5 The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Mikmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 When the Israelites saw that their situation was critical and that their army was hard pressed, they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns. 7 Some Hebrews even crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. 8 He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter. 9 So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” And Saul offered up the burnt offering. 10 Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him. 11 “What have you done?” asked Samuel. Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.” 13 “You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”
–1 Samuel 13.5-14 (NIV)
At first blush this story seems quite harsh, in part because we can all relate to Saul and his predicament. Given that Saul’s troops were getting especially antsy in the face of a massive military buildup by Israel’s enemy, it is easy to see why Saul wanted to take matters into his own hands, so to speak. He was worried that if he didn’t he would face an unmitigated disaster at the hands of the Philistines. In light of these facts, Samuel’s rebuke of Saul sounds especially harsh.
But this misses the overall point of the story and illustrates why it is important to read these kinds of stories in their proper context. We recall that Israel, God’s called-out people to be agents of God’s rescue plan for a sinful and fallen world, had decided they didn’t want the responsibilities of being God’s holy people. They were more interested in becoming like their neighbors while retaining the benefits of being God’s called-out people. Hence they asked God’s prophet, Samuel, to appoint them a king so that they could be like the rest of the nations.
In doing so, of course, Israel demonstrated a remarkable distrust in God’s love and providence over them. They developed historical amnesia that prevented them from remembering God’s mighty acts on their behalf, especially when God rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. God had demonstrated that he knew what he was doing. He had demonstrated countless times that he had the ability to protect and deliver his people, Israel. What Israel had to do is keep their part of God’s covenant with them. They had to acknowledge God was God and be open to his will for them so that God could use them to bring his healing to the nations. But Israel generally refused and this got them in trouble.
Likewise with Saul in today’s story. The writer of 1 Samuel makes it clear that as Israel’s newly appointed king, Saul was not particularly interested in submitting to God’s authority. Instead, Saul was more interested in pursuing his own agenda and doing things his way. In so doing, Saul in effect was thumbing his nose at God and demonstrating that he did not really trust God. In this particular case, it was God’s timetable that Saul found distasteful. He feared that if he didn’t take matters into his own hands that he would be wiped out.
And how often do we do the same thing in the context of our own lives? Do you regularly seek God’s will for you and yours in the living of your daily lives or do you seek to take matters into your own hands, especially during times of crisis? Too often we humans do the latter and like Saul, this indicates a fundamental distrust on our part and/or a desire to elevate ourselves to God’s level.
To a degree this is understandable, especially if we really do not know God very well (or at all). If we are not convinced that God is true to his word and can deliver on his promises, we likely will not want to bring our hopes and fears to him and be willing to listen for his guidance. Instead, if you are like me, you will often panic and take matters into your own hands. And as Samuel rebuked Saul by telling him he had done a foolish thing and thus done irreparable damage to his relationship with God, so we too discover that same truth.
To be sure, we are not called to be Israel’s king. But those of us who give our lives to the Lord and claim to love him are called to be God’s people for the world. When we do not listen carefully and patiently to God’s call to us, we too will get it wrong more often than we get it right. In the context of today’s story, Saul and his army won the battle but Saul ended up losing the war because he did not submit to God’s rule or trust God to deliver on his promises. Sadly, many of us do not seem to learn that lesson and make the same mistake in our relationship with God. This is evidenced by a static and/or dead faith. We see little fruit of the Spirit in our lives and when that happens, we can be sure that we have acted foolishly, in part, because we think we know better than God.
But when we go to God in prayer and listen for his voice and will for us and our lives, we can be confident that we will live our lives with meaning, purpose, and power–the power of the Spirit living in and through us. This doesn’t mean we won’t encounter stiff opposition and setbacks. We will. But at the end of the day, when we give the general pattern of our lives in obedience to God’s commands to us to be his people and to bring the love of Christ to bear on the world, we can be assured that we will not fail. The world may call us foolish. The world may consider us failures. But the world cannot raise us from the dead or give us life, real life. Only God in Christ through the power of the Spirit working in and through us can do that.
The next time you are tempted to take matters into your own hands before listening for what God wants you to do, stop and remember this story of Saul. Remember too that God is big enough and able enough to help you handle anything that life throws your way. God knows what is best for you. God will give you what you need and when you need it. Let that give you pause before you act. Let that drive you to your knees in prayer, in conversation with trusted Christian friends, and in careful study of Scripture. And then let all of these things help guide you so that you will not act in ways that are foolish or that will cheat you out of the richness of living life the way your Creator intends and desires for you to live.