Samuel asserts his leadership as prophet, and Saul is consecrated as Israel’s first king.
The Ark finds a home and is safe there for 20 years. Samuel begins to assert his leadership by directing the people of Israel to have a proper relationship to the Lord and that they should serve him alone.
A new time of crisis arises, and Samuel gathers the people of Israel and instructs them in the proper way to defend themselves and to wage war. They are to look upon themselves as holy warriors, guided by and guarded by God. This method of waging war will become very important later in the story. The prophet must be present and must offer a sacrifice to God for the battle to go their way. Not pursuing this path will mean that the people of Israel will be relying on their own resources rather than the power of God. Remember that this is a theocracy, and everything in their lives is directly guided by the will of God. The only way to know His will would be through the prophet. Samuel has become a very powerful man in Israel, but you will see as the story goes on, that he is not all powerful and sometimes has to bend to the will of the people – and even get to the point of living in fear of the King that is to come.
Two things to note here. First is the office of “judge.” A judge in Israel in those times is not the same as a judge in the United States today. A judge in Israel was a leader inspired by God to take charge of the people for a period of time. This person was not a “King,” but a member of the community who had been called to a leadership role. Samuel was considered a judge, and he appointed his two sons to that office. Unfortunately, they followed in the path of Eli’s sons and abused the power that was granted to them.
Because this system was breaking down, the people came to Samuel and asked that he appoint a king over them. Samuel saw this as a rejection of the leadership of God, and resisted at first. But the people persisted, and he eventually went to the Lord to seek his direction. Note here that Samuel didn’t just say “OK, I’ll do it” on his own authority. He could have, but instead he went to the Lord and asked him what his will was. God told him not to worry but to go ahead and appoint a king for the people. Samuel took great care to explain to the people what a king would require of them. He didn’t want anyone to say later on, “Oh, we didn’t know that” when the king started to require things of them. But the people agreed to everything that was to be required of them, so Samuel relented and told them that he would find a king for them.
Saul is introduced to us here. He is a man of stature in the community, but he comes from the smallest of the 12 tribes of Israel. He has the stature of a king, he’s a big man, and he seems to fit the bill. He is also a man who is attuned to the will of God. Note that in this story, he goes to a prophet to seek the location of the lost mules. He is looking for divine guidance and does so in a respectful way. Finally, all things come together and he comes to his fateful meeting with Samuel.
A strange series of events then occur. Saul is coming to Samuel to find his lost mules and instead finds out that he is the one that the Lord has chosen to be the King of Israel. Samuel is at first reluctant to get into the idea of being a king. He doesn’t see himself as the kingly type – but that is in his favor. Neither Samuel nor the Lord wants someone who is lusting for power. So Samuel eases him into the prospect of the things that are to come. He has some private conversations with Saul that are alluded to, but their substance is not recorded. We shall see in later chapters that these conversations will bear great fruit for Israel and Saul, at least for a while.
The anointing of Saul is a significant event, for it is the means by which the divine power is passed to him. Anointing of kings was a common practice in Biblical times and is even continued today. When Queen Elizabeth finally dies and Charles, or someone else, ascends to the throne, part of the coronation ceremony will be for him to go to Westminster Abby and kneel before the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the course of this ceremony, he too will be anointed with a holy oil, blessed by the bishop, and told to go forward to defend the faith. While we don’t have these exact words here, we do have Samuel making a big deal out of the fact that the power to rule Israel will come from God, not from Saul. Saul is merely the vessel through which God has chosen to exercise his power in the world that they lived in. This affirmation of power is reinforced by the things Samuel says will happen to Saul as he goes forth.
Saul is told that he will “speak in ecstasy” and have various other experiences that will confirm for him and the world that his appointment as king comes from God and not from Samuel. When Samuel tells Saul that he is going to have these experiences, many conclude that he can see into the future because he is a “prophet” and that’s what prophets do, see into the future. That aspect of prophetic ministry is really very minor and not terribly well supported in the scriptures. Other prophets, like Jonah, say that things are going to happen, and they don’t. But they are still considered prophets.
That’s because a prophet’s job is not to predict the future, but to speak forth the word of God and many and various situations. Only sometimes does this prophetic work does involve foretelling of things that will happen. But whenever it happens, the prophet is speaking forth the word that God has bought to him/her. That is how my ministry, in part, can be considered prophetic. I’m not terribly good at predicting the future. But when I preach or teach, the inspiration for what I say or write comes from a level beyond me. So in a sense, when you listen to a sermon, you are listening to prophetic speech, spoken in our time.
The speaking in ecstasy is a thing that has troubled many people over the years, as we can see in this situation, too. When Saul starts “speaking in tongues,” to put it into a phrase you are probably more familiar with, the people start wondering about him. Is this a king or another prophet? Ecstatic speech is a sign that God sometimes uses in the Bible to signify that the person is divinely inspired in the actions they are about to undertake. It is rarely used by God in this manner, as he often inspires people without confirming that inspiration with the sign of ecstatic speech. Here he does, and it is an experience that causes wonder in the crowd, much as it would in our day and time. For Saul, it is a confirmation that his kingship is from God. He enters the shrine after the experience and probably – we don’t know this, but can assume – has an experience of prayer like he has never had before. It is such a profound experience that he tells NO ONE about it. He’s still getting used to the idea.
But Samuel does, and he confirms the appointment of Saul by the use of casting lots. We don’t know the exact manner in which they did this, but the important thing to note is that this is a way for God to confirm for the people that what Samuel is saying to them is true. By using this means of random selection to confirm what Samuel has told them, they can see the hand of God at work among them. Could this be rigged? Sure, but the reality is that people here trusted this process far more than we would in our day. Heck, we argue over elections that are counted and re-counted. But in this story, you have also a picture of a people who are willing to be led by God. And that is a key element in this story. There is cooperation on the part of the people after Samuel affirms the decision that Saul is to be their king. A “theocracy” is being established here, and that will play a very big part in the rest of the story. The king is not all powerful. As long as the king does what God wants done, everything will be fine. But when he starts to take things into his own hands… well, you’ll see.
So here we go. Saul does not start to institute his kingship, but instead goes home and goes back to work on the farm. But word comes to him that the Ammonites have come over the hill and are besieging Jabesh-Gilead. In a complicated way, the word gets to Saul and he feels the inspiration he has been waiting for. Note that this is the cause by which kingship is affirmed by action, not just word. He sends messages to all the tribes of Israel, and because they are willing to be led, they rally to his call. They free Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites, and then ask Samuel once again if this is the sign that Saul is to be their king. Samuel affirms that it is, and they go to Gilgal to institute the first monarchy of Israel.
Samuel takes great pains in his consecration of Saul as king to be sure the people know whose idea this is and where the power is really coming from. You’ll note that, after their victory at Jabesh-Gilead, Saul says the right thing. This is a victory from God, and that theme is stated and re-stated for the people here in this liturgy. Samuel lays down the law: If you listen to God and do his will, everything will be fine. But if you don’t listen, either you the people or your new king, things are going to get bad, real quick. We’ll soon see that this is another time when Samuel is predicting the future for the people of Israel.
A very important incident happens in this chapter. You know how in our form of government we have the three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each, supposedly, works in harmony with the other. And out of their interaction, the course of governing is supposed to take place without one overwhelming the other. It is a constant struggle for us, with Congress trying to tell the President what to do, and the President telling the Congress what to do, and the Supreme Court telling everybody what is Constitutional. It’s a mess, but all in all it works pretty well, as long as everybody does their own thing. But, as you can see in our day and age, it is a constant struggle as to who has authority over whom.
What you are witnessing in this chapter is virtually the same thing. The separation of powers in their form of government, a theocracy – that is, a human government that derives its power from God. In this form of government, the king has a lot of power. You see that he can call a standing army and their form of the National Guard when a crisis arises. But he cannot, and must not, usurp the power and roll of the prophet. That is too much power for one person. And to recall the words of the English Lord Acton, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Now can we see Saul’s point that he’d waited a week for Samuel to show up and his army was dissolving? Sure. But we must remember that this is a theocracy, and Saul has over stepped his authority. There is precedent for this in the history of Israel. In the book of Judges, we see the story of Gideon. Gideon was supposed to attack an enemy, so he raised an army to do so. God told him the army was too big, so he cut it down. God said, it’s still too big, and he cut it again and again, until he was down to about 300 men to face thousands. Gideon was afraid to go forth with those few men, but God told him that he had cut his army down to this size so no one would doubt that it was God who won the victory, not the Army of Israel.
It is never specified that this was the intention of God in this situation, to winnow down the army to show who was really in charge. But with the story of Gideon being part of their heritage, one can easily surmise that this could have been part of the plan. But the bigger factor is that Saul is overstepping his authority. And Samuel comes and smacks him down, putting him back in his very powerful, but not unlimitedly powerful place.
So Saul’s army gets whittled down to 600 men, and he and his son Jonathan go out to do battle. In the process of this, Saul makes another blunder and refuses to let his men eat anything during the battle. In fact, he promises to kill any man who does so. Well, during the course of battle, his son Jonathan, who had not heard the order, eats a bit of honey. Once again, this is revealed through the casting of lots, and it is seen that God wants them all to know that Jonathan is the one.
Now Saul is stuck. Does he kill his own son? Or does he go back on his oath, and have everybody see that his promises to God are only good as long as he doesn’t change his mind?
Once again, we go back to the book of Judges to reference another story, this one of a man named Jephtah. Jephtah was another “judge” – that is, a temporary leader God chose in a time of crisis like Gideon. Only Jephtah liked the idea of being the leader and designs on becoming king. As they went out to battle one day, Jephtah promises to sacrifice the first person he sees when he returns. Now this was something that the people of Israel never did. Human sacrifice was forbidden to them. It is one of the things that was constantly condemned among the people they were always fighting against. But Jephtah made the oath, and the first person who runs out to greet him is his own daughter, whom he loves very much. Jephtah feels caught by his oath and eventually does put his daughter to death. The story is kept in the book of Judges as a “good, bad example.” It is a wonderful example of what happens when people violate the law of God and make rash oaths. The story is kept alive as a good example of what not to do.
Saul is caught in the same mess, but the men of his army threaten to revolt if Saul does put Jonathan to death. So Saul is relieved of the pressure to live up to the oath – another example of Saul not heeding the word of God, that you don’t do stuff like killing someone for not obeying a stupid command they didn’t even hear. It is another example of Saul not really being up for the job of king.
You might wonder why God wouldn’t have made a better choice of who was going to be king. He is, after all, God, who knows everything about us. But you must also remember – and this story of Samuel, Saul, and David is a great example of it – that, with the exception of Jesus, God always chooses to work with people who are flawed. He provides the power and the opportunity for them to make choices, but then, to a certain extent, he leaves the rest to them. The choices they make define their character. Could God constantly intervene and direct them? Sure. But he chooses not to and allows the people involved to define their own characters.
Another situation is laid before Saul. Samuel brings him specific instructions about the next battle they are to fight against the Amalekites. He is told to raise an army and go kill everything they find. The reason for doing this is probably multi-dimensional.
First of all, it is meant to be a means of terror for those they will face in the future. Genghis Kahn did the same thing. You start destroying everything in your path, and pretty soon the word gets around and the next people in your path realize they have a decision to make. If they resist and lose, they lose everything. If they capitulate, they will lose a lot, but not everything, and they will still be alive.
Secondly, God does not want the people of Israel to be looking at war as a means of gaining wealth. He wants them to fight only when necessary, not to go out to conquer another people just for the plunder.
Thirdly, it is a situation that God is setting up to see how well they obey orders. They are specifically told to kill everything, and everybody. This goes against all reason, but that is what they are told to do. The question is, Will they do it?
Of course not. This is another one of those “good-bad examples” that define the
character of the both Saul and Israel. They win a big victory and immediately forget what God told them to do. The wealth of the Amalekites is vast, and they allow their reason/greed to get the best of them. Saul, too, falls prey to this.
The expression “it’s lonely at the top” comes into play here. Saul finds in Agag a kindred spirit. Here’s a guy he can talk to about “kinging,” a fellow who will understand the pressures of his job and be able to commiserate with him.
But Samuel is not pleased. He arrives and sees all the plunder. He notes that they have tried to “buy off” God with a few sacrifices so they can keep the rest. But Samuel is adamant that they have abandoned the commands of God and that there is going to be consequences for their actions. As he turns to leave, Saul realizes how much he has messed up and tries to get Samuel to stay. In doing so, he tears Samuel’s robe, a real violation of the separation of powers, because now he has seen fit to lay hands on the prophet. Samuel returns with Saul but seizes a sword and kills Agag as a sign that the commands of God are not to be trifled with.
The rift between Samuel and Saul is now permanent, and God tells Samuel that they better go to “Plan B.”