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The Leaders God Chooses: Samuel

September 6, 2009

Sermon: The Leaders God Chooses: Samuel
Text: I Samuel

We began our series of sermons entitled The Leaders God Chooses several weeks ago with Moses and conclude today with a leader who is no less important in the history of Israel – Samuel. Having a knack for being the right person at the right time, Samuel filled every role available to a Jewish man in his day and time: prophet, priest, military leader, and judge. A key transitional figure in the life of Israel, Samuel is considered the last of the Judges and the first of the Prophets.

I want you to keep in mind two bits of background information as we consider the story of Samuel. First, many of the mighty armies had been defeated under the period of the Judges and under the leadership of Joshua. At the time of Samuel, the Philistines are the arch-enemy of the people of Israel. This very powerful group had entered the Iron Age long before Israel did. They were a seafaring people who lived along the Mediterranean coast and controlled that part of the world. Because of that fact, the entire area of Israel or the Holy Land became known as Palestine, a word that comes from the Philistines. As early as 5 B.C., both the Greeks and the Romans adopted the word Palestine, but it was never used in the New Testament. That lets you know how the Jews really felt about the name. For them, this region was the Land of Promise. It was the land of Israel.

Second, you need to know as background that a good bit of strife occurred in Samuel’s family. We see that Samuel’s father, Elkanah, had two wives: Peninnah and Hannah. The friction between these two wives is one of the reasons that monogamy is such a good idea. The conflict centered on the fact that Peninnah had children while Hannah did not. In this period of history, it was considered a shame, a disgrace, for a woman not to be able to have children.

Every great epoch in the history of the people of Israel began with the miraculous birth or the miraculous saving of a child. Consider the period of the Patriarchs with the birth of Isaac, born to the very elderly couple of Abraham and Sarah. Consider Moses, rescued from the infanticide of Pharaoh by his sister and mother and adopted into Pharaoh’s household. During the period of the Judges, we see the miraculous birth of Samson to a couple thought to be barren. Now at the time of transition between the Judges and Prophets, we have the miraculous birth of Samuel. Fast forward to the beginning of the New Testament and the miraculous births of John the Baptist and Jesus. This story of Samuel’s birth falls right into a pattern we see throughout the pages of Scripture.

Every year at the time of celebrations – probably the Feast of the Tabernacles – Elkana and his two wives went to a tent, a sanctuary, in Shiloh where they worshipped and made special offerings. Hannah was a woman of prayer. Because she was childless, she prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed while at the sanctuary. She was so caught up in her prayer that the old priest Eli assumed she had drunk too much wine. Explaining her plight that being childless was a disgrace, she promised that if she had a son, she would give him to the Lord “for all the days of his life…” (I Samuel 1:11). Hannah added a Nazarite vow to her promise, saying that no razor would ever touch his head. Eli assured her that God was going to bless her. Sure enough, Hannah conceived and had a son, whom she called Samuel, a name that means “dedicated to the Lord.” His hair grew longer and longer with each passing year.

Three years after his birth, Hannah came again to the sanctuary at Shiloh and presented Eli, an act that in our day and time would be unthinkable. We have concern about child protection, caution about adult predators. Eli received this child so that he could train him in the temple to be a priest. Eli promised Hannah that she would have more children. Hannah did have five more children.

We are going to look at a number of verses in I Samuel as we walk together through the story of Samuel. We will pick up the story at Chapter 2, Verse 22 where we read that Eli, very old at the time, learned how his own sons, also priests, were abusing their office. He learned that they were sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Caught up by greed and lust, they were blatantly defying the law of God. Eli questioned his sons about their wicked behavior and tried to correct them, but they did not listen to their father’s protests.

In contrast, young Samuel was growing into adulthood. Look especially at Chapter 2, Verse 26: “And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men.” Do you remember what the Gospel of Luke says about Jesus growing up in Nazareth? Luke 2:52 states that he also “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

As Samuel grew, he received training in the particulars of serving as a priest under Eli. I do not know all the responsibilities that preparation entailed, but it included tending to the small details, like polishing candlesticks and lighting the lamps when he was old enough. The details he would be responsible for would be taken care of by an altar guild in one of the more liturgical churches. In time, he would be trained how to offer the sacrifice and divide the sacrifice. Let me call your attention to Verses 19-20 in Chapter 3: “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.”

If we look at the last verse in the book of Judges, we read, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Anarchy prevails when no one is leading, when no one is guiding, when no one is giving direction. I have every confidence that Eli was good at the details of being a priest. Just because a person holds a position of authority, however, does not mean he or she is automatically a good leader. A good leader does not just hold an office. A good leader is competent. A good leader has the right character and knows how to connect with those he or she is leading. Sometimes a leader is called to leadership in a vacuum. That is exactly what existed in Samuel’s case. God called into this vacuum this boy Samuel, who was exactly the kind of leader the people of Israel needed.

We want to look at the principles of leadership we see in the life of Samuel. Look back at the beginning of Chapter 3. Listen to these words: “In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” The prophet Amos talks about a time when there will be a famine of the word of God. These people are starving to death. The word of the Lord was “rare”? There “were not many visions”?

I do not know how old Samuel was when he first received the call into leadership. He was probably an early teenager when God spoke to him. You have heard the story about his calling in Sunday School. If we read carefully, you see that he was asleep in a very sacred place, the sanctuary, which was a tent. If you are in a building by yourself or in a tent by yourself, it is possible to hear anything. I have been here at the church by myself at night, and it is easy to see how Samuel might have heard noises during the night. The blowing wind could sound like a voice to Samuel.

Chapter 3:2-10: One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the LORD called, “Samuel!”

And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy.

So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

God actually gave Samuel a frightening message he did not want to hear, a prophecy of doom on the house of Eli, his mentor. The next morning, Eli, noticing that Samuel was avoiding him, asked, “Samuel, what is it? What was the vision? What did you hear last night?” Samuel then confronted Eli, with the news God had told him. Because Eli but had not been a very good leader and had not restrained his sons from being contemptible, God was going to punish the house of Eli.

Samuel learned several principles of leadership through this experience. Think about Solomon. When he became king, he prayed that God would give him a heart with skill to listen. A good leader listens, not just with two external ears. A good leader learns to listen with his heart, as well. Samuel knew how to do that. Second, he also learned that a good leader has to be willing to confront others, even people he loves, even people he respects. Samuel had to confront Eli, this man who had held the position of priest.

The time came when the Philistines engaged the people of Israel in battle and defeated them soundly in a major attack. Israel fled from the Philistines, and the army suffered heavy losses. We see, in Chapter 4, a frightened Eli sitting in a chair beside the road, watching. A runner, wearing torn clothes and shaking dust from his head, traveled all the way from the battle line to Shiloh in order to reveal a message to Eli. This man, a Benjamite, revealed in Chapter 4:17: “…your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” That sacred Ark of the Covenant had been with the children of Israel through their wilderness wanderings. Now the Ark was in the hand of the enemy, serving as a trophy of war. The words of Samuel horrified Eli, now an overweight a ninety-eight-year-old man. He fell over backwards, broke his neck, and died.

I tell you that it was a dark day in Israel: the army had been defeated; thousands of warriors, including Eli’s two sons, had been killed; the priest Eli had died; and the Ark had been captured by the Philistines. When Phinehas’ wife bore her child, she named him Ichabod, saying “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”

If you have ever seen Steven Spielberg’s fantasy movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know not to mess around with the Ark. A rather strange event happened when the Philistines captured the Ark. They soon learned, as the enemies of the people of Israel, that they should not have taken it. When they placed it in one of their major cities, a tall statue of the god Dagon crumbled to pieces. They moved it to another city with the same results. Eventually when they moved the Ark to Ekron, a disease like bubonic plague came upon the people. People broke out in tumors, and rats were everywhere. It was horrible.

The Philistines devised a very weird plan to get rid of the Ark. They hitched two cows that had just birthed calves to a wagon and loaded the Ark on it, thinking surely the cows would try to find their calves. Instead, the cows high-tailed it straight into the land of Israel, confirming to the Philistines that they had no business stealing the Ark. The Ark was returned to its rightful owners.

We see Samuel step up to be the leader.

Chapter 7:5: Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the Lord for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah.

These people had engaged in idolatry of false gods. Samuel told them, “Listen, before we can ask the Lord to help us against the Philistines, we have to get that cleared up. No more idolatry. No more idols. We have to be fully devoted to the one true God.” Once they made that decision and confessed their sins, Samuel assured them they were going to defeat the Philistines in battle even though the army of Israel was greatly outnumbered.

When the men started down the mountain at Mizpah for battle, they heard thunder and thought it was the voice of God. In the Hebrew language, the word for thunder and the word for voice are one in the same. When that storm struck, the Philistine army must have thought the thunder was the voice of God, too. The army went into complete chaos, and Israel soundly defeated them. In fact, we are told that the Philistines did not invade Israelite territory again for many years, not until the time David defeated Goliath.

Following the victory, Samuel brought everyone back up the mountain. Chapter 7:12: “Then Samuel took a stone and set up a monument to God between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the Lord helped us.”

Skip to Verse 15: “Samuel continued as judge over Israel all of the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an altar there to the Lord.”

One of the undoings of any leader is age. A turning point occurs when Samuel grew old and appointed his sons as judges. They were as sorry at leadership as the sons of Eli had been. The people decided they needed another kind of leader.

Chapter 8:4: “So all the elders of Israel were gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

Samuel threw a fit because he did not like the idea at all. The very idea that the people of Israel would displace the one true king, Yahweh, and ask for another king! Samuel prayed to the Lord.

Verse 7: “And the Lord told him, ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.’”

God instructed Samuel to give them a warning, which he did: “You do not know what it is like to have a king. A king is going to take your daughters and make them manufacture perfume. They will wait on his tables and serve as bakers in his kingdom. He will take your sons to serve as slaves, working for him. He will commandeer your livestock. He will take the strongest men out of all your villages and use them to carry out his building projects. You do not know how corrupt a king can be.”

Samuel did not think they needed a king, but they insisted, “We want a king anyway. We want to be like all the other nations.” Samuel and the Lord become complicit, and they agree that the people will have a king. Another principle of leadership: People are not always going to follow a good leader.

Samuel began looking for a likely candidate and considered a young man named Saul who seemed to have many admirable qualities. When it came time for Samuel to anoint Saul as king, Saul hid and could not be found. That should have been a clue right there. Here is a principle of leadership: a good leader must be a good leader all the way through. Just having a good start is not enough. Saul had a good start but a sorry ending.

After Saul was anointed king, Samuel resigned, feeling the people no longer needed a judge. They gave up a mighty good man when Samuel resigned. In Chapter 12:20-23, Samuel promised to intercede for them and continue to pray for them. A good leader will pray for people, even when they are wrong.

Another principle of leadership is that a good leader knows that others being led will not always take advice and follow directions. Sometimes the very people you think will be strong and do what is right will break your heart. They will disappoint you. That is what happened with Saul.

Chapter 15:10: “Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I am grieved that I have made Saul king because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.’ Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.”

Samuel found Saul on top of Mount Carmel. Caught up in the grandiose feeling about what a great king he was, Saul had built a monument to himself. When Samuel confronted him about his disobedience, Saul made excuses every time, saying, “I kept some animals because I needed to offer a sacrifice to the Lord.” A verse to remember is I Samuel 15:22: “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice.’” Samuel lived by that lesson, but Saul never learned it. He was eventually removed from kingship.

We see Samuel one more time at the home of Jesse, preparing to anoint another king. This time, he would anoint David, a shepherd boy, a man after God’s own heart. God said to him, “Samuel, do not pay attention to the outward appearance.” God looks at the heart. What a lesson! Young people, let me tell you something. When you are looking for a marriage partner, the outward appearance should not matter. The heart matters. God was looking for a man after His own heart. David made many mistakes, but he was devoted to the Lord. God is looking for that kind of leader.

God wants every single one of us to be leaders. We are not all going to be elected to an office, but we all have leadership responsibilities – maybe in our school as teachers or principals, maybe in our homes, maybe in our work. God is looking for a person who is after His own heart, a person who knows that obedience is better than sacrifice, a person who knows that service is more important than position, a person who does what is right every time for a lifetime. Are you that kind of leader?

In our Christian faith, when we accept Christ Jesus as our Savior, when we acknowledge him as the Lord of our lives and invite him to lead us, we become the kind of leader God desires. That decision transforms our work. It transforms our lives. If you have never acknowledged Christ as your Savior, we invite you to make that decision.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2009

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