REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 19
S a m u e l
The Lord had granted the people their wish to have a king reign over them. Samuel had made it abundantly clear that it was tantamount to a rejection of God Himself, and that they would need to tread very carefully in obeying the commands of the Lord so as not to make matters worse for themselves. It is evident from our reading this week that the first two years of the reign of king Saul were uneventful. We do know that God had given Saul a ‘new heart’. I speculate here because we are not told, but it may well have been that in the flush of that new experience Saul was indeed treading very carefully, (I have in mind the experience of some in our day, to my certain knowledge, who once came to faith in Yeshua. Starting the life of faith well and enthusiastically, but failing to ‘last the distance’, become distracted, and slip back into former habits, friendships, practices, and lifestyle) … but I could be wrong in my speculation! In any event, what king Saul did after the first two years drew this reaction from Samuel. “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For (by) now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you”. I note carefully the past tense there. “What the Lord shuts .. no one opens!” (Revelation 3:7). But the stubborn king Saul did not appreciate, or even understand, that word.
In order to gain some perspective on the events about to unfold, reference to a good Bible Map would help. The initial action takes place approx. 30 km. north and slightly east of Jerusalem. Samuel had no sooner left the scene, then king Saul’s son Jonathan, engaged in a belligerent act of aggression against the Philistines. The Israelites had for some time been in subjection to the Philistines, who had ensured that the people of Israel did not have any blacksmiths in their company, so had to rely on the Philistines to sharpen and make tools of iron for them. Also the Israelites were thus unable to make their own swords and spears to do battle. Never-the less, Saul’s son, Jonathan decided to engage them in a skirmish, in which he killed about 20 men before the Lord intervened by causing an earthquake. It was at that point that king Saul took his army into battle (without swords) and found the Philistines fighting themselves in the confusion of the earthquake. King Saul had also foolishly put his army under an oath of fasting until the battle was decided. Jonathan had not heard that instruction and ate some honey himself and encouraged others to eat to sustain themselves. In addition, even though king Saul had built an altar to the Lord (the only one we find account of in the Scriptures) it was evident that he had made decisions about engagement in battle without consultation with the Lord. As a result he had completely lost the attention of the Lord, who then stopped responding to his prayers even when Saul did try to consult with Him. Now that is a brief summary of what happened that day. But the consequence of those events carried on for the rest of king Saul’s life. His relationship with the Lord was broken. His relationship with his son Jonathan was broken, with the people siding with Jonathan over his father king Saul, even though the battle that day established Saul as a warrior king as he surrounded himself with strong fighting men. His relationship with Samuel was broken. And “there was fierce war with the Philistines all the days of Saul”. (1 Sam 14:52). But that did not mean that the Lord had abandoned Israel.
It was at this point that the Lord spoke to Samuel, instructing him to direct king Saul to engage in battle with the Amalekites in retribution for their hostility towards the Israelites on their journey to the land of God’s promise. They were to be ‘utterly destroyed’. A well known story. (1 Samuel 15) King Saul certainly engaged and conquered the Amalekites and caused great destruction, “BUT Saul and the people spared Agag (the king) and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed”. Then the Lord spoke to Samuel again. “I greatly regret that I have set Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments”. When Samuel confronted Saul about the mission, Saul claimed to have completed it as instructed, bringing from Samuel that famous retort “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen which I hear?” Reminding me of a famous truism from the Scriptures “Be sure your sin will find you out”. (Numbers 32:23) (And because of king Saul’s disobedience, we meet a descendant of Agag again, hundreds of years later, in Esther 3:1 in the person of ‘the wicked’ Haman).
For many reasons it is a sad story of a man, God anointed to lead the nation, who failed to appreciate the importance and value God places on obedience to His command. There is surely a lesson in that story for anyone willing to learn it. God is NOT reliant on any ‘person’ to fulfil His agenda. But He is reliant on every ‘person’ He chooses to faithfully walk with Him in accord with His plan and purpose. Samuel asks some pertinent questions. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king”. Samuel and Saul did not meet again during their lifetime.
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 18
S a m u e l
The appointment of the first king over Israel.
The faithful and highly esteemed Samuel appears to have made a mistake! When he was ‘old’ he made his sons, Joel and Abijah, judges over Israel in Beersheva. “But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice”. The elders of Israel took the matter to Samuel, presumably dismayed at the injustices they could see taking place, and sought Samuel’s support in appointing a ‘king’ to assume authority over them instead of ‘judges’. Samuel prayed, and perhaps to his surprise, the LORD told Samuel to “heed the voice of the people”. But, also to “solemnly forewarn” the people what behaviour they could expect of a king who might rule over them. It was a description of complete selfishness.*(see comments in penultimate paragraph) But the people wanted to be ruled in the manner of other nations around them …. and God told Samuel to appoint them a king.
Saul, a Benjamite, was head and shoulders taller than his kinsmen, and a very good looking fellow. His father, Kish, had lost some donkeys and sent Saul and a servant out to look for them. They travelled widely around the countryside but could not locate the donkeys. Read the story in chapter 9 of our text. Saul went to the city where Samuel (whom he had heard of as a seer) was attending a festival, to consult with him about the donkeys. As soon as they met, the Lord spoke to Samuel saying “There he is, the man of whom I spoke to you. This one shall reign over My people”.
It was an amazing encounter. When they met, Samuel told Saul that they would dine together that evening and meet again the next day, at which time Samuel would tell Saul all that was in his heart. Furthermore, almost as a ‘by the way’, Samuel said “But as for your donkeys which were lost three days ago, do not be anxious about them, for they have been found”. There was no hint that Saul even mentioned the donkeys! The next morning as Saul and his servant were about to leave, Samuel took Saul aside and anointed his head with oil and kissed him .. a sign of great honour. “Because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance”. Then Samuel told Saul a number of things that would occur as he journeyed back to his home.
First a meeting with two men at the site of the tomb of Rachel just outside Bethlehem, who would announce that the lost donkeys had been found. Next, as they continued their journey they would meet three men in an oak grove, who were on their way to Bethel to worship God. Those men would share their food with Saul and his servant. After that, another encounter with a group of men praising God with singing and musical instruments. Samuel told Saul that he too would join them in praising and worshipping God “and be turned into another man, “And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you”. The Spirit of the Lord would be Saul’s guide as he continued his journey. Finally, Samuel instructed Saul to proceed on down to Gilgal (where the Israelites had camped when first entering the land). There Samuel would join him one week later and let him know what he should do next. “So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day”. There was an evident, immediate, change in Saul’s behaviour such as was noticed by all who knew him. On being questioned, Saul told them about his meeting with Samuel and the donkeys, “but about the matter of the kingdom, he did not tell them what Samuel had said”.
Samuel convened another convocation of all the people at Mizpah. He reminded them of all the Lord had done for their forefathers and for them, but did not refrain from also telling them that in asking for a king, they were effectively rejecting the will of God for them. Never-the less, as the tribes were presented before Samuel, by some process of elimination. Saul, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, was chosen and announced to be their new king. But Saul was evidently a reluctant candidate, and was no-where in sight. Ironically, it was the Lord Himself who told them where he was hiding from them! Samuel said “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is no-one like him among all the people”. The tall handsome Saul stood before them. “So all the people shouted and said ‘Long live the king’.” “Then Samuel explained to the people the behaviour of royalty”. How did Samuel know? The Lord had carefully explained these things to Moses, and caused him to write it in a book. Samuel had diligently read that book, and probably committed much of it to memory. It’s NOT a secret. That book is readily available to us today. The relevant section is Deuteronomy 17:14-20. *(It is nothing like the descriptor quoted earlier in this ‘reflection’. In fact it was written specifically to avoid such a person being selfish and detached). But that did not mean that there weren’t those among them who were unsupportive of the new king.
Saul seemed to be somewhat reluctant initially to assume his position as king and that drew a certain boldness among the enemies of Israel, specifically the Ammonites. The consequence was that Saul became emboldened and led the people into a victorious battle against the Ammonites. But throughout all this, Samuel continued, into his old age, acting as a check and a balance on Saul as he began his reign as king, encouraging the people to remain faithful to the Lord. “For the LORD will not forsake His people, for His great name’s sake, for it has pleased the LORD to make you His people”.
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 17
S a m u e l
We ended last week with “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel”.
Samuel was appointed God’s prophet. ALL Israel recognised the authority with which Samuel spoke. His word became synonymous with God’s word, the same way that, centuries earlier, Moses’ word was received. BUT, Eli was still alive as ‘judge’ over Israel, albeit almost 100 years old. And his sons Hophni and Phineas, were still acting corruptly as priests. The dark cloud that covered Israel had not yet departed. In yet another battle with the Philistines, Israel lost another 4000 men. So in a futile attempt to somehow gain favour with the LORD, they went to the tabernacle at Shiloh. The corrupt and self serving Hophni and Phineas, in an act of reckless tokenism, took the Ark of the Covenant into the battlefield against the Philistines. 30,000 more Israelites, including Hophni and Phineas, died there. Furthermore, when news of the death of his sons reached Eli, both he, and his daughter-in-law died. To cap it all off, the Ark was captured by the Philistines. What a disaster for Israel. And as the story unfolds, an even more disastrous outcome for the Philistines!! And the Ark of the Covenant was never returned to the tabernacle at Shiloh! (Such a monumental event that Yeshua made reference to it when He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem centuries later (Matt 21:13, Mk 11:17) as He recalled the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 56:7 ‘house of prayer’) and Jeremiah (Jer 7:11,12 ‘den of thieves’. And not many years later the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed too.) There is a lesson here in the root cause for this. The casual, or even reckless abandonment or contempt, by those who are called by His name, to observe, with reverential fear, the commandments of God. We live in days in which sincere believers demonstrate similar traits. “The Torah of God is obsolete” we often hear within the ‘believing’ community. Or “Jesus kept the commandments so we do not have to” is another. Hebrews 8:13 (becoming obsolete) is usually quoted in support of this. Or worse, we just trustfully repeat the words of others who conveniently neglect the fact that the text refers to the ‘covenant’ (agreement) NOT to the Torah (instructions). The remedy? Study the Scriptures for yourself.
The Philistines were an immigrant (from Crete) gentile group who had settled in the coastal areas of Canaan. They had embraced “Dagon”, the Syrian and Canaanite god of agriculture, as their god, and set up temples to his worship in Gaza (destroyed by Samson) and Ashdod. It was in the temple at Ashdod that they put the captured Ark of the Covenant. The next morning the people who gathered at that temple were alarmed to see the statue of “Dagon”, with head and arms broken off, prostrate on the ground next to the Ark. At the same time, the people of Ashdod were plagued with ‘tumours’ (thought by some to be haemeroids). The Ark remained in Philistine hands for seven months, being moved from city to city, and wherever it was taken, the people were plagued by the ‘tumours’. And many others who did not suffer the ‘tumours’ died. So it was that the Philistine hierarchy called upon their priests and sages for advice about what they should do. Read the story in chapter 6 of our text. It is a story of miracles. An ox cart, drawn by cows who had left their calves (against all that is natural) and headed directly back to the Israelites at Beth Shemesh. The curiosity of the men of Beth Shemesh, who could not resist looking inside the Ark, cost 50,070 of them their lives! How many times do we need to be reminded ? “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. (Hebrews 10:31)
Well, it certainly got the attention of the Israelites on this occasion. The Ark was taken to Kiriath Jearim (a town founded by Shobal, descendant of Caleb, on the border of Judah and Benjamin north of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 2:50,53)) where it remained in safety, in the household of a man called Abinadab, for the next 20 years. After the recovery of the Ark of the LORD, Samuel spoke to the people. We could learn a good lesson if we considered these words as spoken to us even today! “If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths (the female goddesses of Cannan, principally the moon goddesses) from among you, and prepare hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines”. The reaction of the people was a measure of the standing of Samuel in the LORD’s eyes. The idols, the gods, the Ashtoreths, were all ‘put away’, and worship was again centred on the LORD. Samuel summoned the people to an assembly at Mizpah (it was here that, in the first century BCE, Judas Maccabees called an assembly before recapturing the Temple from the Romans). There the people repented of past sin and disobedience.
However, the Philistines learned that the Israelites had gathered at Mizpah and went to do battle with them there, bringing great fear on the people of God. “Then Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him”. The LORD’s answer? A thunderstorm which so confused the Philistines that they were completely overcome. The text is not explicit on this, but I speculate that it was a violent thunderstorm that was NOT heard by the Israelites. Such is my consideration of the mighty God we serve! “And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel”. In addition to that, the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to them.
Samuel enjoyed the favour of the Lord all the days of his life. “He went from year to year on a circuit to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judged Israel in all those places. But he always returned to Ramah, for his home was there”.
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 16
S a m u e l
Eli was the ‘judge’ who followed Samson for the next 40 years. We learned last week that he was also High Priest. That did not stop him from compromising his office by failing to bring his wayward sons Hophni and Phineas, also priests, under correction for their corrupt behaviour. Their damning description? “Now the sons of Eli were corrupt, they did not know the LORD”. Eli should have known how his sons were ‘mocking’ God in respect of the sacrifices the people brought before the LORD. He seemed not to know, and even when he was told, all he did was, proverbially, “slap them on the wrist with a wet lettuce”. God’s view was very different. Speaking to Eli, He said “Why do you kick at My sacrifices and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honour your sons more than Me ?” There is a valuable lesson here. There are obviously two views of this situation. The first is the view of Hophni and Phineas, who treated violation of God given instructions, in this case of sacrifice, in a casual and self serving manner. Along with that is the reaction of Eli, who did not grasp the gravity of what was taking place before his eyes, and for which he had the ultimate responsibility. The second is the view of God, who issued those instructions. Just read on a few verses in our text! “Therefore the LORD God of Israel says: ‘I said indeed that the house of your father would walk before Me forever.’ But now the LORD says: ‘Far be it from Me; for those who honour Me I will honour, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed’”. No-where in the Scriptures will you find that God has abrogated ANY of His instructions for righteous living.
Am I ‘honoured’ or ‘lightly esteemed’ by God? Selah!
The period of the ‘judges’ of Israel, which had prevailed for the previous few hundred years, draws to an end. Samuel, the last ‘judge’, was also a prophet of God, and Samuel was the one God chose to bring about the transition of leadership of Israel from ‘judges’ to ‘kings’. The Books of Samuel and Kings, originally each a single book, were both divided into two books at the time the Septuagint, (Hebrew Scriptures written in Greek), also known as LXX. It was written, from about 270 BCE to 150 BCE, essentially describing the next 600 years or so of the political history of the kings of Israel. In the fulness of time, under King David, Israel became a united kingdom. But after the death of King Solomon, Israel was divided again into the two kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Books of the Chronicles cover the same ground as 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings but from a more spiritual perspective, and we will make appropriate reference to the Chronicles as we proceed in our ‘reflections’ on that history.
The interesting story of Samuel’s birth is told in the opening chapter of our reading. Elkanah had two wives, one of whom, Hannah, was ‘barren’. She had possibly heard the story of Samson’s miraculous birth, and pleaded with the LORD for a child of her own. She promised that if that child were male, he, like Samson, would be offered in the LORD’s service as a Nazarite for his lifetime. Eli saw Hannah praying, her lips moving but no sound coming from her. Eli comforted Hannah by telling her that her petition would be granted by the LORD. And it was. She named the baby Samuel (which means ‘Asked of God’.) Evidently, Elkanah had joined his wife Hannah in her vow to the LORD and on his next annual visit to Shiloh offered sacrifice to the LORD, and he confirmed that vow (the LORD also blessed her with 3 more sons and 2 daughters later). In the fulness of time, when Samuel was old enough, he was taken to Shiloh and left with Eli to be taught in the matters of serving the LORD. His mother made him miniature priestly garments, but as an Ephraimite, he would not be permitted to serve in the tabernacle.
“And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation”. The LORD spoke clearly to Samuel as he prepared to sleep one evening. That was the moment when God appointed the young Samuel as His prophet."So Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his (Samuel’s) words fall to the ground, and all Israel from Dan to Beersheva knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the LORD”. That is truly amazing. The seeds of unity of the people around a prophet of the LORD. But what follows provides one of the best lessons any believer could ever learn from this passage of Scripture. Note it carefully. “Then the LORD appeared again in Shiloh”. The suggestion here is that the LORD had absented Himself from the people during their time of rebellion against Him. But there is MORE. “For the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the LORD”. That verse leaps out of the page for me. I have had a very personal experience of the LORD speaking directly to me through His written word. It is probable that most of us have. That is why this lesson is so vital for us today. God speaks directly through His word. God’s word is trustworthy. Many believers falter in their faith by neglect of His word. As indeed had the Israelites in our text. There are those in our community today who claim that the LORD has spoken ‘thus and thus’ to them. Well, there is a simple test of the efficacy of that ‘word’. Does that ‘word’ accord with what God has already written? If not, treat that word, and the proclaimer, with extreme caution. Our text continues “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel”. God’s man for God’s time. God speaks to those who speak to Him! And He always speaks to those who diligently seek Him in His word.