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.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

Samuel Anoints David as King, Syrian Orthodox Church, 3rd Century C.E.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (NIV)

Solitude by Polish artist Piotr Dura

Appearances can be deceiving. One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord. The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity. It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

1 Samuel 3:1-21 – Speak, Lord, for I Am Listening

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So, he went and lay down.

Again, the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So, Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time, I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

“What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything that he told you.” So, Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (NIV)

Old Testament stories are typically arranged in such a way that we can perceive clear contrasts between the good guy and the bad guy. In our lesson today, Samuel is the good guy and Eli the bad guy. The contrast between them are two different ways of being quiet.

On the one hand we have the boy Samuel, who took a posture of listening. Samuel was quiet and heard the voice of the Lord. He responded with few words, with a spirit of listening. Eli the old priest, on the other hand, was also quiet, but for all the wrong reasons. Eli’s sons were also priests. They received sacrifices from God’s people and deliberately mishandled their responsibility. The sons cared not a whit for what the Lord really wanted. Eli knew what his sons were doing, and he was eerily quiet about their gross negligence as priests.

There is a time for everything – a time to speak and a time to be quiet. And when being quiet is required, it is for the purpose of listening. Listening seems a lost art and a forgotten ability in our day and age. People can be so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is neither valued nor cherished.  However, God puts a premium on listening.

“A person who talks too much gets into trouble. A wise person learns to be quiet.”

Proverbs 10:19, ERV

One of the reasons the art of listening is not well-practiced is that we esteem busyness over taking the time for silence. We cannot seem to slow down enough to listen. Yet, if we are to hear the voice of God, we must be still and silent long enough to listen to what the Spirit is trying to say to us.

We might be uncomfortable with silence and seek to fill any quiet space with noise to not have to deal with what is really going on inside of us. I once attended a ministerial retreat. One of the pastors I got to know was a church planter in an urban ministry. He grew up in a large family in the inner city. And he talked – a lot! He was a beehive of words and constant locomotion. During our lunch together, the retreat host made a pronouncement: Beginning after the meal, there was to be absolutely no talking until lunch the next day. There was to be a full twenty-four hours of total silence.

Some might think this was some sort of punishment. But that line of thinking exposes how much words and noise mean to us. The sole purpose of the silence was to put us in a position for listening to God. As you might imagine, my church planter friend had a difficult time. When we broke the silence the next day, he confessed he had never in his entire life been quiet for more than fifteen minutes. However, here is what he said about his time of silence: 

“Those twenty-four hours of silence were the loudest hours I have ever experienced. My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that when night came it nearly drove me nuts. But in the morning, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.” 

This wonderful brother went back to his church a different pastor, determined to sit still long enough and be quiet long enough to hear what God wanted for his life and work.

If we want to hear God speak to us, we must take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, be quiet and listen. Any fool can babble on about their gripes and opinions. But the wise person discerns that talking is overrated. Silence, solitude, listening, and learning were the virtues practiced by Jesus. The kingdom of God comes to earth when those ideals are cherished.

Another reason we might not value listening is that we do not want to hear what God is saying. After all, it might not be something we would like to hear. Old Eli did not get good news from Samuel’s listening to the Lord. Yet here is where words are to follow listening. When we take the time to listen to God, we must do and say what God tells us to do and speak. And that can be scary. 

I would like you to do something: Take ten minutes every day for the next week to do nothing but sit in silence for the purpose of listening. Begin your time with Samuel’s phrase: “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.”  Then, be quiet, and listen. Pay attention to what is going on inside of you. Meditate on that phrase, or another Bible passage. Afterwards, take a few moments to write down how you felt during the time, and any insights you discovered.

Loving God, we admit to being uncomfortable with silence. Listening is such hard work! We confess to you our propensity of filling every nook and cranny of our lives with being busy and productive, achieving and doing. We admit that we keep looking for you to act without first listening to what you are saying to us. We choose today to take the posture of listening to your Holy Spirit speak to us through your Holy Word. Give us the courage to act on what you tell us. We lean into the faith we have in the Lord Jesus so that our lives may be shaped and formed in ways that please you. Be gracious to answer us and lead us to the green pastures and quiet waters of your sacred space. Amen.