The last two chapters of 1 Samuel introduced us to the person and character of Saul. We learned that his assets were mainly on the surface: his grand size and physique. Beneath this was little more than vanity and lack of integrity. Yet the people embraced Saul for his outward appearance despite multiple warnings. Chapters 11 and 12 continue with the theme of deceptive appearances, extending it into the actual reign of Saul.
That reign begins with an overwhelming show of military force, a victory, and then a show of mercy on Saul’s part. Judging from this, it would seem that Israel had made a wise choice. The “hooah!” national greatness crowd could not have been happier at this point. Yet when renewing the national civil covenant officially under Saul, Samuel sees the need to continue with stern protests and warnings to the people. We are told why: there is great danger when evaluating ourselves by temporary successes rather than God’s Law. This is true for individuals, and also for nations. As the text will relate, Israel would be in danger of placing its trust in empty things that cannot profit or deliver (12:21).
Saul’s Early Success
Chapter 11 relates Saul’s inauguration both as a military leader and in the official sense as a political leader. This was a just cause, as a foreign nation had besieged a city of Israel. There is some theological symbolism here as well: the enemy was Nahash the Ammonite. Not only was Ammon an historical enemy of Israel, but “Nahash” means “serpent.” It is the same word used for the serpent in Eden and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament. It is also the word used for “enchantment” or “divination,” and thus would have been a title boasting the king’s wisdom and connection to the gods. But here the Hebrew audience would have understood an immediate connection with Genesis 3 in general. In the immediate context, it bespeaks a test for Israel just as Adam had with the tree.
Initially, the people of Jabesh failed that test. They were so terrified of Nahash they were willing to make a covenant with him, which would have meant subjecting themselves to his rule. This was absolutely forbidden for God’s people, and reveals just how faithless they had become. It is no wonder they were so willing to demand a king like other nations, rejecting God, for they were actually much more rebellious than that; they were willing not only to have a king like other nations, but to submit to a king—and thus a law—literally of one of those pagan nations. This was total apostasy. And in fact, Samuel reveals that it was this very confrontation with Nahash that motivated Israel’s call for their king (12:12).
Jabesh was willing to submit to the foreign serpent-god-king, but Nahash’s terms were steep. Nahash was a no-compromise foe. He did not just want dominion, he wanted humiliation: “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel” (1 Sam. 11:2). This was actually God’s mercy at work: the terms were so harsh that even rebellious and idolatrous Israel balked. Nahash’s brazen offer was about the best thing that could have happened to them in this situation—absent repentance and turning to God, that is. The elders of Jabesh requested a week to consider the offer, buying time to seek an alternative (11:3). The alternative would be the asking of that king like all the nations, which meant in this case the rejection of God. To these faithless and fearful elders in this situation, it seemed like deliverance compared to Nahash’s offer. But let the lesson be clear: those who refuse to stand faithfully for God and His Law will end up demanding the lesser of two evils and calling it good politics.
When the news reached the land of Saul, the people reacted in despair. There was no call for repentance or prayer. When Saul himself heard, the text says that the Spirit rushed upon him and his anger was greatly kindled. I don’t believe this was a godly response to the Spirit. Righteous anger in such a situation seems appropriate, but we know that the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God (Jam. 1:20). And such a reaction is not commonly used to describe God’s leaders in battle. David, for example, will never in this book be described as reacting to military threats with anger, despite being harassed, maligned, chased, and attacked repeatedly by Saul, as well as engaging in multiple battles with foreign enemies. Saul’s first test as a military leader is already beginning on the wrong foot—that is, with the wrong heart.
Sure enough, Saul proceeds to call the nation to arms in an ungodly and unbiblical manner. There is no appeal whatsoever to the process outlined in God’s Law. That process was for the priest to address the assembly, quell the fears of the people, remind them that God fights for them, raise a militia of expected but voluntary fighters, and then allow several opportunities for men not to be compelled to fight (Deut. 20:1–9). But Saul does just the opposite on almost every count. He does not consult the priests, does not have a priest address an assembly, and proceeds in his anger to use threats of violence, destruction of property, and thus fear to compel all the nation’s men to fight:
He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” (11:7).
Instead of “fear not,” Saul imposed fear. His tactic had just that effect: the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man (11:7). It was Saul’s establishment of the military conscription Samuel had predicted (8:11–12), and it affected virtually the whole nation: it resulted in a massive army 330,000 men. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it is the opposite of godly obedience. John would later write, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Saul was instituting a society and a national defense campaign based on fear—not on the love of God and neighbor, and certainly not on love of liberty. Saul’s administration proved to be the lesser of two evils indeed: a free people had become servants of their government.
Just as fear is a powerful motivator, so are the passions aroused by collectivist, nationalistic behaviors. Many people mistake nationalism for patriotism, especially when the military is involved, and especially when the cause seems so large. Joining a cause greater than yourself can be ennobling and addictive, but if it is not a godly cause to begin with, or if not embraced in the way of God’s love, then it will grow destructive to society. This is especially true, as we shall discuss in a moment, if the ungodly approach results in pragmatic success. Men then justify their ungodly methods and schemes and then seek to enforce them further upon society. Thus does tyranny spread in the name of success and “God bless America.”
Saul’s campaign met with massive success: Israel routed the Ammonites in a decisive battle. And indeed, the self-justifying and tyrannical lusts of nationalism raised its ugly head even higher. In such an atmosphere, criticism of the government becomes dangerous. Remember those critics back in 10:27 who despised Saul and fell into cynicism? Following Saul’s initial success, a pro-Saul party arose which called for the execution of his political opposition: Then the people said to Samuel, “Who is it that said, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring the men, that we may put them to death” (11:12). This was a threat to all who demurred from Saul’s kingship. His administration and party was moving immediately to annihilate all political opposition in Israel. Considering that Samuel had warned the people so sternly, this death threat implicated even him. That the would-be executioners addressed this to Samuel was a slap in his face. They were trying to put the old man—whom they assumed had been proven wrong—in his place. Pragmatic success to the forces of nationalistic and political party pride like blood in the water is to sharks. God’s Law once set aside in such a case opens into outright advocacy of murder.
Saul reacted to this bloodthirsty call with probably the most praiseworthy act of his that we have recorded. In a moment of recognizing God’s hand of mercy in their victory, Saul extended mercy himself. He would not allow these gung-ho super-patriots to execute the dissidents. Saul said, “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has worked salvation in Israel” (11:13). Indeed, it was a good act.
Such an act also made for good PR for the new government. But when an administration has already started off acting contrary to God’s Law, this type of good PR is actually detrimental to society in general. It sends false impressions to people: it portrays the tyrant in a good light, allowing average people to be deceived about his qualities and in that deception support the government that much less critically. We will discuss this more in a minute. In short, for what is going to be a wicked government in general, acts of goodness leave false impressions—fuel for government propaganda.
The New Normal
After Saul nixed the murderous desires of the “brown-shirts” among his supporters, Samuel called all the people to an assembly to renew the kingdom (11:14). This is an important watershed moment for Israel. It marks the end of the period of Judges and the beginning of the period of the Kings; it was the official reconstruction of civil society according to the wishes of the people: the replacement of God as king with a monarchy like all the nations. From this point on, Samuel is reckoned more as a prophetic voice to the king rather than a judge (Acts 13:20–21). Although he is considered as having judged Israel all the days of his life (7:15), he is also considered the beginning of the prophets (Acts 3:24).
As a prophet, just like as a judge, it was Samuel’s job to preach the truth of God’s Word to the people. And the truth about this new arrangement was about to come as a wet blanket upon the victory party. The kingship may be the new normal, but the new normal did not mean God’s Word would cease being the standard. The people and their king would still be held to the covenant under their covenantal head.
As a prophet, it was Samuel’s job to bring covenant lawsuits in behalf of God against Israel when necessary. His warnings throughout chapter 12 are nothing less than his first court case: he calls the people to court; he brings testimony of his own faithfulness, testimony of God’s faithfulness, and evidence of Israel’s unfaithfulness. He calls God Himself as witness to all of this. He calls Israel to dare cross-examine him (12:3); not one can bring evidence against him. Instead, both God and God’s anointed (Saul himself?) could testify only in favor of Samuel (12:5). In testifying of God’s faithfulness to the people, he recounts God’s deliverance of Israel on so many occasions. Samuel brings this up in order to say stand still that I may plead with you before the LORD (12:7). The word “plead” here literally means “judge.” He then reminds the Israelites that even though God had been so faithful in the past, the people forgot the LORD their God. And he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab (12:9). Yet when they cried out, God delivered them time and again. But now they had made a decisive turn for the worse: just as those faithless fathers in the past, Israel now faced a foreign oppressor. But this time, instead of crying out to the Lord, the people said “No, but a king shall reign over us” (12:12). Samuel’s point in all of this is to emphasize the nature of this watershed covenant renewal: it was based in rebellion and was a turn for the worse in reacting to God’s judgment. Despite all of the exultation and euphoric nationalistic pride at the moment, the decision they had made was not good.
Nevertheless, God would remain faithful to His promises. Samuel gave them both sides of it: salvation and deliverance were still possible if Israel obeyed, but further judgment loomed just as close:
If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king (12:14–15).
In this, Samuel was merely recalling the historical sanctions of the covenant from Deuteronomy 28–29. But in light of Israel’s already close rebellion and glorying in Saul’s waging of unbiblical war, the warnings of Deuteronomy 8 seem more apropos. Israel historically had been warned against making false assumptions about their own prowess based upon historical success:
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God (Deut. 8:11–20).
And to drive home the nature of the judgment looming for such disobedience, God gives something of a repeat of Sinai:
Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking for yourselves a king.” So Samuel called upon the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel (12:17–18).
We must not ignore the fact that this frightening sign from heaven came because up until this point (which must include Saul’s first battle), Israel’s wickedness was great. For emphasis, Samuel repeats the fact: you have done all this evil (12:20). Thus, Samuel’s instruction to be faithful must be understood here as a reproof: Israel needed to straighten up. They had installed this king and had not even begun that kingdom on the right foot. They needed not only to be faithful, but to return to faithfulness already.
In this context we find an implicit criticism of Saul who was probably standing right beside Samuel at the time: do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty (12:21). The word for “empty” (tohu) is very theologically suggestive: it is the word used for the formlessness of the primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2. It was formless and void matter before God continued to make it the creation we know. The word is later appropriated to describe Israel before God delivered her: “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10). What was the point? Israel was empty and hopeless, uncreated so to speak; but God came along and made her into a new creation. The word is not that common, so its appearance is likely strategic. I think Samuel was tapping biblical-theological language for a reason here: he was warning Israel not to return their nation to uncreated chaos—decreation so to speak—but to live up to the status of new creation which God had made them within the covenant.
Yet this would be a work in progress. Having chosen a king whose tendencies were already toward rashness, selfishness, self-reliance, self-will, anger, etc., returning to obedience as a nation—especially in government—would prove a very difficult, uphill task indeed. Having already placed their faith in man and military might to begin with, it would be hard for Israel going forward, especially after initial success, to avoid placing their trust in vain things which can neither profit nor deliver.
1. Beware of false assumptions from success
Israel continually forgot God in their successes. In this passage, they justified and compounded their disobediences based upon their success in battle. Yet their success had been arrived at by God’s grace, and certainly not by their own humanistic, unbiblical, fear-mongering methods. To assume otherwise is to commit a basic logical fallacy to begin with: confusing correlation with causation. The fallacy was even more elementary considering God had given them His Word up front. They should not have made any assumptions other than what God has revealed.
To attribute success to other causes, especially unbiblical, self-justifying ones, is to reveal the idolatry at the root of one’s disobedience. It is the classic sin of placing oneself on God’s throne, and assuming that our word and our way should replace His. On the social and political level, when addressing large issues like war and foreign policy, this sin may come packed with appeals to necessity, emergency, crisis, and threat. The appeals to address it with unbiblical means are almost always justified in that context. Such solutions are alleged to be the only viable, practical measures, or at least better than the alleged alternative. The issues involved are presented as too complex for simple biblical solutions, and thus obedience to God is dismissed as simplistic, outdated, or even naïve. National experts—Christians and conservatives—will be called upon to provide rationalizations for unbiblical measures, and God’s Word will not enter into the discussion at all. The explanations will come across as reasonable and even profound. They will be presented as necessary. And yet they will be disobedient. They are no better than the transparent attacks on family values from the left. They are in reality nothing more than a sophisticated form of “If it feels good, do it.”
We today are prone to this error in various ways, and politics and national policy are some of the most dangerously abused areas. War is an obvious example. Even if all previous rationalizations for waging a particular war were shown to be dubious at best, many proponents can still rationalize based upon certain objective “successes”: “You can’t argue that the world isn’t a better place now without that tyrant in it.” At this point, it would not matter if the war had been started and maintained throughout in a completely godless manner, against every law God has given us; the many proponents of said war will cling to that apparent success marker as a justification of themselves, their policies, and their favored administration.
Likewise in politics in general. Otherwise good and faithful men will stoop to endorsing candidates who do not meet biblical criteria for office, some even who deny the Christian faith and wish to replace it with the superstitious doctrines of men—i.e. empty things that cannot profit or deliver. And why? Merely because the other side is perceived to be even worse. Thus in America today we are so often cajoled even by our Christian brothers to choose between Nahash and Saul, even when God would prefer us to have neither. Yet such pressure is brought to bear upon Christians unapologetically and with long lines of rationalization why such a decision is necessary. The motivation is, just as with Saul, fear and often anger as well.
Such candidates are often presented as a stepping-stone to a more faithful government. We must take baby steps and work by gradualism in politics. Thus the initial compromise candidate is acceptable, we are told, as the first step along the way. From this, however, should we not expect some progress once such a candidate is in office—progress towards conservative freedom upon which we can build those next steps? Yet, when such a candidate gets into office, what happens? He does little more than hold the line, and sometimes fall back further. The “success” of winning the office is taken as justification of the statist status quo and not an impetus to further reforms or roll-backs of government. The success is used to justify further legislation of humanistic policies. In other words, the compromise side of the compromise is all that materializes; the promises used to gain the votes of biblical Christians never do. Such is the fruit of placing your trust for the fulfillment of God’s promises in men who deny that God and His Law to begin with. The compromise candidate ends up being a stepping stone to social hell, not glory.
Another area in which this is most abused in finance. There is no more unbiblical abomination at the heart of modern life than a monopolistic fiat currency. In this nation, the Federal Reserve System and the “printing” of money is the beast. God’s Word clearly calls for just weights and measures, and a false balance is just as much an “abomination” (Prov. 11:1) as abortion, sacrilege, idolatry, or sexual deviancies. The manipulation of the value of money and the priority distribution of huge sums to government for welfare and warfare programs, and to favored banks and industries, is the very abomination which God condemned. Yet many Christians and conservatives, even may alleged proponents of free markets, support and defend this system as a good and necessary thing. And the rationalization for it is just like Israel’s support of successful Saul: it has brought us such great success. Who can argue with the system that has produced the largest economy and greatest financial superpower in human history? Beat that, chump. But God’s Word does beat that. It trumps all standards, despite any others’ claims to pragmatic success. Pragmatism is not our Law; success is not to be defined by human fiat or human measures, but by faithfulness to God’s Word.
We must beware of all such rationalizations in our lives, including these in the social sphere. We must have the integrity and courage to call unfaithfulness what it is, and to call propaganda what it is. When bad government does good things, we must remember that in God’s eyes, it is still bad government imposing bad policy. We must continue to preach and seek reform according to God’s Word. Do not be deceived by appeals to past successes or promises of future success if they do not honor Him. Remember that the solution to the many serpents that surround us is rarely if ever more government, especially programs, police measures, and wars that contradict God’s revealed standards of social life. We cannot place our trust in vain things which can neither profit nor deliver, and we must judge such things by His standard. Let us not congratulate ourselves based upon our own delusions.
2. Civil freedom requires strict application of God’s Law
In reproving the people for their extravagances under Saul, Samuel called them back to the standard of the covenant, God’s Law. He did this in the context of a covenant lawsuit, calling the whole nation to witness before God. He set up a contrast between his civil government and the one they had just chosen under Saul. The contrast was stark. We have already discussed the unbiblical approach of Saul, but consider also that Samuel’s defense of his government fell solely along the lines of God’s Law:
Here I am; testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you” (1 Sam. 12:3–4).
Samuel’s administration was marked by strict protections of private property, strict honesty (upholding of contracts), freedom (no oppression), and impeccable justice. The people confessed this. His was a government that protected life, liberty, and property, and made no exceptions to enrich himself through his position.
The contrast is against what Saul would become (1 Sam. 8) and indeed, had already started to become. The new normal would be marked by oppression, taxation, appropriation, and eventually corruption and all forms of dishonesty as well. In this context, the return to godly government would prove nearly impossible. In this setting, those establishment super-patriots unleash their oppressive tactics against dissenters, and the corrupt government becomes entrenched more deeply in its corruption. The system soon grows so corrupt that honest men cannot even get elected because climbing the ranks of the system requires one to become corrupted along the way. Exceptions are few. Those who oppose the establishment—even those who criticize from a conservative, Bible-believing perspective—are marginalized, ridiculed, and pushed out of the party. They may not be in danger of politically-motivated calls for execution at this point, but this narrative shows us that this can indeed be a danger even among God’s people. And of course, modern history is filled with examples of murderous and tyrannical statism among “conservatives.” Don’t forget that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were all in the conservative parties of their national equations. All of them confused nationalism for patriotism, and all were willing to murder political opposition. Don’t think that America can remain immune if we continue to trample God’s Word as the standard for political and social progress.
The only plan to maintain a free society is one in which the government is held strictly limited and accountable to God’s Law. At the legal level, a free society requires strict fiscal accountability, strict protection of private property, strict enforcement of contracts, and freedom from oppression. Civil governments are instituted among men to protect these things. For this reason, God gives the power of the sword to the civil magistrate. But the agency which has the power of the sword must itself be held strictly accountable, or else oppression, theft, and fraud are inevitable. Once accountability is compromised, compromise becomes a precedent. Government by compromise and corruption become the new normal, and the cycle of God’s judgment sets in. If we think that our political devices, economic successes, or military might are going to serve us well apart from faithfulness, then we have already accepted the delusion that invited the tyranny of Saul upon the Israelites. We must stop and reverse this trend with national repentance and a call for godly government, serving the Lord with our whole hearts. While there is time, while there is hope, let us speak like Samuel: far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way (12:23). Let us pray for our states and teach openly God’s plan for a free society.
And for the record, let those preachers who refuse to do so note that Samuel considered such negligence a sin before the Lord.