(Studies in 1 Samuel)
4. PATIENCE (Chapters 7 and 8)
WE now consider the fourth of the elements which go to make preparation for God’s kingdom, and come to one which may seem less important than the first three, but which is really just as essential. It is patience. This is a divine quality — God is the God of patience (Romans 15:5). In his list of experiences which qualified himself as an apostle, Paul spoke of this as being an overall characteristic: “Approving ourselves as ministers of God in all patience” (2 Corinthians 6:4). The catalogue which follows these words describes all the sufferings in which he needed this divine patience. So it is not insignificant, this question of patience; it is supremely important in the matter of the kingdom, as the chapters 7 and 8 will show us.
First we have chapter 7, with its inspiring story of the lead which Samuel gave to God’s people, the governing word being Eben-ezer — “hitherto hath the Lord helped us”. The immediate context of the word ‘hitherto’ was the more than twenty years which had elapsed since it was said about Samuel: “The Lord did let none of his words fall to the ground”. They had been bad years for Israel, and they had seemed very long. During that prolonged period, no mention is made at all of Samuel, so one imagines that in a very acute sense the time had been long for him too. God had called and commissioned him, but there seemed no opportunity for his ministry. In this sense he was a true forerunner of David who, in his time, was to be sorely tried in having to wait patiently for the Lord. And he was also a type of the Lord Jesus who although at twelve years of age was able to affirm that He was about His Father’s business, yet had to wait for another eighteen years before the time was ripe for Him to move out into public service. What a test of patience those ‘hidden years’ must have involved! The same principle obtained in the experience of Saul of Tarsus who was commissioned through Ananias in Damascus but had to wait for some years before the Holy Spirit was able to say at Antioch: “Separate me now Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them”. So Samuel was a worthy member of that called and anointed band which has patience as a fundamental basis of its ministry. He kept a sensitive ear open to divine calls, and never flagged in his concern for the Lord’s interests among the people. And at last the delay came to an end; the people were low enough and desperate enough to be ready to listen now to God’s servant and to respond when he called them together to Mizpah to be prayed for.
It was not only Samuel who felt that the time had been long. They all felt it and were oppressed by the defeat and confusion which was heavy upon them. Samuel’s message was clear and unequivocal. He did not start with smooth comforts, but with the challenge to face the incredible mixture of their loyalty to false gods [76/77] as well as to the Lord. They are called ‘strange gods’. It is indeed a strange thing when the Lord’s people put self and selfish interests before Him. The world has plenty of gods, prosperity, ambition, pleasure, etc. and these are false gods, but when these same values are worshipped by those who claim to be the Lord’s people, they are not only false but they are strange gods. To Samuel this was intolerable. His challenge was: “Prepare your hearts unto the Lord and serve Him only”. “Him only!” This is the kind of message which the Church needs today. On every hand the false gods of this world’s interests and values have found a place in the lives of God’s people. There is so much mixture, within as well as in outward things. Another Samuel needs to speak for God and to demand a cleaning up of things, so that the Lord alone should be the object and ambition of all. We notice that to Samuel this was a matter of the heart. He did not bring new teaching or suggest new procedures, but called for a new heart. This is the essential if we are to serve the Lord only.
THE call brought Israel to make their confession. They said: “We have sinned against the Lord”. There was no excusing of themselves; they did not indulge in a morbid recapitulation of the less savoury areas of their past; they did not make a virtue of self-revelation as some Christians do in such a way as to make you wonder whether they are regretting their past or boasting about it. They did nothing like this, but just stood up together in an honest, straightforward way and admitted that they had been wrong. And when they said ‘We’, they meant it. Again you sometimes hear so-called confessions in prayer which are really aimed at other people, with an implication that we are all suffering because some of the others have failed. No, they admitted that their poor condition was their own fault, and they did it all as “before the Lord”.
The next happening is most significant; their enemies heard all about it. Well, this may not be surprising since it was a public event, but there is a spiritual significance about it too, for we can be sure that whenever there is a new move to give absolute supremacy to the Lord, to serve Him only, then Satan soon hears about it. It may be the experience of an individual or it may be some new phase among a group of Christians, but there is always a swift and strong reaction from the kingdom of darkness when people get right with God. The Israelites had been permitted to live in relative quiet so long as they were following their way of mixture. But now they were ready to be all for God, with a united heart to serve Him, so immediately Satan sought to destroy them. As long as the flesh rules, Satan is unperturbed, but as soon as there is any kind of recovery in a unity of consecration to the Lord, then trouble arises. Those involved may be tempted to wonder what is wrong. There is nothing wrong. In fact the attack from the enemy is an indication that now at last things are right. It is just because they are right that there is a challenge to the kingdom of darkness. It is when God’s people covenant together to put Him first and serve Him only that these new threats appear.
God’s people were frightened — and not without reason — but now they had someone to turn to. It was not like the old days of Eli when they had to manage as best they could, for now they had a man of God to whom they could appeal. ‘Pray for us,’ was their cry. ‘Don’t stop praying for us. You know God. You have been praying for us through the time when we were so indifferent. Please keep up your prayer intercession, even though we don’t deserve it.’ What a comfort it is in some extremity of trial to be able to turn to someone who has a life with God and can intercede for us, Perhaps, like Israel, we felt sufficient and were not ready to listen to wise counsel. But now calamity threatens, and we turn to the very man whom we ignored or despised, suddenly fearful that he may have given us up as hopeless and left off praying.
SAMUEL had no intention of giving up his prayer ministry. For him it would be sin to cease praying. But before he made his public appeal to God he made it clear that he personally had no more standing with God than they had. They might have thought that since he was a man of God there would be virtue in his prayers. Not a bit of it! He made it very plain that his intercessions were based on a sacrificial lamb. Yes, he would cry to God, but first he must offer a sucking lamb as a burnt offering. Note that it was not a sin offering. He was not going to keep harping on sin when it had by grace been forgiven. To do this is not spirituality, though it sounds pious: it is really unbelief. Nevertheless even the forgiven sinner has no standing before God apart from the merits and offering of a substitute, so his burnt offering reminds us that our acceptance and all [77/78] our hopes must be based on the perfect offering of Christ and not on our own consecration. For us Christ is the Lamb who is to God all that we ourselves could never be. We are only accepted in Him.
On this basis of the offering and the prayer Israel were given a great deliverance; they had a victory without needing to fight. It was a marvellous experience, to enjoy divine intervention because sin had been confessed and put away and prayer made on the basis of the lamb. It might have been repeated again and again, since it did not depend on Samuel but on God. Alas that so soon they were to forget this and demand a king who could lead them to victory! Meanwhile, however, Samuel did his best to press home the spiritual lesson. People could forget so quickly. Or they could explain away that miracle thunder as though it were a natural phenomenon, allowing the Devil to obscure the fact that the happening was not by chance but by God’s mercy. So to make this clear Samuel set up the stone of Eben-ezer, reminding them that up to that very moment God’s help had been given to them in grace. I do not think that the word ‘hitherto’ so much referred back to Israel’s whole history — though that was true — but rather that it was somehow associated with their cry to Samuel: “Cease not to pray for us”, as though he was focusing their attention on the present deliverance. It was as though in that act he said: ‘Get this clear. If only you are right with God and He alone rules you, then whatever powers of evil come against you, the answer is prayer on the basis of the lamb. You have found this ‘hitherto’ and it is always valid. Right up-to-date that has been your experience of God’s wonderful help. Never forget it!’
But of course they did. We shall find them to be the very embodiment of impatience. For the moment, however, they were delivered, and the rest of chapter 7 gives a panoramic view of the remainder of Samuel’s life. He who had patiently waited for Israel to return to God now patiently judged and served them. We must note how he did this. It was not in a spirit of self-importance which would demand that people must come to him if they needed help, but in a Christlike willingness to seek them out and meet them where they were. Like a true shepherd he went from place to place where the flock were, going round in circuit to help God’s people. But he always returned to Ramah and made that his home. Ramah means ‘a lofty place’. It was there, and not in the traditional sanctuary of Shiloh, that he maintained his life of communion with God. He built an altar there, journeying out from that place of holy fellowship to carry light and blessing to people in their various localities, but always returning there to resume his close contact with God and his ministry of worship and prayer. The Bible idea of patience is not placidity or resignation; it is this kind of persistent, self-sacrificing ‘stickability’, a quality all too rare even among God’s servants. It means determined activity in the holy place and equally determined activity in caring for God’s people. Like Samuel, God’s king must be outstanding and shepherd-like in his patience. Such patience was entirely lacking among the people as a whole, as we shall see now that we pass on to chapter 8.
“AND it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel … and his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre … and perverted judgment.” As a result there arose a demand for a king and I must say that the more I think about it, the more reasonable does this request appear. My own personal view is that God always meant His people to have a king. Not everybody agrees with this, but this is how I read the Scriptures as a whole. After the tragic period of the Judges when there was no king in Israel, we have the book of Ruth which terminates with a reference to David who thus seems already to have been marked out for his kingly role. If this was the case, then it follows that God’s ultimate intention for His people was that they should have a king. It seems that He did not plan to have a constant perpetuation of the kind of regime which obtained as Samuel maintained his circuit among the people. There was no sign of a successor to Samuel: there was every reason to believe that God was going to provide Himself — Himself, note, not the people — with a king.
What we are confronted with, then, was a complete breakdown of patient waiting for God’s man and for God’s time. Was Samuel wrong in making his sons judges? Quite possibly so. After all, no man had appointed him; it was God alone who had raised him up to be the last of the judges. Were the elders wrong in clamouring for a king just at that moment? It certainly seems that they were. Their demands were logical but they were not only premature but coloured by very mixed [78/79] motives. The condition with regard to Samuel’s sons was tragic in the extreme. He who had seen the shocking example of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons was now found in the same condemnation, with the added blame that their appointment was his doing, whereas Hophni and Phinehas were priests by Scriptural succession. Happily we do not have to explain away Samuel’s fault, but simply recognise the fact that perfection can never be found outside of the Lord Jesus. Noah, Samson, Samuel and even David, were men of God but they were all marked by faults and failures. Only Christ was perfect. This does not excuse me, but it should make me reluctant to fasten impatiently on the faults of spiritual leaders. Since man cannot force his children to believe, we may rather sympathise with than condemn a father in Samuel’s position.
BUT what we find it hard to understand was his advancement of his sons. This boded ill for Israel’s future and it seems almost logical that the elders felt that they must take action and insist on an instant substitute for their ageing judge and his regime. We are, however, given an insight into their real motive by their desire to be like all the other nations. They saw that all the others had kings, and therefore argued that this must be the right kind of set-up. But God’s purpose had always been that His people should be different from all others; they were not expected to be governed by human skill or energy but to be a testimony to God’s superior power. Such an apparently precarious basis of procedure made no appeal to their carnal reasoning. They had forgotten Eben-ezer. Even when Samuel gave them a detailed warning of the perils of the course they proposed to follow, they still insisted: ‘No, but we are determined to have a king over us’ (v.20). So although their plan seemed to have been made urgent by Samuel’s age and his sons’ corruption, it was in fact an expression of that natural reasoning which so often leads God’s people into rash decisions.
It is possible that they felt that Samuel’s lamb and his prayer was part of an old procedure which had worked all right at that time but ought now to give place to something more modern and generally accepted. This respected leader of theirs exposed them to insecurity, as he might not last much longer. ‘You are old,’ they said. We do not know just how old Samuel was, but we do know that he lasted through most of Saul’s reign and lived to anoint the true king, David. So they had no cause for worry. It reminds me of the time when Isaac got into a similar kind of panic, thought that he was going to die, and determined to make sure that Esau received the blessing. His action precipitated Jacob’s deceit over the venison and a host of other evils. The point, though, is that Isaac did not die for many years after that, but his sense of age was an excuse for that restless impetuosity which is a feature of carnal impatience. So whether it is age or any other weakness, this must never be an excuse for taking things into our own hands. Such an action is the very opposite of patience, and it will never serve the real interest of God’s kingdom.
“THE thing displeased Samuel.” He was doubtless hurt personally. Well, that comes to us all, and we must learn to bear it. There was more than that to it, though, for the margin tells us that it was evil in the sight of Samuel, and in this he was right. Wisely he took his displeasure to the Lord. How much better than complaining to men! He took his hurt to the Lord and poured out the whole story to heaven’s sympathetic ear. Samuel, you see, lived in a lofty place. When you do that you still feel the hurts of life but instead of brooding on them or complaining to others you take them straight to God in prayer. Samuel found that God both comforted and guided him. He comforted him by assuring him that He, too, was hurt and that the prophet was only sharing God’s own suffering, for it was He whom they had in fact insulted. Sharing His sufferings! Such a revelation takes all the sting out of our bitterness. But God also called Samuel into a new share of His divine patience by telling him not to resist this demand in any way. Perhaps to his surprise, Samuel was told to accede to the people’s demand; they were to have their king.
I feel convinced that the elders’ real mistake was impatience. Difficult circumstances and their own impetuosity combined to tempt them to force God’s hand. The truth was that He had planned for a king, but not yet. They were not wrong in thinking that God would provide them with a king, but they were premature, unable to wait God’s time. For the Bible shows us that it was David who was God’s choice. It makes much of the fact that Christ was David’s seed. At that time, though, David was a very young boy, if indeed he had yet been born. God’s time is as important as God’s man. And impatience will undermine [79/80] the strength of His kingdom. So we have Saul in an impossible situation from the start, not because he had forced himself forward but because he had become the victim of a counsel of impatience by others. Now do not let us become involved in a God-dishonouring attempt to rationalise this matter of divine choice. It might be possible to say that Saul was not elected by God. Yet it was God who called him, blessed him, empowered him by the Spirit, gave him the victory and — according to His own declaration — would have established his kingdom for ever (1 Samuel 13:13) if only Saul had been obedient. It is most striking, however, that this same fault of impatience was the cause of Saul’s ultimate rejection and downfall. As we shall later see, he was the man who could not wait for God. There are many such in the Bible, and since Bible times, many more of us who can be so described. This inability to wait is a sad hindrance to God’s purposes. How different was the true king when he came! David was the outstanding example of how we should rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.
But so far as Israel was concerned this demand for immediate action was an outstanding example of the verse: “He gave them their request: but sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15). You can persuade God into accepting your ideas and then live bitterly to regret it. Samuel warned Israel that this is what would happen to them, but they were insistent. They could not wait, they must have their king and they must have him now. So the chapter ends with God’s command to Samuel: “Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king”. Even so the whole outworking of the choice and appointment was done in prayerful dependence on God, as we shall see. This might have reassured Samuel for the time, and doubtless seemed to justify the people, but the fact remains that nothing built on man’s impatience can have lasting stability. In contrast to Israel’s rash ferment and living in the midst of its unhappy outworking we see Samuel as an amazing embodiment of patient constancy. He prays and suffers with God’s people and with their temporary and unsatisfactory king, and he puts his life at risk in obedience to God’s command to anoint young David concerning whom God said: “I have provided me a king …”. And at the last we shall find Samuel still at Ramah, the lofty place, and still praying and praising. He was never king, but he was a key to the kingdom. There never was a time when God’s people needed more to learn and practise the spiritual virtue of patience. It is foundational to the kingdom.
(To be continued)