The Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary Ligon Duncan once said, ‘There is nothing whatsoever surprising about sin. Holiness, however, is the most surprising thing in the world.’ You ever thought about that? We’re fallen people living in a fallen world that’s full of other fallen people, and because fallen-ness is now the norm, sin isn’t surprising. We not only see it all around us, we see it in us. Because sin is the norm, when God comes into the life of a sinner, redeems them, and makes a new creation of them, to see something other than sin streaming forth from their life, to see holiness begin to grow is wonderfully surprising in a fallen world. Today we see such things in our passage in 1 Samuel. Both the prophet Samuel and King Saul surprise us with holiness.
Follow along as I read 1 Samuel 10:17 – 11:15.
a) A Surprising Rebuke (10:17-27)
As Samuel had gathered Israel before in chapter 7, here in chapter 10 Samuel calls all the people to gather at Mizpah once again. This was going to be an occasion to remember, all preparations had been made, a stir was over the people, the whole nation was gathering to see who God would make King. It was a historic event for the history of Israel, and in the midst of the excitement Samuel opens his mouth and changes the tone in a second. His first words to the people in v18-19 were surprising to them to say the least. He said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to Him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and by your thousands.’ Samuel surprised the people intentionally to remind them that this was their doing. In asking for a king they were rejecting God as their King and in light of that what do you expect Samuel to say as this sinful ceremony begins? ‘So good to see all of you here today for this happy occasion that brings us together?’ Not a chance. He brings up the elephant in the room, and boldly states what no one wants to remember.
Think about this. We live in a culture that highly values politeness, and because of this there are things you just don’t talk about. Talk of the latest election news – fine, talk of weather – great, talk of sports – perhaps even better, but mention Jesus, His Gospel, or sin? You just don’t go there. For some reason many of us within the Church have believed this too, such that we don’t really fear God as much as we fear the awkwardness of what would happen if we brought God into a conversation. But take a step back and recall, aren’t you glad God’s not afraid of being awkward? Aren’t you glad that God cares nothing about being politically correct? God loves His people too much to merely offer us niceties when more pressing and eternal matters are at stake. His love is a relentless love, His love doesn’t settle for less than what is best for us. So when Israel is in sin here before Samuel at Mizpah, or when we’re wandering off into rebellion what does God do? Comfort us with mere political correctness and leave our sin alone in the dark because it’s too weird or uncomfortable to speak of? No, He brings dark deeds to light, He tells the truth, and for our good He continues telling us the truth until we hear it, repent from our sin, and return to Him.
In v20-21 Samuel goes through the process of casting lots to show Israel publicly what he and Saul already knew privately. The tribe of Benjamin was chosen, the clan of the Matrites was chosen, and low and behold, Saul son of Kish was chosen to be king. But the people encounter a problem in v21, ‘when they sought him, he could not be found.’ His hiding place is apparently so good that no one can find him without divine aid. There’s a bit of irony in the text here, because at this point Saul seems as lost as the donkeys he was trying to find in the previous chapter. It’s also ironic that they’ve rejected God as king, yet need to ask God to find their king for them, that very sequence of events should’ve reminded them that only God should be their king! Yet they ask God, and God says, ‘He has hidden himself among the baggage.’ We can ask why Saul did this and come up with many possible explanations. Some commentators believe it to be humility that moves Saul to hide, I disagree. Rather than showing a humble spirit, I think Saul is showing a fearful timidity, he knows he’s not fit to be king. Even a child can see here that such action of hiding among the luggage when called on to be king wouldn’t inspire great confidence in the people. That their new leader is fearful of taking up this role wouldn’t inspire hope within the people. Yet it seems that as soon as all Israel saw Saul they forgot about his hiding and become enamored with his appearance. Whatever the reason was the prompted Saul to hide, the author isn’t concerned to tell us.
The passage quickly moves on in v23-25 giving us the rest of the events of this kingly inauguration: Saul is found, taken from the luggage, presented to the people, the people recognize his physical prowess, and after the people shout ‘Long live the King!’ Samuel writes down the duties and responsibilities of a king in a book. That Samuel wrote down the duties and responsibilities of a king for Saul is meant to teach us that even royalty is subject to the Law of God. President, king, tyrant, or Pharaoh all must bow the knee to God Almighty. This would’ve made Saul not a king but a vice-regent. We must remember this. Martin Luther remembered this as he was presenting his case for the truth of the Reformation before Pope Leo and his cardinals, and reminded them that they’re not the head of the Church, only Christ is, and they as well as he must bow the knee to Him. John Knox knew this and against the advice of almost everyone, in the 1560’s, called Queen Mary to come to a trial of the people for both adultery and murder. Samuel wrote God’s Law in a book for Saul, to show Saul that his kingship will only function properly underneath that Law.
After this he simply sends the people away. Notice here that Samuel’s tone remains the same from v17 when he rebuked the people for asking for a king. At other times in Scripture when grand events like this take place, whether David is being made king or Solomon has just finished the temple, we normally find great and long speeches being given and deep heartfelt prayer being made, words are given that match the magnitude of the moment. Yet here at Mizpah, Samuel begins with a harsh word of rebuke (perhaps that’s what prompted Saul to hide in the first place) and ends the ceremony without any concluding remarks or prayer. He makes him king and quickly sends the people home, which tells us much of what Samuel thought of the occasion. As they return home we see two opposing reactions to Saul being made king in v26-27. Men of valor returned with Saul to his home in Gibeah, while other men mocked and despised him saying ‘How can this man save us?’ Whether or not Saul learned the lesson in this, we ought to. Leadership among the people of God always (not sometimes) brings division. Some will follow you to the end, while others will leave or ridicule as soon as you arrive. Perhaps God does this to keep His leaders humble, to keep us reliant on Him, to ensure that we know any success had is success from His hand, not ours. Really this isn’t surprising, if Jesus experienced the same thing during His earthly ministry and He’s our Head, why should we experience something different? As goes the head, so goes the body. Lesson? We’re all leaders to some extent in life, remember that division is not always bad. Though unity is preferred, division will take place, but division for the sake of truth is something to be praised.
b) A Surprising Victory (11:1-15)
While a few shouted ‘How can this man save us?’ as chapter 10 ended, we find their question answered in the beginning of chapter 11 where we see the military debut of King Saul. In v1 it’s Nahash the Ammonite who attacks Jabesh-Gilead. Many historical documents (including the dead seas scrolls) will tell you that it was Nahash the Ammonite, who led a kind of tour of terror throughout the regions east and west of the Jordan. He had conquered the Gadites and Reubenites, and after he gouged out their right eyes a large group of these peoples escaped as refugees into the city of Jabesh-Gilead, so naturally Nahash comes to that city next. It seems from v1 that the battle was quickly in the favor of Nahash which prompted the people of Jabesh-Gilead to cry out asking for mercy and surrender. Nahash granted their request but had conditions of his own: he wouldn’t kill them but as was his custom he would gouge out all their right eyes to bring disgrace on the whole nation. To remove the right eye would’ve brought disgrace because in this culture soldiers had armor that covered the left eye…so with each right eye being removed means these people literally wouldn’t be able to fight back.
See the cruelty of Nahash here, enjoying making a mockery of his enemies, wanting to permanently bring disgrace onto a whole people, being so pompous that he allowed Jabesh-Gilead 7 days time to send for help. This is a man who not only knows he’s powerful, this is a man who takes great delight in his ability to humiliate others. History books are filled with men like this, who enjoy inflicting lasting pain on as many as possible. Joseph Stalin, a man like Nahash, once said ‘To choose the victim, to prepare the blow with care, to satisfy a merciless vengeance…and then go to bed, there is nothing sweeter in the world.’ We may look at men like this, men like Nahash, and think, ‘How could a person be so wicked?’ but the answer is staring back at us in the mirror. Sin, even outright and unapologetic sin, isn’t surprising. Do we not see the very same things at work within us? Too often we think the world is full of bad guys and good guys when Biblically we see only bad guys and Jesus. So learn from this an evidence of true conversion: rather than seeing yourself as better than this guy or that group of people, the Christian always sees themselves as the greater sinner.
The rest of the passage plays out as follows: in v3 they sent out a message for help across all Israel, in v4 the message reached the home of King Saul in Gibeah, in v5 King Saul learns of the news, and in v6 we see the one thing that made all the difference – the Holy Spirit rushed upon Saul and created within him a holy and righteous anger. Because of this in v7 Saul sent his own message to all Israel, a message that terrified the people, and prompted them all to come out and meet Saul to wage war against Nahash. In v8 we learn that 330,000 men had come to wage war, the people of Jabesh-Gilead find out that help has come and they become glad in v9 and go ahead and make a phony surrender to Nahash in v10, saying ‘Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.’ Then in one verse, v11, we have the entire war and it’s result. King Saul was victorious, Nahash who arrogantly humiliated many was humiliated himself.
That the Spirit of God does this through Saul who lives in Gibeah means God brought salvation to His people from Gibeah, and by doing this God does another thing that’s surprising. If you know your Bibles well you’ll remember the great sin of Gibeah. In Judges 19 we see strangers came to Gibeah from out of town, lodging in an old man’s home, all the men of Gibeah came banging on the door demanding to have homosexual relations with the new visitors, the old man refuses and gives the angry mob a young concubine to abuse, which they do for the entire night. Because of Gibeah’s lack of repentance, a civil war erupts among the tribes of Israel, and the tribe of Benjamin (who mainly resides in Gibeah) is almost entirely wiped out. From this point on Gibeah is known, not for holiness, but for its vile men who live there.
So see the pattern in our passage: just as God surprised His people with a sharp rebuke from Samuel, just as God surprised His people with a great victory from spiritually absent-minded Saul, God brings another surprise by bringing that great victory from the town of Gibeah. How could such things happen? How could such glory come out of such wickedness? Remember Zechariah 4:6, ‘Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts.’ This is why we see all of these surprising events. Salvation didn’t come from their righteousness but it came in spite of the unrighteousness. Salvation didn’t come because king Saul who taller or stronger than another man, salvation came because their king had God’s Spirit. Israel must learn this. So too, the Church today must be reminded of this: we read of Israel’s story and are surprised, yet when we think of our own story of salvation we aren’t surprised because we think we deserve to be saved. Be reminded Church: that we know God, that we understand His ways and His Word doesn’t speak of anything in us: our worth, our value, our beauty, our righteousness, NO, it speaks of God who by the power of His Spirit opens the hearts of sinners and applies the finished work of His Son to us. ‘Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts.’ This is the banner over Israel and the banner over our own salvation. (Charles Spurgeon – ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ as he walked up the steps of his pulpit.)
After the great victory in v12-13 the people want to kill the naysayers who spoke against Saul at the end of chapter 10, but Saul again surprises us and shows grace because God had worked salvation in Israel. Then in v14-15 Samuel gathers all the people in Gilgal to renew the Kingdom. It was in Gilgal where they made Saul king, and where Saul and his people rejoiced greatly.
c) A Surprising Gospel
There we have it, three surprising events. Recall, nothing should surprise us about sin, it’s holiness in a fallen world that takes us by surprise. Surprising holiness shown in a rebuke from an angered Samuel…surprising holiness shown in a victory from a Spirit-filled and righteously angry Saul…and surprising holiness shown in the renewal of the sinful city of Gibeah. Such surprises remind us of the greatest surprise in history, that God would show mercy and grace to sinners like you and me. From our sin we deserve death and hell, and if God treated us fairly He would’ve gave us just that. But God, being rich in mercy, deep in love, and lavish in grace – sent His Son into the world to be treated like a bad guy, bear the punishment of bad guys, and die the death of bad guys, even though He wasn’t a bad guy, to redeem God’s elect in all nations and in all times for the glory of His Father. To sinful man, the entrance and ministry of the God-Man is the most surprising event in the world. So as Israel renewed their allegiance to the kingdom after their great victory over Nahash, we must continuously renew our allegiance to the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.