Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 12

In this chapter, Samuel recites Israel’s history to the congregation at Gilgal.

I think Samuel’s speech in this chapter is wonderful. More than anything else it reminds me of Deuteronomy, although I’m not sure if I could exactly explain why. I think part of it is that Samuel has a very similar didactic style, and partly it’s because Samuel is “confronting” Israel with their history, much like Moses did in the beginning of Deuteronomy. Samuel uses the second-person pronoun “you” when referring to Israel, even when the Israelites involved were long-dead.  For instance, verse 11 refers to when the LORD delivered "you" by the various judges of the past (about whom we read in the book of Judges).  This is similar to Deuteronomy also, where Moses directly addresses the Israelites even when discussing events that occurred to prior generations.

I also love Samuel’s banter at the beginning of the chapter, when he is challenging Israel about his personal integrity, asking anyone to come forward and accuse him of cheating them. The people admit that Samuel has behaved with integrity, and then Samuel turns it around and “confronts” Israel with all of the righteous things the LORD has done for them, concluding with their most recent rebellion against the LORD’s authority by asking for a king. This is part of Israel’s literary tradition.  In the same way, the book of Samuel itself recounts the history of Israel, the LORD’s righteous deeds, and Israel’s sinful response to his kindness.

Samuel concludes his speech by noting Israel's sinfulness, but that they should not despair.

Samuel performs a miracle by calling for rain and thunder during the harvest season. I don’t know much about Israel’s weather patterns, but we can infer from the context that this would be exceptionally unusual, probably because harvest is done in late summer during the dry season.

You can sense the nation’s despair when they ask Samuel to pray that they “may not die”, because they know that they have sinned over and over and have now sinned again by asking for a king. Samuel’s response is the second part of this chapter that I find simply wonderful.

What he says is, yes, you have sinned in all of these things, but do not despair. “Do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart.” (v. 20) Why would they turn away from the LORD as a result of their sins? Because they feel that they cannot do right and that the LORD will not accept them after they have sinned. That is what despair does; if you feel like you can never get it right, then you should simply stop trying. Despair is the feeling that makes us think that it’s better to live in sin and follow idols than to seek righteousness and the LORD, because we think righteousness and the LORD is unattainable. It’s as if our own behavior, our own mistakes, can serve to discourage us from seeking to do what is right. I think this is the same sort of attitude that some people have when they are planning on remaining a virgin until marriage, but (for whatever reasons) have sex, and then decide that they might as well give up and have sex a bunch more times. Or if someone is trying to avoid drugs, but then use some kind of drug and then decide that it’s not worth trying to hold onto their earlier goals or principles because they made a mistake.

What Samuel says is that the LORD will not reject them. Even after their many sins, “the LORD was pleased to make you his own” (v. 22). Samuel is encouraging the Israelites, just as he is encouraging us, to not let our feelings of sinfulness separate us from the LORD. If we seek him, if we desire to serve him and follow him, he will not reject us.

Samuel, for his own part, says that if he failed to pray for them, that would be a “sin against the LORD”. I feel in Samuel the same heart that I feel in the LORD. If he would not pray for them, that would be a sin. If he would not “teach [them] the way that is good and right”, that would be a sin. Samuel knows in his own life the obligation that he has to share the “good and right” with the LORD’s people Israel, and I feel that this is a representation of the same faithfulness that the LORD has towards Israel, in seeking to bring them back under the covenant. Samuel says the LORD will not reject Israel, and Samuel understands that he himself must not reject Israel.

This is how I believe God feels towards all people, who are now given the invitation to live under the new covenant. God will not reject us, because he was pleased to make us his own. And similarly, as a Christian I often find myself in the role of Samuel, saying to others that I will not sin against the LORD by failing to pray for them, and I will do everything in my power to teach them the way that is good and right.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the many sinful decisions I have made, all of the things I’ve gotten wrong throughout my life, and in those times I feel that despair that asks why I continue, why do I not give up and accept a life buried in darkness. Other times, I find myself encouraging others with the words of Samuel, that the LORD will not reject them. I believe that this is one of the great goods in Christianity: to sometimes receive timely encouragement and to sometimes give it. But every time I read this passage I feel the warmth of Samuel’s encouragement for my own heart, that I should never despair because the LORD will not reject me. That I should seek him diligently, and when I get something wrong I turn that around and press in harder rather than give up. I “consider what great things he has done for you” (v. 24), remembering the many stories of the LORD’s faithfulness to me and to the people whom I love, much like Samuel recites the faithfulness of the LORD to the earlier generations of Israel.

With my heart fixed upon the LORD’s faithfulness, rather than my own disgraces, I press in with all my strength to serve the LORD and receive his grace and mercy. From this place, I am empowered to pass that same message of grace and mercy to others in their time of need. I still make mistakes to this day, but I don’t let my mistakes become an emotional barrier, separating me from the LORD, but rather accept the mercy of the LORD to spur me onward towards him.

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