1 Samuel 31:1-13 – Warning Signs from a Tragic Life

The Philistines made war on Israel. The men of Israel were in full retreat from the Philistines, falling left and right, wounded on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines caught up with Saul and his sons. They killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua, Saul’s sons.

The battle was hot and heavy around Saul. The archers got his range and wounded him badly. Saul said to his weapon bearer, “Draw your sword and put me out of my misery, lest these pagan pigs come and make a game out of killing me.”

But his weapon bearer wouldn’t do it. He was terrified. So, Saul took the sword himself and fell on it. When the weapon bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So, Saul, his three sons, and his weapon bearer—the men closest to him—died together that day.

When the Israelites in the valley opposite and those on the other side of the Jordan saw that their army was in full retreat and that Saul and his sons were dead, they left their cities and ran for their lives. The Philistines moved in and occupied the sites.

The next day, when the Philistines came to rob the dead, they found Saul and his three sons dead on Mount Gilboa. They cut off Saul’s head and stripped off his armor. Then they spread the good news all through Philistine country in the shrines of their idols and among the people. They displayed his armor in the shrine of the Ashtoreth. They nailed his corpse to the wall at Beth Shan.

The people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul. Their valiant men sprang into action. They traveled all night, took the corpses of Saul and his three sons from the wall at Beth Shan, and carried them back to Jabesh and burned off the flesh. They then buried the bones under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted in mourning for seven days. (The Message)

Life is a process. Rarely does anything happen instantly. Human growth, maturation, life, and death unfold over years. So, a major life issue is attending to what process are we given to – a process which allows for human thriving – or a process that causes a failure to thrive.

King Saul sadly gave himself to a downward spiral of jealousy, paranoia, and poor decisions. His end was tragic. Yet perhaps we might learn some lessons in the form of warnings. Let’s consider the life of Saul as a cautionary tale, heeding us to avoid his foibles and pitfalls.

Unfortunately, Saul made deliberate choices in his life which led to his ignominious death. In fact, Scripture makes it plain that Saul died because of unfaithfulness:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the Lord. So, the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14, NIV)

Premeditated, deliberate, conscious wrongdoing can only expect a predictable process of moral failure and divine judgment. Consider some observations from Saul’s life so that we will be kept from going down his path of destruction:

  • Saul made decisions which solely benefited himself, and not the entire community. He deliberately disobeyed orders from the prophet Samuel and tried to justify his behavior with a godly veneer (1 Samuel 13:1-14; 15:1-26). Later, King David engaged in some deliberate acts of sin and disobedience. Yet, David did not share Saul’s outcome because he humbled himself before God, admitted his guilt, and turned away from disobedience (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There always remains the opportunity to turn to God, as long as we are alive.
  • Saul never owned his bad decisions, and it led to his paranoia and warped thinking. Saul kept believing he was okay – and that everyone else was wrong or against him. If we ever get to the point of living with our sin as if it’s acceptable, then we need a prophet to come along and show us the error of our ways and beliefs. Saul had a prophet in his life: Samuel, who was one of the best. Yet, Saul often altered Samuel’s advice or dispensed with it altogether.
  • Saul’s wrongdoing did not always lead to immediate negative consequences. That is the typical nature of sin. It bites, but the pain isn’t felt until later. Saul was rejected by God as king. In reality, this rejection did not occur until Saul’s death. Whenever Saul made poor decisions, he felt gratification in the immediate moment. Later, however, he was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). Conversely, the righteous person understands the principle of delayed gratification.
  • It wasn’t just Saul who suffered because of his own jealousy and paranoia. Other people suffered, as well. David clearly suffered emotional and spiritual duress because of Saul’s jealousy. The priests and the people of Nob were mercilessly murdered because of Saul’s paranoia (1 Samuel 22:6-19). We must be quite careful to avoid being shortsighted about our decisions. Just because we might neither anticipate nor see any negative consequences to others doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Sin destroys, period, whether we know it, or not.
  • Saul’s identity and worth as a person was dependent on his title and position as king. So, when that position was threatened, Saul thought his very personhood was in grave danger. The truth is that our worth as humans is not tied to whether we have a lofty position, or a particular pedigree. Our dignity as people is forever tethered to bearing the divine image.

A healthy life process of decision-making which includes consulting wise voices and collaborating with people of integrity will surely result in good things, not bad. So, let us walk in the narrow path of wisdom, while continually forsaking the broad road that leads to destruction.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

*Above: woodcut of King Saul’s death by George Wigland, 1860

1 Samuel 18:6-30 – Saul’s Deep Anxiety

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
    and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was incredibly angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.

The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand, and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul. So, he sent David away from him and gave him command over a thousand men, and David led the troops in their campaigns. In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him. When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David because he led them in their campaigns.

Saul said to David, “Here is my older daughter Merab. I will give her to you in marriage; only serve me bravely and fight the battles of the Lord.” For Saul said to himself, “I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that!”

But David said to Saul, “Who am I, and what is my family or my clan in Israel, that I should become the king’s son-in-law?” So, when the time came for Merab, Saul’s daughter, to be given to David, she was given in marriage to Adriel of Meholah.

Now Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. “I will give her to him,” he thought, “so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.” So, Saul said to David, “Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law.”

Then Saul ordered his attendants: “Speak to David privately and say, ‘Look, the king likes you, and his attendants all love you; now become his son-in-law.’”

They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”

When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.

When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So, before the allotted time elapsed, David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage.

When Saul realized that the Lord was with David and that his daughter Michal loved David, Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days.

The Philistine commanders continued to go out to battle, and as often as they did, David met with more success than the rest of Saul’s officers, and his name became well known. (New International Version)

Anxiety can warp our thinking, cause pain in our gut, and darken our heart. Maybe that statement seems a bit harsh. After all, everyone becomes anxious, at some time or another. Anxiety is endemic to the human experience; it is something we all have in common. Whenever anxiety takes root in the life of a person, it bears the fruit of irrational fear and deep insecurity. 

King Saul was jealous of David’s success in battle. Behind Saul’s personal anxiety was the concern that David was stealing the limelight. It made Saul angry, David getting all the attention. Since Saul was the leader in charge, he continually put David in overwhelming situations where it seemed likely he would fail. But instead of failure, David was wildly successful in everything he did. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson makes it clear David’s achievements were because the Lord was with him. This made Saul even more anxious and afraid, possessing malevolent motives behind everything he did toward David. Even though it might not have looked evil on the outside, in reality, the interior life of Saul was a mess. And it made him plain stupid.

When Saul observed God was with David, it only reinforced his fear and led him down a dark path. In contrast to Saul, David had godly character, developed in the lonely place of the pasture. It led him on a lighted trail toward the will of God.

Genuine integrity is always forged in the secret place where no one is looking. If we are merely concerned for outward performance and/or perfectionism, all sorts of anxieties can develop and twist our sense of reality. Yet, if we pay attention to the inner person, and allow God to create a deep faith within, then we can stand strong, even when there are those who have ill will against us.

Search me, O God, and know my heart.  Test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.  Amen.

*Above painting by Chinese artist He Qi

**Above statue of King Saul at the University of North Carolina Art Museum

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen

1 Samuel 18:6-30

            Anxiety tends to warp our thinking.  Maybe that statement seems a bit harsh.  After all, everyone is anxious at some time or another.  Anxiety is part and parcel of the human experience; it is something we all have in common.  However, when anxiety takes root in the heart it bears the fruit of unholy fear.  Today’s Old Testament story illustrates the insecurity and irrationality that an unchecked anxious heart can produce.
 
            King Saul was jealous of David’s success in battle.  Behind Saul’s anxiety was the concern that David was in the limelight.  It made Saul angry that David was getting all the attention.  Since he was the one in charge, Saul kept putting David in situations where it seemed that he would certainly fail.  But instead of failure, David had wild success in everything he did.  The text makes it clear that this was because “the LORD was with him.”  This made Saul even more anxious and afraid to the degree that he had malevolent motives behind everything he did toward David.  Even though it might not have looked evil on the outside, in reality the interior life of Saul was a mess, and it made him stupid.
 
            When Saul saw and knew that God was with David, it only reinforced his fear and led him down a dark path.  In contrast to Saul, David had a character developed in the lonely place of the pasture.  Genuine integrity is always forged in the secret place where no one is looking.  If we are only concerned for outward performance and/or perfectionism, all kinds of anxieties can develop and warp our sense of reality.  But if we pay attention to the inner person and allow God to create a deep faith within, then we can stand strong even when there are those who have ill will against us.
            Search me, O God, and know my heart.  Test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  Amen.