1 Samuel 15:10-31 – Rationalizing Disobedience

King Saul by William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest. “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”

But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” So, Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (NIV)

“You cannot compensate by sacrifice what you lose through disobedience.”

edwin louis cole

God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites (the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and viewed as the archetypal enemy of the Jews). Saul obeyed only some of the instructions, but not all of them. King Saul rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king. God wants no monkey business when it comes to obedience.

Whenever I come across biblical characters like Saul, I find myself trying to distance from them. Yet, oftentimes, when I take the time to sit a bit with the Scriptures, I realize I can have some of the same propensities as their behavior. In today’s Old Testament lesson, I am like Saul whenever:

  • I say I will do something and then get busy and not do it. I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
  • I justify a purchase of something I do not really need but want with the excuse that I put a lot of money in the offering plate for God.
  • I slander another person, even though it is forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I am protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
  • I keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up. I dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with needing to save my energy for people who want it….

I could have kept going with this little exercise, but I got too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore. So, before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with the story for a while, being mindful and aware of any unacknowledged disobedience.

Rationalization is the way of sinners.  Repentance is the path of saints.  Which road will you choose today?

Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions.  I am sorry for all those times I found creative ways to circumvent your teaching.  Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

1 Samuel 2:21-26 – Sin and Sinners

God was most especially kind to Hannah. She had three more sons and two daughters! The boy Samuel stayed at the sanctuary and grew up with God.

By this time Eli was very old. He kept getting reports on how his sons were ripping off the people and sleeping with the women who helped-out at the sanctuary. Eli took them to task: “What’s going on here? Why are you doing these things? I hear story after story of your corrupt and evil carrying on. Oh, my sons, this is not right! These are terrible reports I’m getting, stories spreading right and left among God’s people! If you sin against another person, there’s help—God’s help. But if you sin against God, who is around to help?”

But they were far gone in disobedience and refused to listen to a thing their father said. So, God, who was fed up with them, decreed their death. But the boy Samuel was very much alive, growing up, blessed by God and popular with the people. (MSG)

God is not okay with sin. And that is a good thing. In a world full of systemic violence, oppression, injustice, as well as personal cruelty and callousness toward others, we depend upon the Lord’s inherent character of justice and righteousness.

“Sin” is quickly becoming an antiquated word in our culture. That is likely because far too many persons and groups have created extrabiblical lists of sins to avoid – and so many understandably do not want anything to do with it. Biblically, sin is described as wrong and unjust actions (1 John 3:4), as well as failing to do right and just actions (James 4:17). 

Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity. This is all based in the character of God, as a holy and loving Being. Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether through overt actions of injustice or a failure to get involved in righteous causes, is rooted in attitudes and activities of self-centeredness. Such sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few. There is no upside to sin.

What all this means is that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality as well as failing to live up to being ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. “Well,” you might say, “that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer.” No, it is total depravity. Being depraved does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. We can only live above sin if we are set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. In Christianity, sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). So, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin. The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

The sin issue has been dealt with decisively and definitively in Christ. Thus, gratitude is the order of the day.  Christians ought to be the last people on earth who walk around looking like a bunch of sourpusses who were baptized in pickle juice. Instead, Christians ought to be the most thankful and gracious people around because they are forgiven people. A lack of joy and celebration betrays a lack of Christianity (Luke 15:25-32).

Sin certainly is awful. It destroys everything it touches and can leave terrible consequences in its wake. Sin, however, does not have the last word. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are the decisive blows to sin’s power. The skinny on sin is that it is terribly bad. But Jesus is extremely good and overcomes the worst that sin can dish out.

If only Eli’s sons would have listened to their father and embraced grace, yet their sin was so egregiously intolerant to the point that God had had enough of their shenanigans. The contrast between the Eli’s biological sons and his spiritual son, Samuel, were quite pronounced. Old Eli blessed Samuel and his parents but had to rebuke his own sons. Indeed, unchecked sin led to death, but the gift of favor is given to the penitent.

“Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.”

romans 6:23, msg

Just as Samuel grew in stature and in favor with God and others, so a thousand-years later Luke the Evangelist uses this language to describe the growth of Jesus (Luke 2:40). We, too, can enjoy the grace of God whenever we forsake the heinous nature of sin and live into the way, the truth, and the life that the Lord has waiting for us.

Almighty God, Sovereign Lord of the universe, and Creator of humanity, we, your unfaithful children, are terribly sorry for our sins and the lives we have lived apart from your grace. We sincerely believe that only through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ can we obtain your forgiveness. We confess we have committed serious offences against you in thought, word, and deed against our neighbors. In laziness, despair, and lust for power, we have provoked hatred, division and hurt within our communities. In greed, deceit, and indifference, we have caused serious damage and unnecessary conflict to our brothers and sisters. In selfishness, insensitivity, and bias we have encouraged and emboldened those who inflict hurt, pain, and sorrow
on our loved ones and families. In the name of religion, doctrine, and even of Christ himself we have wounded fellow believers. In stubbornness, pride, and arrogance, we have caused division and strife within your church.

Mercifully send your Holy Spirit and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, restore in us true faith in Christ, and help us to live in peace with our ourselves and our fellow humanity, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

2 Samuel 6:1-11 – Unacceptable Worship

Transferring the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem by Domenico Gorgiolo (1609-1675)

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (NIV)

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote this story wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.  God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol God was present with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and, a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). 

The ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually being the symbol of God to the people.

We have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar to us that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Yet even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

King David bringing the ark to Jerusalem by Unknown Italian artist, c.1500

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it. Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark.

The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance. 

As pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement.  When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done.  Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience.  Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt.  One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. 

Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear.  He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David realized that maybe he took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah which resulted in his death was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us and allow himself to be managed by creatures. The Lord wants pure unadulterated obedient worship from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

So, David took some time to re-evaluate the whole approach to worship he was doing and left the ark with a Philistine. Then, he went back and did it right….

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.