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Samuel: The Personal Failings of Our Greatest Leaders
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Eli, while righteous himself, has very wicked sons, really terrible, Hophni and Phinehas. God points this out and rebukes Eli for not rebuking them sufficiently, and rejects Eli and his entire family from the high priesthood. Saul also so lovable and humble at the beginning, he fails by sinning and God rejects him and his dynasty from the monarchy. King David, we start off by seeing his incredible strengths, his astounding hits that he rise up to, and eventually we get to see his weaknesses as well, including his grand sin with Uriah and Bat Shevah. This sin led to severe consequences for David, for his family and ultimately for the nation. The prophet Samuel who is going to be the focus of this series of shiurim, is the bastion of God’s will, he’s the prophet. He also is the last judge from the period of the judges and becomes the transitional figure into the period of the monarchy that kicks off in the Book of Samuel.
Samuel being a prophet, is the connection between the people and God, he even brings them successes in the wars against the Philistines, the leading enemy of that period. During this first union of the Book of Samuel, we are going to be taking about the title character himself. Even though Samuel is a prophet, and therefore the ideal figure of all humanity, there are some surprising interactions between God and Samuel. Although the prophetic narrator shows clearly how close Samuel is with God, and how respected he is by the people, he also is trying to show us something in a subtle way about Samuel’s relationship with God, in order to teach us something about our relationships with God.
While the prophet Samuel is largely in sync with the Word of God, he also brings his personal feelings to the table as a human being. Samuel’s blurring of the objective Word of God with the subjective personality of his own, lies at the heart of these narratives. When we dive into the text itself, we will be unpacking the statements, and trying to find the eternal lessons in the Book of Samuels.
Samuel would have been the ideal leader had he lived forever, but of course, even great prophets eventually grow old; and so the people were thinking about succession. And so Chapter 8 begins, “When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons judges over Israel. The name of his first son was Joel, his second son’s name was Abijah, and they sat as judges in Beer-Sheba. But his sons did not following in his ways, they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes and they subverted justice.” What a disaster and obviously unfit for succession. And so the elders come up with a great diplomatic way of describing to Samuel the situation in coming up with their proposals. “All the elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah, and they said to him, ‘you have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us to govern us like all other nations’.” How should Samuel react to this seemingly benign and legitimate request? Samuel is growing old and his sons are certainly unfit for succession.
Well, despite the seeming reasonableness of it all, Samuel gets furious at them. “Samuel was displeased that they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord.” He is displeased. We don’t know yet why; but we know that he is furious. God’s response is fascinating. “And the Lord replied to Samuel: heed the demand of the people and everything they say to you, for it is not you that they have rejected, it is me that they have rejected as their king. Like everything else that they have done, ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and worshipping other gods; so they are doing to you. Heed their demand, but warn them solemnly and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”
God says that kingship is like idolatry, it’s horrible; it’s a rejection of God’s kingdom, and as a result, they are ungrateful, they are terrible, God is furious at them. But amazing, God also says, “Heed their demand”, he doesn’t say, “I’m going to smite them”, he doesn’t say, “let’s put a lid on this right now and cut them off and tell them what they need to do instead”; no. God actually balances a remarkable straddling of the fence here between what the people want which is to have a king, a change in the form of government that they’ve had to this point, and the fact that there is something sinful in this. But Samuel never sees the positive side. Samuel always reject monarchy and always considers this a complete rejection of God’s kingship. But why doesn’t Samuel also see the positive side?
If we go back to verse 7, we see something fascinating, “And the Lord replied to Samuel: heed the demand of the people and everything they say to you, for it is not you that they have rejected, it is me.” What that implies of course is that Samuel felt an element of personal rejection, and that seems to lie at the heart of these Samuel narratives. On the one hand, Samuel is completely in sync with God’s anger and disappointment in the people, for rejecting or threatening to reject God’s kingship, but Samuel does not see the positive element in monarchy at all. He does not see that the people are trying to gain a centralized government to protect them from the Philistines. As a result, Samuel blending the objective Word of God, with his own subjective feelings of rejection, create a distance between him and God.
Just to demonstrate this point, in Chapter 9 vs. 16, when the young Saul comes and approaches Samuel, listen to how God describes it, “At this time tomorrow, I will send a man to you from the territory of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him ruler of my people Israel. He will deliver my people from the hands of the Philistines, for I have taken note of my people, their outcry has come to me.” Why does God want a king here? It’s to help the people. He realizes that the people are suffering from the Philistines, they need good leadership, he recognizes their voice as well; but Samuel never does. Samuel continues to identify with God’s fears about the dangers of the monarchy, but he simply does not see the positive aspect; there is a gap.
Let us consider a second example. In Chapter 12 at the second anointing of Saul, the second coronation, it’s Samuel last address to the people. What would you expect Samuel to say given that God has accept the kingship and given the Saul was actually an incredibly humble and righteous man? Perhaps by now Samuel will support the monarchy and praise Saul and say “long live the king. This is God’s chosen one.” But, that’s not what he does at all. Samuel retains his absolute anti-monarch stance and blasts the people calling them ‘rebels against God’ ‘rejecting all of the lessons of Jewish history’, ‘rejecting God’s own kingship’. But before he does any of that, which is the majority of Chapter 12, and the majority of Saul’s second coronation, Samuel says something in verses 2 and 3 that we need to look at together – “Henceforth, the king will be your leader. As for me, I’ve grown old and grey but my sons are still with you, and I have been your leader from my youth to this day. Here I am, testify against me in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of his anointed one. Whose ox have I taken or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you.” That’s amazing. Before Samuel goes into his objective tirade explaining that , at least in his view, the request of the monarchy itself is an objection of god’s kingship, he first injects the person; he feel personally rejected and he also feels that his sons have been rejected. That’s amazing. Is it possible that Samuel is going to stick up for his sons and wanting his own corrupt, bribe accepting sons, to become his own successors despite the incredible righteousness and integrity of Samuel? Evidently, it’s hard to see the flaws in your own children even if you are a prophet. And in this regard, Samuel is blurring again the objective divine concerns about the monarchy, with his own subjective feelings; he feels personally rejected, he feel threatened by this request, and he feels that his own children have been rejected. Samuel never therefore sees the people’s side. The people want a king in part because they want to protect themselves against the Philistines, and God completely upholds and justifies this request and of course gives them a king. But Samuel never sees the positive element, not to his dying day.
In our next segment, we’ll see an even more dramatic example of the ongoing disconnect between God and Samuel as it pertains to the anointing of David.
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