The prospects look good - 1 Samuel 9
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
When I was a student here in Hull back in the 70’s (that is the 1970’s not the 1870’s!); graffiti sayings were all the rage. There seemed to be an unspoken competition going on to see who could come up with the wittiest slogan. At one time it was ‘OK’ sayings which were in vogue; such as ‘Cowardice rules, if that's OK by you’; ‘Agnostics may or may not rule, OK?’; ‘Amnesia rules, O’; or one of my favourites, ‘Pedants rule, OK. Or more precisely, exhibit certain of the conventional trappings of leadership.’
One of the big questions running throughout the Book of Samuel is, ‘Who Rules?’ In fact that is the main question addressed by the Bible as a whole. When you think about it, it was the question posed to Adam and Eve in the garden by the serpent, a question he has been presenting to mankind ever since, together with the proposed answer, ‘Who rules? Why, you do of course-OK?’.
The Israelites at the time of Samuel were no different. When in Chapter 8 they demanded that they have a king like ‘all the other nations’ (8:5), they were in effect asking for ‘self-rule’, through a king to be sure, but one of their own- ruling like all other human kings according to their own wisdom. That’s the way God saw it, ‘It is not you they have rejected’, he said to Samuel, ‘but they have rejected me as their king.’ The basic sin of Eden and the ongoing sin of mankind is being repeated here by God’s people-treason. The question is: what is God going to do about it? On the face of it, it looks like he is giving in to them because he tells Samuel to listen to them and give them a king-vv9 and 21 of chapter 8. But Samuel doesn’t do that, or seems to show any inclination to do it, he just dismisses the people. However, as we are going to see, God is going to out manoeuvre his own people in order to establish and show that he-‘God rules-OK?’ And the way he does it is simply astonishing.
First, God rules through Providence-OK?
As we turn to the beginning of chapter 9 we immediately wonder what on earth this has got to do with the previous events of chapter 8. As if going off on a tangent the writer tells us that there was a wealthy fellow who who had a Tom Cruise like son in that he was handsome, but unlike Tom Cruise wasn’t a midget, but literally ‘head and shoulders’ above everyone else- Saul. And to add to the mystery and confusion we are told that he was sent out to look for some lost donkeys- tee making of a great story if ever there was one. Well, they searched in this place and that but couldn’t find them. It’s a game of hunt the donkey and the good ol’ country boy Saul, wasn’t having much success in the donkey finding department-v4. Now, what has this got to do with God ruling?
Well, Saul was just about to give up and go home because he thought (rightly as it turns out) his Dad would be starting to worry, when his servant says something rather surprising Chapter 9 v6, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.” Or literally ‘our way on which we have walked’. How does the servant know there is a man of God there? And what a strange way of describing what he might be able to tell them. Not, ‘he might tell us where the donkeys are’, but tell us ‘our way on which we have walked’ It’s as if the servant has an inkling that this journey has far more significance than lost donkeys and what that something is might be learnt from this ‘man of God’ whoever he may be.
But it gets stranger still in verse 7 where Saul says that he has nothing to give the man of God and that they have literally no ‘bread in their sacks’, but, as some would say ‘as luck would have it’ (but we will soon discover it hasn’t anything to do with luck) the young man literally exclaims in verse 8 ‘there is found in my hand a quarter of a shekel of silver’ and we can give this to the man of God. Where did that come from? So here we have what looks like an ordinary dull story about a country hick looking for his Dad’s lost donkeys but which is appearing not to be so ordinary after all. Because now is now talk of ‘a man of God’ a ‘seer’ - a ‘prophet’ and things are beginning to get interesting. Perhaps God does rule OK!- but how?
Now at this stage in the story we still don’t know who this seer is. Saul thinks that this sounds like a plan and so off they go in verse 10. They then have a ‘chance’ meeting with a group of women, drawing water from a well and ask, ‘Is the seer here?’ And would you know it, the seer is coming to town that very today for a big religious festival - v13- good timing don’t you think or should we say ‘God timing’? And who is this seer? It is none other than Samuel - v14. Now for the first time, the world of country boy Saul and his donkeys seems to be coming into contact with the world of God’s people and his purposes which we left at the end of chapter 8. In fact the last time we heard of the ‘people’ v13 who are to offer a sacrifice, was back in chapter 8 when they demanded a king.
It then becomes very interesting- v 15, ‘Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel: “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.”’ This is meant to blow our socks off because it tells us that God’s hand, his Sovereign hand, has been at work non-stop in all the details so far- the loss of the donkeys, the failure to find the donkeys, having a servant who knew of a seer, who happened to have some money in his hand, arriving at the right place, just at the right time. Do you get the message? God rules OK! God’s good purposes for his people will not be thwarted by his people. It is conceivable that these events began before, or at least, during the events of chapter 8. God was already moving his pieces around the chess board of life, ready to declare check mate, putting his king into position. But don’t think that these are the manoeuvrings of some cosmic tyrant, riding roughshod over people’s ‘free will’. This is the kind, determined outworking of a caring King, the kind of King anyone would want to have v16, for he wants to rescue his people from the oppression of their enemies because he has heard their cry. In other words God is personal. He is an all-powerful king who can make the best happen, an all compassionate king who wills the best to happen and an all wise King who knows what is the best that should happen. And yet this is the very King these people- and often we- reject. If that isn’t madness, I don’t know what is. But of course you can’t have a better definition of sin than that- it is a kind of madness. However, the wonderful thing is that while the people may have rejected him, God has not rejected them.
How does God show that he rules OK? By what is called Providence. That is what this story is illustrating. Providence is ‘God our heavenly, Kingly Father working in and through all things by his wisdom and power for the good of his people and the glory of his name.’ We may look at the world and look at the church and what we see could well drive us to despair. But we need to remember that inspite of appearances, God is still at work to achieve his purposes- even using lost donkeys to achieve them! It is not that the devil that is in the detail- it is God and thank him that it is so.
Now there is one little detail in verse 16 and repeated again in verse 17 when for the first time Samuel claps his eyes on Saul; God does not say, anoint him ‘King’ (malek) but anoint him ‘ruler’ a different word (nagid). That is a significant difference as we shall. The ‘K’ word is deliberately being avoided. At this stage Saul is to do what Samuel has doing- being a leader who rescues. In verse 17 Samuel is told that he will’ govern’ my people, literally, ‘restrain my people.’ Again do you see God’s care for us? He knows what is for our best and so his limits are not laid down to stifle our freedom but to enable our freedom to flourish where it can only flourish, within the bounds he has set. A train can only function properly as a train if it keeps on the tracks. It is an odd notion of freedom to think if only we rip up the rail tracks the train will be free to roam wherever it wants. In fact it won’t run at all. It is like that with us.
Which brings us to our next heading, ‘God rules though his Word- OK?’
The story which began with a young man looking for donkeys ends up with him feasting at a dinner. Saul, who is still clueless as to what is going on, asks the man he just ‘happens’ to meet where the seer is only to discover he is actually speaking to him, v19. And with donkeys obviously still on his mind he is told something which must have caused his jaw to drop to the floor- he was going to rule God’s people- he was to be the ‘desire of the people’ v20, and what they desired, as we know, was a king. Why he only came looking for donkeys for goodness sake, not a career move! Saul is going to take some convincing that he isn’t the butt of some elaborate joke, so Samuel invites him to the great festive meal as head of the table. And you can imagine everyone there wondering who on earth this is with Samuel- donkey boy! But of course he wouldn’t be the last person that God would choose to rule his people who would be met with more than a look of incredulity, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son’ they sneered. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ But the climax of this little episode is verse 27, “Tell the servant to go on ahead of us”—and the servant did so—“but you stay here for a while, so that I may give you a message from God.”- literally that ‘I may cause you to hear the Word of God’. It is that Word of God which brings into effect the rule of God because it is that Word which brings about change. Like the decree of a monarch, when God declares a thing to be so- it will be so, as the turning up of Saul just like God had said would happen so ably demonstrated. It was this Word which was going to bring about some remarkable changes in Saul to such an extent he will appear to be an entirely new man- v6. And, as we will see in a moment, if Saul is to be a King he will definitely not be like a king of the other nations because this king will be subject to a higher King, subject to his Word, the Word of God.
You see, even if God’s people wish to give up on him by wanting a king other than God, God will not relinquish his kingship over them, 10:1 ‘Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?’ Saul is still described as ruler, not king, but the people are described as God’s inheritance or ‘possession’- he still remains their King whether they like it or not. And you know what, he is still the King of this world, ruling through Jesus whether people like it or not.
Anyhow, Saul is still nonplussed about what is going on and so a Word comes from God through Samuel concerning a series of events which are about to take place, which act as signs’ according to verse 7, confirming all that Samuel has said. He will meet two men who will tell him the donkeys have been found; then three men worshipping God who will be carrying some bread, then he will go to a Philistine outpost and there he will meet some prophets with full musical accompaniment prophesying (v5ff).
And given that God’s Word is effective they all come to pass-v9- God rules OK? But the one sign which is relayed in detail is the encounter with the procession of prophets -vv10-11. It was as the Spirit of God came upon Saul in power (v11) that he was completely changed, such that those who had known him prior to this encounter wondered if he was the same person- v11- “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” Let me tell you something: the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God you will never be the same again because God’s Word and God’s Spirit are God’s agents of change. And so here again we have God’s massive assertion of his own kingship over the people. If they are to have a ruler, he will not be like the kings of the other nations, for this King will have the Spirit of God and be subject to the Word of God.
There then follows Saul’s encounter with his Uncle Viv or Bob or whatever his name was in vv 14-16 who seemed to have a sneaking suspicion that there was more going on with his handsome nephew than looking for donkeys (v16). But notice that with Saul everything is kept at the polite level of donkey talk. He won’t mention what Samuel said about what the NIV translates as ‘kingship’ but which should be translated ‘kingdom’. God’s primary concern is not with the people’s request for a king, but for his kingdom. That is one thing he is never going to give over to a mere man. And the same is true today. God is not going to give over his saving rule to anyone else or achieve it by any other means but by proclaiming his Word.
And as if to emphasis this point we are back with Samuel and we are meant to notice that even though Saul has been secretly anointed as King it is Samuel and not Saul who calls the shots. Samuel, not Saul calls the people together
In verse 17 Samuel doesn’t tell the people why they have to meet; he just tells them where to meet- Mizpah. And I think for the people the proceedings would have had an ominous ring to them because having castigated the people in v18 for being ingrates in rejecting God, he then tells them to present themselves before the LORD tribe by tribe and clan by clan and calls for lots to be cast to identify someone. That would have put the fear of God into them for sure, because their minds would have gone to a similar time in Israel’s history when something like this happened in Joshua 7, when the whole future of Israel hung in the balance because one man, Achan, had disobeyed God. It was then that by this strange means God had worked through the people to narrow it down to one individual and in judgement he and his whole family were destroyed. So is this to be another Achan moment?
But as the search light became more and more focused and stopped moving as it came to Saul.. he was nowhere to be found. But God knew where he was v22, he was hiding amongst the baggage.
Then he is brought before all the people (note) and Samuel declares in v24, ‘Do you recognise the man the LORD has chosen (God is still King you see). There is no one like him among all the people.’ Now the people think they have had their way- here is someone who is tall, handsome, no doubt able to fight their battles for them- he is the obvious choice for a King- a king like all the other nations in fact. And so they shout ‘Long live the king’. But hang on, a minute who has said anything about him being King? The ‘K’ word hasn’t been used yet, no one has even spoken about a ruler. But such is the presumption of the people they act as if it’s still their idea!
But then we get God laying it down just who really rules- OK? Verse 25 ‘Samuel explained to the people the rights and duties of kingship- or literally translated he spoke about ‘the justice of the kingdom’. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the Lord. Then Samuel dismissed the people to go to their own homes.’ You want to know what ‘justice’ looks like with an earthly king? Samuel had told them back in chapter 8- such a king would simply be on the take. But not with God’s kingdom, a higher standard of justice applies and what that is, which is probably what Samuel wrote down, had already been given by God- (back to his Word again) in Deuteronomy 17 , ‘When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses…. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law… It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left.’ And with that Samuel dismisses the people and everyone goes home- including the new King! Doesn’t that tell you something significant? Even the King is subject to the Word of God - there are no exceptions- he is no better than his fellow Israelites on this score.
So is everyone happy? Hardly. There were some, who are described as ‘sons of Belial’ (as were Hophni and Phineas) who, before Samuel had laid it on the line God’s requirements, had cried out with everyone else ‘Long live the King’, who didn’t want him-v27. Why? Probably because they wanted a king like the other nations. How can someone who, in their view, meekly does what a prophet tells him to do ‘run along home’, ever rule effectively? They wanted a warrior not a wimp, hence the derisive question, ‘How can this fellow save us?’
And things haven’t changed much. While people are more than happy to have a Christ (King) they can domesticate and dance to their tune, a Jesus who is meek and mild, who affirms everyone and challenges no one, who sees everyone as God’s children and sincerity being the primary virtue and judging the ultimate vice, they will not have God’s King who calls for repentance, a recognition that sin must be atoned for and it is a bloody cross alone that does it so he and he alone is the entry point into God’s Kingdom. This Kingdom is lovingly ruled by God’s Word and not the latest opinion poll. Sure, it is only hearts touched by God (v26) who will submit to such a King, but there is no other. God rules OK- and he rules through Jesus. The question is: will we submit to it?
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