First Reading 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Gospel Reading Mark 3:20-35
Sermon: “Samuel, God’s Man in Changing Times”
This week I am beginning what I plan to be a series of character sketches inspired by the names and stories in our semi-continuous Old Testament readings throughout the summer; Complicated leaders like David and Solomon; villains like Absalom and Goliath; Folks in very difficult situations like Johnathon and Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet. We’ll talk about true wisdom, true humility and the providence of God, we will even visit a bit with Queen Ester and sit with Job as he tries to understand his situation. Some of these folks were heroes of the faith, leaders of their time, some were sadly mistaken about some very important things, some enjoyed the role of villain, all were very human and absolutely none were perfect. All had potential, all had failings and flaws. In short they were very much like folks today and they have much to teach us (if we have the courage and humility to look closely and learn.) It is one of the marvels of scripture that the sovereign will of God is carried out by such imperfect men and women, yet it has always been so and will always be until Christ returns to restore all things. I hope this series will entertain, inspire and challenge us to look for God’s leading no matter the circumstance.
Our first character is Samuel. Samuel is a remarkable figure in scripture he was the final of a long series of Judges raised up by God to lead the nation in times of trouble. These were folks like Sampson. Deborah, Ehud and Gideon to name a few. But Samuel was more – He served as a priest of God in the Tabernacle, he was the first great prophet after Moses and though unwilling, he was God’s chosen instrument to select and anoint the first two kings of Israel.
Neither Samuel, nor any of us grows up in a vacuum. He was, as we are, the combined product of his surroundings, circumstances and the grace of God. Now Samuel’s circumstances were very unusual, growing up as he did, living in the tabernacle of God – being raised by an old priest with a couple of reprobate sons. But I am getting ahead of the story a bit. First the setting: The time of the Judges was generally not a happy time in Israel. They had enemies all around and had fallen into idolatry and disobedience to the law of God. They were locked in a cycle of Despair, Deliverance and Disobedience. God would appoint a judge, things would get better for a time, but soon, they would forget the lesson and fall back into idolatry and their enemies would return. They book of Judges ends with these words – “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”
Samuel was born as an act of grace by God to his barren mother Hannah. She was beloved the wife of Elkanah, but she had been trying for years to conceive and could not. Once when they were at the tabernacle at Shiloh, she prayed in desperation to God this prayer: “O LORD, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime, and as a sign that he has been dedicated to the LORD, his hair will never be cut.” And so it was that in due time, she gave birth to a baby boy and named him Samuel – which means “I asked the LORD for Him.” When the child was weaned she took him to the tabernacle at Shiloh and presented him to Eli, who served as Priest and Judge of Israel at the time. Samuel was given as a gift to God, to serve the LORD all his days. Her song of praise to God sets the pattern that Mary will follow so many years later when she sings her Magnificat when she is pregnant with Jesus.
Old Eli was good to him and his mother brought him a new coat every year when they came to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Samuel grew up as a little priest in the tent of meeting, even wearing a linen garment and serving in and around the tabernacle. It was a good thing too, for Eli’s sons were scoundrels who had contempt for the sacrifices and offerings that people brought to the LORD. Eli tried weakly to talk to them, but to no avail. God gives his final notice through the young boy. The story of the Lord calling to Samuel at night is a famous one that many of you remember from your Sunday school days. Three times, God calls out the boy’s name and three times Samuel runs into Eli’s room, thinking that it was he who called him. Finally it Dawns of Eli that it must be the Lord calling Samuel, do he teaches the boy to answer “Speak Lord, your Servant is listening.” And so it was that a lifetime of speaking for the Lord begins.
We could do well if we were only to stop right here and note the importance of listening to God. So many times we hardly let God get a word in edgewise when we pray. We need to listen more. If we do we will find that God speaks in many ways – words of scripture brought to mind, the words of brothers and sisters in the faith. The providence of circumstance – when God puts his will right in front of us. These are times when we are to simply be obedient and act according to the will of God. Finally, there are those rare and special times that it seems that we can hear words spoken in our heart.
God’s first message to Samuel was a harsh one. They were words of Judgement against Eli who tolerated the behavior of his sons who violated their responsibilities as priests of God. Like many who have been called to speak for God, it is a hard thing to speak truth to those in authority over us. And sometimes even harder to do so to those that we love. But to refuse to do so is to disobey God.
The story goes on to tell of the war between the Philistines and Israel. After a bad defeat, the elders of Israel decide they need to bring the Ark of the covenant out to the battlefield to help them against the enemy. Eli’s son’s Hopni and Phinehas came out with the Ark. As you might imagine, God was not impressed, the battle was lost, the Ark was Captured, and Eli’s sons were slain as had been foretold. When Eli heard the news, he also died. Now the Ark caused great trouble among the Philistines, causing tumors and plagues of rates and disease. Eventually they sent it back to Israel, where it was treated as am item of curiosity and 70 Israelites died when they went poking around inside it. As a result, the ark was left abandoned for 20 years at Kiriath-jearim, And Israel mourned because it seemed that God had abandoned them.
It was at that time that Samuel steps back onto the pages of scripture, now an adult and strong in the LORD. I wonder how long his hair had become by now? He calls the nation to repentance and back to the worship of the one true God. They put away their idols and met Samuel at Mizpah where he became their judge and led them in pray and sacrifice to God. During that very worship service, the Philistines attacked, but God drove them into confusion with a fierce thunderstorm and Israel seated them soundly. Samuel erected a large stone at the site and named it “Ebenezar” which means “The stone of help.” Samuel continued as Judge for the rest of his life.
It is here near the end of his life we learn a sad thing about Samuel. He was a true priest of God, a faithful Judge of Israel, A trusted prophet to speak the words of God – all of that was Wonderfully true. But he had a failing that he might have picked up from his foster dad Eli. He was a poor father. Listen to the words of his countrymen just before our reading this morning – (1 Samuel 8:1-3 NLT) “As Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons to be judges over Israel. Joel and Abijah, his oldest sons, held court in Beersheba. But they were not like their father, for they were greedy for money. They accepted bribes and perverted justice.” This is why the people asked for a king – to escape from his Sons!
How many fathers and mothers have accomplished great things but failed in the vitally important task of raising their children to love God and seek after God’s will? We cannot and should not seek to absolutely control our children, instead they must be taught to think and act and evaluate things according to God’s principles and in the light of God’s grace. To do otherwise is to fail an essential responsibility from God. Unfortunately, we will see this sad tale repeated many times over the course of the summer. Ironically Saul, who turned out to be a poor king, had a great son Johnathan. David and Solomon were both very poor fathers and their sons caused much suffering and grief.
Now Samuel is displeased. No doubt, part of what hurts Samuel is the rejection of his sons as leaders, even though he was partially responsible for that. Still he has just cause to worry about the path of Monarchy. He rightly tells them that their true king has always been God and should always be. Besides that, he warns them of the expense and invasion of they freedoms if they appoint a monarchy. Self governance, under the rule of God might sound ideal, but Israel tried it for over 300 years and was not able to live up to that standard. They want visible, strong leadership to give them security and prosperity, and they are willing to put up with a lot to get it. Sound familiar?
What we need to carefully note is that Samuel is indeed told to go and anoint Saul as king, but it is done in the setting of a covenant renewal with God. Ideally the king serves as the steward of God. Following the will of God and obeying his laws. That is the way it is supposed to work for Israel. As we will see, it seldom does. We will talk more about Saul next week. He looked the part – tall and handsome, but it will not end well. As bad as it hurt Samuel to have the nation turn away from the judges, it hurt badly when Saul turned out to be disobedient to God. Can you imagine being ordered to go and anoint a young boy to be king while the current king is still on the throne? Still, Samuel obeys the command of God. He would not live long enough to see David finally become king, but his hand was on him at the beginning.
Now, no one surprises God – God, of course, anticipated Israel’s request for a king long before. He had Moses leave instructions in the book of Deuteronomy, for that time. We will deal with it more when we come to Solomon, since he violated it badly. For now I will read just a couple parts of it: Deuteronomy 17:14-15, 18-19 NLT  “You are about to enter the land the LORD your God is giving you. When you take it over and settle there, you may think, ‘We should select a king to rule over us like the other nations around us.’  If this happens, be sure to select as king the man the LORD your God chooses. You must appoint a fellow Israelite; he may not be a foreigner….”When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests.  He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the LORD his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees.” You see the pattern laid out was that the King must be obedient to God.
No doubt Samuel knew how hard it was going to be for the kings to follow such a humble path. Yet such humility and attitude of service has always been what has marked great leaders of nations that seek to honor God. That was the path that Samuel was able to follow, but not his sons. When the egotistical and those interested only in their wealth and power rule, disaster follows in their wake as surely as night follows day. This is the plain testimony of scripture as we will see in the events to come. Of all the kings that were to follow, only 5 got it mostly right. No one is perfect, all have flaws and weaknesses, but humility and the willingness to listen for and to obey the voice of God will cover a multitude of sins. We could do a lot worse than to simply practice what the young Samuel was taught to say: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”