Read the passage here.
By way of quick review, last week we continued our study of the book of Samuel by looking at the introduction to Saul, who becomes Israel’s first king. Without spending too much time on recap, one of the things that we noted was that Saul appears to have the qualities that Israel is looking for in a king – that is, he is very impressive, physically – but doesn’t respond in the way one might hope to the calling of God. Specifically, he seems very reluctant to accept the calling.
Now I want to point out that such reluctance isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In fact, we’ve seen similar reluctance in others – most notably, we saw that Moses was both skeptical of and reluctant to accept the calling of God to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt. And indeed, what I’ve labelled “reluctance” might convincingly be labelled as “humility.”
However, I’m arguing that it’s better characterized as reluctance in Saul, and that specifically because Saul didn’t recognize the voice of God. And because Saul doesn’t recognize the voice of God, rather than being called into kingship, he is thrust into kingship. So the main takeaway (at least regarding the discussion of “reluctance”) was that if one is not trusting God to inform our understanding of calling (for example), then it will likely be informed by something else.
Or simply, we need to pay attention to God.
Now I’m going to suggest that what we’re going to see in our passage today can largely be understood in that framework. We’re going to skip a couple of passages in order to get to our emphasis, so first a brief summary:
After Saul’s initial encounter with Samuel and the subsequent drawing of lots, revealing a hiding Saul, in chapter 11, we then see that Saul goes to Gibeah, which as we know he was supposed to do earlier. From there, he receives a request from Jabesh Gilead where the people were being besieged by the Ammonites. The Spirit of God comes upon Saul and he goes to Jabesh Gilead and defeats the enemies
At this point, there is a third declaration of Saul as king, which I alluded to last week. Then Samuel gathers the Israelites together to speak to them. Samuel reminds the people of God’s faithfulness to them since the beginning. He reminds them that God delivered them from Egypt and brought them to the promised land.
Now here, Samuel does something (at least a little) interesting. Normally, we might expect that in referencing the history of Israel, the exodus is the key event. Or we might expect that he would point to the giving of the Law. However, Samuel points to the Israelites experience after settling in Canaan, specifically in the time of the Judges. He reminds them of Gideon, Barak, Jephthah and Samuel – himself (here he indicates what we referenced in previous weeks, that Samuel functioned (among other things) as a Judge).
And Samuel says, 12:12 “But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’—even though the Lord your God was your king….”
So in effect, Samuel seems to be saying that in this latest time of need, Israel instead of turning to God, wants to solve their problem by appointing a king. Now as we also noted before, this doesn’t seem to be inherently problematic in and of itself. We noted that the problem with the Israelites’ request was a desire to “be like all the other nations.” What this passage (the speech by Samuel) may be pointing out is the break from the pattern in Judges:
- Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord.
- The Israelites are oppressed at the hands of a foreign power.
- The Israelites cry out to the Lord
- The Lord raises up a deliverer (judge), who delivers Israel.
- There is then a time of peace in the lifetime of the judge.
Now I would argue that God is perfectly willing to change the pattern (that we see in Judges). However, in this part of the story (recognizing that Samuel does not, and is not intended to, follow the pattern in Judges), the Israelites don’t cry out to God – they cry out for a king. Remember their demand in chapter 8: 8:20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”.
So keeping that in mind, returning to the events of chapter 12, Samuel essentially calls their request for a king, “evil.” And this we have to keep in mind seems specifically to do with the kind of king they are asking for, not the request for a king per se. However, Samuel’s speech ends not with condemnation but with hope and a call to faithfulness. He tells them that even though their request was wrong, they can still turn to and rely on God. And it is in their faith and reliance on God (as opposed to faith and reliance in a worldly king) that they can find the blessing of a covenant people that was promised to them.
Now all that brings us up to our passage today. We are going to look at a few verses, but it’s important to note (as it always is) that it sits in a context. We need to consider what we just (very quickly) reviewed. And we should also consider what happens in the chapters following (we’re not going to discuss those today, but I’d encourage you to read them). Now the passage that we’re looking at is part of a series of chapters that have to do with another encounter/battle with the Philistines. So the chapters following have to do with the progress and outcome of that encounter. However, the verses that we’re reading today are essentially preliminary to that. And I’d argue that they set the stage for us to understand how Saul is beginning to carry out his role as Israel’s king.
In reading our passage today, the crux of the matter in this passage appears to be that Saul did not wait for Samuel, took matters into his own hands, and thus lost God’s blessing as king of Israel. To put a little more flesh on it, we read that Saul gathered the Israelites at Gilgal to battle the Philistines. Samuel was supposed to come in seven days time, but had not arrived. Saul then, presumably because Samuel wasn’t there in time, offers burned offerings (the text seems to indicate that he didn’t get to the fellowship offerings). The relevant verses read:
7b… Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. 8 He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter. 9 So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” And Saul offered up the burnt offering.1 Samuel 13:7b-9
Samuel then does finally arrive. He rebukes Saul and says that because of his unfaithfulness, he has lost the blessing of God regarding his kingship. The relevant passages here read:
11 “What have you done?” asked Samuel.
Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”
13 “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”1 Samuel 13:11-14
Now the text is a little ambiguous as to what exactly the commandment was that Saul failed to keep – at least there’s a bit of debate in the literature about its precise nature. However, broadly speaking, the sin in question is evidently Saul’s making the offerings in Samuel’s absence. It’s this to which Samuel replies, “You have done a foolish thing… You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you.” It seems reasonable to assume that Saul’s actions seem to entail a degree of presumption – Saul doing the thing that Samuel, the prophet and priest, is supposed to do. And this may have echoes (foreshadows?) of the later temple practice where only the High Priest is able to enter the presence of God (the most Holy Place), or simply that it is the priests’ prerogative to offer the sacrifices to God. It might also be reasonable to suggest that Saul’s “sin” was that of unfaithfulness. He didn’t have faith that Samuel (and thus God) would show up and thus felt it necessary to take matters into his own hands.
I think that both of those things are likely true. Saul’s sin, then, might not be a specific action (or lack) thereof, but rather his actions might be more indicative of his attitude – towards God as well as his understanding of his own position (as king). To (hopefully) shed a little more light on what I mean, I want to try to put things in a framework that we might be more familiar with (as opposed to the cultic practices of ancient Israel).
In short, what I’m suggesting is that Saul’s actions seem to me to demonstrate an attitude that God was something to be used, that God’s role was to provide the means for Saul to get the outcome that he desired.
Now on the surface, Saul’s actions may seem relatively (if not perfectly) reasonable. He was facing a dangerous, possibly dire, situation with the Philistines. He wanted to make sure that God was honoured, that God’s protection or guidance was sought, before he led the Israelites into battle – or something along those lines. We probably have done, and regularly do, something similar on numerous (if not frequent) occasions.
However, the question we have to ask ourselves is “Where is God in the picture?” Where does God fit in in situations such as these – indeed, where does God fit in in the story of our lives?
It seems to me – and this is my own interpretation of what’s going on in Saul’s head – that what Saul is doing is prioritizing his own concerns, his own worries, his own goals and ambition in determining God’s position or role in this moment of his life. Saul presents the offering not because he is seeking God’s will or God’s guidance, but because he has his own ambitions and expectations and wants God to live up to them.
So in Saul’s mind, God is merely an instrument or aid to further his own story – the story of his kingship. But God is calling Saul to something much greater, much more important. God is calling Saul to participate in the story of God’s redemption of creation.
Now this is a theme that we talk about a lot. In fact, earlier in 1 Samuel, in the story of the ark of the covenant being captured by the Philistines, we see very much the same sort of thing. In trying to use the ark to ensure their own military ambitions, the Israelites discover that God does not answer to their whims (the Philistines learn very much the same thing).
So again, we’ve talked about this idea a lot so I don’t feel the need to retrace our steps. However, I want to suggest a few things that might be helpful in keeping us on track – that is, in remembering that God is God and we are not. Now I don’t suggest that these are “solutions” to the “problem.” The problem is ultimately sin, and the solution is Jesus Christ.
But our goal isn’t “to get it right,” per se. I think our goal is to trust in the saving blood of Jesus and to be properly oriented to God and His kingdom purposes. Therefore, here are a few of my thoughts:
We need to develop an adequate theology of God. What I mean by that is that we need to seek to understand the fullness of the biblical revelation as to the person, character, and ways and means of God.
Now I’d suggest that there are a couple of practices that are particularly important here:
The first is reading and listening to scripture. Again, we talk about this a lot, but the main consideration is that we need to listen to scripture as the word of God. And we know that we all have a tendency to bring our own expectations, preconceived notions, and etc. to the reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t believe this is avoidable, but we need to actively work, and intently listen to the Holy Spirit, to uncover what those are.
The second thing is worship. As we’ve noted before, worship entails many things, but at the very least, in worship we put ourselves in a context where we are (ideally) declaring that God is God and we are not.
Another thing that we need to do is enter the story. Yet again, story is something that we’ve talked about a lot. We especially talk about this in the context of scripture – that is, story as a particular hermeneutical lens or framework for understanding scripture. However, we also do this in our own lives. We understand who we are in terms of the story we tell or create about our lives (narrative identity theory). And there’s also a field of study that says we are all under the assumption that we are the main character in the story. To put it another way, nobody wants to be a sidekick.
Having said that, I don’t want to suggest that each of us is somehow unimportant or less relevant. But if we see ourselves as “the main character,” our tendency is to relegate God to the sidekick role. We think of God in terms of how He advances our story.
So without going on and on about it, the particular practice that I want to mention is how we tell the story of our lives. And what I want to suggest is that we can practice re-telling the story of our lives as part of the story of God’s redemption. To use a Eugene Peterson type or phrase, how do we get in on God’s story.
And the third thing that I want to talk about is to think about how we pray. Prayer is, I think, the most common way that most of us encounter – or deal with – God. This is as it should be. But what I want to encourage us to do is to examine and think about how we pray.
In particular, what I want to say is that it’s not wrong to ask God for things. It’s not wrong to ask God to intervene miraculously in any situation in our lives. Indeed, I would argue that it’s wrong (in some way) to think that God would not interact with our lives – that God is somehow uninvolved or disinterested in the smallest detail of our lives.
Saul’s error – in my opinion – was not that he asked God to intervene in the battle with the Philistines. Saul’s error was in terms of the relationship. Remember Saul’s first encounter with Samuel? He thought that the appropriate means of interaction with the prophet of God was to pay for his services. And wasn’t he essentially doing the same thing here, with God? Saul presented the offering to God in order to complete a spiritual transaction.
And do we, sometimes, do the same thing with prayer? We treat prayer as a payment or a switch that we flip in order to get God to do the thing that we think He is supposed to do.
And so, once again, I want to commend to you, in our practice of prayer, the importance of listening. And I’m not suggesting that listening – or a time of silence – is somehow a missing ingredient in our prayer-formula. What I’m simply trying to say is that we need to examine what we think the orientation of the human-God relationship is supposed to be. In prayer, we are supposed to encounter God. But how we pray may reveal what we think the relationship is supposed to look like. And as much as practice flows out of thinking, so our thinking can be re-formulated by consistent practice.
Now I went through all of that very quickly – and for that I apologize. My simple point is that what we’re seeing in this part of 1 Samuel is that Saul, Israel’s first king, still does not seem to understand what it means to be the anointed of God. He’s got his understanding of the relationship between himself and God flipped around. And because his understanding is wrong, his kingship is ultimately doomed. Therefore, Samuel says to Saul:
13:13 “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”1 Samuel 13:13-14
But what we need to do is pay attention to Samuel’s words to Israel in the chapter immediately preceding. At the end of chapter 12, Samuel says:
20 “Do not be afraid,” Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. 22 For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own. 23 As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. 24 But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.1 Samuel 12:20-24