In my last blog post on 1 Samuel 12, things were very historical in presentation as we saw the torch pass from Samuel to Saul, and it was necessary to explain the behind-the-scenes political and social realities that pushed Israel towards the decision that the leadership made.
And equally important we saw the moment at which the era of the Judges ended, and the time of the Kings began, at a ceremony in Gilgal. This week we’re going to peel back the layers on a couple of fantastic God-principles and patterns buried deep within this story that affect our lives on an almost daily basis.
Now this torch-passing in no way pushed Samuel from the scene (even though Saul was elevated), Samuel’s function merely changed. Instead of being the visible political (and thus military) leader of Israel Samuel was now the power behind the throne. Not only had he publically anointed Saul as Israel’s first king but he also made it clear that the new protocol for governing Israel was that Samuel would retain spiritual authority and thus would pray and intercede for the people, and he would present God’s directions and oracles to King Saul.
This role included calling Saul on the carpet (on Yehoveh’s behalf) if need be and Samuel was essentially defining the new function of the Prophet that would be utilized all throughout the era of the Kings. And a Prophet would become as official an office in Israel as was king or High Priest.
In his address to the people that took place at the religious center of Gilgal, Samuel demonstrated not only his innocence and faithfulness in discharging his duties these past decades as a Judge of Israel but also that his unjustifiable removal as Israel’s political leader was a mistake that Israel would quickly regret.
The ramifications of the people essentially replacing the Judge Samuel with King Saul was to reject God’s form of government and administration of justice in favor of one the people invented and preferred (one modeled after their gentile neighbors). And the results were dire, and the people were already beginning to suspect the magnitude of their folly.
Thus with the people of Israel instinctively understanding that there was no returning to the “good ol’ days” of the Judges and that the Lord saw what they had done in demanding a king as wickedness and rebellion, the logical question on their minds was, “what now?” Had the stiff-necked Israelites finally committed the “unforgivable sin” by demanding (and receiving) an earthly king? Would the Lord just retreat from them and then abandon them to their fate?
Let’s read a portion of 1st Samuel chapter 12 to get the answer to that question. We’re going to find that both the situation and the solution reveal patterns that we will recognize and need to apply in our own lives.
Read 1 Samuel 12:12-25.
Verses 14 and 15 carry a familiar tone: the covenant tone. These two verses sum up the underlying conditional basis for the Covenant of Moses by using the standard “if, then” formula. As usual, the possibility of a divine blessing is first declared (in this case by Samuel as God’s Oracle):
“IF you will fear Adonai, serve Him, obey what He says and not rebel against Adonai’s orders (both you and the king ruling you remain followers of Adonai your God) THEN things will go well for you.”
And just as in that ancient covenant the consequences (the curses) for violating Yehoveh’s instructions are next pronounced:
“But IF you refuse to obey what Adonai says and rebel against Adonai’s orders, THEN Adonai will oppress both you and your leaders.”
It is impossible for me to bypass this passage without a comment on a dangerous and erroneous doctrine that has crept into Christianity and has weakened and harmed us terribly; the teaching that says that Christians should have no fear of God since we bear no Godly consequences for our rebellion and sin. And this is because Yeshua has already paid for it all.
See this is the doctrine that says that God loves us so much on account of Christ that He will not ever act against us. God will not discipline or punish you IF you are redeemed, no matter how great your rebellion and sin.
Folks that just doesn’t bear up to what we just read or to the Biblical pattern or to what the New Testament says. Over and over in the Tanach, we find the Lord punishing His people usually NOT with eternal separation (not a cancellation of their redemption) but rather by using God’s (and by definition Israel’s) enemies as a means to punish and discipline. Typically Israel was punished for its transgressions through foreign oppression, but on a couple of occasions that oppression rose to downright exile.
God does NOT punish us directly (I’m referring to God’s supernatural wrath) as with Sodom and Gomorrah; but neither did He do so in the Old Testament except on rare occasion. There are precious few times when we read about such things as the Lord opening up the earth to swallow the rebels, or of His sending a plague of poisonous snakes to bite the trespassers. More often He simply used evil people or the corrupt nations for His purpose of exacting a memorable (and hopefully corrective) toll for Israel’s rebellion (and then in a divine irony smote the wicked for harming His people).
It is no different today. Yeshua died for the eternal and spiritual consequences of our sins, but unless we remain obedient to God, we can and will suffer His heavy hand in this present life. Don’t ever forget the experience of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. Here were two Believers who were killed by the Lord for their contemptuous sins. Also remember this from Matthew 7:22.
CJB Matthew 7:22
On that Day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we expel demons in your name? Didn’t we perform many miracles in your name?’ Then I will tell them to their faces, ‘I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness!’
CJB Romans 11:22
So take a good look at God’s kindness and his severity: on the one hand, severity toward those who fell off; but, on the other hand, God’s kindness toward you- provided you maintain yourself in that kindness! Otherwise, you too will be cut off!
The common saying among believers today is that the Lord no longer punishes us; instead, He just allows the “natural consequences” of our sins to occur. But notice: this is also what happened to Israel in the Old Testament. Israel lived in a God provided and protected state of shalom for as long as God chose to keep His hand of blessing upon them, and this state of grace was entirely contingent upon their obedience and trust in Him (the standard “if, then” pattern).
But when they were disobedient and crossed over some line in the sand (as defined by the Lord), God lifted His hand of blessing and protection and let the “natural consequences” of an aggressive and violent tyrant overcome them for a time. Or perhaps let a “natural” drought take hold, or a “natural” pestilence invade, or some other such thing.
Another “natural consequence” for sin was that while a Hebrew could in most cases ritually atone for a trespass (using an altar sacrifice) many times FIRST, there was a penalty to pay as prescribed by the Law of Moses. It could be paying reparations in the form of money or property, it could be turning oneself over for a time of servitude to the person who had been aggrieved or it could mean excommunication from the community for a while or forever.
Usually, when a modern Christian theologian speaks of the “natural consequence” of our sin, he or she is referring to how that particular sin against God might also violate a civil law of our society. And thus we pay a fine or lose our liberty for anywhere from a few days, to a few years, to the remainder of our lives.
If we commit adultery in America (a sin but not a crime), we don’t go to jail or pay a fine. But the law does see such a thing as a contractual violation and thus gives our spouse the right to legally divorce us (another so-called “natural consequence”) more often than not with devastating and long-reaching effects that can harm more people than merely ourselves.
The best law for any society is God’s Law even though none adhere to it. But in ancient Israel, God’s Law (the Torah) was (at least theoretically) the law of the land that was both the civil and the religious law. So the “natural consequences” for sin (and the biblical definition of sin is to violate God’s Law) was the same then as it is now especially as applied to God’s worshippers.
And by the way, who was God’s Law intended for in ancient times? The redeemed of Israel. God’s Law wasn’t for the unredeemed; it wasn’t for the Philistines, or the Amorites, or the Egyptians. Well, Christians as the redeemed of God remain subject to natural consequences for our sins, as directed by the Lord; it’s just that the atonement for the spiritual and eternal effects of it have already been provided in Messiah. When we sin we don’t have to take a lamb or a goat to an altar but (depending on the nature of the sin and the circumstances), there is as often as not, a real and tangible consequence.
The Lord freely gives us the blessing of shalom in exchange for our obedience and trust in Him. But when we sin to some level that causes Him to react. His natural reaction is to lift His hand of blessing off of us. For our shalom to be removed (at least in part), and thus those things that we had formerly been supernaturally protected from are now free to oppress our lives. You can call this result “natural consequences” as a way around the erroneous doctrine that God doesn’t punish Christians, I suppose; but if that’s the case, then it was also “natural consequences” that the ancient Hebrews faced for their transgressions.
So I guess the “natural consequences” rhetoric (that seeks to erect a wall between Old Testament and New Testament reactions of God to our sin) loses its meaning, doesn’t it? All consequences of sin are and have always been primarily natural consequences.
Now I discussed this topic with you for a couple of reasons: first because I wanted to discredit a decidedly false (but mainstream) doctrine that needs to be jettisoned from the mindset of the Church. And second, because it sets the stage for what is about to come momentarily in the next few passages of 1st Samuel 12.
Starting in verse 16 Samuel is going to give us an informative glimpse into how the Lord operates. He is going to give a demonstration that indeed Samuel is God’s ordained Prophet. And we’ll receive some divine instruction on what we’re to do after we’ve gone astray and when the conditions that have much to do with our lives have been irreversibly changed (and not for the better) as a result of our blatant sin.
- We’ve been unfaithful to our spouse, they’ve divorced us, our family has broken apart, and now what?
- We’ve stolen that car, we’re in jail, and will have a criminal record for the rest of our lives. Now what?
- We walked away from God, sought nothing but personal pleasure and in doing so got into illicit drugs and sex, and now we’ve lost our job, our home, and our reputation. Now what?
But first, for Israel to see how close and connected God’s Prophet Samuel is to God, Samuel proposes a demonstration.
This story takes place in the time of the annual wheat harvest; this means it’s early summer and in Canaan, the rains have ceased and only rarely does any moisture drip from the sky.
Samuel tells Israel that immediately it is going to cloud up, thunder and rain and that the reason he is calling on the Lord to do this is for them to understand just how egregious of a thing they have done in demanding a human king.
The demonstration is constructed around the weather for a couple of reasons;
- First, the ancients believed that thunder came from the gods. The Bible even uses thunder as a metaphor; the idea is that thunder is God’s unseen spiritual wrath in heaven that He is about to physically pour out on earth (the thunder is a warning). So when the thunder happened, it scared the living daylights out of the Israelites listening to Samuel at Gilgal.
- Second, rain usually is a blessing (except when it happens at harvest time, which it’s not supposed to).
- And third, just like in Egypt when God used natural things in supernatural ways to smite the Pharaoh, so it is that rain is not unheard of in the summer in Canaan because they did have the occasional brief thunderstorm. But to have it rain all day, and to do so at Samuel’s command showed the supernatural element behind it.
Needless to say, Samuel had their attention by the end of that day, and Israel fully understood the grave nature of their foolishness and the highly offensive thing they had done in rejecting God as their king in favor of a mere human.
They begged Samuel to intercede for them and to plead with Yehoveh not to kill them. They confessed not only this particular evil deed (of demanding a king) but also all the wickedness that led them to this dreadful decision. But rather than Samuel giving them more bad news or condemnation, and telling them that they can only expect the worse from here forward, the crowd is startled when they hear:
“Do not be afraid.”
So important (and pertinent to our own lives) is what Samuel says to the people of Israel, I want us to read this passage yet again, together.
Re-read 1 Samuel 12:20-25.
Here’s the thing: God, through Samuel, is concerned. That since what Israel has done is so terrible and apparently permanent, and the depth of their evil deed will have such widespread and long-term effect (and the people are coming to realize it), that they’ll only throw up their hands in despair and give up.
This concern is one that many of us in this room, or who are listening, may be confronted with right this very minute thinking: I have done such evil in my life, even doing great evil as a redeemed person who knows Jesus as my Savior, how can God still love me? Why would the Lord still put up with me? How can it possibly be that in this seemingly bottomless pit of diminished circumstances in which I now find myself (conditions caused by my destructive behavior and attitude), that I have any reason for hope? Hope for a better future or even hope for a restored relationship with God?
And here is Samuel’s (God’s) answer to this humanly insolvable dilemma:
“Just don’t turn away from following Yehoveh; serve Him with all of your heart.”
Let me paraphrase this: You indeed have done great evil; now don’t turn yourself over to it. Yes, you have done a wicked thing, but the Lord has not abandoned you, so don’t abandon Him. Punishment is not the end of love.
Humans are the oddest creatures. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve known who either has decided, or were on the verge of deciding, that what they had done now, destined them for Hell so they may as well live like it. They were doomed, and God had disposed of them (and they knew they richly deserved it), so they might as well eat, drink and be merry because what else was there to live for?
Little upsets and angers me more than to hear a Believer (or worse a Christian leader) say that grace didn’t exist until the New Testament era. That statement is either one of utter ignorance of the Scriptures or is itself an act of purposeful blindness or rebellion meant only to fulfill a human made denominational doctrine.
If what we are reading right now isn’t about divine grace, then grace doesn’t exist at all. And by the way, grace goes back to Creation, and we can read about the Lord bestowing His grace when human merit was nowhere present, over and over in the Torah.
By God’s grace Israel is forgiven for this astonishing affront to God. And all He requires is for them to reestablish their trust and faith in Him and to demonstrate their sincerity through obedience to Him from this point forward.
And how is this obedience expressed? By scrupulously following His ways, as defined and already established in His Torah. It’s there for us to read and examine to this very day. Their circumstances would not change, but they could set their hearts on God and be faithful even under these new conditions.
The second part of God’s (and Samuel’s) concern is expressed beginning in verse 21. The concern is that on the one hand if Israel is convinced they are doomed and with no hope, they will seek to replace Yehoveh with the false gods of the region, which amounts to placing their hopes in nothing.
And on the other hand, if they want to stick to God Almighty, in their great desire to show repentance and sincerity they might be tempted to do all sorts of whacky, hollow, and meaningless things that accomplish absolutely nothing. Things that do not add to their righteousness things that do not atone, and are not at all demanded by God.
And the effect of either of those two bad choices is to wind up even FURTHER from the Lord, offending Him even more. And yet, those two options are probably the most common ones that Believers choose when we have greatly sinned, and our guilt has overwhelmed us.
God merely says, “Come home.” And this is Grace. Come home, the door’s open. But you must come back on God’s terms, not yours’. God’s words seem too uncomplicated, so they don’t satisfy our human desire to DO something BIG!
God’s terms are the terms that have always been, but we want to do something new and spectacular. Sell our house and drop $100,000 in the collection plate. Shave our heads, put on an itchy brown burlap robe and check into a Monastery. Pray 12 hours a day. I’ve known of people who have quit their job, left their family behind and penniless, and go on a mission trip all the while thinking they are doing a righteous thing that will show the Lord just how serious they are about wanting to please Him.
Folks, it’s this same kind of misguided mentality that has kept millions (maybe billions) of men and women from coming to faith in the Messiah; the New Testament calls it The Stumbling Block. It is that faith, trust, and the love of God (through Yeshua) that are the only requirements that exist for redemption. Anything we try to add to it just demeans it.
However for the bulk of humanity faith is just too easy and it doesn’t satisfy our want to do something that makes us feel as though we’ve merited our salvation through deeds and expressions of worthiness. Samuel knew His people well and that they would immediately begin to think of many actions to work their way back into God’s good graces none of which had any value to Yehoveh whatsoever.
And you know what? Those ways were bound to look suspiciously like the ways their pagan neighbors would attempt to get back into the good graces of one their gods that they thought they had offended.
So there’s the good news: God is going to conditionally forgive Israel for rejecting Him and choosing a human king to rule over them. But there’s also another piece of information supplied that although not new is humbling all over again. Verse 22 says,
“For the sake of His great reputation, He will not abandon His people.”
Sometimes it is implied by theologians that all that God does is for our benefit; not true. The protection of His Holiness and Holy Name easily outweigh our needs and well-being. His concern is less for the people of Israel (who have knowingly and purposefully violated the covenant and if not for His decision to offer grace); but rather His bigger concern it is to uphold His Holy Name. In fact, Samuel will continue to intercede on Israel’s behalf not so much for Israel’s sake but the sake of God’s reputation.
So in verse 23, Samuel reiterates that he will continue to be an intercessor for Israel because to do otherwise would be a sin added to his account. See this is just another way of saying, “I’m not going to intercede for you because you deserve it. I’m going to intercede for you because that’s the assignment God gave to me and for me to NOT do it would, therefore, be my sin”.
Leaders (especially of congregations) I am speaking specifically to you now so, please hear this: when your people talk in opposition to you, show you disrespect or ingratitude, gripe and are never satisfied you are NOT permitted by God to abandon your post.
When the people you have taught, cried with, laughed with, loved, cared for, and served for years hurt you or demand more than you can give, you must not stop striving to lead them in the ways of righteousness. Rather, you must persevere all the more because obviously your people are still spiritually immature and they need you more.
Easy? Hardly. But perhaps you can look at things another way. If you don’t see the people reciprocating in an appropriate way to your dedication to them, then maybe you can see that for God’s unfathomable reasons it remains your holy job to teach them the ways of the Lord and to care for them on behalf of our Savior. And it would be sinful to do otherwise.