Samuel and Saul

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Section 1: Opening Prayer

Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good, for God’s mercy endures forever. God provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they cry. God is not impressed by the might of a horse, and has no pleasure in the speed of a runner, but finds pleasure in those who fear the Lord, in those who await God’s steadfast love. So we give thanks to you, Lord God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord for all your benefits, you who live and reign forever. Amen.

Section 2: Why Samuel & Saul Matter

A Coptic Orthodox Icon of Moses by Mina Nashed
A Coptic Orthodox Icon of Moses by Mina Nashed

Prophets had been a part of Israel’s life practically forever. Noah was considered among the first prophets since he led God’s people through the flood, and Moses stood tall as the prophet who helped lead God’s people from slavery to freedom. For the earliest part of their history, Israel sought the leadership of prophets because they connected them directly to God’s leadership. Samuel was called as one of these prophets as a young boy. Read about Samuel’s call in 1st Samuel 3.

As Samuel grew older, his sons also became prophets. While Samuel served as a faithful leader, his sons were corrupt. The Israelites saw this as an opportunity to become more like other nations and have a king for a leader. While Samuel felt rejected, the Lord spoke to him and said, “they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me, God, as king over them.” Since prophets connected people with God’s leadership, this breaking point in history moved Israel further away, rather than closer to, God’s presence and purpose. Read about Israel’s desire for a king in 1st Samuel 8.

Saul is selected as the 1st King of Israel, and initially, seems to embrace that as God’s blessing. There’s three different stories for how Saul became king. Read about the first in 1st Samuel 9-10, where Samuel anoints Saul for the throne in private after God led them to meet in a seemingly coincidental fashion. You’ll also notice the second story in 1st Samuel 10, where Samuel gathers all Israel at Mizpah, where all the citizens select Saul as their leader.  Continue reading in 1st Samuel 11 for the third story, where Saul’s chosen by the military after winning a significant battle over the Ammonites. What seemingly made Saul such a good choice was his humility and willingness to follow God’s lead.  Ask yourself: Why are there three stories? What kind of influence does each story reflect for Saul? 

However, Saul’s popularity didn’t last. He rather quickly rejected God’s leadership. One way to understand the story of Samuel and Saul is to understand their reactions to their challenged leadership.

Section 3: How Prophets Rise & Kings Crumble

So, how did Samuel become a prophet? It all begins with his mom’s faithfulness and prayer. Check out this video and read 1 Samuel 1.

Now, you’ve already read 1 Samuel 3, but check out this video for a creative way to see God call Samuel to become a prophet.

Samuel is called as a boy to become a prophet, taking over for his mentor, Eli. Samuel knows what it’s like to be the young upstart that God chooses to replace the older, more experienced leader. Eli, rather than lament the fact that his corrupt children wouldn’t follow in his footsteps as Israel’s prophets, instead supported Samuel in his growth as a leader. When the time came, Samuel remembered this witness, and so supported Saul’s rise to leadership as well.

Unlike Eli and Samuel, though, Saul rejected the Lord’s leadership rather quickly. Read 1 Samuel 13, where you’ll see Saul disobey God’s word through Samuel. Rather than wait for Samuel to offer sacrifices to God for victory in a battle, Saul chooses to do it himself, overstepping his bounds as king. Saul was also supposed to destroy everything of the Philistines in that battle, but chose to keep some of the best portions for himself. This led God and Samuel to reject Saul’s kingship, which you’ll see in 1st Samuel 14-15. Check out this video for a quick introduction.

Intense, right? This clip makes me wonder what exactly the problem was with keep the good stuff from battle. After all, we often say, “to the victor goes the spoils.” However, part of what’s happening here is an image of sacrifice. Since Saul offered an inappropriate sacrifice before the battle, God called him to sacrifice those spoils and give them all to God rather than taking any for himself. It wasn’t just disobedience that led Saul to lose his crown, but impatience, selfishness, and greed.

Through Samuel, God eventually selects another young warrior from the tribe of Benjamin to become king over Israel, but that story is for next time. For now, what’s important to see is that when Saul’s leadership is challenged, he disobeys God and seeks what’s best for him. Samuel, and Eli before him, followed God’s lead, even when it meant they lost authority and influence.

Section 4: What Does This Mean?

This is the question that Luther constantly asked in his catechism, and it will be the question that I’ll apply to many of the biblical lessons that I write. You might think about it in a different way: How can this Biblical passage shape your life?

First, think about it from the perspective of the Israelites. Though they didn’t know it, they pulled away from God’s leadership. But even in that God stayed faithful to them!  They asked for a king to replace God’s kingship, and so God tried to offer them a king who would provide solid leadership. God knew kings were more likely to oppress and harm people, so God chose to stay involved through prophets like Samuel and seek a king who would provide the best possible guidance. What does this mean? Even if you try to replace God’s role in your life, God won’t abandon you, but instead try to bring you the best possible way forward for abundant life. Ask yourself: How has God been thankful even when I’ve tried to replace God? 

Samuel and Saul by He Qi
Samuel and Saul by He Qi

Think then about Samuel. He was once a character like Saul, young and chosen for leadership far beyond his own significance or skill. Yet, when the time for him to step back so that Saul might step forward, he didn’t pitch a tantrum or disobey God. Even as human leadership changed, Samuel followed God’s leadership. To your life, there will be times when you’re the leader, the one with the expertise and God’s chosen to bless others from a place of privilege. There will be other times when you’re called to step back, to decrease so that others may increase, all that God remains the greatest among us. Ask yourself: Where might God call you to lead sometimes and step back at others? 

Now we come to Saul, the tragic figure in our imagery. It seemed at first Saul wasn’t interested in the throne. Anointed while trying to find some lost livestock. Hiding from the electorate who selected him king. Riding to the rescue only to save his people from humiliation, if not certain death. His heroics and humility, though, turned quickly toward selfish approaches to leadership. In common parlance, it went to his head. He lost the devotion to others, the obedience to God, and the humble attitude that so prepared him for kingship, and in that, he lost his crown to another young leader called by God to faithfully lead to the people of faith. Ask yourself: How would you respond to God’s call to leadership in your life? Can we both have compassion for Saul and learn from his mistakes? 

Section 5: Closing Prayer

I pray to you, O Lord, for others in my life and for all in public service. May the love you have revealed in Jesus Christ comfort, renew, and empower them. Especially I pray for public servants, the government, and those who protect us, for those who work to bring peace, justice, healing, and protection in this and every place, and for friends and family near and far who support me. Unite us all under the service of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord: Amen.

Opening and Closing Prayers from Sundays and Copyright 2016 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.