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Samuel: The Personal Failings of Our Greatest Leaders
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God recognizes that monarchy is very, very dangerous; it threatens God’s own kingdom. But simultaneously, God recognizes the request of the people that it could be beneficial, it could help them against the Philistines, it could centralized the government. Samuel saw only the negative aspect of monarchy, and never saw the people’s perspective as a result of his own subjective feeling of rejection both of himself and also of his sons. But the last example we’re going to look at is even more dramatic.
As much as we’ve been talking about how Samuel oppose the very institution of monarchy, that he saw it as a rejection of God’s kingdom, really loved Saul; he was so righteous, he was so humble. When you meet him in Chapter 9 and then going on through the narratives, he seems so innocent, so pure, you want to love him. In fact, Samuel, right when he anoints him, kisses King Saul. That’s amazing. No prophet go around kissing kings on a regular basis but yet it starts off on a very affectionate, loving note. And Samuel grew to love his protégé, he realize Saul would be his successor and he groomed him, he wanted him to serve God properly, and ultimately he loved him very dearly.
Unfortunately, King Saul disobeyed God in the war against Amalekite in Chapter 15. He spared King Agag, and he and the people, spared some of the choice livestock. God rejected him from the throne. How should Samuel react when God comes to Samuel and says, “Samuel, Saul has sinned. He did not do what I told him to do. I reject him from the monarchy, him and his dynasty. We have to find somebody else.”? You might think that Samuel would say, “Yes! This is fantastic! I am so happy to hear that the first kingship was a failure, and maybe the next one will also and then eventually the people might learn that monarchy is bad. But how does Samuel responds? Let’s look at Chapter 15 vs 10-11.
“The Word of the Lord then came to Samuel, I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from me and has not carried out my commands. Samuel was distressed and he entreated the Lord all night long.” Poor Samuel. He stays up all night crying to God saying “please, forgive him. Pardon him. Let him go on. Let him have a dynasty. Don’t let this happen.” Samuel sticks up for his protégé even though God himself says that Saul is out, Samuel now says, “I wish that Saul would still be king.” And listen to verse 35, the end of the episode. “Samuel never saw Saul again till the day of his death, but Samuel grieve over Saul because the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” Samuel goes into a state of mourning, he feels almost like his protégé has died, because after all, God has rejected him. Just like Samuel felt personally rejected when the people asked for a King, and he felt upset that his sons had been rejected, he is now upset that God has rejected Saul, even though Saul deserves it, just as Samuel’s sons deserved rejection for their sinful behavior. And now it’s time to anoint Saul’s successor, who you and I know of course to be David. But read the beginning of Chapter 16 together with me, and you are not going to believe this dialogue.
“And the Lord said to Samuel, how long will you grieve over Saul since I’ve rejected him as king over Israel? Samuel, enough! I realize that you love him, but done! I am God, and I have rejected him because he has sinned. He’s objectively finished. It’s time to find a replacement. Fill your horn with oil and set out. I am sending you Jesse the Bethlehemite; for I’ve decided on one of his sons to be king.” Why in the world didn’t Samuel just go? Something is holding him back. Look at verse 2. “Samuel replies, how can I go? If Saul hears of it he will kill me.” Wow! What a response.
The Talmud, followed by Rambam, suggests that actually Samuel was genuinely afraid here and it was legitimate. Even though they had a deep and loving relationship, the fact is, if Samuel anoints a replacement for Saul, Saul rightly may view that as an act of rebellion and take umbrage and want to kill Samuel. Abarbanel doesn’t think so. Abarbanel hears in Samuel’s voice hesitancy. The reason why he makes up these excuses is because he don’t want to go. He is dragging his feet; he is stalling. He is trying to come up with some kind of rules to not need to go. But god says, “Just go.” “The Lord answers, take a heifer with you and say I have come to sacrifice unto the Lord.” Look stop make up these excuses, I have a good counter argument for you, you need to go and anoint somebody. And so begrudgingly Samuel goes. Turn to verse 6 as Jesse presents his sons.
When they arrive, he sees the person who turns out to the first born Jesse’s son, namely Eliab, and without even waiting for God to tell him who the right successor for Saul is, Samuel sees Eliab and immediately says, “Oh, this definitely is the right one.” Listen to God’s response and you’ll realize what Saul saw. “But the Lord said to Samuel, pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For not as man sees, does the Lord sees. Man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” Forgive me for a minute, but “what?” Samuel is a prophet of God. He understands full well that there is more to a king than height. It’s ridiculous that a prophet will look at a tall man and say, “this must be the next king”. Samuel surely knows what God goes on to tell him, that it’s the inner traits that make somebody righteous, the inner traits that’s are going to make somebody a great leader. Why in the world did Samuel just not wait for God to explain or to appoint, “this is the right one”? Well, Radak sees through Samuel’s voice in this one. The prophet does know better. But Samuel is so in love and enamored with Saul, and he is so shadowed and heartbroken that Saul has been rejected, what is he looking for here? He wants somebody who reminds him of Saul.
Saul was also an extremely tall man and is described as such in the Book of Samuel. When he sees tall Eliab, he’s like “okay. I see King Saul in this man, he must be the right one.” And God says, “Samuel, you’re missing the point yet again. I know you want to serve me, you’ve been an excellent prophet, and one of Israel’s greatest prophets and leaders ever, but Samuel, there is a difference between us that has come up over and over. As a human being Samuel, even a prophet cannot be fully in sync with the divine will. Samuel, you’ve been doing this the whole time. While your will is largely in sync with mine Samuel, you’re a wonderful prophet, and we’re so of the same mind, 99% of the time, your personal feeling towards your own leadership, towards your sinful and rejected sons, and now towards this sinful and rejected Saul, color that picture and they create gaps between us.” This is the essence of our relationship with God or anyone else. To build a relationship with God or with any person, you cannot see things entirely from your own perspective, we have to transcend ourselves and hear the other point of view.
Now while Samuel might have been able to somewhat hear the voice of the people, and the voice of Saul, he couldn’t fully transcend himself because no person can; no person can be fully objective. Samuel at the end of the day was still colored by his own subjective perspectives. He wanted to see himself rule, he wanted to see his own children rule, he wanted his own protégé Saul to remain as king, even after God told Samuel that Saul had been rejected. First Samuel pleads to God, then he stalls, then he prematurely selects Eliab because he was tall and at least resembled King Saul. God says something to Samuel that hits him right between the eyes and that’s something you and I are supposed to carry through the entire narrative and bring with us into life.
Our relationship with God, or our relationship with any other person, we need to be able to strive to look beyond ourselves, to transcend ourselves and to genuinely hear and internalize the voice of the other person, or in the case of God, to hear God’s perspective. Nobody, not even a prophet can fully do that. Our story sets up a vivid model for us to learn from through the interactions between God and Samuel. God then gives Samuel and us a deep and profound lesson and tools for us to do this; to align ourselves with others, whether God, whether peers, families, etcetera.
We must constantly attempt to transcend and look beyond the external, beyond ourselves, beyond our own subjective perspectives. It’s a never ending journey, but the important feature of our story is to make us absolutely conscious of this that we can embark on a life long journey towards growth, towards trying more and more to hear the other person’s voice, trying to look beyond ourselves. This is one of the key messages of the Book of Samuel. When we can internalize this message, and we can improve all of our relationships with other people and with God.
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