the problem. It wasn't even the fact that Saul did it---at least culturally. Most kings at that time also served as religious leaders.
What caused Saul to lose God's favor was this: A lack of faith and pride that led him to disobedience in a time of crisis. In the moment when he needed to show restraint and trust in God the most, Saul fell apart. He was thinking of his own self-interests and did not stop for a moment to think about the lesson he was teaching his people by his actions.
This is an important learning for you and for me, as we struggle to understand God's will in the middle of decisions, challenges and even crises in our life:
Faith will choose obedience regardless of the circumstances.
Let's dig back into the text just a bit.
This is a dangerous intersection in the life of the People of Israel. Once again, Samuel shows up and reveals to the reader that the characters in this story are not really the main characters in this story. Those characters as we learned last week are God and His People. And God's people are at a crossroads. This is a choose-you-this-day-whom-you-will-serve moment. They were warned what would happened when an earthly king would begin to reign. Sooner or later, their true colors would be revealed.
We also see in this text that Saul seems to act on his own authority rather than in communion with God. This seems like a small thing on the surface. After all, Saul was trying to motivate his dwindling army to move forward. It's not like the guy was a coward, he was just prideful. This is a warning to those of us who struggle sometimes when our well-intentioned efforts are focused or centered on our own power and authority.
Saul ultimately takes matters into his own hands. We get this. We long for rational, objective methods to know God's will. We don't want to wait on revelation, but we do often try to find ideal personalities to make these decisions for us. When these people either don't show up on time, or let us down we tend to fall apart as well. How many times have you heard of someone who stopped going to church because a fellow church member, elder or pastor hurt their feelings? But in the end, our calling is to wait and trust on God, not on human beings.
So, what do we do with all of this? How do we apply it to our lives?
It's true that facing dangerous intersections can be frightening. We find ourselves wondering just how willing we are to wait on God when we are confronted with the reality of what it might mean to do just that. We might find ourselves dealing with a crisis of faith, full of doubt, fear, you name it. The uncertainty of waiting on God or trying to discern his will can fill us with what feels like an uncontrollable desire to simply do it on our own.
Or we discover just how strong our faith is---or isn't---based on where we go for a "last resort." If church, the Bible, prayer and righteous living are the very last things we try after failing miserably on our own over and over again---we may need to rethink our priorities. I often hear people say, "We tried and tried to find a solution, and then we prayed... and all of sudden it was there!"
Here are a couple of essential questions that we need to ask ourselves in the midst of these dangerous intersections of life:
Question #1 - Do I really mean what I say when I profess my faith in God? In other words: Does my inside match my outside? Am I just giving lip service to God, or am I backing it up with a firm belief in my heart? It's okay to have doubts, but far too often we deny them, even to ourselves. That old aphorism "Fake it until you make it," doesn't always work that well when it comes to faith in God. Just bring whatever faith you've got, in whatever shape it's in to the table. God can work with it.
Question #2 - Do my actions match up with my professions? This sounds similar to the first question, but this one has more to do with the way I present myself to the world. Lot's of Christian-y type people profess faith in Christ, and believe in God with all of their heart. But then they demonstrate the exact opposite in the way they live, act and move in the world. It's what we do, not what we say---or even believe---that defines who we are to other people.
The fact is, when we take matters into our own hands what we are really saying is that God is either too weak, or too indifferent to keep his promises, or that he is a liar.
But it takes some serious effort on our part to resist the temptation to do just that. C.S. Lewis, the great theologian and author, wrote this:
The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.
We forget how to do this in the hustle and bustle of life. We forget how important our relationship with God is when we are too busy trying to solve all of our own problems. And sometimes we lose sight of how unbelievable our life could be if we just went to God first.
I read this story of a famous surgeon, who was about to perform a delicate operation on a little girl. The operation was dangerous, and without she would die. He came to see her before the surgery, and told her that he was going to try to make her better, but that he was going to have to put her to sleep to do it. "Well, if you are going to put me to sleep, then I need to say my prayers," she told him. With that she took his hand, closed her eyes and began praying, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." Before it was over the surgeon found himself praying with her as tears fell from his eyes. He realized that it was the first time he had prayed since he himself was a child.
Listen, Faith will chose obedience regardless of the circumstance. And God's ideas of obedience have less to do with following rules than it does with just being in a relationship with Him.
I want to close with a prayer for those of you who are standing at an intersection in your life. Maybe you don't know which way to turn any more. You've been doing it on your own steam for so long that you can't remember what it's like to truly talk to God. If the words aren't coming for you right now---let me hold your hand so to speak, and offer this on your behalf:
Father, I pray anyone who is reading this, or hearing it who are growing discouraged...
When they feel as if they wait and watch and nothing happens— nothing changes—they grow discouraged. They may feel like the prophet who cried out, How long must I call for help, before You listen? Help them not to give up, to keep watching for Your answers, to be willing to keep on praying.
Help them be determined to rejoice in You no matter what's happening in their lives, to be joyful in You, their Savior, no matter how hard things are or how tired they are. Be their strength!
Give them faith strong enough to wait on You as Abraham, David, and Joseph did. Help them not to lose their confidence in You and Your faithfulness, to know they will see how good You are. Help them turn to You as the One who sustains them.
Help them put their hope in Your Word and all it tells them about You. Help them trust in the wonder of Your great love.
I pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.