1 Samuel 31: Saul…died…that day.
He came to a pitiful end. Saul, as a young man, was chosen by God, himself, to lead Israel. His very stature dominates a room. Even strong warriors were willing to follow his leadership. This capable man could bring order, peace, and safety to those under his command. But he’s also a deeply flawed man who could hear the direction of God and then ignore it to do what seems best to him at the time. Also, he’s an empty man. When he rejects God’s authority in his life God rejects him. From that day onward, life drains out of Saul, leaving him just a shell of what he could have been. Now, pursued by his enemies and fleeing in defeat, he meets his end on Mount Gilboa, wounded and then falling on his own sword. Saul’s story is one of unfulfilled possibilities. He had every reason to go down in history as Israel’s first and greatest king. Instead, he dies without God and without hope. He arrives here because of his own decisions. His epitaph simply reads, “A disappointment.”
Take Away: It all starts with our simply obeying the voice of the Lord in our lives.
1 Samuel 15: Then God spoke to Samuel: “I’m sorry I ever made Saul king. He’s turned his back on me. He refuses to do what I tell him.”
God has given Saul explicit orders. He’s to attack Amalek and utterly destroy all life. Saul leads his army into the battle and follows God’s command. Well, not quite. Agag, king of Amalek, is captured rather than killed. Also, some of the choice animals are brought back alive. Now, I’m troubled by all this killing and I’ve written about it before so I’m going to move on to another important feature of this passage. God says he’s “sorry” he made Saul king in the first place. Some say that this is just God speaking in human terms, that he isn’t “sorry” in the sense that he regrets having made Saul king. The reason that they believe this is because taking this statement at face value doesn’t fit their theology. They see time as somehow pre-existent and that God can see into the future. “God knows everything,” they say, “so he has to know the future.” I think that such logic contains a fatal error: that the future already exists as something to be known. If time is a “thing” then, no doubt, God knows all about it. But if time is simply a measure of the flow of events, and if human beings really have free will, then God don’t know the future. Before you drag me out to be stoned, let me add two things. First, God knows what he’s going to do. Throughout the Bible he says, “If you do this, I will do that — if you do that I will do this.” God knows, because he’s going to act, not because he’s looked into the future and seen what he’s going to do but, instead, because he’s God Almighty and if says he’s going to do something that thing is absolutely certain to happen. Second, God could know the exact future if he wanted to. I am not saying that he somehow “limits his vision.” Rather, that if God wanted to force events to flow in a specific way he has the power to do so. However, doing that in the lives of individuals would violate the free will he granted human beings. If you’re still with me, let me conclude by adding that God had every reason to believe Saul would be a terrific leader of Israel and to be disappointed when he isn’t. In fact, that’s what God believed would (or at least “could”) happen. Saul’s failure disappointed the Almighty but it didn’t ruin his plan. The Lord goes about replacing Saul with another king, giving Israel a second chance.
Take Away: The Lord may not pre-ordain what I’m going to do, but he can handle whatever I do.
The bigger they come…
1 Samuel 13: God is out looking for your replacement right now.
On the surface, Saul’s failure seems minor. All he’s doing is offering his own sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel to do it for him. Beneath that, though, is a fault line that means catastrophe. Any king of Israel must rule only as a servant of God. Things are to be done God’s way. From the beginning of Saul’s story his position has been clearly defined. Samuel is the man chosen by God to provide spiritual leadership and that includes making ritual sacrifices. Saul has crossed that line, claiming authority that’s not his. Because of that God is rejecting him as king. Since he doesn’t accept God’s way of doing things another king will be found. I need to remember here that Saul isn’t making a mistake in this incident. Rather, he’s acting with full knowledge of what he’s doing. Simply put, he’s pushing God’s will to the side and taking what he thinks is a better course of action. While it’s true that God is testing him with the circumstance of Samuel’s late arrival it’s also true that he miserably fails the test. The Lord seeks another king because Saul, by his own decision, makes himself unworthy to be king. As I apply this to my life, I see that I must never forget that he is Lord. I’m not free to do whatever I want to do. While I know God is gracious and merciful, I also know that, in my own free will, I can push God too far. It doesn’t have to be that way, but I know that it remains a tragic possibility.
Take Away: If I’m to be God’s man I have to do things God’s way. He’ll have it no other way.
The big bang!
1 Samuel 12: God, simply because of who he is, is not going to walk off and leave his people.
Talk about “multi-media!” As Samuel brings his farewell sermon, he tells them how displeased the Lord is with them over their insistence on having a king. Then, to illustrate that displeasure, Samuel prays up a thunderstorm! Now, that’s an “attention-getter!” The storm scares them to repentance and they plead with Samuel to pray for them. He promises his prayers and also assures them that God can work through the king arrangement. It may not be God’s first choice, but he can handle it as long as king and people cooperate with him. And, even though the Lord’s disappointed in their poor choices, he isn’t giving up on them. How does Samuel know this? He knows it because his knows God. “Because of who he is, he will be faithful to you.” Wow! What a relief! It’s great to know that my relationship with God isn’t performance- based. That doesn’t give me license to ignore God and do my own thing, but it does encourage me today. Even when I’m functioning at peak capacity I tend to mess up. I’m glad for this reminder that God doesn’t walk out on people who make poor decisions.
Take Away: The Lord can work through even our poor decisions if we walk humbly with him.
Vacuum of leadership
1 Samuel 8: They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King.
Samuel has been a faithful, capable, Spirit-filled leader of Israel for decades. Now he’s getting old and some of his responsibilities are falling on his sons. But they aren’t up to it. They have the authority of their father but lack his relationship with God. Ever since the great revival and victory over the Philistines many years earlier, Israel has served God under the faithful guidance of Samuel but now people are wondering what’s coming next. Clearly, Samuel can’t continue forever and his sons are miserable spiritual leaders. So what will they do? The decision is to ask for a king. Samuel is heartbroken but takes their request to the Lord. God says, “Samuel, don’t take it personally — this is about my relationship with them and isn’t about you.” What’s going on here? We have before us a failure to trust God. The people are correct in recognizing the leadership problem. However, they’re mistaken when, instead of going to the Lord and asking his direction, they come telling him what they want done. As we turn the pages of Scripture to look into their future we see that there are some good kings coming. However, by and large their kings fail them, leading to their destruction. How different the story might have been had they come to Samuel and said, “You’re getting old and your sons aren’t the spiritual leaders that you have been…pray to the Lord and ask him what we’re to do next.” How often do I limit what God can do in my life by telling him what I want him to do rather than asking him what he wants me to do?
Take Away: The Lord is willing to work with us; to hear our requests. The wiser route though, is to seek his will first.
The God of Second Chances
Judges 16: But his hair, though cut off, began to grow again.
Samson, lacking both self-control and common sense, has ruined everything. His undisciplined behavior with women and specifically his inability recognize Delilah for the traitor she is has cost him everything. His pride, strength, freedom, and eyesight are gone. The phrase “his hair began to grow again” is powerfully symbolic of what’s happening in Samson’s heart. As he does the work of an animal, grinding out grain, somehow, through his darkness, he begins to see God. However, a word of clarification is needed here. This isn’t a Samson story; rather, it’s a God story. We aren’t to focus on Samson’s strength or his stupidity, but on the marvelous grace of God. Samson had been raised up to be a deliverer of his people and even in his miserable state the Lord’s still willing to work in his life to that end. “His hair began to grow again” is a hopeful word in a terrible situation. This is a picture of our God of Second Chances at work. Samson’s end is not the conclusion to the glorious story as it could have been. In the exercise of his free will Samson sabotages his own life. However, even when everything’s messed up we find God at work salvaging even this destroyed life. That’s the kind of God I serve.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances, full of grace and mercy, offering us undeserved restoration.
So how’s that “ignoring God” thing working out for you?
Judges 10: They just walked off and left God, quit worshiping him.
It’s been over 60 years since Gideon died. We have short paragraphs mentioning two other leaders who have judged Israel and now, once again, the wheels have fallen off. The word picture is graphic. “They just walked off.” This was definitely one of those, “If God seems far away, who moved?” scenarios. The people aren’t kidnapped and carried away from God. They don’t accidentally wander off. Instead, we see them pull the plug, deciding that they’re no longer going to worship the One who has been so faithful to them. However, that’s not the most sobering part of this story. You see, God doesn’t chase after them. When they come to him in their distress, he replies, “I’m not saving you anymore. Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen over me.” It’s when they repent that the Lord reconnects with their lives. God always honors our free will. He doesn’t force us to serve him and he’ll allow us to face the consequences of our choices. The good news here is that he remains true to his character. While he won’t force us to live our lives in a relationship with him, he’s always ready to forgive and welcome us back into that relationship.
Take Away: We’ll either live in a relationship with the Lord of our own free will or we won’t live in a relationship with him at all…
Point of decision
Deuteronomy 11: I’ve brought you today to the crossroads of Blessing and Curse.
Free will is both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. It’s a gift in that it sets us apart from all other creatures. We’re made in God’s image. It’s a burden because it’s possible for us to freely make foolish decisions, which God will allow us to make, and for which he will hold us accountable. The people Moses speaks to stand at a point of decision. On one hand, they have the route to blessing. On the other is the cursed route. Clearly, the Lord wants them to pick “Blessing Street.” However, he won’t force them to do so. Since I have the benefit of being able to turn the pages of my Bible and gaze into their future, I find that, while there are many “blessing stories” yet to be told, there are plenty of the others too; even to the point of near extinction of their race. In his Sovereignty the Lord grants Israel the right to choose. By his grace they’ve arrived at this place of choice and by his grace they’re allowed to decide the next step. However, their choice at this point isn’t without consequences. Some of those consequences are good, others bad. The ability to choose is a gift of God but it’s also a burden because choices have consequences.
Take Away: The exercise of free will can bring wonderful blessings into our lives. It can also be our downfall.
Numbers 14: In this wilderness they will come to their end. There they will die.
It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? God brings them out of Egypt, cares for them and leads them to the land he’s promised. Then, when they’re afraid of the giants of Canaan he dumps them. It sounds unfair; but it isn’t. Here’s what’s happening: he’s giving them their own way. They don’t want to listen to the pleading and encouraging word of Caleb and Joshua, they don’t want to follow the lead of Moses, and they don’t want to trust God. So God says, “Okay.” If they prefer to go back into the wilderness he’ll let them go. The result will be tragic, their bones scattered across the desert. But if they insist, he’ll let them have it their way. Even here there’s grace. Manna will continue to fall, their clothes won’t wear out, and God will still be their God. The words quoted above aren’t a death sentence. Rather, they’re a statement of reality. The Lord will patiently wait until these decision-makers have died off and then give the same command and make the same offer to their children. Passages like this define both free will and grace. On one hand, God won’t force us to obey him. On the other, he’ll never stop working in our lives, patiently calling us to himself and to his purposes for us.
Take Away: The Lord won’t negate our free will, even for our own good.
“Does not work well with others.”
Exodus 7: Pharaoh is not going to listen to you
For a true blue “free-willer” like me, Pharaoh’s role in the Exodus is somewhat troubling. Before Moses and Aaron ever meet with him the Lord promises that he’s going to be stubborn. The reason for that stubbornness is because the Lord’s going to make him that way. That’s not how I see God at work in this world. Instead, I see him supplying sufficient grace to people to respond to his call in their lives if they will. In the story of the Exodus it appears that God not only sees Pharaoh’s stubbornness but actually stiffens it even more to create conditions for a spectacular deliverance. So what’s going on here? On the other side of this “free will” coin is “sovereignty.” God is God and he holds absolute authority over all Creation. The reason we have free will is that the Sovereign has granted it. If I abuse the freedom I’ve been granted I’ll answer to him. In Pharaoh’s case, I don’t think the Lord looked into the future and saw Pharaoh remain resolutely stubborn, but I do think the Lord saw his hard heart and, in his sovereignty declared, “So it shall be.” The Lord takes what Pharaoh does in his free will and hard wires it. From that point on he has no other choice. Pharaoh could have been an example of God’s grace. Instead, he becomes an instrument for God’s glory.
Take Away: It’s a dangerous thing to challenge the sovereignty of God.