Thursday, March 31, 2011

Samuel's Heartache

When I read how Samuel's story ends, my heart aches for him.  Here's a man Israel had esteemed so highly that his words were practically seen as the words of God himself.  Yet in the end he is ignored.  Here's a man who was once seen as a rescuer and deliverer of God's people, but when he travels to Bethlehem to anoint David as king, the village elders are afraid he's coming to attack them.  But worst of all, in spite of knowing Israel had rejected God in demanding a king, Samuel had found himself wanting Israel's first king to succeed.  He had invested in Saul, only to see Saul fall farther and farther away from the high hopes Samuel had for him.

I Samuel 15 is the story of the straw that broke the camel's back, or should I say, the story of Saul crossing a point of no return.  The Lord, through Samuel, commands Saul to rid Palestine of the Amalekites.  Saul goes to war, and he utterly crushes the Amalekites, but he doesn't kill the king and he takes all the best livestock for himself as loot.  In other words, rather then obeying God, Saul parades the imprisoned Amalekite king around as a little public relations stunt and makes a hefty profit along the way.  When Samuel meets him after the battle he is shocked by Saul's behavior.  Saul then has the audacity to try to lie to him.  "I didn't take these livestock for myself," he says, "I was going to sacrifice them to the Lord."  I'll give him's pretty gutsy to lie to a prophet.  Not surprisingly, Samuel isn't having any of it.  "Shut up!" he says, "You think you can lie to me?  Let me tell you what God told me last night."

"You're no longer king," is what Samuel tells Saul in the end, and understandably this doesn't sit well with Saul.  Ironically, to me at least, Saul is so full of himself that he still thinks Samuel should come back with him to his camp in order to make sacrifices to God on his behalf.  Sure, he says, "I have sinned.  I was afraid of the people.  They made me do it!  You must forgive me," first, but ultimately I think what is really going on is Saul knows he still needs Samuel's support.  I think by this time Saul could care less about his standing with God.  He cares quite a bit about his standing among the people, however.  Having Samuel make sacrifices would make it appear that God sanctioned Saul's activity.  Samuel refuses however, heatedly repeating the fact that he doesn't have to do a thing for Saul anymore because God has rejected him as king.  Things escalate, and as Samuel turns to leave Saul yanks him back, tearing his cloak, but as I read the story I picture the anger leaving Samuel's eyes when he turns back to Saul.  I think the anger is replaced by despair, not over Israel, but over Saul himself.  Saul is a lost cause, totally unrepentant.  Ultimate power has corrupted ultimately, so when Saul again tries to convince Samuel that he is sorry and that Samuel should sacrifice to the Lord on Saul's account, Samuel agrees.  I don't think this is because Saul has tricked Samuel or because Saul's repentance is authentic.  I think it's because Samuel has given up hope.  What does it matter if Saul wants to play king?  What does it matter if Saul wants to play at religion?  Everything Samuel had worked for his whole life had fallen apart.  He was rejected as judge.  He was rejected as priest.  He was rejected as counselor, and now his hopes that the first king of Israel might be able to turn things around had been dashed.  The man he had empowered was now using him for selfish gain.

I can sort of resonate with Samuel on this one.  The life of a minister is largely filled with empowering other people.  A minister who wants to make sure he always ends up on top is a minister to be leery off.  A good minister is a person who works diligently to see God's power made manifest in the life of others, and sometimes that means anointing others to rule, so to speak.  It hurts, deeply, when the people you helped get into positions of authority then use that authority to attack or belittle you.  As a minister, that really sucks, and it only takes once to really make you lose heart, to make you gun-shy to trust another.  Samuel seems to give up after this encounter with Saul.  He goes back home, mourning how things turned out with Saul, and basically withdraws from the life of Israel.  Until the day he died, he never went to see Saul again.

I'm torn about this.  As a Christian I am called to forgive, but when people you empowered turn out to lead selfishly, what is the proper response?  Saul needed to be removed as king.  God had rejected him as king, and ultimately Saul becomes a case study in self-destruction, but did Samuel handle himself well?  Should he have forgiven Saul?  How would that have looked in practice?  Frankly, I don't know.  There are some times when staying in Ramah is easier.

At the same time, Samuel doesn't completely shut down.  When God tells him to stop throwing himself a pity-party, pick himself up and go to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Samuel does it.  I guess there is a lesson to be learned in that too.  Sometimes things just don't work out.  I'm sure Samuel spent quite a bit of time thinking through how things had gone wrong, although I'm probably just reading myself into Samuel.  But some things are just too complex, answers can never be found.  At some point we must move on, not matter what remains unresolved, and go out to empower the next leaders.  I guess it's good to remember our place.  We are not the ones who rule, neither are the ones we empower.  Ultimately there is only one King, and we all must do our best to serve him.

Stopping point: I Samuel 17

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