Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lost donkeys

by John D Ramsey

When God chose Joshua to lead Israel in conquest of the Promised Land, God repeatedly told him to “be strong and courageous.” Likewise, when Joshua commanded the leaders of his army, he also told them to be “strong and courageous.” Years later, when Samuel appointed Saul to be king in Israel, he told him, “Be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.” 1 Samuel 12:24 (NIV)

Joshua had learned to serve God by following Moses. Joshua climbed as far up Mount Sinai as God allowed him to climb. There he waited for Moses. After Moses had been face-to-face with God, Joshua stayed with Moses even as the glory faded from Moses’ face. Joshua fought battles at Moses’ command. Joshua and Caleb were the only spies to bring back a good report. The people of Israel nearly stoned Joshua for stating his faith in God, but Joshua did not flinch. Joshua was a warrior and a leader of men. Yet even as Joshua was taking charge of Israel, God continued to remind him, “Be strong and courageous!”

Samuel had been dedicated to God before he was born. He lived his entire life as a Nazirite – fully dedicated to God’s service. Samuel was not a king, but rather he was a prophet, a priest, and a judge. Israel prospered under Samuel’s spiritual authority, yet when Samuel was an old man, Israel demanded that he give them a king.

In answer to Israel’s demands, God gave them Saul. Saul had no experience. His only adventure before Samuel anointed Saul as king was searching for his father’s donkeys. They were not even Saul’s donkeys; moreover, Saul never found them. He and his servant roamed the countryside for three days but the donkeys eluded him. Saul had one positive quality; he looked good. He was taller than his countrymen, and he was handsome. He was just what the people wanted in a king.

Samuel anointed Saul privately but later chose Saul publically by lot. When the lot fell upon Saul, he was hiding in the luggage. He knew what was going to happen, yet he was not prepared to face it. This was not a great beginning, but Saul had some early successes. When the Spirit of God came upon Saul, and he acted like a leader. He routed the Ammonites and secured the kingdom. God granted Saul the kingdom conditionally based upon Saul's keeping God's commands.

Not very long after gaining the kingdom, Saul lost it. Israel was at war with the Philistines because Jonathon, Saul’s son, had attacked a Philistine outpost. Saul had tried to rally the people, but instead of preparing for battle, most of Saul’s army went into hiding. They hid because they had no weapons.

The Philistines had eliminated the blacksmiths from Israel. Scripture does not say by what means the blacksmiths vanished, but the men of Israel had to go to a Philistine city to get their farm implements sharpened. Perhaps the Philistines used intimidation, seduction, or a combination of both to relocate all the blacksmiths. Perhaps they used violence. Regardless, only Saul, Jonathon, and Jonathon’s armor-bearer carried swords.

Earlier Saul had roused 330,000 armed men to battle against the Ammonites; consequently, if he had no weapons to fight the Philistines it reflects poorly upon Saul’s leadership. His complacency was at least partly responsible for his dilemma. Nevertheless, Saul’s son, Jonathon was not complacent. He had started the war by attacking the Philistines. Saul then called up the reserves, but they did not come. In time, Saul's regular army began deserting.

[Saul] waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul's men began to scatter. So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.” And Saul offered up the burnt offering. Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him.

“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 Micmash, 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.”

1 Samuel 13:8-12 (NIV)

Many teachers take issue with Saul’s offering a sacrifice. They argue that, only priest from the tribe of Levi were allowed to sacrifice to the Lord. However, this argument is tenuous. Samuel was not even a Levite by birth, and he offered sacrifices. Although Eli, the high priest, raised him, Samuel was naturally a member of the tribe of Ephraim. No one disputes Samuel’s qualifications to offer a sacrifice. Elijah was also a prophet, and not a Levite, yet no one questions his right to offer a sacrifice. God commanded David to offer a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. David did not sacrifice at the tabernacle because he was afraid of disobeying God (2 Chronicles 21). These situations illustrate that at times sacrifices outside the temple system were not only accepted but also required.

Samuel, Elijah, and David were prophets, but Saul also prophesied when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. Saul’s actions alone were equivalent to men who came before him and men who came after him. Yet God held Saul’s actions against him; why?

When God gave Saul the kingdom, he also gave Saul three commands:

  1. Fear the LORD
  2. Serve him faithfully with your whole heart.
  3. Remember the great things God has done
In a sense, Saul’s commission was not that different from Joshua’s. God told Joshua to “be strong and courageous.” Had Saul always feared the Lord, served him faithfully, and remembered all that God had done, Saul, too, would have been strong and courageous.

When we read the passage closely, we realize that the purpose of Saul’s sacrifice was not consistent with fearing, serving, or remembering God. Saul was not being strong and courageous. Saul offered the sacrifice merely as a means of rallying the troops. Saul did not direct his sacrifice in worship of God; rather Saul directed his actions toward solving his current problem. Saul was afraid because his army was too small to protect him. He thought that offering a sacrifice might encourage the troops. Yet Saul’s actions did not deceive Samuel.

“You acted foolishly,” 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. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command.”

Then Samuel left Gilgal and went up to Gibeah in Benjamin, and Saul counted the men who were with him. They numbered about six hundred.

1 Samuel 13:13-15 (NIV)

Saul’s losing the kingdom had very little to do with his actions and very much to do with his attitudes. If Saul’s confidence had been in God rather than in his own meager army, he would have kept the kingdom. Even Jephthah, the scoundrel from Judges 11 became a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11 because he had confidence in God. Saul, too, had been a hero when he trusted God. Yet Saul lacked the mettle to remain faithful to God. Perhaps the kingdom came upon him too easily.

Saul was not competent. Before becoming king, nothing other than his appearance distinguished him. He never even found his father’s donkeys, though they apparently found their own way home. Yet, when Saul yielded to God, God used him to do great things. When Saul did not regard God, he lacked all the requisite leadership skills to be king, and Israel suffered because of Saul’s lack of faith. We can draw from Saul’s example many truths:

  • We should realize that human leaders are frail and prone to failure. Our hope should be in God, and not in men.
  • God is able to use any man. It is not the measure of the man, but the measure of God’s Spirit upon the man that matters.
  • We should remember our victories as God’s victories. Left to ourselves, we probably could not even find our donkeys.
  • When we become concerned about circumstances, we have lost sight of the kingdom of God.
  • A singular victory does not comprise our character.
  • Our daily walk of faith is more important than the magnitude of our victories.

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