Sunday, March 31. 1 Samuel 14 – 17

I find it interesting that Samuel prayed to God all night in behalf of Saul. What was going through his mind?

Remember that when Israel had cried out for a king, Samuel had been stubbornly opposed. In fact, he took it personally. God had to assure him that it was not a personal affront to Samuel, but to God Himself.

But over the years, Samuel and Saul had evidently grown close. Whatever Saul’s failings, Samuel saw him as the great hope of Israel – empowered by God of course. But Samuel could not see past Saul. He too lacked faith. He could not conceive of a better king for Israel and, unable to believe God could do better, he wanted God to make allowances.

Saul’s failure to destroy the Amalekites was the final straw with God, and in the end, the final one with Samuel. As the story ends, Samuel seems Saul for who he truly is: a self-centered person more interested in acceptance by the people than obedience to God.

Sometimes we too bargain with God, doing what He specifically tells us not to do, but trying to do it in a way that will, at least in our own eyes, honor him.

But it doesn’t.

“To obey is better than sacrifice.”

Saturday, March 30. 1 Samuel 10 – 13

Saul’s reign lasts forty-two years, but the entirety of it is summed up between chapters eleven through fifteen of 1 Samuel.

Saul’s problem?

Fear.

We also know it by its religious name: faithlessness.

Saul had every reason to trust God. In chapter ten of our reading, Samuel gives a timid Saul three signs that he is indeed the chosen person to lead Israel. Sometimes we can get off track with the reading because we don’t know what the business of “prophesying” was in that particular context. But it is unimportant. The important thing is that neither it nor any of the other signs could have been accomplished without divine intervention. God is in the appointment. Saul should trust the Lord.

And indeed, Saul’s heart is changed and in chapter eleven he leads valiantly. But it doesn’t last. Saul’s fear is seen in his hiding among the baggage. It is seen again in chapter thirteen in his fear of the Philistimes. You see it again in his fear of his own people (chapter 16). Saul is changed, but the change doesn’t stick.

When God accepts us into His family, forgives us and indwells us by His Spirit, we are changed. It is, however, up to us (not entirely – but significantly) to maintain the change by trusting in God and acknowledging with our behavior that His way is right.

Friday, March 29. 1 Samuel 7 – 9

Once again, the Philistines oppress God’s people and in chapter seven, we learn how the place “Ebenezer” got its name. Remember that when the ark was captured, the battle had begun at a place called “Ebenezer” (1 Samuel 4:1). It wasn’t the place’s name at the time of the event, but temember that the readers of this book are not reading the story in real time. They are reading it many years later. They know where Ebenezer is and where the battle began, but now they will learn how it got its name.

We are a bit surprised that after such an auspicious beginning, Samuel disappears in the story between chapters four and seven. The last we saw of him, he was highly respected by Israel (first verse of chapter four). But that may have been just a summary marker. What happens next (with the capture of the ark and its return) may be an incident of intervening years.

Whatever the chronology, the story certainly takes up in chapter seven with Samuel very well entrenched as a respected man of God in Israel – how else shall we explain his ability to send out a message and bring all Israel together at Mizpah?

The meeting is for spiritual revival, and Samuel calls on all Israel to abandon their idolatry and return to the Lord. The Philistines, however, see the gathering as a rebellion and mount an army for attack. The Lord, however, is the one to attack with the wrath of His awesome thunder and the Philistines are routed. Samuel sets up a monument stone to the event (really an undressed rock, or it too would be considered an idol) and names it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help” or “stone of the helper.”

In the eighteenth century of our era, it was common for protestant preachers to either write music to accompany their sermons or to commission others to do so. Robert Robinson had lost his father as a boy and his early life was typical of wayward children lacking good fathers. But by chance, he came under the powerful influence of George Whitfield, a well known Methodist minister. A certain tragic end to Robert’s life was averted and he became a minister himself. To illustrate a sermon, he wrote the hymn, “O thou fount of every blessing.” The story of 1 Samuel 7 is immortalized in the following verse of that hymn:

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;

Is there an Ebenezer in your life, a turning point where you recognize a heretofore unrecognized providence of God?

Thursday, March 28. 1 Samuel 4 – 6

Seven months of plague was enough. Over-run by rats and killed by mysterious tumors, the Philistines finally decided the culprit was the Ark of Israel’s God.

But they wanted to be sure (chapter 6).

So they took two cows who had recently given birth and hitched them to a cart on which the ark was set. They pinned up the calves and let the cows loose. Normally, the cows would head toward their calves, who would be crying for their mothers. But this was the test. If the cows, despite their natural instincts, went on the road to Beth Shemesh and Israel, the Philistines would know for sure that the God of Israel was in the matter.

To their credit, the people of Beth Shemesh called for the Levites to unload the Ark rather than try to do it themselves. This was, of course, the proper course. Not to their credit, seventy of the people of Beth Shemesh looked inside the Ark.

They died.

No, that’s not quite right. God killed them.

Even after so long, God’s rules still applied.

God’s way does not change because circumstances change. When the Lord has spoken specifically about a matter, it’s best to take Him at His word until he actually says something different.

It really is a matter of life and death, and now both Israel and the Philistines understand.

Notice the historical reference. At the time of the writing of Samuel, there was still a huge stone in the field of Joshua in Beth Shemesh. They left it there as a testimony to the truthfulness of the Ark story.

Wednesday, March 27. 1 Samuel 1 – 3

In his commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel, Bill T. Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary writes: “Samuel is one of those great Bible figures who seems larger than life. In terms of Old Testament history, he was an important transitional figure at one of the most important turning points in the life of the nation, namely, the rise of the Israelite kingship.”

Chapter 3 opens with Samuel as a boy. It ends with him as a man, a respected leader in Israel. But more important than this is the change in God’s relationship with Israel in the intervening years.

Chapter 3 begins with the observation that the word of the Lord was rare during the days of Eli. There was not much communication from Him. It hadn’t always been that way. Eli could remember what it was like to hear God’s voice. But over time, he quit hearing it. Note that early in the story Eli’s sons are called “wicked men” (literally, “sons of Belial” – 2:12). But Eli calls Hannah a “wicked woman” (literally, a “daughter of Belial” 00 1:16). Clearly, Eli has lost the ability to recognize righteousness. Perhaps he was simply disgusted with the impossible task of trying to shepherd a wayward Israel. Perhaps he was tired of being an example. Perhaps he was discouraged that he had so little success in fostering spirituality – even to his own house. For whatever reason, he wasn’t listening for the voice of God any more, but he remembered what it sounded like.

And so, when Samuel came to him that night, Eli finally caught on. God was talking again. But He was talking to someone else. Now with a person of faith to listen, God would once more communicate with His people.

God is always willing to talk and guide, but he must have faithful people to listen. Without them, God isn’t likely to do much – at least not much that we would want Him to do.

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments regarding same-sex marriages. At the same time, I am reading face-book posts of Christians in favor of same-sex relationships, and it occurs to me, there are obviously Christians who are not listening to God, not listening for His voice and not looking for His leadership.
What will happen when God goes quiet?

Tuesday, March 26. Ruth 2 – 4

Chapter three of Ruth – in fact, chapters three and four – involve an Old Testament institution called “levirate marriage.” Though the notion is in the Bible, that particular designation does not come from the Bible. It is of Latin origin and comes from “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother.”

The whole idea will seem foreign to us, but it is important to understand the idea. Women and children were, and remain (no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise), the most vulnerable members of society. When a husband died in the ancient world, and left no heir, who would take care of his widow? Levirate law said that the husband’s brother (or nearest of kin) should take her into his house and have a child with her. The dead brother’s property would legally pass to the child and not back to the family. The living brother would manage the dead brother’s property and the income would go to support the widow and her family. Presumably, other children that might be born to the widow would be considered heirs of the living brother (note Deuteronomy 25:5-10 refers only to the first child born to the levirate union).

In our modern age where property freely passes from husband to widow on his death, where widows are capable of working and making their own way, this kind of law seems more than archaic. But it is important to remember why it was given: for the protection and care of the widow. That why remains to this day and while the particulars of that practice do not remain, the obligation to make sure the widow is taken care of, protected, and secured is a vital principle and present in the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 5:3-16).

In the case of Ruth, we would like to read this as a romantic story of love between her and Boaz. But notice. Boaz knows that there is a nearer kinsman than himself, and he knows he has no right to marry Ruth if that redeemer elects to take her. He is willing to give her up to him, though he is honored by Ruth’s proposal. Ruth on the other hand is not pledging her love. She is simply asking that Boaz take care of her, and in the process, she makes herself presentable and someone he might want to take care of. The whole story is a bit odd with twists and turns, but that’s what makes it so significant. Out of this very unlikely series of events will come the greatest king of Israel. God is at work.

Monday, March 25. Judges 20,21, Ruth 1

We should not suppose that the story found in Judges 19 – 21 happened at the end of the period of the Judges.  In fact, there are ample reasons for believing it occurred near the beginning.  Notice that Phinehas, the grandson Aaron is the High Priest in the story and the Tabernacle has not yet moved to Shiloh but is rather still in Bethel.  It is as if the writer is saying: “Israel didn’t get progressively worse.  She started out bad.”

There are some similarities between this story and the first chapter of Judges.  In both stories, there is an inquiring of the Lord and in both cases, Judah was to go into battle first.  There is mention of people with special characteristics.  In chapter 1, it involves seventy kings with missing thumbs and big toes.  In chapter 20, it is an army of seven hundred (notice the use of “7″) left-handed sling-throwers.  One group cannot shoot an arrow or go into battle.  In the other, the left handed sling-throwers are surprisingly adept in battle.

But there is a big difference.  In the story that ends Judges, the point is made that Israel is no longer focused on the conflict with her enemies, but has rather turned on herself and is in danger of wiping one of their own tribes off the map.
There is a lesson here for the Church.

Like the tribes of Israel, it sometimes takes great tragedy to see precisely how far we are from God.  Then, in an effort to return to faithfulness, we turn on one another, hoping to root out the cancer.  In the end, we decimate ourselves.

What should we do?

We should cultivate an awareness of where we stand with God based on the Word of God and our success at doing His will.  If we are not successful, we should ask why success has not come.  Then, having realized the problem, work within the church to heal those infected by the world.  Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that the real enemy is not us, but Satan and the world He controls.  Christians often lose sight of this fact and rather than stick with the “hypocrites” they perceive make up the Church, leave the Church in favor of a world where hypocrisy does not abound – because it has given itself wholesale to do evil.

Sunday, March 24. Judges 16 – 19

How far has Israel walked from God?

The story of Micah does not point to a wanderer who just takes a wrong turn and gets spiritually lost. It points to those who by habit of character demonstrate a lack of real concern for the ways of God.

Micah’s mother lost eleven hundred shekels of silver – a little over $2000 on today’s exchange but a really hefty amount in the ancient world of the Judges. She not only uttered a curse on the person who took the money, but should it ever be found, she promised to give it to the Lord (the promise may have actually come before the money was returned – not as the New International Version reads). The young man, afraid of the curse (you see his belief in witchcraft), ‘fessed up, hoping that his mother would countermand it – which she did. But then, rather than dedicate all the money to God, she only gave a fifth of it – and that not to the Lord, but for the purpose of making an idol. It wasn’t the only idol in the house – just one among many which also included a priestly garment.

Ignoring the regulations for the priesthood, Micah made his sons priests (essentially founding his own religion). But when he came into contact with a wandering Levite, probably hoping to gain credibility for his religion, he put him on retainer as his head priest. On top of it all, by simply having the priest, Micah thought he had secured for himself the Lord’s blessing.

It’s a classic case of blindly making one’s own way and believing it will be ok. After all, he is a sincere man – though also a thief.

The story is presented as simply an example of faithlessness, letting us know how far afield Israel had gone. But it is not the last one. The final chapters of Judges take us deep into the depravity resultant in the lives of all those who determine to live as they see fit.

Saturday, March 23. Judges 12 – 15

The tribe of Ephraim (chapter 12) was the leading tribe of northern and central Israel. There was an element of pride in this position and she believed that everything that happened in Israel needed her participation and approval.

We saw this before in the conflict between Gideon and the Midianites (chapter 8). In that situation, Gideon mollified Ephraim’s hurt pride with superior diplomacy. Jephthah, however, was not so inclined to be diplomatic – especially with people who were threatening to “burn his house down.” “House” in the Old Testament doesn’t just mean dwelling, but can also refer to one’s family – particularly if he is a ruler. If this latter idea is what Ephraim meant, the threat was against Jephthah’s entire family line and his judgeship.

Jephthah is a strong and wise leader. He first explains the situation, tells them that he did call on them for help but they did not reply. When they ignore the facts and maintain their belligerence, Jephthah cuts them off at the knees. Ephraim is so decimated that she never again regains her former prominence.

Pride is at the heart of this fall. They should have seen the work of God in the story of Jephthah and rejoiced, but blinded by their own self-importance, they discount the work of God because they had no part in the victory.

Whenever others do well, we will do well to congratulate them. When we diminish the success of others because we had not part in it, we fall into the trap of the Ephraimites and risk more than our pride, but also future success and opportunity.

Friday, March 22. Judges 9 – 11

By the time you get through chapter nine, you might well wonder where God went. After all, in every case but that of Shamgar thus far, God has specifically raised up the deliverer for Israel.

Here, however, Israel begins to pick her own leaders, and you see right away the kind of leader she picks. The son of a prostitute, Abimelech talks his countrymen, the people of Shechem, into paying him to murder their royal family (or the closest thing they have to it – the family of Gideon). Abimelech is described by the only surviving member of Gideon’s family as nothing more than a thornbush the trees have chosen to rule over them – an improbability for a thornbush and a discomfort for the trees!

We do not know who Gaal, son of Ebed was. This is his only mention in the Bible. But known or not, he is the instrument by which God drives a wedge between Abimelech and the people of Shechem.

K. Lawson Younger observes on this chapter: “Sometimes it may appear as though evil is in control and God has taken a vacation. Injustice dominates and wicked people, morally empty and reckless like Abimelech’s hirelings, seem to prevail. Anyone living at the time of Abimelech’s rule must have felt that way . . . And when believers forget the Lord and live according to the world’s dictates, this only intensifies the power of the wicked. When believers choose this path, becoming functionally unbelievers, they may find that God allows them to get what they deserve, just as the Israelites experienced in the Abimelech story” (K. Lawson Younger, Jr. NIV Application Commentary: Judges/Ruth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) p. 234).