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.
Listening, obedience, relationship
1 Samuel 15: Do you think all God wants are sacrifices — empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him!
Saul’s a failure in the eyes of God. His large army and military victories don’t impress the Lord. Now Saul blames the soldiers; something that doesn’t wash with the Almighty. Then, he says he’s going to sacrifice the animals in a worship service. Pitiful! Samuel has a word from the Lord for Saul. God isn’t interested in how many sacrifices Saul might make. Instead, he’s interested in obedience. Saul said “no” to God, now God’s saying “no” to him. Saul will continue in power for some time to come, but, in reality, his leadership has come to a whimpering end. Oswald Chambers says that the greatest hindrance to our relationship to the Lord is the service we do for him. “Look at all I’m doing for God” we declare, “Surely he can’t ask more of me than that.” He can and he does. Listening, obedience, and relationship: these things define God’s intentions for me. The Lord doesn’t put out a call for volunteer martyrs. He simply calls us to hear and obey. If that means sacrifice, fine. Otherwise, I listen to his voice and live my life in a relationship with him.
Take Away: We’re called to a daily, genuine relationship with the Lord – that’s what satisfies both us and him.
Hurry up, Lord!
1 Samuel 13: So I took things into my own hands.
As we leave Samuel’s sermon in chapter 12 and move to chapter 13 there’s a leap of several years. In fact, the first words of the next chapter tell us that Saul has now reigned for many years. Apparently, he’s doing a good job. For decades there have been no stories of failure. Life continues, securely and peacefully. Also, we see that Samuel is doing what he said he would do and is faithfully praying for them and providing spiritual guidance. Saul handles the day to day running of the country and Samuel’s the spiritual leader. Then historic things begin to happen. Saul’s son, Jonathan, attacks the Philistines at Gibeah and there’s war. Outnumbered, Saul’s army flees and things are unraveling for Israel. The call goes out to Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice. God’s help is needed here! As Saul waits on Samuel his men are deserting, slipping away one after another. Finally, Saul decides he can wait no longer. Crossing the line that has existed between his authority and Samuel’s he offers his own sacrifice. Of course, it’s all a test. Will Saul follow God’s plan for how Israel is to function or will he abandon God’s approach when it seems necessary? His failure’s obvious. I can be pretty hard on Saul if I want to. God has been with him, always on his side, now he’s messed up (royally!). The trouble is that I have to admit that I can identify with Saul here. How good am I at waiting for God to move when I’m under pressure? Do I tend to take matters into my own hands? This is a spectacular failure for Saul. Is it anything less when I fail in the same way?
Take Away: Waiting for God to move may be our greatest test of faith.
Putting out a fleece
Judges 6: Let me say one more thing. I want to try another time with the fleece.
Here we are reading about Gideon and his fleece of wool. Actually, Gideon asks for, and receives, three signs from God. First, the angel of the Lord causes a fire to miraculously appear and consume his offering. Second, his fleece of wool gets wet from the dew while everything else stays dry. Third, the situation is reversed and the fleece stays dry while everything else gets wet from the dew. This is interesting reading, but it isn’t a lesson in how we’re supposed to deal with God. We’re to be people of faith, trusting in the Lord and learning to hear his voice. We’re not supposed to be sign-seekers and deal-makers. The star of this story isn’t Gideon, a near heathen who keeps getting signs from God confirming what he’s clearly already been told. The Star is God, who is patient even when Gideon keeps asking him to prove his own words. I’m thankful for a patient God who puts up with my shallowness even as he works to produce in me a more mature relationship with himself. Generally speaking though, I need to just do whatever it is God has made clear to me without “putting out a fleece.”
Take Away: Don’t press God’s patience – just obey in the first place.
Almost, but not quite
Judges 1: When Israel became stronger they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they never got rid of them.
The failure of the army of Israel to purge the land of the Canaanites is mentioned in the Book of Joshua but becomes a major factor as I turn the page and begin reading the Book of Judges. Clearly, the army of Joshua has experienced unprecedented success. They arrive as underdogs in a new land occupied by fierce and evil people who have superior weapons and fortified cities. This is the home of the warrior-giants of the Bible. In spite of all that these children of ex-slaves cross the Jordan and win victory after victory to become the dominant force in the land. All in all, what they accomplish is quite impressive. It’s just too bad that they don’t do what the Lord told them to do and press on to complete victory. The book of Judges tells the story of the result of that failure. This is far from being anyone’s favorite book of the Bible. It is, though, a book in which the grace of God shines forth against the black background of so much spiritual failure.
Take Away: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”
It makes sense
Joshua 8: There wasn’t a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua didn’t read to the entire congregation.
There’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that the Israelites have just won their second major victory. The bad news is that because of Achan’s sin, that victory was preceded by their first defeat. In spite of the clear statement of the Law Achan’s greed led to the deaths of several. Now, Achan, and those close to him, have paid for his sin with his own lives and the humiliation dealt the army of Israel has been erased by the total destruction of Ai. Joshua wisely calls for a time out. The people gather at the twin Mounts of Ebal and Gerisim and Joshua has half the people turn their backs on one of the mountains and the other half turn their backs on its twin. Then Joshua gives them a refresher course on God’s Law. The blessing of the Law is represented by Gerisim and the curse of the Law is represented by Ebal. Clearly, Joshua wants the people to remember that what they’re doing in Canaan isn’t all about combat and conquest. If they don’t remain firmly connected to the Lord God their future is bleak. Their only hope is to remain on the “blessing” side of things. This isn’t magic. In fact, it’s quite practical. Life works better for those who live in a consistent relationship with God than it does for those who reject him and live by some other standard. I realize that there’s more in play here, but I can’t help but note that the bottom line is based on plain good sense.
Take Away: There’s a way of life that is blessed by the Lord.
This is no way to win a battle, still….
Joshua 6: Shout! — God has given you the city!
“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumblin’ down.” They marched around the city each day for six days. On the seventh they marched around seven times and then with the blast of the trumpets and a shout of victory the walls fell and they charged in to win their first battle in the conquest of Canaan. Who on earth came up with such a battle plan? Well, it didn’t originate on earth at all. This is God’s plan. Actually, speaking from an earthly point of view, it’s not much of a plan at all. Yet it’s God’s way and that makes it the best way. Have you ever noticed that that the Lord likes doing things in unique ways? He uses shepherd boys to defeat giants, feeds people with bread that falls from heaven, and sets up a kingdom by going to a cross. His ways don’t always make sense to me but I’d better pay close attention to his direction. All my plans and expectations must yield before an Almighty God who enjoys doing things his own way. This is a source of frustration and delight to me. I’m frustrated when the Lord doesn’t act in the way I assume he’s going to act. I’m sure the phone is going to ring and the person I expect to call is going to offer me that job I’ve been praying about. The phone never rings, but then someone suggests a different route. When God’s in it, and if I’m not so focused on things happening my way, my life’s about to take a journey in a whole new, wonderful direction. “But Lord, those are real walls around that city; let me suggest the best way to get past them.” “That’s okay, my son, you’re going to love what I’ve got planned…listen to this….”
Take Away: The Lord loves using unexpected methods yielding spectacular results.
Taking care of business
Deuteronomy 29: God will take care of the hidden things but the revealed things are our business.
Moses has been outlining the terms of the “blessing and the curse” for his congregation. He warns them that what happens along that line is up to them. God has already laid out his intentions for them, and it’s perfectly possible for them, by God’s grace, to live up to them all. Still, there’s much they don’t know. Once they cross the Jordan River they’ll encounter new obstacles and challenges. It’s here that we find this shining gem of both a promise and a charge. If they do their part, God can be counted on to do his. Without doing too much damage to this statement, I can pull it out of context and be warmed by its promise. If I’m not careful, I’ll spend way too much energy worrying about the “hidden things.” God says, “You pay attention to the things you know are your responsibility and I’ll take care of the rest.” That, my friend, is a very good deal!
Take Away: My accountability ends with the extent of my knowledge, but I’d better remember that that accountability is real and I am responsible before God.
Deuteronomy 17: Make sure you get yourself a king whom God, your God, chooses.
I’ve read the Bible through several times in my life so I know I’ve read this passage, but it never occurred to me that when the people of Israel demand a king during Samuel’s life that provision was made for it in the giving of the Law. Apparently, wanting a human leader rather than living in a theocracy under the rule of God alone is just human nature. Here, we have the aged Moses going through the worship ground rules with his people and the topic of kings comes up. Moses doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t have a king but he does frame the issue. He says such as desire is the result of their wanting to be like the heathen nations around them. Then he sets up some ground rules for that eventuality. The king must be a part of Israel and he isn’t to spend the resources of Israel in building up a war machine. Nor is he to amass a large harem. He’s to have his own personal copy of the Books of Law that he keeps by his side all the time. The number one requirement is that God, himself, is to pick their king for them. Obviously, hundreds of years later when the people of Israel demand a king these guidelines are only loosely followed. Solomon, in particular, leads the way in building a large army and a large harem. I find it interesting that long before Saul becomes the first king of Israel the Lord, through Moses, gives directions that should have been followed. Had they been followed Israel would have been protected from a lot of the bad stuff we find in the books of the Kings and Chronicles of our Old Testaments. This passage reminds me that God knows what he’s doing and that his ways are best in every eventuality.
Take Away: We always pay a price when we neglect the Lord’s instructions for our lives.
Deuteronomy 13: Do the right thing in the eyes of God, your God.
“Situational ethics: wrong is not always wrong and right is not always right.” “There are no absolutes.” “What’s wrong for you may not be wrong for me.” These are the creeds of our day. Sin is out and self-realization is in. Excuse the poor English, but it ain’t so. We have a Creator who is an ethical Being. He says that no matter who you are, or where (or when) you live, that there are universal standards of right and wrong. These aren’t arbitrary rules made up by some kill joy preacher and they aren’t the result of mere superstition. That isn’t to say that every rule and regulation of the Church is pure and above question. In fact, in this passage I note that Moses doesn’t say, “There are community standards of decency that must be observed.” Rather, he says, “Do the right thing in the eyes of God.” First, that means there are some actions that are always right and some that are always wrong; no matter who, when, or where. Second, it means that God is the Judge of whether or not those standards have been met in our lives. Now, some might take comfort in reminding me that I’m not their judge. That’s fine with me. I have plenty of my own concerns to address. However, it needs to be clearly stated that there is a Judge and each of us is accountable to him.
Take Away: I can’t please everybody, but, for the sake of my own soul, I must please God.