Category Archives: Scripture

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 10:38-42

The story of Martha and Mary is well known. Jesus visits their village and Martha welcomes him into her home. With Jesus, of course, comes his whole entourage: disciples and other followers. Martha gets busy making preparations for meals and other hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Martha is more than a little put out:

But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40).

She was probably not merely distracted, but pressured and stressed. She could have approached Mary directly and asked her help, but instead approaches Jesus, asking him to address Mary on her behalf. I wonder if things might have gone differently if Martha had quietly addressed Mary directly. Instead she questions Jesus—with a question that has a hint of accusation; “don’t you care?” Martha’s annoyance was not without cause: there was much to be done, and it is likely that Mary would usually participate in all the work of preparation. Showing hospitality to guests was a crucial cultural requirement in ancient Israel, and Martha was doing what she and Mary could be expected to do. We need also remember that Martha was doing good, working hard to serve others, to serve the Lord.

Jesus answers Martha, but not as she might have hoped. He ignores her request, refusing to act as a go-between between Martha and her sister. It suggests that perhaps she should have been more direct. (Note to self! How often do I pray that God might do something because I am hesitant to address a situation that I am, in fact, responsible for?) But nor does he take her implicit criticism personally. He does gently correct her, however, his “Martha, Martha” naming, acknowledging, and recognising her.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).

Somehow Jesus perceives that Martha’s upset in this instance is characteristic of her life in many things. Nevertheless, only one thing is needed—“man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4)—and this, Mary has chosen. Jesus’ words here are revolutionary in at least two ways. First is his insistence that only one thing is needed; the one necessary thing, the one crucial element without which we cannot go on, the one essential of all discipleship and ministry—to sit in Jesus’ presence and hear his teaching, his word of instruction, command, and promise. Second, Mary has chosen this. A woman might normally be expected to be working behind the scenes, involved in the preparations, doing that traditionally assigned as women’s roles. But Mary has chosen something different “and it will not be taken away from her.” “No,” Jesus is saying, “I will not tell your sister to help you. What you are doing is good and important, valued and required. What Mary has chosen is better.” A woman might choose a different path to traditional expectation, and Jesus will commend rather than rebuke her, if that path is to sit at his feet as a disciple, and to hear his word.

A prominent feature of Luke’s gospel is his frequent—and surely deliberate—use of women as models of discipleship. The contrast between Martha and Mary is that between good and better, and Mary serves as an example of the ‘better’ that every disciple might emulate. At the beginning of another year which will likely be just as busy, just as difficult and pressured and demanding and work-filled and distraction-filled and stressed as the last year was, it is imperative that we pause to remember the one thing needed: to sit in Jesus’ presence and listen to his teaching, allowing him to address us, hearing his word, and of course, doing it (Luke 11:28).

Matthew and Paul on “Righteousness”

This morning I preached an overview message on Jesus’ Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. In my preparation for the sermon I came across the following comparison in F. Dale Bruner’s wonderful commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

I suggest that in this use here [i.e. Matt 5:6] of the word “righteousness,” the key word also in Paul’s anti-Judaistic letters (Romans and Galatians), Matthew and Paul shake hands. It is true that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “righteousness” is primarily a moral term; this meaning is present in Paul, too, but it is secondary. Paul’s “righteousness” is supremely the righteousness of God given to believers in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s “righteousness” is predominantly a moral righteousness in disciples (and the plural “disciples” here and the plural nouns and verbs in all the Beatitudes are important and social). …

Any righteousness claimed before God that did not show itself in human righteousness or social justice toward people brought down prophetic wrath (see especially Amos). Matthew’s Jesus will unforgettably hammer away at this prophetic requirement of personal and social righteousness in text after text. In Matthew’s Gospel only the truly godly and humane get into the kingdom. But in Paul’s gospel, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

It is just here, however, in his different understanding of righteousness that I think Matthew’s Jesus most closely approaches Paul. For as we have seen in all the Poor Beatitudes, particularly in Matthew’s moral construal (“poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness”), it is the consciously unright or unrighted who are righted, it is the out who are brought in, and now it is those who want a righteousness they do not have who are promised they will have it. To say this is not to Paulinize Matthew; it is to see Paul and Matthew meeting at center: God is the giver of the kingdom and of the kingdom’s righteousness as well. This kingdom is still largely future, but, as we have seen, the future kingdom that Jesus preaches is already breaking in. All four Need Beatitudes say this; all four Beatitudes—and now I audaciously Paulinize—preach justification by faith; all four give God to those who are unable to get God by themselves.

But it would be fair to Matthew to stress that the righteousness longed for in his Gospel is not only heaven-sent (Paul’s great contribution) but also and distinctively earth-centered (Matthew’s great contribution). Paul colors righteousness sky blue, dignifying its source; Matthew colors it earth brown, honouring its goal. Paul the doctor of divine grace and Matthew the doctor of human mercy meet at center: in their deep appreciation for the gift of God. But one teaches in an unparalleled way that gifts’ source (who is God), the other that gift’s aim (which is people); both are needed, both canonical, both Christian (Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary Volume 1: The Christbook, 170-171).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 10:1-10

It is clear, from chapter nine, that God has chosen Saul to be king, in response to the people’s request or demand in chapter eight. He has identified Saul to Samuel, saying, “You shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me” (9:16). The biblical text uses the word nāgîd (“leader”) rather than melek which is the usual word for “king.” Nāgîd has military connotations and could have been applied to any of the earlier judges (see Evans, 66), although Murphy suggests that the distinction between the two terms conveys the difference between one who has been appointed to a role but who has not yet entered into active service in that role; she likens nāgîd to the contemporary idea of “president-elect” (Murphy, 80). It is evident, however, that the military leadership noted by Evans is intended: Saul will bring Israel deliverance from the Philistines.

At the end of the chapter Samuel takes Saul aside in private in order to tell him what God has said, and it is with this that the tenth chapter begins. A question regarding the text itself arises in verse one. The NRSV translates the verse,

Samuel took a phial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, ‘The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage (cf. also ESV; CEB; GNT)

while the NASB has more simply,

Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? (Cf. NIV; HCSB)

The difference is easily explained: the longer version reflects the reading in the Septuagint while the shorter reading derives from the Hebrew text. The Septuagint appears to reiterate 9:16. In both cases the word for ruler is, once more, nāgîd which fits the private nature of Samuel’s anointing; Saul’s public investiture will come later.

Samuel’s anointing has a sacramental character. He anoints Saul with oil, pouring it over his head—similar to the practice of anointing the high priest (see Exodus 29:7; cf. Psalm 133:1)—before advising Saul of several signs which will immediately follow. The oil itself has no spiritual or supernatural powers but is symbolic of the Spirit’s coming upon Saul which Samuel announces in verse six and which occurs in accordance with Samuel’s prophecy, in verse ten. Samuel anointed with oil but it is the Spirit’s presence and empowering which is crucial.

The coming of the Spirit is accompanied by a manifestation of prophecy—inspired speech, something not uncommon in the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 11:24-26; 24:2-3; 2 Chronicles 20:14-17). The analogy with the passage in Numbers 11 is particularly instructive: the coming of the Spirit is accompanied with prophecy but the Spirit’s coming is not, as it were, to make the recipients of his presence prophets; rather, the gift of the Spirit is given to equip the recipients for their administrative and leadership responsibilities, as is the case here. Nevertheless the prophesying does serve the purpose of identifying and encouraging those who have received the gift of the Spirit. Their experience confirms the divine call: Saul has been brought within the sphere of the divine call, assignment and work. His life has been incorporated into the divine activity and purposes.

The Spirit of the Lord will “rush upon” Saul (ESV) and so “possess” him (NRSV), with the result of the Spirit’s coming being that Saul will not only prophesy, but more importantly, “will be turned into another man” (v. 6). Later, in verse nine, it is said that God gave Saul “another heart.” These phrases indicate the transformational intent of the Spirit’s coming and presence. The Spirit comes to us as we are but intends change and transformation.

It is note-worthy that this is God’s work: God gave Saul another heart; Saul will be turned into another man. Nevertheless God’s initiative calls for human responsiveness and obedience—something we will learn later that Saul lacks, and with tragic consequences. Evans’ pastoral insight is, therefore, worth repeating:

Profound spiritual experiences can have profound effects on our lives, but do not change everything about us. We may be transformed, but we remain ourselves; conversion does not normally result in a changed body or temperament. … Sometimes we put heavy burdens on ourselves or on others by expecting the effects of spiritual transformation to be greater than they are (Evans, 71).

We are reminded here of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:12-13 where he encourages the congregation to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling…for God is at work within [them].” Spiritual experience is not an end in itself, nor a goal to be pursued as the aim of life with God. Spiritual experiences cannot be scheduled or demanded, but if they occur, may be received with awe and gratitude. However, they are meant as catalysts of a deeper obedience, and as doorways to new possibilities of service. Again, they intend to bring us into the sphere of the God’s activity. Rather than cul-de-sacs, they are the entry ramps to the highway of holiness and the service of God and his purposes. A whole life of salvation and service beckons and we dare not camp at the point of encounter. After the transfiguration Peter wanted to set up booths and remain at the point of revelation, but Jesus refused, and led him back down the mountain into the sea of human suffering and need (see Mark 9:2-29).

And so, too, with Saul. The Holy Spirit will “rush” upon him and he will be caught up in an ecstatic communal experience of the Spirit’s presence, his heart will be changed and he will be turned into another man. Nevertheless the end toward which all this leads is action: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (v. 7). Mystic experiences draw us into the divine presence that we might be sent forth to participate in the divine work.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 9

Read 1 Samuel 9

Chapter nine is a curious chapter, its portrayal of Saul, who is introduced here, open to various interpretations. Some scholars argue that the chapter, and indeed the Saul narrative as a whole, is a composite of different sources and traditions, some pro-Saul, and some anti. Others read the narrative positively, identifying those characteristics in the story which suggest that Saul has the right attributes to be king. Evans, for example, provides a psychological account in which she suggests that Saul may have harboured secret ambitions to be a leader, that he may, in fact, have had his own sense of calling to leadership which is now confirmed by Samuel (66-67). She further finds evidence for his suitability in the very ordinariness of his circumstances —obeying his father and searching for donkeys, and listening to the advice of his servant. Certainly Saul looks like king-material; he is tall and handsome and from a wealthy and influential family, despite his modesty in verse 21. Others, however, remain unconvinced and so find a very unflattering portrayal of Saul in the chapter. He is never defined as a man of God or as walking in his ways. He appears indecisive and lacks initiative, relying on his servant’s advice and even his money. When he meets Samuel he does not recognise him as the seer that he is seeking.

Despite this ambiguity, however, one thing is clear: God has chosen Saul. The whole story unfolds in an atmosphere of chance and coincidence—read: providence. Donkeys go missing; Saul arrives at Zuph just as Samuel does; this unknown man is “discovered,” pointed out by God to Samuel. The text is explicit:

Verse 16       
Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.

Then, when Saul arrives, the Lord speaks again to Samuel, saying to him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you” (v. 17). Evans is correct: “What is very clear in this instance is that the choice of Saul was entirely God’s. … There is no room here for misunderstanding. Saul was God’s appointed man” (65). This is no doubt the reason for Evans’ attempt to show that Saul was, in fact, an ideal choice to be king, or at least, a suitable choice.

This lack of ambiguity with respect to the divine choice, when viewed alongside the evident ambiguity of Saul’s character leads to further questions. Did God choose Saul knowing that Saul would prove to be a disastrous king, and so deeming this a somewhat disastrous choice? Did God choose Saul in this way to underline his displeasure in Israel seeking a king in the first place? Did God know whom he was choosing?

Those who recognise the work of divine providence in the story must find some way of answering these questions without compromising the divine foreknowledge and goodness. Open Theists, of course, are under no such constraint, being able to argue that God does not, in fact, know the future and watches it unfold as we do, in response to the freely chosen decisions and actions of the human actors involved. Ultimately, however, a view of providence in which God controls every action and outcome is as unsatisfactory as the idea that limits the wisdom and sovereignty of God as the Open Theist does. In the story of Saul, then, the mystery of divine providence and of the divine-human relation and interaction, comes into prominent focus.

God’s will in his choice of Saul is clear: you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines (v. 16). In language that echoes the Exodus and the call of Moses, God has “heard the cry” of his people, the voice of their suffering and oppression, and has raised up a leader for their deliverance. Ultimately, however, for those who know how this story proceeds, this saving will was frustrated.

Once more, Murphy’s reading of the text provides the benefits of wisdom and insight. Murphy rejects source-critical approaches, preferring a narrative reading to make sense of the text’s difficulties. She acknowledges the portrayal of Saul as indecisive and passive, but suggests that “the story is saying in the most emphatic way that Saul did not put himself forward, but was chosen by Yahweh” (74). The ambiguity of his character reflects the fact that he is “an unpainted canvas,” an unformed character: “what will he make of his beauty and strength when he becomes king?” (75). Neither overtly wicked nor overtly pious, the question arises concerning what kind of man and what kind of king Saul will become.

By presenting him as neither overtly wicked nor some pious Nazirite type, the author creates in Saul a figure who can make of the role of first king in Israel whatever he freely wills. … The question is what use he makes of his freedom. Our human freedom is intertwined in its choices with God’s free gifts of opportunities to act (75, 76).

God freely elects Saul with his people’s well-being at heart. Saul’s ignorance and lack of initiative in the selection signals Yahweh’s omnipotence at work. On the other hand, the blank and open portrayal of Saul’s character indicates that he himself is a free man, as yet indifferent with respect to the determination of his will. He has yet to make his choice between good and evil. … From here on, Saul has entered the arena where he will have to make free choices, and these choices will count (77).

I suspect that Karl Barth would provide a slightly different reading of the text. God calls Saul in sovereign freedom, not dependent upon Saul’s suitability or otherwise for this calling. But this call also takes the form of a command: Saul is commissioned as God’s leader, as the one through whom God will save his people. God does not leave Saul alone at a crossroads free to go this way or that. Rather, God has commanded that he should go in a particular way, taking a specific path and road; he is to go this way and not that. Saul’s choices, decisions and actions are still crucial and still “count,” as Murphy has noted. However, his failure is not merely a tragedy of poor choices or human inability, but of disobedience; that is, he has turned from the way in which he was directed, and pursued his own path, with terrible consequences. The rest of the story will be an opportunity to test this thesis. In the meantime, however, we note that divine providence is always at work, that the divine call involves a command and a direction, and that the divine-human relation is an encounter of the free God and the free human in which our choices, decisions and actions really do matter with respect to the historical unfolding of the divine will.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8 (Cont)

I have been surprised by what I have found in this chapter, and it is obvious that these reflections are only a beginning of the matter. There is much to ponder here.

My initial reflections centred on Samuel’s failure with respect to his sons, and the Israelites’ desire to be “like the nations.” Yet the chapter plays a critical role in the transition to a monarchical state. Hitherto the tribes have been a loose confederacy; God has been present amongst his people with the Ark being the symbol of this presence; and national leadership has been charismatic and ad hoc. Murphy notes that in tribal societies the extended family largely rules itself, is the centre of economic activity, as well as the transmitter of moral norms and identity.

What distinguishes tribal segmentary society from monarchy is not the hereditary principle, which is common to both, but that in a monarchy authority is imposed on kinship groups from without. What Samuel foresees is not just the emergence of monarchy but Israel’s coming to be a state. He pictures the state as substituting its powers for those of the family. … he is depicting the replacement of a brotherhood ethos with the authority of the state (Murphy, 62).

Introduction of the monarchy and its statutory powers will undermine familial and fraternal love as the basis of culture and society. Not only is the demand for a king a falling away from the covenantal relation between God and his people, but the familial and covenantal relations amongst the people are threatened by the rise of power relations and law. As previously noted, the people will trade valuable freedoms for visible security and accommodation to the nations, but in so doing will become “slaves” to a new bureaucratic order, and find themselves taxed and conscripted to pay for this privilege.

That the elders approach Samuel to make a king indicates not simply the esteem in which he is held, but the kind of authority he has attained amongst the tribes. As a prophet-judge, he represents God to the people, and the enactment of the divine will amongst them. By establishing the royal office he will provide legitimisation for the monarchy, and indirectly, indicate the divine approval of it. It is clear, however, that God’s approval for this development is conceded. God merely allows the people a king rather than commanding them to take this step. God grants the peoples’ request—against his primary will and against their best interests. God’s accession to their request is therefore in the realm of God’s permissive will.

In itself this is hardly surprising. Although human society without some form of government is virtually inconceivable, nowhere in scripture does God commend one form of government as the divine preference and command. Rather, it seems that the mode of government falls within the scope of humanity’s discretion. If this is true of church government in the New Testament, it is also true, it seems, of government in human society more generally. In this passage at least, it is apparent that the divine providence that not rule in such a way that the divine will is completely fulfilled in every detail. Rather, God gives ‘space’ to his people to make their own decisions and take their own actions within the limited sphere of their existence and responsibility—even when those decisions and actions are contrary to his express will. With this gift of freedom, of course, is also the realisation of responsibility for our use of it.

Nonetheless scripture is also realistic: all human government occurs within the context and arena of human fallenness; there is no perfect government and no perfect system of government. It may be that some governments and systems are better than others, and in this respect scripture has much to say, as I observed in my previous post on this chapter. But as Karl Barth noted in his second commentary on Romans, the divine Krisis falls on every human work. Even the revolutionary who is so disturbed by the evil of the present system can only install another system subject to the same evil impulses. Only the true and ultimate Revolution—the kingdom of God—will introduce the true order of justice and peace. In the meanwhile it is salutary for both revolutionary and reactionary to remember this, and to recall that their every effort can only be provisional at best, and that the best that they can hope for, is that their political work might bear true witness to the coming kingdom.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8 (Cont’d)

Read 1 Samuel 8

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel (vv. 4-6).

The reason for Samuel’s displeasure at the elders’ request is not immediately apparent, although it appears he takes the request as a personal rejection. It is unlikely he is displeased for his sons’ sake. The elders’ delegation made a formal request to Samuel, acting evidently on behalf of the people who echo their words to him in verses 19-20, and reject his counsel. The elders and the people want a king to judge them “like all the nations.” Up to this point, Samuel has been a judge who has also acted, to some extent at least, like a king. By dint of his prophetic persona he has united Israel after the disastrous war between the tribes, and facilitated the campaign that overthrew the Philistine oppression. But Samuel was not a military judge as some of the former judges had been, but a prophetic-judge; a king would unify sacred and military powers in a single figure (Murphy, 65).

Samuel’s displeasure is validated by the Lord’s response to his prayer; God, too, is less than pleased with this proposal, and God, too, understands this request in terms of personal rejection: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 8).

Here, perhaps, we see the significance of the ark narratives of chapters five and six. The ark does not simply represent the divine presence with Israel, but houses that presence. God is present with Israel but not controlled by them. God is supreme over the foreign gods and powers and vanquishes them in contest. God goes into exile for his people and returns to them. Yet God is present amongst his people in a highly symbolic and non-governmental way. What does it mean, then, for God to be King if he is not king in a literal and earthly sense? God does not exercise direct executive or judicial authority, but guides, protects and rescues his people through the judges and other intermediaries he establishes on their behalf.

“Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge…” (Judges 2:18). The ad hoc and charismatic nature of leadership in the pre-monarchical era required the people to look to God in dependence and trust for their preservation and deliverance. To live in and experience the blessings of the covenant required covenantal faithfulness on their part. By calling for a king, however, the Israelites were falling away from this primary relation and dependence by which they were constituted, identified and distinguished. Instead they sought to be like the other nations with a king who would represent them and fight for them. A standing army is easier to trust than a “God-in-a-box,” and a more secure arrangement than the ad hoc judges who arose from time to time to bring deliverance. Now the king will become the locus of their unity and identity as a people rather than God. But this visible means of security will come at a cost: the people are trading freedom for security and conformity to the surrounding world.

Samuel warns the people in great detail what will transpire under a monarchical system. They will give their sons and their daughters, their lands, harvests, and livestock for the king’s maintenance and for that of his retinue. In choosing a king they are also choosing a burgeoning bureaucracy and the taxation to support it. “You shall be his slaves, and in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves” (vv. 17-18). Samuel warns that in this turn from trust in God to becoming like the nations, the tribes of Israel will get what they want but they will not want what they get.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Read 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Samuel is old, has been judge in Israel for many years, and has gained the respect and affection of the people. But now in his old age, it appears that Samuel makes a critical mistake: He appoints his two sons Joel and Abijah as judges in his place. Until now we have heard nothing of Samuel’s personal circumstances, and still know nothing really of his wife and family. But now, in addition to their names, we know something else about his sons: they “do not walk in his ways,” but seeking to enrich themselves, took bribes and perverted the course of justice (vv. 3, 5).

Why has Samuel done this? Why has he appointed and retained his sons as judges in his place, especially when they prove unworthy of the role? Having seen what happened with Eli and his sons, is Samuel now to repeat the same mistake? Was there no one else he could appoint? At least Eli reprimanded his sons; there is no indication in the text that Samuel did the same.

Several questions arise, the first concerning, once more, the responsibilities of parenthood, or more generally, human nature in general. We saw in chapter two that God held Eli responsible for the behaviour of his sons, perhaps due to his failure to step them down from their priestly duties, given their disqualifying behaviours. It may not be Eli as parent but Eli as leader that has failed. Here, too, however, Samuel’s sons walk awry, interested more in personal gain than in fair dealing, justice, and public service. We know that Samuel is seen as possessing utmost integrity; has he somehow failed to pass this on to his children, nurturing in them the qualities so evident in himself? Or is this simply another instance of the wayward nature of human being itself, that when, given the opportunity of personal gain at the expense of others, many will prove willing to act corruptly?

A second question concerns the nature of hereditary offices, and whether nepotism invariably leads to the kind of corruption portrayed here. There is, actually, no real sense in which this was an act of nepotism by Samuel. Murphy, in fact, rejects this idea, arguing instead that in the kind of pre-state, segmentary, tribal culture that characterised pre-monarchical Israel it was natural that sons be appointed to the positions occupied by their fathers. Further, she observes, the elders who come to Samuel do not complain that Samuel appointed his sons per se, but that the sons, “do not walk in your ways” (v. 5). It was not that Samuel made his sons judges, but rather that the sons have become the kinds of judges that they have (Murphy, 62). This important observation will help lift this text beyond the kind of moralism that arises when the question of parenting is emphasised. 1 Samuel, after all, is about how the decentralised tribal society seen in Judges became a nation around a centralised monarchy.

Even so, the question concerning hereditary offices does not go away. The elders who come to Samuel are asking for a king: another form of hereditary office, which again indicates that it was not the appointment of Samuel’s sons which was itself the issue. Nevertheless,

The attitude toward kingship seen throughout the somewhat inglorious history of the monarchy is one of unresolved tension, and that tension is reflected in the ambiguity here. On the one hand, particularly in the Psalms, the monarchy is viewed very positively; it was a God-given gift. The king was God’s representative on earth, able to lead the people in their service of God and reflect God to them, helping them to understand his character and purposes. On the other hand, Samuel and certain of the prophets saw the monarchy as a rejection of God and his kingly rule; the king stood between the people and God, drawing their allegiance to himself and away from God. In this view, the monarchy was neither necessary nor useful for the life of God’s covenant people (Evans, 57).

The Scripture itself, according to Evans, does not resolve the question of the hereditary office, but it does provide perspectives that help us think about the question, and about the nature of Christian leadership in general. To the extent that the king exercised his authority in a priestly manner, directing the people toward God and representing God’s character and purpose to the people, it is affirmed. To the extent, however, that the king aggrandises himself and pursues his own will to the detriment of God’s purposes both for himself and for the people, his leadership is rejected. Samuel’s sons did not “walk in his ways,” and on these grounds are rejected. Nor is the fault Samuel’s: they are responsible for their actions.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 7:3-17

Read 1 Samuel 7:3-17

In verse three Samuel reappears in the narrative, having been out of the picture since chapter 4:1, and out of the picture for perhaps as long as twenty years. After their devastating loss to the Philistines Israel was indeed impoverished, and subject at least, to Philistine power. During this time Samuel continued to grow, not only in years but in his call, service, maturity, and reputation. Samuel was a prophet-judge, a circuit judge “bringing justice and encouraging worship” on an annual basis in the region where he served (Evans, 54). The four cities mentioned—Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah—are all centrally located a little south of Shiloh.

But Samuel appears to have done more than become a localised prophet or judge. In verse three he is addressing “all the house of Israel,” with a call to repentance that includes a rejection of idolatry. In the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history idolatry was a perennial issue, a form of religious-cultural syncretism, in which Israel were not whole-hearted in their devotion to God. Samuel confronts this attitude head-on:

If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

To the modern western mind, the idea of idolatry is curious if not foolish, primitive and superstitious. But the ancient Israelites were simply adapting themselves to the surrounding cultures, adopting their mores and religious values, and the promise of security that they brought. Seen in this light, idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues, but seeking one’s security in and setting one’s heart on anything other than the one God. Samuel will have none of it. True repentance will be indicated by the sole devotion of their hearts toward God; there is no place here for a divided heart.

True repentance, and true religion, are matters of the heart. This is understood in the Old Testament as the defining and motivating centre of human personality. It is this centre, as representing the whole, which is to “return” to the Lord in full and sole devotion. “For human beings,” says Murphy, “monotheism is never just a theory, but a decision” (52). And if Israel will do this, Samuel promises, God will deliver them from the power of the Philistines.

Samuel, it seems, has managed unify Israel, or at least gathered them in unity to Mizpah. The prophet-judge is in this sense also a prophet-general, a military as well as juridical and religious leader, as was common with a number of earlier judges. The gathered people confess their sins and make an offering to the Lord.

What happens next is difficult to describe. There is both a military confrontation and a divine intervention. Or it may be that the divine intervention was through the military confrontation. Murphy suggests,

What happens in the story theologically is that ‘the Lord thunders’ against the Philistines and throws them into terrified flight; what happens humanly is that all the tribes act as one; and these two, the human and the theological, occur simultaneously (53).

All the focus of the narrative is on Samuel and his action. Samuel does not fight; he prays and sacrifices, and God hears and answers his prayer. Certainly Israel fights and pursues; certainly God superintends and gives deliverance. Yet it is Samuel’s leadership, his wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God which calls, inspires, and gathers Israel, and acts as a lightning rod of divine presence in the face of imminent threat and crisis.

There is no doubt that this was a significant military victory: the power of Philistia over the Israelites was decisively beaten for the whole period of Samuel’s life. More significantly, it was a crucial stage along the road of Israel’s national and religious development. Through the force of Samuel’s example, spirituality, and leadership Israel, emerging from a period of terrible defeat and oppression, was becoming unified as one people devoted to one God.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

Read 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

The ark has wreaked havoc in Philistia, or so it seems, and the leaders want rid of it. They seek the counsel of the priests and diviners, who suggest returning it with a “guilt offering” so that healing might come to the people. On the one hand, they assume that the trouble that has befallen them is the direct action of Israel’s God. On the other, however, a question remains whether this is in fact the case, or whether they have had a particularly bad run of luck (v. 9). Nonetheless, their counsel assumes that the root of their problems is God.

The guilt offering suggested was five golden mice and five golden tumours—corresponding, probably, to their afflictions, and presumably, to their cause. By sending these tokens with the ark they acknowledged that this plague had come from God, and by sending them out of the country, they also are symbolically sending the plague away. Although it is easy to view the Philistines as deeply superstitious, such a characterisation is less than fair. Indeed, the text itself indicates that the Philistines are aware of what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and take it as a warning (v. 6).

The priests and diviners do not make it easy on themselves. They insist on a new cart with cattle that have never been yoked. They choose milk cows with calves, but take the calves away from the cows. The cows are left free to go where they will, yet they do not return back to their calves, but go straight toward the land of Israel; the plagues have not been a coincidence.

The people of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the ark and offer appropriate—and costly—sacrifices. But, and here the story takes an interesting twist, some of the people look into the ark and are struck dead. (One wonders what Calvin would make of those who seek to “peer into the depths of God.” Calvin repudiated such speculative attempts to apprehend the essence of God, and insisted that we content ourselves with that which God has revealed.) Again there is a difficulty in the Hebrew which suggests that perhaps 50,070 people were killed, but the structure of verse nineteen is difficult, and most translations and commentators opt for the more “reasonable” number of seventy. Nevertheless, this cost is too great for the people of Beth-shemesh and they send it away to Kiriath-jearim where it remains for some twenty years.

In chapters four and five we found that God had judged his people and allowed them to be decisively defeated. God has also allowed himself to be “captured,” to be taken into the hands and control of the pagans, to be exiled and cut off from his people. And yet God is not captured, not exiled, not defeated, and not controlled. God remains Lord even in “defeat.” God bears witness to himself where Israel has failed to do so, and so wins the acknowledgement and grudging respect, if not the love, of the Philistines. God has now returned from his exile, returned to his people, but God will not be their captive or their possession either. The people of Beth-shemesh have transgressed the boundary, presumed upon the divine majesty, and failed to consider his holiness. They have not, as the early Barth insisted in his first Romans commentary, “respected the distance.”

It is likely, as Murphy notes (48), that no one really understands the disasters in 1 Samuel 5-6, for the passage lies beyond our historical ability. This does not mean, however, that we can gain no instruction or benefit from it. The ark is the symbol—and sacrament—of the divine presence. Indeed Murphy declares that “it is not possible to understand this carnival of the glory of the Lord in his ark without appreciating sacramental power” (49). The ark is an earthly tangible thing, but simultaneously the divine throne by which God is present with and enthroned amongst his people. Its potency is “a visible symbol” of the glory that it bears (ibid.). As the divine throne it is also sacred, and to be acknowledged, honoured and treated as such. Evans (50) wonders whether Paul might have had a passage like this in mind when he warned against misuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Within the overall structure of the narrative, another insight dawns. The ark is now housed at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—a back-water, out-of-the-way kind of place—side-lined, and marginal to the life of Israel, until David retrieves it and brings it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. This is a figurative portrayal of the sidelining of God in the national life; the divine kingship is marginal until David is established as king and the ark restored to Jerusalem (see Murphy, 51). If this interpretation is accepted, it provides a lens through which the rest of the book is to be understood, and in particular, the reign of Saul.

One further point of instruction may be possible. It may be appropriate to read this text typologically or allegorically, as pointing to Jesus Christ, who is in his own flesh, the presence and covenant of God with us. He, too, was captured, taken into the hands and control of the pagans, cut off from his people, exiled from God and nation—yet not captured, defeated, exiled or controlled, but victorious. But this text would also warn us that we either have Jesus on his own terms or not at all. He is never our possession, but the holy God who has come to us in mercy, and the merciful God who nevertheless ever remains the holy One who is Lord.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.