Faithfulness Inverted (1 Sam 14:24-46)
Sermon Audio: Faithfulness Inverted (1 Sam 14:24-46)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Reflect back on the sermon. What was most helpful to you personally?
- What does this story teach us about bad leaders? Have you seen leaders like this before?
- What does this story teach us about what Saul really cares about most?
- There were three Bible stories that were inverted in this story (Achan; Adam and Eve; Jesus). Which of these three stood out to you most?
- Read Col 2:23. What was the connection between this passage and what Saul did? How can a Christian practice serious self-denial without slipping into an unhelpful asceticism?
- How is Jesus the best leader?
What makes a good leader? Who do you want to follow? Someone with vision, grit, conviction, someone who isn’t afraid to break the rules and push out into the unknown? Is it creativity, or courage, or charisma? Is it the ability to draw a crowd, to excite them, to push them towards a higher goal? There is an ocean of books, talks, and resources on the issue, with a legion of different pictures of what leadership looks like. There are many things needed for good leadership, but let me suggest one that is so mundane, so prosaic, that it likely won’t have any books written on it: time. Not flash, not dazzle, but consistent, plodding over time. Or, to use a Biblical word, faithfulness.
Back in chapter 8, Samuel warned Israel that a king would exploit the people, burden them, and take from them. But, thus far, their king has not done that. Saul has led the people, won victories, and established the kingdom of Israel. Sure, Samuel has continued to warn them all along, even prophetically announcing that Saul’s dynasty has been ended by God. But he certainly hasn’t turned into the tyrant that Samuel warned of. What’s Samuel so worried about?
What lust and charisma and first impressions may hide, time will reveal. You may be able to fake it for a moment, but faithfulness cannot be faked. And in our story today, we see the mask of Saul slip for the first time.
24 And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” So none of the people had tasted food. 25 Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground. 26 And when the people entered the forest, behold, the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. 28 Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food this day.’” And the people were faint. 29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great.”
31 They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very faint. 32 The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood. 33 Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.” 34 And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.
36 Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” But the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” 37 And Saul inquired of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into the hand of Israel?” But he did not answer him that day. 38 And Saul said, “Come here, all you leaders of the people, and know and see how this sin has arisen today. 39 For as the LORD lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him. 40 Then he said to all Israel, “You shall be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” And the people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.” 41 Therefore Saul said, “O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. 42 Then Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.” And Jonathan was taken.
43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.” 44 And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” 45 Then the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die. 46 Then Saul went up from pursuing the Philistines, and the Philistines went to their own place. – 1 Sam 14:24-46
Previously in our story, Jonathan had courageously challenged the entire Philistine army alongside his armor bearer, confident that God can save His people with many or few. God not only preserves Jonathan’s life, but honors his courage by routing the Philistine army entirely. This helps the rest of Israel—including king Saul—find their courage and join in the battle. If you remember, in 1 Sam 13:14 Saul was told that his kingdom would no longer continue and that God would be looking for another man who was “after God’s own heart” to be king. And then along comes Saul’s son, Jonathan, who exhibits incredible faith—faith like a man after God’s own heart–and who demonstrates the leadership, decisiveness, and courage of a king. Jonathan’s character serves as a stark contrast with Saul, hiding in a cave with his army.
We cannot read Saul’s mind, but one has to wonder what Saul is thinking. He has just been bested by his son directly after being deposed by God. Time will reveal that Saul ultimately is controlled by what people think of him, so he is very insecure. So what does someone like that do in a situation like this?
Bad Leaders Use People (24-30)
“And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” So none of the people had tasted food.” – 1 Sam 14:24
Here, we get our first picture of the cruelty of Saul. The soldiers are exhausted from the battle, weary from the fight, and Saul walks through the ranks and sees the men tired. So what does he do? “The men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people…” He sees their exhaustion SO he pronounces a curse on the soldiers forbidding them from eating any food until the evening. He isn’t moved to compassion or mercy or affection for his soldiers who have been expending themselves and risking their lives. Like an overbearing father who refuses to give a glass of water to his child till the yardwork is done, Saul withholds what the soldiers rightly deserve and turns it into an earned incentive.
And, notice the pronouns here, “…until I am avenged on my enemies.” Not only this a depiction of extremely poor leadership and exploitation, but it also reveals what Saul thinks this battle is about: himself. The battle isn’t about the Lord, but about his reputation. So, the men who are under his charge now are no longer deserving of normal care and compassion. They are treated inhumanely which will, in time, lead to them acting inhumanely.
Saul’s rash vow here is a great picture of what can go wrong when leadership and power are centered on self, rather than others. Saul’s main aim is his glory and his reputation (which likely isn’t looking so great given his cowardice previously), so he acts like a cruel king, overcompensating for his own insecurities with a harsh and unyielding oath that really tries to convey: Look at how serious I am about fighting the Philistines, but winds up conveying instead: Look at how vain and foolish I have become.
People tend to be suspicious of authority today because of abuses they have seen. Perhaps you have witnessed this yourself. But we must be able to delineate between good authority and bad authority. Certainly, Jonathan’s daring escapade in the episode before this is a picture of what one does to lead that results in the good of many. Jonathan doesn’t exploit or dehumanize anyone under him, but risks his own life to deliver and save his countrymen. Saul pushes difficulty and hardship needlessly onto his soldiers out of vanity; Jonathan takes on difficulty and hardship onto himself to save his soldiers out of a love for them and confidence in God. That’s what good leaders do. This is what our Savior, Jesus Christ, does. While His disciples are arguing with each other about which one of them is the greatest, Jesus is busy washing their feet.
I have always been fond of King Lune’s definition of what a king must be from The Horse and his Boy: “This is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
So, the kitchen is a mess. What does a good leader do? He is the first one to step in to start cleaning up, the last one to leave after everything is cleaned, and whistling while he works. Parents of boys, if you are looking for a good definition of what manhood looks like to train your sons in, consider this one: first one in, last one out, rejoicing the most.
Now, the exhausted soldiers are marching through a forest and notice wild honey and honeycombs dropping around them, but they do not reach out for fear of the oath king Saul had placed them under.
But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. – 1 Sam 14:27
Now, since Jonathan had not heard the oath then he is not bound by the oath. So, with a clean conscience he enjoys the honey and finds his strength revived. But those around him quickly inform him of the curse that Saul had pronounced (14:28)
Then Jonathan said “My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great,” (1 Sam 14:29-30).
Jonathan laments that the victory over the Philistines has now been blunted by Saul’s foolish vow—the army is less effective and capable at fully routing the enemy. This is a bold statement for Jonathan to make, openly criticizing his father, the king.
Here, there may be an allusion to the story of Achan in Joshua 7 whose sin led to Israel’s defeat at Ai, and the death of three dozen men. Lots are cast, and God reveals to Joshua that Achan is the one who had stolen devoted things leading to the death of the men (Josh 7:16-18). Achan’s name sounds like the Hebrew word for “trouble” (achor). Before Achan is executed, Joshua asks him, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today,” (Josh 7:25). And then we are told that the place of Achan’s execution is forever named “the Valley of Achor” (Josh 7:26). This story of Achan becomes an important symbol to Israel of how sin never stays hidden and always costs others. Here, Jonathan says that Saul has brought “achor” on the land–the only time this word is used in 1-2 Samuel. Further, casting lots will play a key role later in our story. Only, in our story, it is an inverse of Achan’s. The lots will fall on Jonathan, but Saul is the one who is troubling the land. He is the one whose sin is leading to the demise of the people.
Jonathan is the faithful leader who serves the people; Saul is the faithless leader who is using the people.
Bad Leaders Tempt People (31-35)
They struck down the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. And the people were very faint. – 1 Sam 14:31
The distance between Michmash and Aijalon is approximately 15 miles as the bird flies, but would have been even longer on foot. That is an incredible distance to cover while in active combat, and forbidden from taking in sustenance. Thus, the people are now very faint. Their physical deprivation leads them to serious sin.
The people pounced on the spoil and took sheep and oxen and calves and slaughtered them on the ground. And the people ate them with the blood. – 1 Sam 14:32
The people are described here in animal-like terms. They “pounce” on the sheep and oxen like a beast and begin to eat the meat with the blood in it, something that God had explicitly forbidden in the Law (Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-14; Deut 12:16). The soldiers had been treated inhumanely and so they acted inhumanely.
Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.” 34 And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD. – 1 Sam 14:33-35
Saul hears of what the people are doing and is shocked, calling their acts “treacherous” or “faithless.” He then sets up a stone for the soldiers to properly slaughter their animals and drain their blood. Interestingly, Saul then constructs an altar to the Lord, but we are told it is “the first altar that the built to the Lord.” Why are we told that? Perhaps the author of Samuel is wanting to show you that, despite being king for several years, Saul only constructs an altar to the Lord in response to the gross sin of the people—meaning, worship isn’t a very high priority to Saul.
Now, the people of Israel are responsible for their own sin. They can’t be excused because of Saul, yet it is astonishing that Saul does not draw the connection between his oath and the people’s sin. He has aggravated and inflamed the appetite of his men to the degree that they feel like the only option they have is to sin. He did not cause his soldiers to sin, but he did tempt them.
There is a kind of austerity and asceticism that is so rigorous in self-denial that it, for all its force, only pulls the bowstring of appetite back even more, sending the arrow of depravity even further. Maybe Saul thought his oath was what “serious” faithfulness looked like, but it resulted in serious sin.
It might be prudentially wise for you to deny yourself of some things that may be fine for others to participate in—maybe you cannot drink alcohol, or have unrestricted access to the internet, or follow the news too closely. Maybe you have a personal weakness that doesn’t permit you to participate in those things without sinning. But when we take those restrictions and then require others to adopt them—regardless of what theirweaknesses might be--we run into the danger of binding people’s consciences where they shouldn’t be. Saul could have just bound himself to an oath. But he didn’t—he required it of his whole army. Maybe Saul thought this is what it looked like to take the Philistines seriously, but his constricting vision actually led to greater sin. Speaking of this, Paul warns of this censoriousness:
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” (Col 2:23).
Self-denial is critical in the Christian life. But what do we deny ourselves of? We deny ourselves what God has told us to deny. If we don’t, we become like the Pharisees who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders” (Matt 23:4). So, we must have enough wisdom to know where our own weaknesses are—and practice self-denial there, even if it is something that is not inherently sinful, but becomes sinful by your abuse or excesses. But we need the awareness to know that it is we who are weak, and we ought not assume that in those matters those around us are similarly weak. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of acting like Saul and exasperating those around us by make the vision of what we define “godliness” as look so burdensome and constricting that they eventually snap and decide to abandon all restrictions and boundaries, and then plunge themselves into real, actual, serious sin.
Scene 3 (36-46) Bad Leaders Blame People
Then Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night and plunder them until the morning light; let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” But the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” – 1 Sam 14:36
It’s the end of a long day and Saul now wants to do something very unusual—he wants to go down at night and plunder the Philistines. The people acquiesce, but the priest Ahijah says, “Wait, shouldn’t we ask God first?” Oh yea, good idea, I guess we should ask God.
But when Saul prays, God doesn’t respond (1 Sam 14:37). Saul immediately assumes, Aha, you wicked, treacherous people! This is your fault! Saul is totally blind to his own sin here. He isn’t reflecting on how his vanity has turned this battle into a narrative of his own glory; he isn’t convicted of his cruel exploitation of his soldiers; he isn’t convicted that God has been an afterthought throughout this entire campaign. He doesn’t even connect the dots with Samuel’s pronouncement that God has rejected him from being king. No, he is certain that if there is a reason why God isn’t answering his prayers, it is because of the soldiers’ sin. He is so certain that he performs another rash vow: “For as the LORD lives who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him,” (1 Sam 14:39).
What on earth is Saul doing? He just bound himself to execute his son? Not only that, in his oath Saul uses the language of Genesis 2:17 when he says that his son “shall surely die.” God warned Adam, “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Actually, the Genesis connection is pretty convincing—what is Jonathan in trouble for? Something sweet that has dropped from a tree that he has eaten, and for that Saul has just pronounced his son’s death. But, similar to the use of Joshua earlier, we have here another interesting inversion. Saul thinks he is reflecting God, but he is closer to reflecting something else. When the serpent tempts Eve he depicts God like a stingy killjoy who is only in the business of forbidding. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:2). God never said that. He gave Adam and Eve all the trees to eat from and forbid just one. God is holding out on you, He isn’t interested in your joy, if you want true life you need to break His command and eat the fruit. Here, Saul, who has just called to mind the death-penalty of Genesis 2:17, has unwittingly actually fulfilled what Satan describes God as. Saul is cruel, he is uncaring, he has needlessly forbidden eating not just from any tree, but anything, so the only way that people under his rule can literally survive is by transgressing his command. Saul is a satanic PR campaign of what Hell wants you to think God is like.
He gathers the people of Israel together and casts lots using two different colored stones called the “Urim” and “Thummim” that were kept in the breast pocket of the ephod of the priest. Through this process the lot eventually falls on Jonathan. I don’t think this means that God believes that Jonathan is guilty of sin—at the most he would be guilty of an unintentional sin, which would have been remedied by a transgression offering (Num 15:22-31). I think instead that God is providentially judging Saul by letting him expose his own depravity, which will become clear soon.
Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.” And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan,” (1 Sam 14:43-44).
Jonathan plainly tells his father what he did, and amazingly, doesn’t defend himself or explain that he was not aware of the oath. The Hebrew is a little tricky here. Jonathan could be asking a question, “must I die?” or an exclamation, “I have to die for this?!” Or, he could simply be prepared to accept an unfair death penalty from a cruel father and king. And here we see Saul perform his third rash vow, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” Saul now requests God to do to himself (and more) what he is going to do to his son, if he fails to do it. May God kill me and worse, if I don’t kill you. Saul keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper. Here he should have admitted that his oath was wrong, it was stupid. But he doesn’t, he doubles down at the expense of his own son’s life.
But we find out quickly that this is all a show. Saul is just doing this with an eye to the camera, because as soon as popular sentiment turns, Saul turns.
Then the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, so that he did not die. – 1 Sam 14:45
The people are outraged at Saul’s decision—they love Jonathan and see how God has used him to save Israel. So, they speak an oath of their own: As the Lord lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground. Saul had just made an oath, asked God to kill him and worse if he didn’t execute his son. But once Saul realizes that this is an unpopular decision, he drops it. He obviously doesn’t feel bound to follow through on his oath. Which is a funny irony. What started this whole debacle? Saul’s foolish and unfair oath that he bound others to which they broke. And here, Saul immediately breaks his own oath—the rules apply to everyone else, but not to him. Saul’s eye is always to the crowd, always. They are his real god, his real authority—so he can dispense of an oath made Yahweh in a second, because He is second fiddle to the approval of other people. Saul, the king sent to the lead the people is, in reality, led by the people.
Jonathan is ransomed by the shouts of a crowd, so that he did not die. Which makes us think of another Bible story that is being inverted here. Many years in the future, there will be another son who stands before a crowd under the sentence of death for something He did not deserve. But when the crowd is given the choice, they don’t ransom Him, but choose to release a murderer, Barabbas, instead. The crowd here ransoms Jonathan by sparing him from death; Jesus ransoms the crowd by His death. The crowd chooses Jonathan because He has worked a great salvation; Jesus is condemned by the crowd in order to work an even greater salvation.
Jonathan is a great leader and a great picture of faithfulness. He works with God and saves Israel. But Jesus is the best leader. He is the first one in, and the last one out, rejoicing the most.
Bad leaders use people, treat them like things. Jesus doesn’t use you. Jesus doesn’t even need you. He just loves you and cares about you as a person, regardless of what utility you bring.
Bad leaders tempt people, burden them with restrictions that choke the life of out of them. Jesus restores people, gives rest and abundant life to people. He points them down the path of obedience and gives them His Spirit to empower them and uphold them.
Bad leaders blame people, are blind to their own faults and are never willing to own up to their own sin. Jesus, who never sinned himself, is willing and ready to take your blame upon Himself, to take responsibility for what you deserve. You stand under the “you shall surely die” sentence of Genesis 2:17. But Jesus steps in and says, “I will surely die; and you, brother and sister, shall surely live.”
Courage and Cowardice (1 Sam 14:1-23)
Sermon Audio: Courage and Cowardice (1 Sam 14:1-23)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Who comes to mind when you think of "courage"? 'Cowardice'?
- What made Jonathan so brave? See 1 Sam 14:6.
- Read Hebrews 2:14-15. Where does Christian courage come from?
- Look back through the five questions to ask yourself to determine if the risk you are taking is right (1). Is there a clear command of the Bible telling me to do this? 2). What do others around me think? Parents? Church? 3). What does my conscience tell me? 4). Why do I want to do this? 5). What will be the end result?)
- Do you struggle with telling the difference between faithful risk or foolish risk?
- Is there any consistent pattern of fear that is keeping you from obeying God's commands? What would obedience look like for you? How does the resurrection of Jesus help give you courage?
When was the last time you required courage? Maybe you heard a noise in the middle of the night that you had to go investigate; maybe you had to confront a friend steeped in unrepentant sin; maybe you had to confess something that was terribly embarassing. Courage implies two things: a danger, fear, or uncertainty in front of you and a responsibility that binds you to face it anyways. You don’t find out who is brave in Disneyland; you find out who is brave on the battleline.
But that begs the question: Why does God let us live in such a dangerous world? Why have a world of risk, uncertainties, fear, death, sickness, or anxiety? Of course, you could say that these are the consequences of sin (which they are). But still, why make the consequences of sin take this particular shape? We know that we all live in sinful, fallen world—but there are pockets of it that is much safer than others. Why permit wars, stock market crashes, and head on collisions? Why let pockets of peace be punctured with pain?
One of the reasons may be that moments of danger and uncertainty reveal what we really believe, who we really are. When it is scary, will I still do my duty? Be faithful? When it is intimidating, will I be honest and tell the truth? In seasons of ease and comfort, sitting in your computer chair with lots of money in your bank account and a clean bill of health, it is easy to be deluded about our own virtue. But bring on the pressure of danger, and your real allegiances will suddenly come out. Lewis explains,
“This, indeed, is probably one of [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point…courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” (CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).
In our text today we see a moment of great danger, and we see two very different responses. One of courage and one of cowardice.
One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father. 2 Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3 including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod's brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. 4 Within the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side and a rocky crag on the other side. The name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh. 5 The one crag rose on the north in front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.
6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” 7 And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” 8 Then Jonathan said, “Behold, we will cross over to the men, and we will show ourselves to them. 9 If they say to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place, and we will not go up to them. 10 But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the LORD has given them into our hand. And this shall be the sign to us.” 11 So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, “Look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.” 12 And the men of the garrison hailed Jonathan and his armor-bearer and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you a thing.” And Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Come up after me, for the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel.” 13 Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. 14 And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow's length in an acre of land. 15 And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic.
16 And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked, and behold, the multitude was dispersing here and there. 17 Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Count and see who has gone from us.” And when they had counted, behold, Jonathan and his armor-bearer were not there. 18 So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. 19 Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” 20 Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle. And behold, every Philistine's sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. 21 Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. 23 So the LORD saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven. – 1 Sam 14:1-23
The previous chapter (13) reveals that Israel is in a dire situation. The enormous Philistine army has caused the majority of the Israelite forces to flee or hide (1 Sam 13:5-7); Saul has just prophetically been defrocked as king for his unlawful sacrifice (1 Sam 13:8-14); the Philistine army encamped at Michmash has begun to send raiding parties into Israel (1 Sam 13:16-18); and, just to make matters even more impossible for Israel, we are told that none of the Israelite army has a sword or spear, except for Jonathan and his father, Saul (1 Sam 13:19-23). There are two swords in all of Israel to repel the innumerable Philistine army. Chapter fourteen of 1 Samuel opens with a contrasting picture of what these two swords are doing.
6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” 7 And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” – 1 Sam 14:6-7
The camp of the Israelites is on one side of a large ravine, and the camp of the Philistines stands opposite of them on the other side. Jonathan turns to his comrade in arms with a daring and totally ridiculous idea: Let’s go take ‘em. Back in chapter thirteen, the thousands of Israelite soldiers who saw the army of the Philistines led them to flee till the army was reduced down to just a couple of hundred men left trembling. But Jonathan sees the same army and with a force of two, he goes forward. That seems crazy. What gives Jonathan such silly confidence?
Jonathan’s name means “Yahweh has given,” and here we see Jonathan live up to his name’s sake. He exhibits a faith that Yahweh can give victory, despite overwhelming odds. God can save by many or by few; you may have the largest army, or just an armor bearer; you may have every resource at your disposal, or have nothing at all; you may feel like you are on top of the world, or under the boot—it matters not, nothing can hinder the Lord. You remember the story of Elisha surrounded by the Syrian army in the city of Dothan? Elisha’s servant panics, but Elisha is unphased because he knows, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” (2 Kings 6:16), and he prays for his servant to have his eyes opened and suddenly, the servant sees that they are surrounded by heavenly horses and chariots of fire. Jonathan knows that there are more with him than with the Philistines, so he is very bold.
The Lord is happy to include us in His providence, to fold our efforts and energies into His plan. God used Jonathan’s skill with a sword and physical strength here, but His plan is not dependent on those things. God is no more dependent on our strength and abilities than a boat is dependent on the life-vests aboard to stay afloat. Jonathan knows that God doesn’t even need him, Jonathan knows how Yahweh has worked in the past to deliver His people with many or (more often) with few. And this makes him very bold, very brave, and willing to take unthinkable risk.
But notice, Jonathan has no fool-proof guarantee that this will work: he says that God may work for them here. Jonathan is risking his life, knowing that God could deliver, but He may choose not to. He doesn’t presume that God must grant him military success, but he nevertheless straps on his sword and walks towards danger confident that if God wills, He will preserve his life.
Jonathan and the armor bearer decide that they will reveal themselves to the Philistines and if the Philistines call them up to the encampment, they will know that the Lord has given them into their hands. And they do so, and the Philistines mockingly laugh that some of the Israelites have decided to weasel their way out of their holes, so they call on the two to come up and be taught a lesson (1 Sam 14:8-12).
13 Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him. 14 And that first strike, which Jonathan and his armor-bearer made, killed about twenty men within as it were half a furrow's length in an acre of land. 15 And there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic. – 1 Sam 14:13-15
Think of how dangerous this mission is—two men taking on an entire garrison; they are seen as they approach, so they don’t even have the element of surprise; and they are so exposed as they approach that they must climb up a cliffside (see 1 Sam 14:4-5) on their hands and feet towards their enemy. And yet, the Philistines fall before Jonathan and his armor bearer. The two fight in tandem and in the span of “half a furrow’s length in an acre of land” (approximately half the length of what a team of oxen would plow in a day’s work), “some twenty men” lay dead at their feet. This is like a scene from an action movie where the hero takes on wave after wave of henchmen, easily dispatching them one at a time. In fact, Jonathan is moving toward them. Eventually, the rest of the Philistines see that this is no ordinary Israelite and they begin to flee in panic. The panic creates chaos and confusion in the camp, and right then, the very ground under their feet heaves and rocks. Now, utter pandemonium breaks out. The earthquake makes it clear that this is no ordinary battle maneuver, but there is a divine intervention taking place. The enormous Philistine army crumbles in fear.
One small stone pushed over the edge can create a great rockslide. One faith-filled individual who takes initiative and risks what others are not willing to risk, trusting the promises of God, can result in God’s mighty hand being revealed. This was Jonathan’s confidence from the beginning: nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.
This is how God works: He leads His people into really difficult situations so that when He shows up to save them, it is patently obvious that it is His power that did the salvation. Over and over again, this is what God does, so that we would know that it is God who saves.
What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.
We see a contrast between Saul and Jonathan from the very beginning of the chapter. What is the other sword of Israel doing?
One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father. 2 Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate cave at Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men, 3 including Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod's brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh, wearing an ephod. And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone. – 1 Sam 14:1-3
Jonathan is acting, Saul is sitting. Jonathan is risking, while Saul is hiding. Jonathan goes with one other soldier, while Saul plays it safe with six hundred men. And notice that subtle comment the author gives us about who else is with Saul: “Ahijah the son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli.” Why give us that little genealogy there? I think this is just the way the author is trying to clue the reader in to how we should interpret Saul—who is around him? A descendant of wicked the Phinehas and spiritually blind Eli.
Towards the end of the story, the camera moves away from Jonathan and back to Saul, and we see a few other details that are intended to tether Saul back to other faithless practices of Israel we saw earlier in 1 Samuel. Saul hears reports that the Philistine army is beginning to disband, and he finds out that Jonathan is missing (1 Sam 14:16-17).
18 So Saul said to Ahijah, “Bring the ark of God here.” For the ark of God went at that time with the people of Israel. – 1 Sam 14:18
If you remember, the ark of God, or the ark of the covenant, is a small box that was a symbol of God’s presence to Old Testament Israel. Now, is there any other place in 1 Samuel where the Israelites have brought the ark of God out into a battle with the Philistines? If you remember, back in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are licked in battle, so they attempted to bring the ark of the covenant into battle like a lucky rabbit’s foot to help them, but they lost even more severely and the ark is captured for a time, which leads to the death of Eli, the death of Phinehas, and the birth of Ichabod. Perhaps here Saul is exhibiting the same kind of superstition. Either way, literarily the narrative similarities—especially the connection with Eli/Phinehas/Ichabod that the author makes explicit in 14:3—invite the reader to draw a line from what Israel did then to what Saul is doing now. But notice:
19 Now while Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more. So Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.” – 1 Sam 14:19
Saul, ostensibly, summons the ark and the priest in order to seek God’s favor. But once Saul hears that the battle is growing very intense, he drops all pretense, and rushes into battle. Perhaps Saul doesn’t really think he needs God’s blessing, doesn’t need to hear from God.
20 Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle. And behold, every Philistine's sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. 21 Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. 22 Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. 23 So the LORD saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven. – 1 Sam 14:20-23
Who won the battle that day? It wasn’t Saul. It wasn’t the army of Hebrews. It wasn’t even Jonathan and his armor bearer. It was the Lord. By the time Saul arrives with the army they find that the Philistine army is taking care of itself; they have now turned on themselves and are slaying one another in a “very great confusion.” It is like the Tower of Babel all over again.
Cowardice is contagious. Despite having superior numbers, the Philistines flee and fall. You are on the battle line and you begin to see soldiers ahead of you turning around and running, what are you going to do? There must be something up there that is really bad, I should run too. We also see the contagion of cowardice in king Saul. His reticence to boldly lead the army into battle leads to the fear of the other soldiers. I wonder if you have ever thought about cowardice as a sin to be repented of? Revelation 21:8 includes “cowardice” as a hallmark of the Lake of Fire, not the New Jerusalem. Cowardice may seem like too strong of a word to apply to Saul here because what he was doing seems totally reasonable. He was hedging his bets, playing it safe, not doing anything foolish or rash. He doesn’t enter the battle till the outcome already looks pretty secure. And that safetyism spreads, is contagious.
But courage is contagious too. Jonathan and his armor bearer’s act of bravery dislodged the Israelite’s out of their holes and onto the battlefield. You see an individual stand resolute in the face of great danger and opposition and you think, Maybe I could do that too.
Risk is Right:
At times, our world can give us the sense that safety is the highest good, and risk and danger is the worst of all evils. We want to be safe, we want our families to be safe, we want our communities to be safe. And those are good things! There is a reason every description of the New Heavens and New Earth includes the promise that war will be no more—war, violence, and death is not a good thing. But, nevertheless, we live in a world of war, violence, death, sin, Satan, and destruction. We live in a world where we are surrounded by people who do not know Jesus and Jesus has commanded us to share the gospel with them. We live in a world that has a mindset that is hostile to Christ and requires you to embrace that mindset or pay penalties. And that world requires Christians to take risks.
What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.
What are you doing right now that requires risky faith? What commands of God seem most scary to you? Is it trusting God that He will provide for you financially? Is it obeying God’s commands to exercise hospitality and so you have to overcome your fears and go strike up a conversation with someone? Is it a fear of telling your parents the truth about what really happened?
Maybe to put the question in a more provocative way: if were a non-Christian, how much of your life would change?
This has implications for how we parent our children. If we view our job as parents as eliminating all risk from our children’s lives, does that not then undermine this worldview?
We should, in the words of William Carey, “Expect great things, attempt great things.”
How can we tell the difference between courage and foolishness?
What is Christian courage? It is a confidence in God’s promises that leads to obedience to God’s commands, even if it is very difficult.
I recently saw someone share a quote that said, “Courage is knowing that its going to hurt, but doing it anyways. And so is stupidity. And that is why life is hard.” How do we know the difference between Christian courage and foolishness? Here are five questions to ask to determine:
1. Is there a clear command of the Bible telling me to do this?
2. What do others around me think? Parents? Church?
3. What does my conscience tell me?
4. Why do I want to do this?
5. What will be the end result?
Where does Christian courage come from?
All of the details of the story of Jonathan here are meant to show you just how improbable victory is, how impossible. But let’s see if we can hypothetically make it more difficult. What if Jonathan had no sword? Victory would be harder, but God could still show up, right? Jonathan could still succeed with God’s help. And what if once he scaled the cliff, it turned out that his armor bearer was actually a traitor who had been bought by the Philistines, and he helped the Philistines capture Jonathan and bind him? What are Jonathan’s odds now? That is much more dire. And what if they tortured Jonathan and publicly humiliated him in front of everyone? And what if they nailed him to a cross? And then rammed a spear through his chest? What are Jonathan’s chances now?
Jesus came to secure victory, to destroy the works of Satan, and to rescue His people from their sins, but He didn’t land in Jerusalem like a Spartan, He didn’t slay the Philistines like Jonathan. He was arrested, flogged, humiliated, and crucified. He risked everything and lost. But this is how God works. In the most important revelation of who God is—the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ—He demonstrates His power to rescue, save, work, and redeem in the most impossible of all situations.
This is our God, who can rescue in the most impossible of situations. And, even more importantly, this is our hope. If you are in Christ, then you have the hope of the resurrection ahead of you. So, this should make us very bold.
Paul tells us:
19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Cor 15:19
If Jesus has not been resurrected from the dead, our faith is pointless (1 Cor 15:17), and we should be pitied—this life is our only shot at happiness, so if we follow the hard path of obedience to Jesus we will lose out on so much of the pleasures of this world. The fragile, fickle, flame of joy that this world offers will be swallowed by the ocean waves of difficulty and danger that obedience to Jesus brings. But if Jesus has resurrected from the dead? Then we have hope beyond this life. When the dark wave of difficulty towers over us to extinguish our joy, the small flame blasts through into life everlasting. You have joy beyond this world, you have a resurrection hope, so you can risk, you need not be subject a life of fear of death.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14-15
Simple Sins (1 Sam 13:1-14)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- "Convictions are easy to hold, so long as they are never tested." Are there times in your life where you have had a conviction--serious or silly--that, when tested, fell apart?
- What was Saul's conviction? What led him to break it? What would you do were you in his shoes?
- Why did Saul receive such a harsh judgment from God when David, who comparatively committed a worse sin, receives a lighter judgment?
- How did Saul's response to Samuel reveal his heart? Do you tend to evade responsibility when confronted about sin?
- How is the Jesus path the "hard path"? What encouragement does Christ's death and resurrection give us as we walk that path?
- "Our obligation to adhere to our convictions depends on where they come from." Do your strongest convictions come from God's Word, or from elsewhere?
Convictions are easy to hold, so long as they are never tested. Ideals that remain idealistic and never realistic–as in, put into practice–are a breeze. You can read a book about a new diet, or time management regimen, or parenting philosophy and transport yourself mentally into an imagined future where you wake up early in the morning, run five miles, read and pray for two hours, journal, clean your home, pay your bills, meal plan, and cook a healthy breakfast—all before your children get up. Imagining that is easy. Living it isn’t so much.
It's amazing how great of a parent I was before I had children. The picture I had in my mind of the kind of father I would be was fantastic, creative, patient, structured, understanding. But then along came my actual children and they just ruined it. The fantasy of the father I thought I would be was quickly replaced by reality. Convictions and ideals are easy to hold, until they are tested.
In our text today, we see the convictions of King Saul put under some serious pressure that leads to him compromising. And while the circumstances make it seem so understandable, so relatable, it comes with absolutely devastating consequences:
Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel, 2 Saul chose three thousand men of Israel. Two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin. The rest of the people he sent home, every man to his tent. 3 Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines that was at Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” 4 And all Israel heard it said that Saul had defeated the garrison of the Philistines, and also that Israel had become a stench to the Philistines. And the people were called out to join Saul at Gilgal.
5 And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude. They came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth-aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, 7 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”– 1 Sam 13:1-14
The Problem (13:1-8)
Saul is following through on his commission to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16). He selects men for a standing army and divides them into different companies, and puts Jonathan, his son, in charge of a thousand men. Jonathan takes action and defeats a garrison of Philistines nearby at Geba. The rest of the Philistine army hears of this, as do the rest of Israel, and Israel becomes a “stench” to the Philistines—they view Israel the way you view rotten garbage.
The Philistines respond with devastating force. They possess 6,000 horsemen, 30,000 chariots, and an army of foot soldiers so incalculable that they are like the sand of the sea. The tiny army of 3,000 Israelites stands no chance, and they all know it. “When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling,” (1 Sam 13:6-7). As the Israelite soldiers line up and see the Philistine army amass together, they realize that they have bitten off far, far more than they can chew.
Embarrassingly, they hide in holes and caves and even tombs to escape—they are burying themselves alive to escape the Philistines. Even more serious, some cross the Jordan river–the natural barrier that separated the Promised Land from the wilderness. They are hoping that the Jordan river will be a natural barrier for the Philistines as well, keeping them at bay, but they don’t realize that they have unwittingly just fled out of the very land that God had promised them. Even those who have the courage to stand with Saul tremble in fear. What is Saul going to do?
Well, the problem gets even worse: “[Saul] waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him,” (1 Sam 13:8). Apparently Samuel has commanded Saul to wait till he arrives, giving him seven days. We are not told if this is the seventh day, or if this is after the seventh day, but either way you could imagine the pressure Saul is facing. He is a newly minted king who only has one major military success under his belt (1 Sam 11). A gargantuan force stands before him and the already small numbers he has are rapidly melting away. And, the prophet of the Lord said he would be there by the seventh day, and the seventh day is nearly over. You could imagine Saul’s thoughts: The Philistines could attack at any minute…sacrifices haven’t been made, so we can’t bank on God’s help…not to mention, the soldiers will know we haven’t made sacrifices and that may make them feel more cowardly…how much longer do we have before our entire army has deserted?
What would you feel were you in Saul’s shoes?
What would you do?
How Things Normally Work (1 Sam 13:9-12)
“So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering,”(1 Sam 13:9). Saul realizes that unless he takes action, the battle will be lost. Sure, Samuel had specifically told Saul to wait seven days and then he (Samuel) would offer the sacrifices (1 Sam 13:13; cf. 1 Sam 10:8), but what was he expected to do? Sit idly by while his army deserted him? Abdicate his responsibility as king? Let the enemies of God score another victory? No, he knows he must act. He summons men to bring him the burnt offering and the peace offering, and offers the first of them himself.
Saul is not a villain–at least, not yet. He waited the seven days, just like Samuel told him to. He is attempting to face down the Philistines, just like he was supposed to. And he knows it is important to seek God’s favor. He may not be “technically” allowed to do this, but given the circumstances, it seems understandable. Everyone realizes that in real life, we have to be flexible with some of our convictions. The person who has fantastic dreams for what they are going to be like once they become a parent find out that actually being a parent is much harder than imagining yourself as one, and so many of the ideals change. The student who has strong convictions about not participating in what she deems to be sinful practices of her non-Christian friends, may find her perspective changing as she spends more time with them. Life is about compromise. And if they are sinful, they are only little, simple sins, right?
Well, Samuel doesn’t think so. As Saul is making the very first offering, Samuel shows up. “As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him,” (1 Sam 13:10). As soon as he had finished, Samuel walks over the hill! Ah, if only Saul could have waited just a few minutes longer!
Waiting is hard, and it is only easy in retrospect, after you have received what you were waiting for and look back. And what temptations do we face when we wait? Perhaps you are tempted to bitterness and despair, confident that you will spend the rest of your life shut out, on the wrong side of the door to joy. Or perhaps you are tempted to speed things along through illicit practices, as Saul did: if God won’t give me what I want, I’ll get it myself. But see the price Saul paid for his impatience? He loses his kingdom for lack of a few minutes more of patience.
Saul is polite; he seeks Samuel out, he doesn’t wait for Samuel to come to him. He approaches him and offers him a formal blessing (“greet him” is literally “bless him”). But Samuel waves away the niceties, “Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering,” (1 Sam 13:11-12).
In verse 11 Saul lays out three things he has going against him as a defense for his action:
1) The people are scattering from me.
2) You did not come within the days appointed.
3) The Philistines had mustered at Michmash.
The Philistines are likely going to come again against me any minute now, and I haven’t sought the favor of the Lord—I haven’t said my prayers yet! So, I didn’t want to, my conscience warned me, but what else could I do in the situation that I was in: the people were leaving, you were late, the Philistines were drawing close–my hand was forced, Samuel.
See how Saul has painted the scene in such a way that he isn’t responsible for anything, only a victim—and a righteous and pious one, at that. What else could he have done?
Here’s how things normally work: you have a job, you have a responsibility, or a certain task in front of you. And you have a set of convictions about how to do those things rightly, faithfully, in a way that pleases God. You have a picture in your mind of the kind of Christian you should be in your workplace, in your parenting, in your friendship with others. But then along comes the circumstances of life that suddenly make sticking to those principles and convictions hard, exhausting, discouraging, fearful.
What would have happened to Saul had he waited, if he stuck to his convictions? He would not only have risked looking like an incompetent leader, he also would have been in physical danger—maybe the Philistines would have attacked and because he waited, he would have had no army left to help. Saul was practical and pragmatic; his convictions would need to flex some. It would be irresponsible if he didn’t. That’s just how the world works.
A mentor of mine when I was younger was a youth pastor when it became evident to him that he needed to leave the church he was working at, despite not having another job lined up yet, and just wait for the Lord to open a new door of opportunity for him. Confident that God would provide, he resigned and intended on supporting his wife and three children just off the money they had in savings while they waited. They were confident that this was what the Lord wanted for them. But they had supported a number of different missionaries financially each month. While going over their budget, looking at what they could do to make their savings stretch, the husband assumed that they would need to suspend their support of their missionaries and stop tithing. The wife, however, looked at him puzzled. Why are we doing that? So, the husband fumblingly explained to her basic economics: we need to make money before we give money away. That’s just how the world works. But, she replied, that isn’t how God works. And she turned to the example of the Corinthians who gave generously despite their great poverty. So, they decided to keep giving generously. That’s how God works.
How God Works (1 Sam 13:13-14)
What did God expect of Saul? “And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever,” (1 Sam 13:13). Here is what God expected of Saul: keep His commands. Kings were not expressly forbidden from making sacrifices in situations like this. Later, David and Solomon will make similar sacrifices. But apparently, Samuel had explicitly told Saul that God had wanted Saul to wait seven days and then Samuel would make the sacrifices. It was a clear command, it wasn’t ambiguous, wasn’t murky. But Saul, when things look dire, tosses the command aside.
Friend, are God’s commands disposable when obeying them is hard?
What Saul thought was practical wisdom and strategic leadership is, in God’s eyes, foolishness. You have done foolishly. There may be times where you come to a crossroad where you know that faithfulness will take you down a hard path, and compromise just makes sense, looks smart, looks even responsible. But disobedience always is foolish. It isn’t just “technically” sinful, but maybe makes good business sense—no, it is foolish. God’s commands are the path to life.
Sometimes the path of faithfulness is a strange path. Sometimes it is a winding, dark, and baffling path that looks as if it leads to doom, not life. Jesus taught, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few,” (Matt 7:13-14). The Jesus path is a hard path, and the path that makes sense, that is well-lit, comfortable and attractive, is a path that ends in destruction.
And we see that in what it cost Saul.
“But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you,” (1 Sam 13:14).
Why does Saul receive such a severe punishment for seemingly such a small sin? Particularly in contrast with the sin of David later on? David’s sin with Bathsheba is arguably far more severe than Saul’s, yet he doesn’t lose his kingdom. Why?
1. God sees the heart, and the simplest of sin may be hiding a wretched heart that is merely constrained by circumstance and custom. No one looking at a Pharisee in Jesus’ day would have thought they were wicked, yet Jesus describes them as “whitewashed tombs” outwardly clean, but inwardly full of death and decay. Saul’s sin may seem very prosaic now, but over time, the true nature of Saul’s heart is going to be revealed.
2. There is no simple sin. Matthew Henry writes, “There is no little sin, because there is no little god to sin against.” The heinousness of a crime depends on who the crime is perpetrated against. If your child tells another child, “You’re stupid,” you pull them aside and say, “Buddy, we don’t talk like that.” If your child tells their teacher, “You’re stupid,” you sit them down and say, “You go apologize right now!” And if your child says to God, “You’re stupid,” you tremble.
3. How we respond to our sin really matters. When Saul is confronted about his sin, he evades responsibility. When David is confronted, he admits and repents. It is not sinning alone that will ruin the Christian ultimately—sin will cost you dearly, it cost David dearly, his kingdom was thrown into turmoil and his family ruptured because of his sin—but it is not sin alone that will ruin you ultimately, but unrepented sin that will truly sink you.
The paradox of the story of Saul and David’s sin is that it simultaneously shows you the profound depth of the mercy of God given to heinous, heinous sinners who repent, and the uncompromising judgment of God that awaits the “simplest” of sinners who refuse to turn from their sin and trust in Christ.
And this passage becomes the launching pad for David’s reign. Saul’s kingship now becomes the foil for the true king to come, David, the one who is “after God’s own heart.” That phrase of course implies relationship, affection, a love of God for who He is. But the wider context makes it clear that Samuel is emphasizing how this promised king would orient himself to God’s law, what God had commanded. In the Bible the “heart” doesn’t merely refer to emotions, but it is also the place of thought, will, plans—so God’s “heart” is God’s will, His thoughts, His commands. You cannot divorce God’s commands from His person. How you respond to God’s words reveal what you think of His person. Saul had received a clear command from God, but found it disposable when the goings got tough. God is looking for one who holds to His commands, even when it feels strange, foolish, or hard.
Which draws our mind to the final Son of David, Jesus, who was obedient to God’s commands to the point of death, even death on a cross. The convictions Jesus had did not make His life easier, but much harder. They led him to be reviled, despised and rejected. And His relief only came on the other side of the grave, through the resurrection. But this gives us two encouragements. One, Jesus’ obedience led to the total oblivion and desecration of Good Friday so that you and I would never experience it. He absorbed the wrath reserved for us, so our deepest dilemma—total rejection and judgment—has been settled. Second, it now gives us a paradigm for life. The cross comes before the crown. Good Friday before Easter. We enter through the narrow gate and go through the hard path now, because that is the path that leads to life, to resurrection. But now, our narrow gate, our cross we bear, isn’t the dreadful cross that Christ bore. It isn’t an atoning cross, but simply a tutor to make us more like Christ. So, when you fear following through on your convictions, what it will cost you, what it will take from you, you can be comforted that the worst has already past in Christ, God is for you, and while life may be hard, it will not result in another Good Friday and the path of faithfulness that looks like it leads into grave, is actually the path to resurrection life.
So, I wonder where you are today? What convictions do you hold that feel most scary to follow through on? Where are you compromising because obedience feels too hard?
How to Weigh Your Convictions
When Saul says that he had to “force himself” to make the sacrifice, he reveals (1) he was himself convinced, convicted that it was wrong because (2) God’s command was clear. The entire confrontation with Samuel emphasizes that God had explicitly commanded Saul, but Saul disobeyed.
Our obligation to adhere to our convictions depends on where they come from.
1. The Bible--unyielding
2. The Church—take seriously
3. Wisdom of the World--consider
A Faithful Farewell (1 Samuel 12)
Sermon Audio: A Faithful Farewell (1 Samuel 12)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What stood out to you most?
- What is the half-truth in W.H. Auden's poem?
- In what ways does Samuel point to Jesus in this chapter?
- How do you tend to respond when your sin is exposed? Denial? Despair? Distraction? What does this story show us about where we should turn when our sin is exposed?
- How is it good news that God is committed to the glory of His name? (see 1 Sam 12:22).
- What practices do you have built into your life to help you remember what God has done for you? What stirs your affections consistently for the Lord?
On September 1st, 1939, the poet W.H. Auden, sat in a dive bar on 52nd street in Manhattan. Earlier that day, Hitler and his armies invaded Poland, plunging the world into a second world war. In the wake of this earth-shattering event, Auden reflected on the previous decade. The 1930’s saw a strange mixture of optimism and despair. The roaring 20’s brought a huge economic boom to America and the age of the skyscraper was born, especially in New York City. But, the fervor was quickly squashed by the Great Depression. The hope that WWI, “The Great War,” would bring about the end of all wars was punctured with the rise of fascism across Europe, and finally crushed with Hitler’s action that very day. Auden’s poem, September 1st, 1939, is a poignant reflection on the spiritual malaise and dis-ease that hung over modern man; the man who would shuffle into a dark bar in the middle of the week:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The whole poem paints a bleak scene of what modernity has done to mankind. Despite the marvels of technology, architecture, modern democracy, people are miserable, bored, and scared. Auden calls the dingy bar he sits in a “fort”, but not a defense against an enemy like Hitler, but the enemy of the truth of what we really are: frightened children lost in the haunted forest of the world we have created, never happy nor good. So, like a dive bar sets up cheap furniture to give the illusion of a home, we fill our lives with distractions that give us the illusion of a meaningful life, but (Auden argues) it’s all paper mâché, a thin veil stretched over a great hollowness, a cold darkness: we are broken. This is why the lights must never go out, and the music must play, because if the distractions shut off, if we unplug and we are left alone with our thoughts, we might actually see not only where we are, but what we are.
Is Auden right? Well, the Bible says that Auden is half right. We are broken. Yet, Auden’s bleakness only spins inward upon itself. Despairing of our ourselves is a great place to start, but not a good place to stop. The Bible invites us to allow the despair of our condition to launch us into the hope that God offers. In our text today we get to reflect upon the diagnosis of Samuel as he slices into Israel’s heart, pointing out where their sickness lies and how bleak the condition is. But Samuel doesn’t stop there. He invites Israel to see that there is a path to life, a path found in God’s faithfulness to them and their obedience to His law.
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. 22 For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. 23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. 24 Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” – 1 Sam 12:19-25
Faithfulness Displayed (12:1-11)
And Samuel said to all Israel, “Behold, I have obeyed your voice in all that you have said to me and have made a king over you. – 1 Sam 12:1
While the nation is still gathered at Gilgal (1 Sam 11:12-15), Samuel takes this opportunity to make a formal farewell to Israel. Samuel will continue serving as a prophet till the day he dies, but he notices that with the installment of a king, there has been a major shift in his role as judge to Israel. So, from verses 2-6, Samuel establishes that he has been faithful in his post as a judge over Israel: he hasn’t not taken bribes or robbed anyone. And the people all affirm this. Samuel appears to be establishing his faithfulness in order to build a solid foundation for what he is about to say: Look, I am reliable, I am faithful, you all agree—now listen to me:
Now therefore stand still that I may plead with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your fathers. – 1 Sam 12:7
Samuel then provides a very concise history of the people of Israel, from the time of Exodus to the time of the Judges:
When Jacob went into Egypt, and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your fathers cried out to the LORD and the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your fathers out of Egypt and made them dwell in this place. 9 But they forgot the LORD their God. And he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab. And they fought against them. 10 And they cried out to the LORD and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. But now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, that we may serve you.’ 11 And the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety. – 1 Sam 12:8-11
What’s the point? God has always been faithful to his people, despite their faithlessness. The pattern of God’s people is to get into a desperate situation, cry out to help from God, receive God’s help, and then forget Him. This is the repeated cycle throughout the book of Judges: sin, punishment, cry for help, salvation, forget, sin. And notice that Samuel includes himself in the list of judges that God sent to help—in other words, the people of Israel are just like their fathers in the book of Judges.
Unfaithfulness Exposed (12:12-19)
12 And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the LORD your God was your king. 13 And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. -1 Sam 12:12-13
Israel is just like the book of Judges. Another cycle of sin and destruction starting over again. Samuel quotes Israel back to herself, “No, but a king shall reign over us.” That was their response after Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of their lust for a king. Israel got what she wanted.
14 If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. 15 But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king. – 1 Sam 12:14-15
Surprisingly, God makes an allowance for Israel’s king. Remember, Israel was permitted to have a king (Deut 17:14-20). What was wrong with Israel’s desire for a king was their rejection of God as king with it. But Samuel lays out a choice for Israel and her king, reminiscent of Moses laying before Israel the blessings of obedience and the curses for disobedience: life and death (Deut 30:19). Notice how the king is isolated out from the rest of Israel and charged to obey or perish: if Israel and her king disobey, then the hand of the Lord will be against them both, and Israel will watch their champion who they thought would save them fall.
16 Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the LORD will do before your eyes. 17 Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking for yourselves a king.” 18 So Samuel called upon the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. – 1 Sam 12:16-18
Israel does not want to live by faith, so God gives them evidence their eyes can see. A thunderstorm falls during the dry season (unusual) at the command of Samuel (extraordinary) that they may know that their wickedness is great. Their unfaithfulness has been exposed and so they are afraid.
Have you ever had a moment where your mask is ripped off, and you are shocked by what you just said or what you just did? Maybe it is after you cool down from the argument or after you caved into temptation and you are left thinking: what kind of person am I? Don’t rush past that too quickly. Don’t be like the faces along the bar that have to keep themselves distracted lest they see where and what they really are. See yourself.
Faithfulness Summoned (1 Sam 12:19-24)
Towards the end of Samuel’s speech, he is going to summon Israel to faithfulness: Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. – 1 Sam 12:24
God has been faithful to His people. Israel has been woefully unfaithful, so Samuel summons them: be faithful! God has been nothing but good to you, but you have been faithless. So, stop being faithless. In a way, that’s true. But Israel realizes, rightfully, that there is something broken deep down in her and so, after their sin is exposed, they go to Samuel:
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” – 1 Sam 12:19
Israel sees herself and that makes her realize a number of things:
One, her sins are vast. “We have added to all our sins this evil,” Israel sees herself in line with the Judges generation, the wilderness generation.
Two, she sees her sins as serious, “pray…that we may not die.”
Three, she sees that she can’t do this alone. Israel realizes that they need an intercessor to go to God on their behalf.
And Samuel recognizes himself as a critical intercessor for Israel:
23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. – 1 Sam 12:23
Samuel possesses a unique role in the life of Israel. He is a priest, a prophet, and a judge. But this makes us think of the final and true Prophet, Priest, and King: Jesus. King Jesus is our great and final intercessor who stands up for us on our behalf in the courtroom of God, pleading for us with His very own blood.
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. – Heb 7:25
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world – 1 John 2:1-2
This is what Samuel points forward to, the great High Priest. But let's draw six practical applications out of the rest of Samuel's speech:
1. Do not be afraid…but fear
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid.” – 1 Sam 12:20a
Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart – 1 Sam 12:24
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. – 1 John 4:18
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 9 And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. – Jer 33:8-9
“Godly fear flows from a sense of the love and kindness of God. Nothing can lay a stronger obligation upon the heart of God than a sense of, or hope in, mercy,” (John Bunyan).
2. Do not deceive yourselves
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. – 1 Sam 12:20
3. Do not turn aside
Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. – 1 Sam 12:20b-21
“You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters).
4. Do not doubt God’s commitments
22 For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. -1 Sam 12:22
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. – Eph 1:4-6
5. Do not forget what God has done for you
For consider what great things he has done for you. – 1 Sam 12:24b
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder. – 2 Pet 1:13
To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. – Phil 3:1
I perceive that our minds are more earnestly elevated into a flame of piety when [words] are sung than when they are not. -Augustine
6. Do not presume
25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” – 1 Sam 12:25
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. – Rom 2:4-5
A Flawed Foundation (1 Sam 9-11)
Sermon Audio: A Flawed Foundation (1 Sam 9-11)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What did you learn from the sermon?
- Try to summarize everything that was good about Saul. Now, what were some of the "discordant notes" in the three chapters?
- How could Saul be both proud and apparently modest at the same time?
- What should we think of the "happy ending" at the close of chapter eleven, given that the people's desire for a king was sinful?
- Read Gal 6:7-9. In what ways are we prone to "be deceived"? What is sobering about this passage and what is encouraging?
Picture yourself out for a nice dinner, a dinner you normally wouldn’t be able to afford. Cream colored table cloths, candlelight, and hundred dollar glasses of wine—that kind of dinner. A small quartet of musicians play tastefully in the background as you are taken to your table. The menu is extravagant; the atmosphere, exquisite; the service, excellent. You look around and notice that you are dining with the upper crust of society, a social circle normally far beyond you. A white-gloved waiter brings you a meticulously and artfully plated dish. You take a bite and, ah!, it is perfect—more than perfect, even exceeding your expectations. You gently dab your mouth with your folded napkin: This is the life, you think to yourself.
But as you look at the beautiful and wealthy people around you, a strange shadow passes over you—an odd, yet perceptible sense that something isn’t right. No one else in the room seems affected; all continue smiling and eating, so you push the thought away and continue to enjoy your evening, yet that sense of uneasiness lingers in the back of your mind. You look around, what could it be? You examine your food, the waiter, the guests around you—all seems to be in order, nothing has changed. The music continues to play, the wine continues to flow, but by now your uneasiness has grown to a quiet panic. Your eyes dart back and forth looking for the danger. Suddenly, a shrill scream.
We use the idiom “a fly in the ointment” to refer to something that appears good, yet has a fatal flaw hidden just below the surface. This Twilight-Zone-esque scene I just painted for you is an imaginative picture of just that, and it is, I think, a parable of what our text today is like. In so many ways, our story today is a picture of so many good things happening to the people of Israel, yet there is a discordant note that keeps playing in the background that should leave us with a sense of uneasiness.
Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. 18 And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.” – 1 Sam 10:17-19
1 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. 2 And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. 3 Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul's father, were lost. So Kish said to Saul his son, “Take one of the young men with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys.” - 1 Sam 9:1-3
Saul’s father’s donkeys have gone missing, so Saul is charged to go find them. He brings a servant along with him and they go searching. They search high and low and are just about to give up when the servant remembers that Samuel the prophet is nearby. Rumor has it that he has a direct line to God, so perhaps he can help the young men find the missing donkeys? So they head off in his direction. This simple, modest mission, however, has a conclusion that neither men could ever dream of.
15 Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed to Samuel: 16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” 17 When Samuel saw Saul, the LORD told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.” – 1 Sam 9:15-17
18 Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Tell me where is the house of the seer?” 19 Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. 20 As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father's house?” 21 Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” – 1 Sam 9:18-21
Saul doesn’t even get the chance to ask Samuel about his father’s lost donkeys. Samuel quickly sweeps the issue aside, inviting Saul to join him for a special feast, before subtly alluding to Saul’s selection as the king over Israel. The wording in the ESV is very clunky in verse 20, “And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father's house?” The CSB much more helpfully translates that as, “And who does all Israel desire but you and all your father’s family?” Saul immediately realizes that Samuel is alluding to the nations desire for a king (see 1 Sam 8) and demurs by pointing out that the tribe of Benjamin is the least of all the tribes of Israel (see Judges 19-21). Perhaps Saul is pointing out the fact that he doesn’t come from the tribe of Judah, the promised lineage that a king was to be chosen from (Gen 49:10). Nevertheless, Samuel doesn’t answer him. He simply escorts Saul and his servant into the feast hall and places them both in the highest seat of honor and gives Saul the choicest cut of meat to eat (1 Sam 9:22-24). The following day, Saul and his servant are about to leave on their way back home when Samuel pulls Saul aside to “make known…the word of God,” to Saul (1 Sam 9:27).
1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. – 1 Sam 10:1
Taking a special mixture of oil and fragrant spices (Ex 30:23-25), Samuel “anoints” Saul to be prince (king) over Israel. Anointing an individual was a common practice in the ancient near east; it was a method of selecting an individual out symbolically for a special task. There were two kinds of “anointed ones” (messiah) in Israel: kings and priests. Saul is being selected as the first king of Israel through his anointing. This brings our mind back to Hannah’s song, which foretold of an anointed king to come: “The Lord…will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed,” (1 Sam 2:10).
Samuel pours the oil over Saul’s head and then pronounces three prophetic signs with a remarkable amount of specificity and detail to confirm that Samuel has not made a mistake, but this is the work of the Lord: (1) Saul will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb who tell him the donkeys have been found (1 Sam 10:2), (2) then he will meet three men each carrying different items who will give Saul bread (1 Sam 10:3-4), and (3) Saul will come upon a group of prophets and will immediately begin prophesying with them.
9 When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. 10 When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. – 1 Sam 10:9-10
Saul’s doubt has been confronted by the confirmation of the signs, such that “God gave him another heart.” This isn’t a reference to the promise of New Covenant, but just is a reference to God helping Saul overcome some of his reservations, like “a change of mind.” Saul returns home where his uncle asks him where he has been and what was he doing with Samuel.
16 And Saul said to his uncle, “He told us plainly that the donkeys had been found.” But about the matter of the kingdom, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything. – 1 Sam 10:16
Now, the private anointing of Saul has concluded, but Saul seems still hesitant. The next two scenes I will read in length to get a picture of what the public coronation of Saul looks like:
17 Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. 18 And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.”
20 Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. 21 He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its clans, and the clan of the Matrites was taken by lot; and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. 22 So they inquired again of the LORD, “Is there a man still to come?” and the LORD said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” 23 Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
25 Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. 26 Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. 27 But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
1 Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” 2 But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” 3 The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days' respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” 4 When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.
5 Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. 6 And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. 7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. 8 When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. 9 And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. 10 Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” 11 And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.
The Kingdom Is Renewed
12 Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death.” 13 But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.” 14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly. – 1 Samuel 10:17-11:15
Sometimes, because they know how Saul’s story ends, preachers can give Saul a pretty unfair shake: Look at that false modesty he has; he doesn’t even know where the prophet is; Ah, he lost his father’s donkeys, how irresponsible! But not only does that seem a little bit of an interpretive stretch, but it also ignores much of what the Bible actually tells us about Saul. Saul is depicted in a seriously positive light at the beginning of his story. Furthermore, if we flatten Saul into a two-dimensional villain, we will lose the instructive lesson for ourselves. The character development of Saul across this book is to serve as a dire warning for us. But unless we see Saul for what he really is, we real write him off immediately and not see the full force of the warning. Saul is a cautionary tale for church goers precisely because of how good his story starts off.
So, let’s consider what Saul’s strengths are in these three chapters.
First, he has the bearing of a king. Saul’s father is a wealthy man, so he comes from a family of affluence and privilege, so Saul is familiar with power (1 Sam 9:1). Further, he has a commanding presence due to his stature (1 Sam 9:2). After he stands up from hiding in the baggage, we are told, “And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (1 Sam 10:23-24). And lest you think that the people of Israel are just shallow, remember that one of the reasons they desire a king is so that their king will go out and fight their battles for them (1 Sam 8:20), so being physically strong is a serious bonus.
Second, he is a good person. The ESV translates 1 Samuel 9:2 as, “[Saul was] a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he.” But the word for “handsome” here is just the Hebrew word tov, which is just the word for “good.” One commentator notes, “This “goodness” is not so much a description of the physical appearance as of the nature and personality of a man.” The CSB translates the word as, “impressive.” And we see that bear out over the story. Saul is modest; unlike most people who claw their way up to the top, Saul isn’t stabbing anyone in the back to become a king; in fact, he is pretty doubtful about himself. Even after being king, Saul is just back at home plowing his field. He doesn’t quit his day job and start exploiting the people under him to build a palace for him to lounge in. Further, he has the Spirit of the Lord rush upon him and empower him (1 Sam 10:9; 11:6). He is merciful and gracious after the victory of Jabesh-gilead when the people want to execute the worthless fellows who doubted Saul’s ability: “But Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel,” (1 Sam 11:13). He even acknowledges that it was the Lord—not himself—who worked the salvation for Israel.
Third, he is an effective leader who saves the people. When Samuel is about to meet Saul God tells him, “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me,” (1 Sam 9:16). That last phrase (“their cry has come to me”) reminds us of the Exodus, when God raises up Moses to deliver His people (Ex 3:9-10; cf. Ex 2:25; 3:7). Which makes you compare Saul and Moses. In fact, Saul’s initial response to becoming a king similarly mirrors Moses’ reluctance: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex 3:11). And like Moses, Saul delivers Israel. The city of Jabesh-gilead is about to completely crushed and humiliated by Nahash of the Ammonites, and Saul is able to unify all of Israel together (1 Sam 11:7) and organize them strategically (1 Sam 11:11) and save the city.
And get this: the name of the king of the Ammonites, Nahash, in Hebrew means: serpent. Back in Genesis 3:15 Eve was promised that from her lineage would be born a son who would crush the head of the serpent. What does Saul do here? He crushes the serpent. Which makes you as a Bible reader at this point wonder: could Saul be the guy? Could this be the promised one who would finally set things right that wrong in the garden?
I mean, just listen to how the story ends: “Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingdom.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly,” (1 Sam 11:14-15). The credits for the movie could just start rolling here. Israel has her benevolent and victorious king, her enemies are defeated, the kingdom is renewed, and God is worshipped.
The dinner is perfect, the ambiance is perfect, the wine is perfect, everything about the evening couldn’t be improved upon.
Except, something isn’t right.
The Flawed Foundation
Three discordant notes play in the background across this story that—despite it’s seeming perfection—should leave us feeling uneasy.
First, and most importantly, when it comes time to publicly install Saul as the king, here is what Samuel says: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’” (1 Sam 10:18-19). Everyone may be excited about Saul, but Samuel wants everyone to know exactly what they are doing—they are rejecting the God who has saved them. They are rebelling against God and walking in open sin. Which problematizes the happy ending at the end of chapter eleven. What are we to think of that? The path that led them to that happy ending was a path of sin.
Can you sin your way into blessing? I bet by the renewal of the kingdom at Gilgal, all the Israelites were thinking: See, Samuel—how could this be wrong? Look at what a king can do for us!
Second, Samuel is told when he sees Saul, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people,” (1 Sam 9:17). Of the 46 times the word “restrain” is used, it almost always is used negatively in the Bible; it comes from a root that means “to constrict” and can be used simply to refer to a slave (Deut 32:36). It is used to describe prisoners being restrained (Jer 33:1), a woman’s womb being closed (Gen 20:18), or a plague being restrained (Num 25:8). Samuel warned the people that if they wanted a king, the king was going to take everything from them till they became slaves (1 Sam 8:10-18). Here, Saul—the king they are so excited for—is the one who will constrict and bind the people till they are slaves.
Third, though everyone thinks that Saul’s height is something that marks him off as king, it should leave us hesitant. The word used for “height” (g’boah) in 1 Samuel 9:2 (and 10:23) is the same word for “pride.” It is used in Hannah’s song, a song all about how God is going to take those who are lifted up high, and bring them down low; and take those down low, and lift them up high. She warns, “Talk no more so very proudly,” (1 Sam 2:3)—there g’boah is doubled for emphasis, “talk no more g’boah g’boah.” Why? Because God is going to oppose the proud. What is Saul? G’boah.
But how could Saul be proud when so much of the story seems to emphasize his humility? This will become more apparent as the story of Saul develops and we see just how profoundly vain and addicted to the praise of the people Saul really is. But if someone is a terribly vain person and is just uncertain of their own ability, they will run away from opportunities for them to take responsibility—not from true humility or modesty, but really from pride and vanity. They don’t want to look like a fool, so they just let responsibility pass to someone else. And, from the outside, it looks a lot like modesty. But really, they are just as enslaved to the approval of others—they are just scared they don’t have it and can’t bear the thought of attempting to do something and then failing and earning the scorn and hatred from others. Humility and a fear of embarrassment are not the same thing.
So, while the story ends with a “happily ever after” feeling to it, we see that there is a fatal flaw in the foundation. The building may look beautiful and impressive and enduring, but that cracked foundation is going to reduce this entire edifice to rubble.
One: God can use bad things for good.
The story of the 1 Samuel 9-11 is a story of the providence of God. The remarkable and somewhat tedious details we are given about where the donkeys are and the precise details of the prophetic signs Samuel gives Saul show us that God is in control of the most minute of details of life. The seemingly random and inane event of some donkeys wandering off puts into motion matters of immense consequence. Jesus teaches us that not even a sparrow falls out of the sky, not a hair falls from our head apart from the Father’s command (Matt 10:29-31). God is in control of everything. But even more profoundly, God is providentially using the rebellion of the people of God here in requesting a king to actually posture Israel to receive the true king, David, who similarly is being used to prepare the world for the final, true, and lasting king: Jesus.
God can use wickedness and sin and rebellion and fulfill righteous, good, and holy purposes. Here, he intends to use Saul to save his people—and He does—even while telling Israel that what they are doing in requesting a king is itself wicked.
Perhaps you have listened to the wildly popular podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The podcast told the story of the Seattle mega-church, Mars Hill, and how it led thousands of people to Christ, discipled them well, taught sound theology, and trumpeted the gospel. Yet, simultaneously, inside the church there was a spirit of vanity, abuse, and rottenness that completely contradicted the gospel message that was being heralded. How could something built upon something God hates (pride), be used to do something that God loves (make disciples)? Because God is able to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. God is able to fold in rebellion and sin into His sovereign plan without endorsing or approving of that sin.
Two: Sin sometimes looks like godliness
…having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. – 2 Tim 3:5
Here, Paul is warning Timothy of what false teachers are like—those who prey on the vulnerable, indulge in sin, etc. But it may surprise us to see that these false teachers look godly. Sin doesn’t always look like its nastier expressions. Sometimes it looks respectable, gentle, kind, benevolent—sometimes it looks like Saul. Anyone who has just started dating someone knows that you should wait a few months before you start saying “I love you” or looking at wedding rings because anyone can look good for a few months. It is only over a period of time that the real person will really come to light. In just a matter of time, what Saul really loves will be exposed and the appearance of godliness he has will melt away.
Three: You cannot sin your way into blessing.
The celebratory note at the ending of chapter eleven, the seemingly positive way that Saul is described and the blessings he brings may lead people to think that you can sin your way into blessing. But you can’t.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Gal 6:7-8
Why does Paul open that verse with “do not be deceived”? Because you are in danger of being tricked—life sometimes makes it look like you can sow to the flesh, but reap from the Spirit. Why? Because just like it takes time from a seed to grow, sprout, and then harvest, so too do our actions. And sometimes the bud of the plant of sin looks at first like a good thing. It doesn’t immediately look like the rotten, stinking fruit of corruption. The affair feels exciting and invigorating—it is filling the hole that your spouse hasn’t been filling and you think, this is what I have been looking for!
But friend, God is not mocked. You cannot plant the seed of flesh and reap eternal life. You cannot sin your way into blessing. And even if you are getting away with it now, in time you will reap what you sow.
That is a sobering warning. But did you notice the encouraging blessing as well? If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life! You may be tempted to be discouraged in your spiritual life, feel like nothing is happening, and Paul anticipates that with the very next verse: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,” (Gal 6:9). Why does Paul say that? Because you are going to be tempted to give up. But take heart, God is not mocked! If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life!
The Cost of a King (1 Sam 8:1-22)
Sermon Audio: The Cost of a King (1 Sam 8:1-22)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- What stood out to you most from the sermon?
- The elders of Israel wanted a good thing and had a Bible verse to back it up, yet God was displeased with their request. Why?
- What are good things that someone may want--maybe even have Biblical support for wanting--yet desire it in such a way that the "thing" is replacing God? Can you think of anything for yourself like that?
- How can we discern if we desire something from God wrongly? (see 1 Sam 8:19)
- Are there any times you can think of where God didn't answer your prayers, but it turned out to be a blessing? Are there any prayers of your own that aren't currently being answered now?
Queen Elizabeth II, began her reign at the tender age of 26 on February 6th, 1952 and concluded her reign September 8, 2022 with her death. The Queen had reigned for over 70 years—nearly one-third of American history—the second longest reigning monarch in history. Yet, the role of the Queen feels, in some sense, like an anachronism. Aren’t kings and queens something of a relic of a bygone age? No one today is advocating that countries should transition towards dynastic monarchies as a stable form of just government. Investing absolute power into a singular individual, or family, is a terribly dangerous thing. And, of course, the only way it has lasted this long in the UK is that the Queen’s role became largely ceremonial.
And yet, we are fascinated with the monarchy. The Queen’s funeral was attended by over 500 emperors, kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents, and other heads of state. 4.1 billion people around the world tuned in to watch her funeral—half of the population of the earth—making it the most watched event in history, second only behind the funeral of Princess Diana, which garnered 2.5 billion viewers. We are fascinated with the idea of a monarch, to the degree that if a member of the royal family coughs, there are thirty American journalists writing about it. We literally fought a way with Britain to be free from the crown, yet the imagination of America, and apparently much of the world, is very much enthralled by the idea of the crown. All of this, despite so much of history showing us that when power is centralized in a person, it nearly always goes wrong.
C.S. Lewis, discussing the importance of the role of the monarchy, wrote: “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II, “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer.” And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Leaders who use the power, position, privilege to lovingly serve are rare indeed, while leaders who use and abuse are sadly common.
In our text today we see the ever present temptations facing the people of God to turn to a singular charismatic leader in the form of a king, and yet we will also see the terrible cost the king brings.
1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”
- 1 Sam 8:1-22
Be Careful What You Long For
1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. – 1 Sam 8:1-3
Samuel has grown old; the shock and awe of Samuel’s ministry described back in 1 Samuel 7 where Samuel dramatically intercedes on behalf of Israel, have now receded into the distant past. Samuel is an old man with two sons that he has set up as judges but, “his sons did not walk in his ways.” They follow the all too well-trodden footpath between the house of authority and the house of corruption. They take bribes and pervert justice. Now, does an elderly leader with two corrupt sons sound familiar at all? This reminds us of Eli, the priest that Samuel apprenticed under, and his two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
Now, we can’t be certain because the text doesn’t tell us much, but the whole story of the book seems to tell us that Samuel possesses a much superior character than Eli. God pinpoints the sin of Eli in failing to rebuke his sons, but does nothing of the sort to Samuel. So I think it is safe to assume that Samuel didn’t follow the same path that Eli did in abdicating his role as a father. Yet, his sons still wind up in wickedness. Which is a sobering lesson to parents: sometimes you can do everything you are supposed to do as a parent, and your child still goes astray. We are not the Holy Spirit, we cannot change hearts. Our job is to be faithful to heap as much kindling around the hearts of our children as possible, but it is only the Lord who can strike the blaze. And children and students in this room: this is a sobering reminder to you. You do not inherit your faith from your parents the way you inherit your genes. You cannot rely on the fact that your parents are Christians, but you must come to faith yourself.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. – 1 Sam 8:4-6
The elders here obviously do not refer to the office of an “elder” or “pastor” in a church, but they refer to the tribal leaders of Israel. They gather together and inform Samuel of a couple of things: 1) you’re old and 2) your sons are wicked. Now, if we have paid attention to our story we should remember that the last time the elders were on the scene things didn’t go well. In 1 Sam 4:3 it was the elders of Israel who suggest that they bring the ark out into battle without praying to God at all, and the outcome of that was disastrous. So, what do they suggest here? “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Before we reflect on that request it might be helpful to think some about the distinction between a judge and a king. Moses and his successor Joshua were obviously endowed by God with a unique role of leadership over Israel, but they were not kings. Their leadership was aimed at installing Israel in the land God had promised. But after Joshua dies we come into the period of the Judges. Judges were individuals chosen by God seemingly at random to deliver Israel from their oppressors and to administer justice, deciding between cases (much like a judge does today). They were a blend of a military leader, prophet, and what we think of today as a judge. But they were chosen by God for a specific purpose, they did not set up dynasties, and they did not have nation-wide authority. The one place where one judge is asked to become a king, Gideon responds: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you,” (Judges 8:23). Gideon knows that his role as judge is very different than that of a king.
Now, here Israel is asking Samuel not just to address the issue with his wicked sons, nor do they suggest looking for judges elsewhere: they request a political revolution, a new form of government. And Samuel immediately is displeased by this. But that leaves us asking: why? Israel was not only permitted to have a king in the Law, but Israel was promised a king. Starting all the way back with Abraham, God promised him: “kings shall come from you,” (Gen 17:6), and Jacob promises his son Judah that a descendant of his shall possess the scepter of a king (Gen 49:10; cf. Num 24:17). So, why is Samuel displeased? Well, the common interpretation goes, the problem was that they wanted to be like the nations. Israel is supposed to be set apart from all the nations, but here she has allowed herself to be influenced by the world. And, this is a little complicated, because I think that basic interpretation is right, but there is a problem with it.
Look at Deuteronomy 17, “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose,” (Deut 17:14-15a). Moses goes on to lay specific restrictions regarding who the king must be (an Israelite), what he must do (study the Torah daily), and what he is forbidden to do (gather lots of horses, wives, and money). But did you notice what verse 14 said? When you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” that’s okay! Just follow the rules. Now, what are the elders of Israel asking: “Set over us a king to judge us like the nations.” It’s almost the exact same thing. The sentences in Hebrew are even almost the same:
אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם (Deut 17:14)
שִֽׂימָה־לָּ֥נוּ מֶ֛לֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵ֖נוּ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִֽם (1 Sam 8:5)
The verbs and nouns are all the same, the word order is the same. The only major difference is that the elders of Israel request a king “to judge”, something that kings would do. Perhaps it is included here as a more effective sales pitch to Samuel: don’t look to your wicked sons to judge us, let’s have a king judge us. The phrases are so similar that one has to wonder whether or not they are attempting to quote Moses to Samuel. So why then is Samuel displeased? It is made clear in the following verses:
7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.” – 1 Sam 8:7-8
Perhaps Samuel’s displeasure here is that he is taking it personally. And God tells him, don’t, they aren’t rejecting you, they are rejecting me from being king over them. But then in verse 8 He tells Samuel that he is being rejected, just like God has been rejected from the time of the Exodus till now. Samuel is the spokesman of God, he is the one to call the nation to repentance, to teach them, to lead them—he has become a visible image of God to the people. So, when the people want to run away from God, they need to get rid of the visible reminder: Samuel. They desire to reject God and Samuel is so suffused with God that they oppose him as well. When someone wants to run away from God, they tend to also run away from or push away people who remind them of God. They stop coming to church, they stop returning your calls, they start coming up with reasons to inappropriately shift blame.
God lasers in onto the heart of Israel that lies behind their request: they do not want God as king. That is the way they wrongly want to be like the nations around them. The other nations don’t bow the knee to Christ. They make up their own rules, they follow their own desires. That’s what they want. But they have cloaked that Satanic desire behind the clothes of a Bible verse. Having a king is a good thing! Human beings were made to be kings and queens who ruled and reigned on God’s behalf, as image bearers. But the only way you can rule as a righteous and just king or queen is if you do so under the greater kingship of the Lord. But like a car trying to drive without an engine, here their desire for a king comes at the expense of the most indispensable element possible: the True King.
But that’s an instructive word for us: you can what a good thing for the wrong reasons and it be a bad thing. You can point to Bible verses that talk about the blessings of a spouse, or family, or career, or a good night of sleep; you can point to the right desire for friends, for good health, for obedient children; you can even have a desire to live a life that feels significant and meaningful for God. But if that desire for good things comes at the expense of the Lordship of Christ, comes at the expense of God being King, it doesn’t matter.
Be Careful What You Ask For
9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them. 10 So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. – 1 Sam 8:9-10
There is an ironic play on words in this and the following section. The word used for "ways" here ("...show them the ways of the king...") is not the normal word for "ways." When the elders of Israel told Samuel that his sons do not walk in his "ways" there they use the typical word (derek). Here, the word for "ways" is mishpat, the word we usually translate as "justice"--the same word used earlier when we were told that Samuel's sons "pervert justice." The pretext for the elders asking a king is that the sons of Samuel are “perverting justice.” It is as if God is saying: You want a king to judge you like the nations? Okay, here is what his justice will look like.
Now, God knows that they won’t listen to Samuel. So why send him? Because Samuel is an ambassador of the true King, who is there to warn and to point towards the final Kingdom of God. The role of a prophet isn't to limit their language to what only will accomplish favorable ends, but is to publicly declare God's truth.
11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons …He will take your daughters…He will take the best of your fields…He will take the tenth of your grain…He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys…He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” – 1 Sam 8:11-18 (abbreviated)
He will take…take…take. A good picture of what is typical of human leaders. So often when people get into positions of power, they become a vacuum to absorb in the money, reputation, and privileges of others around them. When George Washington came to the end of his term, many wondered whether or not he really would resign, or if he would continue to rule, perhaps even turning himself into a king over America. When King George III was informed that Washington intended to step down as president, he said, "If he does that, then he will be the greatest man alive." Why? Because leaders typically hold onto power and exploit others with it. Leaders of loving service are so very rare. If only we would have a leader, a king, who would give...give...give.
That is precisely what we have in Jesus Christ, who said:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45
Jesus not only demonstrated this servant leadership through his death on the cross but calls all of us similarly to it. The great warning of 1 Samuel 8 is that having a king is going to cost the people dearly, but the gospel shows us that having a king is precisely what God's people need, even though it will cost the King dearly.
19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.” – 1 Sam 8:19-22
How do you discern whether or not something has become an idol? How do you respond when it is denied you. The Israelites are crazy here! Like toddlers stamping their feet, No!
Another panel on the window to their heart opens: Not: appoint a king over us like the nations, but, we want to be like the nations. And: we want a king to go and fight for us. The Israelites don’t want to have to live a life of exercising faith, they want a champion that their eyes can see.
The judgment of being heard. Could you imagine being one of the elders there? You are trying to convince Samuel why you need a king, and eventually you resort to just stamping your feet and saying "No!" and Samuel responds with: "Okay, have a king." Really? That's it? We can have what we want?
One of the ways that God can discipline his people is by simply letting them have what their sinful hearts want. Sometimes, God granting our requests is no sign of His pleasure, but His discipline. This is what church discipline formally displays: a member of the church living in a manner that tells others that they no longer wish to be a Christian, so the church responds by saying: Okay, you don't want to follow Christ, we will stop regarding you as a Christian. So Paul informs the Corinthian church what they are to do to the man walking in unrepentant sexual sin:
you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. – 1 Cor 5:5
He doesn't want God as His teacher anymore, so the church is called to hand him over to Satan. He is to be cut loose from the community of faith and go fill his belly with sin: have what you want, just don't do it with Jesus' name attached to you.
Restoration Through Repentance (1 Sam 7:1-17)
Sermon Audio: Restoration Through Repentance (1 Sam 7:1-17)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Read 1 Samuel 7 together. What stood out to you most from the text?
- What three basic elements of repentance do we find in the people if Israel in this story?
- What is godly grief? (see 2 Cor 7:8-11)
- What would you say to someone who believes they have repented, but has no intention of stopping their sin? (see Hebrews 10:26-27)
- Do Christians need to confess their sins to one another or only to God? (see 1 John 1:9 and James 5:16, as well as Acts 19:18).
- Are there any potential idols you can identify in your own life?
- Take a moment to reflect on where the Lord may be convicting you of an area in your life that needs repentance. Ask yourself: "Where should I be sorrowful that I currently am not? What must I turn away from that I currently am not? What must I confess that I currently am not?"
What can someone do if they damage their relationship with you? How can they make it right?
Imagine a spouse is committing an affair, and they feel guilty about it, sorrowful, even. And let’s say they commit to end the affair, they really intend to, but they decide not to tell their husband or wife. Is that sufficient? Or, imagine the same situation, and they feel guilty and they decide to tell their spouse, but they have no intention of ending the affair. What of that? Or, lastly, what if they do end the affair and they do tell their spouse, but they feel no remorse, no guilt, no sorrow. What then? Would any spouse be satisfied with any of those outcomes? No, were something as awful as that to happen we would want to see honesty, genuine sorrow, and deliberate action to end the affair. Without those, the cheating spouse constructs a wall to separate him or her from their spouse—there can be no real chance at a relationship without all three.
Now, what happens when we have not sinned against a person, but against God? When we cheat on our Lord? What would God have us do to repair our relationship with Him? And much like we may wonder whether or not a spurned spouse would even take back their adulterous husband or wife, what will God think of us if we come back to Him looking to restore what we destroyed? Will He take us? In our story today we are going to see the heart of God displayed in His desire to restore His wayward people, but that restoration only comes through repentance, through sorrow, honesty, and a turn away from sin.
And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
3 And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only. 5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.” 6 So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the LORD and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.
7 Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. And Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.
12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 13 So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14 The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.
15 Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16 And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17 Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the LORD.
- 1 Sam 7:1-17
“From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD,” (1 Sam 7:2).
Twenty years go by, a “long time,” in the author’s eyes. We don’t know what is going on for those twenty years, but by the end of it Israel’s posture has changed. They lament after or long for the Lord. You need to think back to what their posture was a few chapters ago. They didn’t want to listen to God, they tried to use God, and did not honor Him as glorious or weighty. And so God had been disciplining His stubborn people: He defeated them twice on the field of battle; He let their priest, Eli, die; He allowed the ark of the covenant to go into exile for seven months; and when He returned and was similarly treated with contempt, He struck seventy men down. And the people respond to this bruising by just pushing the ark off into a corner, Fine God, we won’t have anything to do with you. And God, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, gives his wayward children what they want.
And it takes twenty years before the penny drops. It takes twenty years before Israel realizes: what are we doing? Why are we eating pig slop when our heavenly Father has everything we need? Here, God uses the discipline of handing His people over to what their hearts wanted to learn what their hearts truly needed. The Father uses discipline to humble His arrogant children, to crack open stony hearts; He inflames the canker of sin until we can ignore it no longer and become desperate for release, for healing to flow.
And where does healing begin? Pain, sorrow, heart ache. David tells us, reflecting on his own experience of painful sin, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Ps 51:17). And the apostle Paul helpfully delineates between fake sorrow and godly sorrow:
“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. – 2 Cor 7:8-11
Worldly sorrow produces nothing but death, whereas godly sorrow here produces repentance that leads to salvation, a clean conscience of no regret, a passionate eagerness, a zeal, a longing, a passion to reject sin. Here, Paul is responding to a previous letter where he rebuked the Corinthian church sharply and the letter wounded them, which Paul took no delight in directly, but indirectly was grateful that it produced repentance in them. The first step towards repentance is sorrow.
Putting Away False Gods
Here, God leaves Israel to themselves for twenty lonely years till they are crying out for help. And so, after three chapters of being wholly absent, Samuel enters the scene:
And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only.
- 1 Sam 7:3-4
What was Israel’s problem? Their problem was not primarily a problem out there, but in here. It was an issue of their heart. The commitment God requires of His people is total. The great commandment is for them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:4-5). But Israel had been sectioning off portions of the real estate of their heart to other gods, they got new lovers and abandoned their faithful husband. And that is exactly the right image: all throughout the Old Testament, God views idolatry like adultery. Israel’s love for the Lord was to be exclusive, like the love between a husband and a wife. And if His people began to worship other gods, He did not view it merely as a breaking of a rule or arcane tradition, but breaking His heart. So, Samuel instructs Israel that they must return with their whole heart back to God—in fact, he charges them to “direct” their heart. To not let their heart run wild and free, to roam wherever it may fancy, but to channel it towards its true harbor.
Now, why do human beings who are made in God’s image, made to know and love and serve God, turn to things that are not God and worship them? It can be tempting to read the Bible and think: Man, these people are dumb—why do they keep on worshipping false gods? Or, you might be a skeptic yourself here today and think: this is the problem with religion, it is based on ignorance and fear. Years ago, people bowed down to statues and threw virgins into volcanoes. Today, people are just a little more sophisticated, but it’s the same superstitions.
Well, it might help to consider what role Baal and Ashtaroth played in society. Baal was the storm god, seen as responsible for bringing rain, while Ashtaroth was the goddess of fertility, seen as responsible for the birth of children as well as the birth of your livestock. Now, put yourself in an agrarian society in the late bronze age where your family lives and dies by your crops doing well, by your cattle producing healthy livestock, by your wife having uncomplicated pregnancies. And there you are, just a pinball being bounced around by the powers at large—maybe you get the rain you need, maybe your children survive—but what can you do about it? Then, along comes someone who says: I know what you can do, I know how you can cover your bases and ensure that things are tilted in your favor… The idolatry of the Old Testament was simply the anxious people of God succumbing to the wisdom of the day and the ever-tempting allure of security, of control.
When you see that, you realize that we are not so very different today. We may not bow down to idols--which at least has the benefit of bringing the worship out into the open—but we look at a hundred things in life that promise us control, security, a sense of peace and say: I will give myself wholly to you. What is an idol? It is looking to something other than God to give you what only God can. So, the Israelite looks to Baal to give them a sense of security about the future when they are supposed to look to Yahweh for that; the student relies on her intellect, her GPA, and ability to win arguments to give her a sense of control and prominence, when God is to be her safety and hope; the weary mother looks to the distractions of social media, upcoming vacations, and imagined futures because she has forgotten that Jesus is to be her source of peace and joy.
Idols always lie, like they did to Israel here. Where was Baal or Ashtaroth when Israel was humiliated before the Philistines? What security did they provide? What poverty did they bring upon Israel to lead her to cry out in lament after the Lord? David Foster Wallace, an agnostic, told a class of graduating students:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He then went on to tell people that what was attractive about traditional religion was, “that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.” 6 So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the LORD and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. – 1 Sam 7:5-6
Israel gathers together at Mizpah for a worship service, for a corporate repenting session. They fasted, they abstain even from drinking water, and they confess together: we have sinned against the Lord. Confession means saying the same thing that God says. God sees our sin, He sees our heart, He knows us. When we confess, we are not doing so to inform God of anything He doesn’t already know—but with confession comes something critical for ourselves. As we speak, there is something solidified in us: Yes, God—you’re right. Here is my sin, here is what I did. O God ,help.
What is included in true repentance? Sorrow, confession, and turning from sin.
Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. – 1 Sam 7:7
The Philistines hear that Israel has gathered itself into one place and they think: What a great opportunity—they have gathered for worship, they are unprepared for battle, now is the time to finish them off for good. Israel is circled together at Mizpah, caught up in the worship, when someone comes and brings news. Murmurs spread throughout the congregation, gasps, shrieks of panic—they aren’t ready for a battle. They gathered to confess their sin, to seek God for forgiveness for their rebellion, to put away their false gods…is this God’s reply?
There are three possible responses here:
1. They could have taken this as God’s judgment. We are sorry to inform you that your application for repentance was denied. They could have just fallen over in despair and said, I knew it, we are too far gone; God wants nothing to do with us.
2. They could have taken this as God’s impotence. I knew it, we should have stuck with Baal; as soon as we got rid of him, look what’s happened! We need to take matters into our own hands. They could have looked at the assault as proof that God could not be trusted and that they need to fly or fight, but it was their own power that would deliver them, not God’s.
3. They could have viewed this as an opportunity for God to be faithful to His promise that if they sought Him with undivided hearts, He would shield them and fight for them.
And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” – 1 Sam 7:8
What a dramatic change of posture for the Israelites here from just a few chapters ago. In 1 Samuel 4, Israel draws up the battle lines without seeking God, without prayer, without consulting the prophet of God. Instead, they try to use God like a battle axe. But here? The consequences are dire, arguably more dire than the previous battle. In the previous battle, they were at least prepared for battle. Here, they have nothing, they likely have their women and children with them. It would seem understandable to say, We don’t have time for religious ceremonies right now, we need to get our families out of here, we need to draw up a battle plan. But, no. They plead with Samuel to not stop praying to God for help, to save them from the Philistines. They fling themselves entirely on the mercy and might of God to deliver them from what they cannot escape.
So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. And Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 13 So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. – 1 Sam 7:9-13
What a staggering defeat for God’s enemies and what a stunning salvation for God’s people. Dramatically, the narrator tells us that it is right as Samuel is offering up a sacrifice to the Lord that the Philistines draw near. No attention is given to battle, to strategy, to repelling the attack: God’s people here win through worship. God stands in between His people and their enemies and thunders at them with a mighty sound. The Philistines scatter and are thrown into a mass of confusion, and where there once was a formidable enemy, there is only a scattered, fleeing mess. Israel rises up and chases after them and runs them out of Israel for good.
Samuel recognizes that this is such a dramatic and important event that he erects a monument, the Ebenezer stone, which means “a rock of help,” to remind all future generations of Israel of the Lord’s help for His people. Samuel wanted to erect this so that future generations wouldn’t be tempted to turn back again to idols, that they would see that the true God is a God who helps, a God who even helps a sinful, wayward people. If you will humble yourselves, if you will confess your sin and repent, God will be there for you. This is who our God is. As Jonah is languishing in the belly of the whale and confesses his sin, God saves him! As king Hezekiah is surrounded by the Assyrian army with no way of escape, he weeps for help from the Lord, and God routes the army. When Daniel refuses to bow the knee to the false gods of Babylon and is thrown into the lion’s den, God rescues Daniel. This is who our God is. You can trust Him. Don’t turn to the false gods of self, of power, of comfort—they’ll never deliver you, they’ll only demand. But the true God will. Whenever God’s people are about to be snapped up by the jaws of death, God plucks them out.
But, of course, this story makes us think of the one individual of God’s people who wasn’t plucked out, by was swallowed. As Jesus is dying on the cross and looks up to heaven, there is no thundering response. The nails don’t pop out of the wood. The Roman soldiers aren’t thrown into confusion, the Pharisees don’t fall down in terror. Jesus looks up and asks, Why?, and all He hears is stony silence. And the jaws of death snap closed over Him. When Samuel is praying for Israel, he grabs a lamb and offers it as a sacrifice. Why? Because this is what God’s people deserve. Their sin means they deserve to die. But God, in His mercy, allows another to stand in their place and to bear their punishment. And of course, a lamb can’t pay for Israel’s sins, it doesn’t take away their guilt. It only serves as a pointer, a shadow to the greater Lamb who will be slain, the righteous man who will stand in the guilty sinner’s place and take their condemnation upon themselves. Friends, the little picture of the Philistines rushing in at the scared Israelites is just a dim picture of the wrath of God your sins deserve. But just as God here intervenes single-handedly for the Israelites to save them from what their sins deserve, so too does He intervene for you through Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for your sins.
And while the jaws of death snapped closed on Jesus, Jesus punches through the other side through His resurrection. He conquers death and sin and Satan—your greatest enemies now lie subdued under His feet. This is your God who is on your side!
He gives grace to the humble and the lowly, to those who confess their sin, to those who mourn their sin.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10
Restoration only comes through repentance.
The Weight of Glory (1 Sam 4:1-7:2)
Sermon Audio: The Weight of Glory (1 Sam 4:1-7:2)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- "I like to picture God like..." Have you heard this before? What are some of the answers you have heard? Why do people like this way to think about God?
- We see in this story that God demands to be thought of and worshiped as he truly is and not according to our own assumptions and opinions of who he is. Are you tempted to think of God as something or someone that you can shape and mold according to your own preferences? Describe.
- The Bible depicts the Ark of the Covenant as a representation of God’s presence with his people. Yet instead of treating God with the weightiness he deserved, Israel instead treated God like a “lucky rabbit’s foot—“ something useful, something light. Have you ever treated God in this way? Are there any ways you might be treating God lightly in your life right now?
- The elders in 1 Samuel 4:3 ask a good question, but are not willing to receive a hard answer from God. How can we ensure that we are able to receive hard answers from the Lord?
- How does this story of the “exile of God” point us to Christ? (Think of the three scenes from 1 Sam 4-6: 1) The Loss of Glory, 2) The Exile of Glory, 3) The Return of Glory).
Have you ever sat down on a bump on a log and discovered it to have been a toad? Or more shocking yet, the entire log turned out to be a great alligator? Look out! you scream, It’s alive! What kind of shock would you have? Here professor Peter Kreeft imaginatively pictures what it will be like for his fellow academics who study religion as if God were dead, when they one day discover that He is, much to their shock, very much alive.
What happens when people who have been pretending to believe in God suddenly meet Him? There is no shortage of individuals who use their religion without any intent on actually coming to know, much less meet, God. One can think of politicians who slip vague religious sentiments into their speeches to win votes, or prosperity preachers who use God to get rich. Or there are others who view God as an impersonal force, an inert pool of energy to be tapped into, harnessed, and shaped into whatever they please. For them, God is a jet pack on their back getting them where they want to go. Others imagine God to be like a therapist or cheerleader in the sky, eager to root you on and eager to make sure you’re happy.
In all of these perspectives, God is useful, malleable, and light. The spirit of this perspective is encapsulated well in the phrase: I like to imagine God like…
But what would happen if someone were to encounter the person of God as He really is, not as we would like Him to be? The man who mistakes a lion for a statue will experience quite a shock if he attempts to lean his elbow on it.
In our story today, we find what the consequences are of imagining God to be lesser than what He actually is. The main thrust of this story today is the weightiness of God. And that is the biggest problem with our world today—God is not weighty. Your anxiety about the future, the spouse contemplating an affair, dictators commiting genocide and war crimes—all flow from a heart that views God as small, inconsequential, incapable, impersonal. And like a mountain flung into the sea, our passage today seeks to throw a tidal wave up to recalibrate our hearts and minds with the power and weight of glory of God.
And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” – 1 Sam 4:21-22
From 1 Samuel 4 to the very end of 6 we have three panels of a story that more or less correspond to each chapter. We will spend the majority of our time on the first, but we will follow a story of the Loss of glory, the Exile of glory, and the Return of glory.
1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
- 1 Sam 4:1-3
Here we read of a humiliating defeat for Israel. As the old men of Israel watch the men return to the camp with their heads hung low and hear of the embarrassing loss, they ask, “Why would God let this happen?” The question isn’t primarily a question of military strategy, it is a question of theology. They know that God has done this to them.
God had promised that they would inherit the land and He would fight their battles for them—so long as they remained faithful to Him. The elders have a right question, “Why did God do this?” That is precisely the question they should be asking; that is the question that should be leading them to see their sin, and humble themselves in repentance. But notice two things: 1) they don’t ask the prophet of God, Samuel (despite his word spreading to all Israel—in fact, we won’t hear of Samuel again till chapter 7), and 2) they run to a wrong answer, “Ah, we didn’t bring the ark with us! That’s our problem!”
The right answer to Israel’s question was a hard one—their sin and rebellion had caused their loss. But that’s the gift of God’s Word, it can give us hard, but right answers. If you are troubled by a question, but do not seek to hear from God’s Word, then we can be seriously misguided even if an answer feels intuitively correct (we forgot the ark!).
The ark of the covenant was a small box, about four foot by two foot, overlaid with gold. It represented God’s physical presence with His people. It remained inside the holiest place in the tabernacle and temple, the place that the high priest was only permitted to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. This is the most sacred, and holy object Israel has because it represents the presence of their sacred and holy God. But here they use the ark like a lucky rabbit’s foot. Superstition has replaced faith and God has become a tool to be utilized for their own ends.
4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
- 1 Sam 4:4-9
So, it’s halftime and team Israel is slumped over in the locker room, feeling despondent, feeling bruised. But then they remember: they have their secret weapon, the ark! Of course! How could they have forgotten! They parade back onto the field with swagger and confidence. They slap each other’s helmets, hooting and hollering, jumping in excitement as they see the fear on Philistine’s face. And the Philistine’s tremble. They have heard of this god. Now, they get some details wrong (God didn’t judge Egypt in the wilderness, and there is only one God), but they know enough to know that they should be scared. But the figures who attend the ark (the wicked Hophni and Phinehas) portend a disaster coming.
10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
- 1 Sam 4:10-11
What a dramatic reversal! Israel doesn’t just lose like before; it wasn’t even a fight, it was a “very great slaughter.” They lose more than seven times as many men this time. The prophecy that was made to Eli back in 1 Sam 2:34 comes true: his wicked and worthless sons, Hophni and Phinehas die. But the great calamity that no one saw coming was the loss of the ark! The seriousness of the loss of the ark is immediately displayed in the reactions that follow:
16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
- 1 Sam 4:16-18
19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
- 1 Sam 4:19-22
Calamity upon calamity. We can discern the import of how serious the loss of the ark is by what happens to Eli and his daughter-in-law. It isn’t the defeat of Israel or even the death of his own sons that cause Eli to plunge to his death—it is the loss of the ark. Similarly, it isn’t the death of her husband or father-in-law that is on the wife’s lips as she dies—it is the loss of the ark. The tabernacle is the gateway into God’s presence, and the heart of the tabernacle is the ark. The physical, visible presence of God has been taken away from them. In fact, it has gone into exile. The word for “departed” in 1 Sam 4:21-22 is the word “exiled” (gala).
What happened? How did everything go so wrong?
There is a subtle play on words in this section. Phinehas’ wife names her son Ichabod, because the “glory has departed from Israel.” “Ichabod” in Hebrew simply means, “No glory.” The “glory” is a reference to the ark, where God would visibly manifest His presence in a bright cloud of glory. But the word for “glory” is the same word for “weight” or “heaviness” (cavōd). That is actually the idea of glory—something is glorious to the degree that it has gravity, substance, weight. Eli is described in 4:18 as a “heavy” man, whose own weight leads to his death.
Back in 1 Sam 2:29 God confronted Eli because he was “fattening [himself]” on the forbidden sacrifices that his sons had robbed from the worshippers of Israel. And then God promised: “those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed,” (1 Sam 2:30). Eli made himself (literally) heavy because he did not treat God as heavy, he did not honor Him. So God responds by returning the favor and treats Eli “lightly.” And the weight of Eli’s sin breaks his neck.
And Eli is a fitting representative of the people who treat God like a tool to be rolled in like an Abrams tank into battle. God wasn’t actually dealt with like He was a person, let alone like His holiness deserved to be treated. They didn’t even speak with the Lord before they brought the ark out—we don’t want to hear from you God, we just want to use you.
And I wonder, what has weight in your life? Picture your mind like sheet of fabric stretched taut, holding your thoughts, loves, and commitments—which thing sinks down the most? What pulls your mind and heart in most easily? Or, to look at it another way, who or what gets to tell you you’re wrong? What is substantive and enormous enough in your life that it can stop you in your tracks, and turn you about? Is it God? Is it your Lord? If not, then He is not yet given the weight He deserves.
You can see why they killed Jesus. This is the kind of obedience and allegiance He demanded. Jesus didn’t come to offer pearls of wisdom to be considered as you planned out your life; Jesus didn’t come to be another puff of wind in the sails of your ambitions—had He done that, He never would have been executed. He was killed because He taught that He was a king who deserved our complete fealty and obedience.
So now, the opening scene of loss closes and the camera follows the ark as it goes into exile into the land of the Philistines.
1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.
- 1 Sam 5:1-2
In the ancient world it was very common to take the religious icons of the people you had defeated and bring it home to your own temple. It was a symbolic gesture that showed that your god was superior to their god and now, just like the people you defeated were subject to you, so too were their gods now subject to your gods. So, the Philistines carry the ark like a prisoner of war into their temple and place it before their triumphant god, Dagon.
3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
- 1 Sam 5:3-4
False gods require the assistance of their worshippers. Do you see the irony here? Israel treated the living God like a thing to be used; here, the Philistines must support and help their fallen god because it is just a thing, a lifeless statue that can’t even help itself up. More than that, he has been decapitated and de-handed. Dagon is rendered completely incapacitated and humiliated. Dagon falls prostrate before Yahweh, the one true living God. Yahweh goes to the gates of Hell, so to speak, and demonstrates that even there He has total authority and all powers and all principalities must bow the knee to Him. The Philistines foolishly thought that the defeat of Israel was because of their superiority and the superiority of their god. They too treated God lightly, now notice the repetition of the word “hand” and “heavy” in verses 6 and 11:
6 The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory…They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there.
- 1 Sam 5:6, 11
In verses 6-11 the ark makes a kind of parade around Philistia, and four times we are told that the “hand of the Lord” is working, while Dagon has had his hands cut off. And God’s hand is heavy, it is cavōd. 1 Samuel 4 showed us what happens when God’s people treat Him lightly, and 1 Samuel 5 show us what happens when God’s enemies treat Him lightly.
“You may sport with the whirlwind and trifle with the storm, you may lay your hand upon the lion's mane and play with the leopard's spots, you may go to the very crater of a burning volcano, and laugh at the lava which it belches out in thunder; you may trifle with any and everything; but trifle not with God,” J.H. Thornwell.
1 The ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”
- 1 Sam 6:1-2
Yahweh the prisoner turned out to be Yahweh the victor. Every city the ark goes, panic, sickness, and death break out. The Philistines realize that they cannot keep the ark any longer lest they all perish. So, they decide to return the ark to Israel, but do not do so empty-handed. They create golden figurines representing the plague that afflicted them:
So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.
- 1 Sam 6:5
They then place the ark on a cart pulled by two cows that have recently calved and leave their calves at home. The cows, who have a strong natural desire to go to their calves to feed them, will serve as a test. If the cows do not return back to the stall to their calves, but walk towards Israel, the Philistines will know that this was a divine plague that visited them. This is precisely what the cows do, walking in a straight line directly for Israel.
13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the LORD.
- 1 Sam 6:13-15
The ark of the covenant has been gone seven months. The people of Israel have no idea where it was, what has happened, but they look and see it returning on an unmanned cart—almost as if the Lord is driving the cows Himself. And not only that, He has returned with spoil and plunder. The people rejoice in worship and sacrifice. Hooray! The bad guys lose, the good guys win, right? Not so fast.
19 And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you.”
1 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
- 1 Sam 6:19-7:2
Looking at the ark was not forbidden, but the word for “upon” can also mean “into.” So, it could be that the men of Beth-shemesh were attempting to open the ark and look at what was inside. They again were treating what was holy as if it was common, as if it was light. Even the phrase, “And to whom shall he go up away from us?” sounds almost exactly like what the Philistines were asking—the Israelites look just like Philistines here! Three scenes, three chapters, three pictures of mankind’s typical posture towards God. Is there anyone in this story who isn’t corrupt or faithless?
There is one. The God of the ark. In each of those three scenes it is Yahweh who proves to be the one source of goodness, of faithfulness, of light, of justice, of righteousness.
Three scenes, three pictures of God’s goodness.
In scene one, God’s people are faithless, they treat him lightly and break the covenant, and the consequences of the covenant being broken is exile, but who goes into exile? God does. He takes the punishment that His people deserved.
In scene two, God goes into the belly of the beast, into the very heart of the enemy of God’s people and destroys their false god.
In scene three, God returns back from exile, back from the dead like a triumphant king with the spoils of war in hand.
Three scenes: loss, exile, return. And the God of the ark of the covenant makes a comeback much later with three more significant scenes: death, burial, and resurrection.
In scene one, Jesus explains to his disciples that He is going to have to go away. And they are heartbroken: what we will do without the visible presence of God with us? God’s people (you and me!) treat Him lightly, disregard Him, and break His commands. But, Jesus takes our place and our punishment. As Jesus nears the cross He explains that His soul is “burdened” and “weighed down” (Mark 14:33). What is happening? The hand of the Lord is heavily falling upon Him because we treated the Lord lightly.
Scene two, Jesus goes down to death, to the very pit of Hell and destroys the works of Satan, decapitates death, and cuts off its hands.
Scene three, He resurrects gloriously with the spoils of war in His hands, our salvation earned!
This God deserves your attention, He deserves your heart. He is not only glorious in power or glorious in strength, His glory is seen and displayed supremely in the work of Christ at the cross in His rescue of sinners, in His defeat of Satan, and in His resurrection to new life.
Whatever imaginary picture of God you have in your mind, whatever you like to picture God as, it is not as good as this.
“An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband - that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion…suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” C.S. Lewis, Miracles
A Tale of Two Priests (1 Sam 2:11-3:21)
Sermon Audio: A Tale of Two Priests (1 Sam 2:11-3:21)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Why does God consider the sins of those in spiritual leadership to be uniquely grievous?
- Eli was rebuked for honoring his sons more than honoring God. What do you feel tempted to honor more than God?
- Have you ever experienced a time when you were forced to choose between honoring God and something or someone else? Describe.
- Amazingly, in 1 Samuel 2:30, God says, “those who honor me, I will honor.” What do you think about this? Is this hard for you to believe? If so, why?
- How should this knowledge that “God will honor those who honor him” motivate us as we walk as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11) through this life?
- How do the main characters from this story (Eli’s sons, Eli, and Samuel) point us to Christ?
Should the sins of Christians, and Christian leaders in particular, serve as a good reason to reject belief in Christianity’s teachings? If Jesus said we should “know them by their fruit,” what are we to think of much of the rotten fruit we have seen done in the name of God over history? And do these sins invalidate the Christian worldview or lead us to need to alter it? 21 years ago today, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people, all in the name of God. While not Christians, of course, the 9/11 attackers tore a hole in the American psyche that led a number of critics to level charges against religion in general, Christianity included: This is what religious fundamentalism gets you.
The cataclysmic events of September 11th caused the newspaper, The Boston Globe, to set aside its explosive investigative exposé it had been working on for months. In the early months of 2002, the newspaper published a story about a massive sexual abuse coverup within the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. The Boston Globe’s reporting led to the arrest of five priests in the Boston area in 2002, and, over the years, 249 criminal cases were presented against the Church, while thousands of victims have come forward. Just a few years ago, the Texas newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, published a report that Southern Baptist Churches led a similar process of failing to report sexual abusers to authorities and allowing them to remain in positions of influence, citing hundreds of incidents.
What are we to think of such things? A number of individuals within the church have responded by walking away and many outside have pointed to these incidents as a vindication of their decision to stay away from religion. While we might point out that hypocrites are everywhere and we shouldn’t judge a worldview based off those who pervert it, let’s not do that. Let’s be honest that there is something particularly sinister and wicked when someone claims to be motivated by faith, but lives a life of selfishness and brutality. Perhaps you have yourself experienced firsthand someone who has claimed to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, but have seen them lie, cheat, steal, or take advantage of others, maybe even yourself.
But let’s stop for a moment and consider this: If the God of Christianity does exist, then what does He think about people using Him as an excuse to pursue their own ends? What would God think of people take positions of leadership in His name, only to then rake His name through the mud? What would God think and how would God respond? This is what we find in our text today. We have been studying the book of 1 Samuel as a church and today we come to a lengthy passage where we see a group of priests who have used their positions as priests to exploit others, we see how God responds, and we see the kind of leader that God delights in. Since our passage is so long today, we will only read a short excerpt now, and then look at the rest throughout the sermon. Open up to 1 Sam 2:30 and 35.
Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed…And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever. – 1 Sam 2:30, 35
The passage of Scripture we are going to look at today spans from 1 Samuel 2:11 all the way through the end of chapter 3. In this section we will look at a (1) contrast of priests, (2) a condemnation of a priest, and (3) a call of a priest.
A Contrast of Priests (1 Sam 2:11-26)
This opening section we see the comparison and contrast between the house of Eli and Samuel as the focus of the narrative oscillates back and forth between Samuel and Eli and his sons. But before we begin this story of priests, it may do us well to consider: what is a priest? The latin word for priest (pontifex) also means “bridge.” A priest is a bridge between God and His people. A priest is meant to represent the people as he goes into the presence of God, and then when he comes out, he is to represent God to the people. He is a mediator of sorts. After the coming of Jesus, all Christians are transformed into priests—we are no longer dependent on finding an individual who can represent us before God because Jesus is now our new high priest who represents us, and we can deal directly with Him. But in our story, under the Old Covenant, Israel was dependent on these intermediaries to commune with God, which makes this story so tragic.
12 Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD. 13 The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14 and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there.
- 1 Sam 2:12-14
The sons of Eli, the priests at the tabernacle don’t even know the LORD! They are “worthless men,” (lit. “sons of Belial”). Which is a sobering reminder: position does not guarantee character. Just because someone stands up in front of God’s people in a position of leadership, even if they appear to be very gifted at what they do, it does not in any way guarantee that they know Jesus. Skill can be mimicked, godliness cannot.
The background we need to have to understand this section is Leviticus 7:28-36 where God allots to the priests a portion of the sacrifice for their own livelihood. The rest of Israel could raise livestock and farm and tend their gardens, but the priests were responsible for working in the tabernacle. So God deemed it fitting that those ministering in this role as a profession should have their livelihood come from a selection of the offerings brought forward. But Leviticus specifies that the worshipper was to hand a specific cut of meat to the priest, and the sons of Eli have gone far beyond that. Here, they are fishing out the best cuts of meat out of the cauldron with a fork.
Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” 16 And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force.” 17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.
- 1 Sam 2:15-17
These men would stop a worshipper as he was about to offer a sacrifice and demand portions before it was even offered. And here the worshipper recites God’s Word back to the priests, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish.” The individuals who are supposed to be shepherded and taught God’s Word by the priest is having to remind the priest of God’s very words! But in a nearly satanic inverse of what a priest is to be and do, the priest then threatens physical violence if the worshipper will not comply with their wicked demands.
“Thus,” we are told, “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.” The sons of Eli don’t care about the act of worship. Sacrifices in the Old Testament were a way of taking some of the best you had and presenting it to Yahweh, a picture of the love and devotion of the worshipper. So you burn the fat first because the fat on the meat is the best part. But here, the sons of Eli think they deserve the best part, not God. Hophni and Phinehas don’t see anything sacred here, they just see an opportunity to indulge themselves.
22 Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.
- 1 Sam 2:22-25
Eli here finally rebukes his sons, but it is too little, too late. The text specifies that Eli was “very old” and he “kept hearing” all that his sons were doing. I think this leads us to assume that Eli has been dragging his feet. Eli could have removed his sons from their position, but he didn’t. And it was not as if this was an isolated incident or something that was so infrequent that not many people knew—all of Israel is talking about their deeds. And here the picture of the wickedness of the sons of Eli is filled out more with their sexual immorality. They are preying upon the young women who have come to serve outside the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the place where God’s presence is localized in the Old Testament, it is where you go to be in God’s presence, to meet with Him, to worship. But it has turned into a sordid den of crime. Worshippers are not safe, young women are not safe. And Israel has to begin to think: the holy place in Israel is really a place of evil, it is not safe. And what do you think God thinks of that?
Eli tries to warn his sons, but they refuse to listen to their father, “for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” The verse does not say, “It was the will of the Lord to put them to death because they would not listen to the voice of their father,” but the exact opposite. Here we see the judgment of God in the hardening of these men’s hearts. Much like Pharoah in Exodus, or the unrighteous in Romans 1, when rebellious sinners persist in their rebellion, stamp their feet and shout that they want nothing to do with God, God will grant them what they wish. They are vessels of destruction who are hardened further to become a showcase of God’s judgment and wrath. He will hand them over to the momentum and direction of their sin; He will sever any restraining graces He has placed on them and let them plunge themselves into destruction.
One thinks of God’s condemnation of the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel 34 whom are compared to shepherds: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ez 34:2-4). And God powerfully replies, “Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them,” (Ez 34:10).
Every person in spiritual leadership who feasts upon those under their leadership will find God to be a terrible and dreadful adversary, and every person who is under that oppressive and abusive leadership will find God to be a ferocious and just ally. God will not stand by indifferent and confused while wickedness drinks up His people. He will thunder from on high and snap the arms of the unrighteous like dry twigs and vindicate His suffering people. No pastor or dictator, no husband or principal, no mother or judge who uses their position of leadership or takes God’s name in vain will get away with anything.
Let this serve as a sobering reminder to you, Christian. This is where your sin wants to take you. Inch by inch, it craves to move you towards destruction. Stay alert, be vigilant, lest you follow the path of worthless sons of Eli, the unfaithful priests.
But Samuel? There are three contrasts with the sons of Eli in this section, and in each one the young Samuel is described as constantly being in the presence of Yahweh. Verses 11 and 18 says he ministers to the Lord, and verse 26 says he is growing in stature and favor with the Lord. This is the theology of reversals that Hannah’s song told us about last week: the modest, humble house of Hannah is being exalted, while the lofty and arrogant house of Eli is being brought down. This is a tale of two very different priests.
The Condemnation of a Priest
27 And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him…Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’
- 1 Sam 2:27a, 29
An unnamed prophet approaches Eli and lays out the many honors and blessings God has shown upon the family of Eli. Eli is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the first priest of Israel. Yet despite this noble lineage and calling, Eli has scorned the sacrifices and offerings of God. But notice how God sees the dilemma: you honor your sons above me. Eli was in a position to stop his sons’ violence and blasphemy. He was their father, and he was the judge over Israel. But he didn’t. When people are in places of authority and see injustice take place under them and do nothing about it, God is not pleased. God did not see his inaction here as a morally neutral matter, nor was He satisfied with Eli’s kind-of rebuke of his sons. God saw into Eli’s heart and He knew the root of the matter: you care more about what your sons think of you than what I think. They are your real gods, not me.
How do you know who you really worship? What you are willing to sacrifice for. You may say you love God, but if a difficult choice comes up and you are left between choosing between pleasing God or, say, keeping the approval of your children, your boss, your spouse, your boyfriend, then that thing is what you really honor, what really controls you, what you really worship. I am reminded of a story of a parent whose child had made a choice about her life that contradicted what God said and that child wanted the parent to support and endorse this choice, give approval to it and go along with it. But the mother lovingly responded: “You are asking me to either offend you or offend God, and I have to choose to offend you in that choice.” The mother desired to honor God over her daughter.
I wonder what you honor, friend? What matters most to you? What do you sacrifice most for? What are you willing to bend on your convictions for? What, if you lost it, would make life feel unbearable? For Eli, that was his sons. Jesus teaches us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” (Matt 10:37).
30 Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
- 1 Sam 2:30
The prophet here warns Samuel, but also instructs us. Those who honor God will be honored by God, and those who despise Him shall be lightly esteemed. Notice how binary it is. You either honor the Lord, or despise Him. You cannot have two masters, you will either love one or hate the other. But notice also the blessing promised: those who honor the Lord, will be honored by the Lord. It is fitting and normal for a subject to honor their king, but what a strange and wonderous thing it would be for the king to come off his throne, down to the peasants, and lift them up to a seat of honor and dignity at his side? This is our great King Jesus who not only receives honor but gives it to lowly, weak, sinners like us. But Eli has cast this aside. And so the prophet goes on to recount how God is going to make his house desolate and barren, and his two sons are going to be killed on the same day, and then explains:
35 And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.
- 1 Sam 2:35
This is what God’s people need: a faithful priest who does what is in God’s heart and mind. A leader who isn’t looking to get into a position of authority to take advantage of others, like the sons of Eli. A leader who honors the Lord more than others who is willing to confront others even if it costs him, unlike Eli. A faithful priest is what we need. Enter: Samuel.
The Call of a Priest
1 Samuel 3 is a dramatic telling of the call of Samuel into the office of a prophet of the Lord. He has been serving as a priest thus far, but now his role is going to expand to one who not only serves as a bridge between God and His people, but also to that of the mouthpiece of God—one who speaks God’s word to His people. Samuel is described as a “boy,” in verse 1. Jewish tradition holds that he was 12 years old at this time, but we can’t be certain. All we know is that he is very young.
It is late at night and Samuel and Eli have laid down inside the tabernacle, near the ark of God. Samuel can hear the flicker of the lamp burning, the flap of tent in the wind, when suddenly he hears: Samuel. Samuel shoots up and goes over to Eli, “Here I am, what do you need?” But Eli tells him to go back to bed, he didn’t call him. Twice more this happens, and slowly it dawns on Eli that God is attempting to speak to Samuel:
9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.”
- 1 Sam 3:9-10
1 Samuel 3:1 explained that at that time, “the word of the Lord was rare…there was no frequent vision.” In Samuel’s day, they didn’t have the Bible as we do, and they were dependent on God’s ecstatic disclosures of Himself through prophets. Surely, Eli and Samuel would have been trembling with excitement at what this would mean:
11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.”
- 1 Sam 3:11-18
Can you put yourself in Samuel’s shoes? You are a young, young child and have been in the office of a prophet for about five minutes. Your first task? Go to your adoptive father and mentor and tell him that God has rejected him and is going to pour out judgment upon him and his sons. Good luck! You can understand why Samuel trembles. The contrast between Samuel and Eli is stark. Eli is an old man, seasoned, in an established position of authority, yet he is reluctant to confront his very own sons who are under his authority with the truth. Samuel is a child who is instructed to speak a word of condemnation and judgment to his superior, to the one whose authority he is under. And he obeys.
The sons of Eli are a picture of wanton rebellion and indulgence; Eli is a picture of cowardice and covert idolatry; Samuel is a picture of right obedience. The phrase: speak Lord, for your servant hears, becomes a paradigm of Samuel’s ministry—he listens to God and obeys. In fact, the Hebrew word for “hears” is the same word as “obeys.”
Our job as Christians involves being willing to listen to God and speak truth to those who don’t know God and those who do. In Christ, we all now are priests who serve as God’s representatives here on the earth. This means we are responsible to, like Samuel, listen and obey God. It also has important implications for within our church. One of the things we promise to do for one another as members is to 'speak the truth in love' to one another. We cannot sit back like Eli while watch our brothers and sisters around us plunge themselves into sin and rake God's name through the mud. We cannot tell ourselves, "Who am I to involve myself in someone else's life? Who am I to tell someone else what the Bible says?" We dare not sit by and fail to care for one another when we need it. We dare not choose to honor others over God. Let's follow Samuel's model of courage here.
But here is the stunning thing: Samuel eventually fails. Later, in 1 Samuel 8:1-3, we are told that, just like Eli, Samuel's sons are given over to injustice and perversion (1 Sam 8:1-3). We are not sure what Samuel did to confront his sons or stop them--perhaps he did more than Eli did (which is likely). But the author of Samuel is wanting you to obviously see that Samuel is nevertheless following in the footsteps of Eli. He doesn't listen and obey perfectly, he fails.
And you will to. Try as you might, you will find yourselves indulging in sin, honoring other things and people over God, acting cowardly, failing. We need something more than the model of Samuel. We need a Savior who doesn't fail.
And thus we come to the one who Samuel shadows. In Luke 2:52, Luke lifts a phrase directly out of 1 Samuel 2:26 when we are told that Jesus, "increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man." Luke is wanting you to see that Jesus is like Samuel, but only better. So let's consider how Jesus compares with the figures of our story:
Like the sons of Eli, Jesus has position and power, but because Jesus is perfectly holy that means He will never exploit you or hurt you. In fact, He stands with you against those who exploit. When a woman caught in the act of adultery is cast before him, Jesus doesn’t think: what a great opportunity for me to take advantage of someone. No, He bends down and clothes her with grace and dignity.
Like Eli, Jesus has authority, but He also courage. He confronts those in power who are corrupt and courageously stands against wickedness. Despite it costing him his reputation, Jesus ferociously denounces the wicked practices of the priests, the Pharisees, those in authority. He honors His Father more than anything else, so He always tells the truth.
Like Samuel, Jesus hears and obeys His father, but more fully. He never buckles into temptation or caves into sin. He upholds the Law perfectly, never caving.
And what does a life of that kind of moral perfection earn? If someone honors God, what does God give them in return? Honor. But what did Jesus find at the end of His life? A bloody, dishonorable cross. Why? Because Jesus had lived His life with the intention of it not being only for Himself. Rather, He took the righteous life He had earned and then went to the cross where He died for the sins of His people, paid their debt, and then opened the path so that those who look on Him in faith and receive Him could also receive the honor of the Father that Jesus had earned. Jesus died for your sins, Jesus lived for your righteousness, so, weak and wounded weary one, wherefore toil you so? Cease your doing, all was done, long, long ago. Jesus has atoned for your sins and fulfilled the Law, rest in Him, trust Him, look to Him.
Not By Might Shall Man Prevail (1 Sam 2:1-10)
Sermon Audio: Not By Might Shall Man Prevail (1 Sam 2:1-10)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Read 1 Sam 2:1-10. What is most comforting about this passage? What is most sobering? Explain.
- What does this passage teach us about God? What does He love and what does He oppose? Why is that good news?
- Why does God's exaltation of the weak, needy, and destitute give us freedom to be honest? When are you most tempted to avoid that kind of honesty?
- Jesus teaches, "But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all," (Mark 10:43-44). The path to greatness comes in the form of lowliness. When and why do you struggle to believe that?
Might makes right. Nice guys finish last. These are truisms that we are familiar with that tell us something that we don’t like. Our culture has been saturated by Christianity long enough that we have a set of moral tastebuds that tell us that the exploitation of others is wrong, and the path of love is superior, even if it means self-sacrifice. No one roots for the bad guy to win. And yet, our common experience tells us the contrary to be true. At times it appears that might really does make right—the winners get to say what is “right” or “wrong.” The tyrant who crushes all dissent and imprisons political opponents seems like he really does win the day. Nice guys don’t resort to underhanded or ruthless tactics in their job, and so might wind up missing out on the promotion or the bonus or the client. A child is confronted by a parent, “Did you do this?” and the child knows that if they lie, they might be able to get out of it without any consequences, but if they tell the truth they might suffer for it.
What are we to do? Is there a final justice that will right the scales? I wonder if you are familiar with the story of the Chicago River? In the late 1800’s the city of Chicago was growing exponentially, but so was its pollution and waste. With no sufficient sewer system, the city resorted to dumping most of its waste directly into the Chicago River which fed directly into Lake Michigan, which was also their source of drinking water. Cholera and typhoid began to break out and kill many in Chicago, so the engineers in the city began one of the most remarkable engineering marvels of the modern world: they reversed the flow of the Chicago river. They dug a massive canal heading south towards the Mississippi River, causing the river to reverse its normal direction and then drain the Chicago River and Lake Michigan of all of its sewage, waste, and disease. (People downstream from Chicago weren’t terribly excited about this).
There is a normal flow of human history—if you look out for “number one” most, work to get yourself what is best, then you will have a better chance of succeeding than if you prioritize humility, honesty, and an others-first mentality. In our text today in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, the song of Hannah, we find that God has tunneled through the layers of the muck of pride and arrogance to reverse the flow, to exalt the lowly, to humble the proud, to drain the bog of humanity’s sickness with the fresh, clear, cold water of grace.
1 And Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD;
my horn is exalted in the LORD.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.
2 “There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S,
and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
- 1 Sam 2:1-10
Overview of the Song
Here is Hannah’s song in a nutshell: God raises up the low, and brings down the high, so be comforted and be warned.
Surprising Reversal #1: The Holiness of God Displayed in Humbling the Proud
“There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
- 1 Sam 2:2-5
God is not like us. And that makes Hannah happy, confident, and at peace. Her song begins by rejoicing in the Lord. If we remember from last week, Hannah was praying for a son, but vowed that she would give him back to the Lord if she were to become pregnant. Hannah becomes pregnant, and Hannah follows through on her vow, giving Samuel up to become an apprentice at the tabernacle. But this leads Hannah to praise God. The fact that Samuel is not mentioned once in this song is a testament that Hannah’s joy was not in the gift, but in the Giver: her God had heard her. And this is all the more astounding as Hannah reflects on who this God is. He is not some tribal deity attached to Hannah’s household; He is not a provincial god constrained to a geographic location that Hannah happens to inhabit; He is not one god among a pantheon of gods. If Yahweh was any of those things, it would not be terribly surprising for him to assist Hannah—he is the family god, or the god of the hillside that Hannah resides in, or he is one of the hundreds of other gods that Hannah has been able to appease. No, Hannah tells us,
“There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God,” (1 Sam 2:2). This is the classic monotheism that set Israel’s religion apart from all the other nations that surrounded them (Deut 6:4). Hannah here confesses the utter uniqueness of God—there is no one like Him. This is what “holiness” refers to—the unique “set apart” nature of God, not only in His moral clarity, goodness, and beauty, but in His very essence. God is wholly other. And reflecting on the holiness and uniqueness of God leads her to warn the arrogant in verse 3 and reverse the typical outcomes of humanity in verse 4-5. In other words, she sees God’s holiness is displayed in the humbling of the proud and the exaltation of the weak.
“Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed,” (1 Sam 2:3). The man who boasts, the woman who brags should be careful. God knows what they have done, and He is weighing and sifting them. This makes me think of Psalm 94:
O LORD, God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, shine forth!
2 Rise up, O judge of the earth;
repay to the proud what they deserve!
3 O LORD, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
4 They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
5 They crush your people, O LORD,
and afflict your heritage.
6 They kill the widow and the sojourner,
and murder the fatherless;
7 and they say, “The LORD does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
- Ps 94:1-7
But here Hannah reminds: God does see. He is a God of knowledge. There may be a time where it appears that evil triumphs, but God is studiously keeping note of what happens.
“When you wish to do something evil, you retire from the public into your house where no enemy may see you; from those places of your house which are open and visible to the eyes of men you remove yourself into your room; even in your room you fear some witness from another quarter; you retire into your heart, there you meditate: he is more inward than your heart. Wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he is,” (Herman Bavinck).
It doesn’t matter if you try to cover your tracks, it doesn’t matter if years go by and you think you’ve gotten away with it—God sees and He will act. And what is the result?
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
- 1 Sam 2:4-5
The river reverses course. Those who are on top, suddenly find themselves in places of weakness, and those on the bottom, suddenly find themselves in places of strength. There are three word pictures given to us to show this surprising reversal: the image of military action, hunger, and family. Those we assume to be superior find themselves suddenly impoverished in the very area that they would have boasted in: the soldier is confident because of his weapons; the affluent are confident in their ability to provide; the mother is confident in her fertility and family. But notice that the word order here has even reversed. The first two word pictures start with the strong (the mighty…the full) and end with the weak (the feeble…the hungry) as they recount their reversals. But by the third word picture, even the arrangement of the word pictures itself has reversed—the barren woman is mentioned first, the “mother of many” last. It's a clever way to depict the totality of the reversal God is bringing. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
But consider what an amazing disclosure to us of what the heart of God is. It is His holiness that Hannah emphasizes here that opposes the strong, and is drawn to the weak. We may think that because the holiness of God means that God is strong and righteous and good (and He is!), that He only wants to spend time with those who are strong and righteous and good. That was the mistake that the Pharisee made in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted,” (Luke 18:10-14).
This is a humbling warning to us and a wonderful comfort. If we take refuge in our strength, even our own morality or spirituality, and think it will serve as an impressive resume for which we will earn God’s eye, we are mistaken. We are like the pretty woman who tries to impress a man with her dazzling smile, unaware that there are chunks of food stuck to her teeth. The more she smiles, the more He backs away. But if we simply admit our weakness and need, He is there to bind up, to heal, to aid, to give grace. God doesn’t need your clout or influence or righteousness—He needs your honesty, your humble, simple honest admission of need. This is our God—opposing the proud, but giving grace to the humble. The holiness of God humbles the proud.
Surprising Reversal #2: The Sovereignty of God is Displayed in Exalting the Weak
The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
- 1 Sam 2:6-8b
Here Hannah reflects on the sovereignty of God and His total control over the affairs of men. From life to death, poverty to wealth, lowliness to exaltation—all of it comes from the providential hand of the Lord. He is the one who puts individuals in their station, determines their lot, portions to them their life. This is why the proud ought not boast in their position. The providence of the Lord has led them to where they are, not their might or skill. This was the problem of King Nebuchadnezzer, ““Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will,” (Dan 4:30-32).
Like a child bragging about how good he is at drawing because he colored in the picture that mom drew, it is foolish for man to boast in his station. When you drive by a homeless person and think, If it were me, I’d never be there; I’d make better choices, be careful lest you functionally deny what verses 6-7 are telling us. You didn’t do anything to choose what family you were born into, what genes you had, or what was done to you at a child. Who knows what may have happened had you been given the same lot.
But notice what Hannah emphasizes in verse 8: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” God uses His sovereign power to exalt the lowly. The “dust” of the poor is an image of total destitution. He has no home, no possessions, no security—just dust. The “ash heap” is likely a reference to the ashes that one mourning the death of a loved one would cast upon their head as they grieved. And it is from these low, modest, and impoverished places that God raises up a king. God is scraping the bottom of the barrel. God choses the weak.
The seat of honor: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” (Rev 3:21).
Surprising Reversal #3: The Judgment of God Used to Preserve the Faithful
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S,
and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
- 1 Sam 2:8c-10a
Verse 8 is using a poetic image of God setting the earth upon stilts to hold it up. It is an artistic way to reference God as the creator of this world. And as the Creator, God has all authority over His creation. And God uses this authority to judge the whole earth. In each of these three movements we have seen Hannah lift our eyes up to the transcendent nature of God: He is holy, He is sovereign, and He is the Creator with all authority to judge. But in each one we see that this high and holy God is not a distant, indifferent God. Rather, He is intimately involved in human affairs, and is actively committed to His people’s good. Here we are told that He guards the feet of His faithful ones and cuts the wicked off. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces, like a clay pot smashed onto the ground.
Nestled in the middle of that is this sentence: “for not by might shall man prevail.” To the faithful wondering how they are going to persevere in their faith amidst opposition and their own weakness, remember: not by might shall man prevail. God is with you and will sustain you.
To the wicked who think they have everyone deceived and are strong enough to resist God’s judgment: not by might shall man prevail. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how successful you are, how smart you are—God will judge you.
This is a helpful clarifier that demonstrates the timing of all of these reversals. The lowly are exalted and the exalted are brought low at times in history. But those times serves as appetizers and reminders of the final reckoning, when all balances will be brought to account: the Last Judgment. It is then that God ultimately and decisively completes the reversals described here.
“…he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” – 1 Sam 2:10b
This is where Hannah’s song has been going all along: the hope of a king, the anointed. And this song becomes a blueprint for the entire story of Samuel, whose centerpiece is King David. David is the lowly king from humble origins who shatters the bows of the mighty through His trust in God. David is the modest king who doesn’t presume to take the high place, but is plucked up from the dust to be installed in a place of honor. David is the weak king whose life is constantly under threat and who is preserved by God’s help. King Saul is the exact opposite of David—he trusts in his intuition and sense more than God’s, he cares deeply about what people think of him, he is vain, he is intensely jealous of anyone who appears to be a threat to his power, and he is willing to throw God aside if it is expedient. Even in his appearance, Saul is described as being a formidable presence, while David is but a child. But David has a heart for God while Saul doesn’t, so David becomes king. Paradoxically, the path to the literally the greatest station of honor and glory—the king’s throne!—comes through the path of lowliness, weakness, and need.
Which, of course, makes us think of the ultimate King. The King that outshines David the way the Sun outshines the stars. Hannah prays that God will give strength to the king and “exalt the horn of his anointed.” The word for anointed in Hebrew is just the word messiah. The promised deliverer whom David would only prefigure like a shadow. There is good reason why young Mary chose Hannah’s song as the basis for her Magnificat. She knew that, like Hannah, God had taken a lowly nobody like her and was using her to bring about a child that would change history. But unlike Hannah, who only looked forward in hope to the Messiah, Mary would actually give birth to the Messiah.
How does Jesus have his horn exalted? How is head lifted up in victory and triumph? By the lowly path of service, even unto death on a cross.
And His life now becomes a pattern for us: the cross before the crown.
We can be honest—we don’t need to pretend we are something great when God has told us that He exalts and blesses the weak. We can confess our sins our freely and truly.
We can be servants—we don’t need to despise places, acts, or callings that the world says are unimportant when Jesus has shown us that very model for true blessedness. True greatness is found in service.
We can be confident—we need not fear when wickedness seems to win the day when God has told us that He will reverse the flow of human history. The swamp of human depravity will be cleansed with the fresh spring water of the Kingdom.