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THE FINAL REJECTION OF SAUL.
1 Samuel xv.
Here we find the second portion of God’s indictment against Saul, and the reason for his final rejection from the office to which he had been raised. There is no real ground for the assertion of some critics that in this book we have two accounts of Saul’s rejection, contradictory one of the other, because a different ground is asserted for it in the one case from that assigned in the other. The first rejection (1 Sam. xiii. 13, 14) was the rejection of his house as the permanent dynasty of Israel, but it did not imply either that Saul was to cease to reign, or that God was to withdraw all countenance and co-operation with him as king. The rejection we read of in the present chapter goes further than the first. It does not indeed imply that Saul would cease to reign, but it does imply that God would no longer countenance him as king, would no longer make him his instrument of deliverance and blessing to Israel, but would leave him to the miserable feeling that he was reigning without authority. More than that, as we know from the sequel, it implied that God was about to bring his successor forward, and thereby exhibit both to him and to the nation the evidence of his degradation and rejection. It is likely that 242 the transactions of this chapter occurred when Saul’s reign was far advanced. If he had not been guilty of fresh disregard of God’s will, though David would still have been his successor, he would have been spared the shame and misery of going out and in before his people like one who bore the mark of Cain, the visible expression of the Divine displeasure.
Throughout the whole of this chapter, God appears in that more stern and rigorous aspect of His character which is not agreeable to the natural heart of man. Judgment, we are told, is His strange work; it is not what He delights in; but it is a work which He cannot fail to perform when the necessity for it arises. There is a gospel which is often preached in our day that divests God wholly of the rigid, judicial character; it clothes Him with no attributes but those of kindness and love; it presents Him in a countenance ever smiling, never stern. It maintains that the great work of Christ in the world was to reveal this paternal aspect of God’s character, to convince men of His fatherly feelings towards them, and to divest their minds of all those conceptions of indignation and wrath with which our minds are apt to clothe Him, and which the theologies of men are so ready to foster. But this is a gospel that says, Peace! peace! when there is no peace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed reveal, and reveal very beautifully, the paternal character of God; but it reveals at the same time that judicial character which insists on the execution of His law. That God will execute wrath on the impenitent and unbelieving is just as much a feature of the Gospel as that He will bestow all the blessings of salvation and eternal life on them that believe. What the Gospel reveals respecting the sterner, the judicial, aspect of God’s character is, 243 that there is no bitterness in His anger against sinners; there is nothing in God’s breast of that irritation and impatience which men are so apt to show when their fellow-men have offended them; God’s anger is just. The calm, settled opposition of His nature to sin is the feeling that dictates the sentence “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The Gospel is indeed a glorious manifestation of the love and grace of God for sinners, but it is not an indiscriminate assurance of grace for all sinners; it is an offer of grace to all who believe on God’s Son, but it is an essential article of the Gospel that without faith in Christ the saving love and grace of God cannot be known. Instead of reducing the character of God to mere good-nature, the Gospel brings His righteousness more prominently forward than ever; instead of smoothing the doom of the impenitent, it deepens their guilt, and it magnifies their condemnation. Yes, my friends, and it is most wholesome for us all to look at times steadily in the face this solemn attribute of God, as the Avenger of the impenitent. It shows us that sin is not a thing to be trifled with. It shows us that God’s will is not a thing to be despised. There are just two alternatives for thee, O sinner, who art not making God’s will the rule of thy life. Repent, believe, and be forgiven; continue to sin, and be lost for ever.
The transaction in connection with which Saul was guilty of a fresh disregard of God’s will was an expedition which was appointed for him against the Amalekites. This people had been guilty of some very atrocious treatment of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, the details of which are not given. Nations having a corporate life, when they continue to manifest the spirit of preceding generations, are held responsible 244 for their actions, and liable to the penalty. Saul was sent to inflict on Amalek the retribution that had been due so long for his perfidious treatment of Israel on the way to Canaan. In the narrative, various places are mentioned as being in the Amalekite territory, but their exact sites are not known; and indeed this matters little, all that it is important to know being that the Amalekites were mainly a nomadic people, occupying the fringe between Canaan and the desert on the south border of Palestine, and doubtless subsisting to a large extent on the prey secured by them when they made forays into the territories of Israel. Saul gathered a great army to compass the destruction of this bitter and hostile people.
In reading of the instructions he received to exterminate them, to “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass,” we shudder to think of the fearful massacre which this involved. It was an order similar to that which the Israelites received to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan, or that to destroy the Midianites, during the lifetime of Moses. Though it seems very horrible to us in whose eyes human life has become very sacred, it probably excited little feeling of the kind in the breasts of the Israelites, accustomed as they were, and as all Eastern nations were, to think very little of human life, and to witness wholesale slaughter with little emotion. But there is one thing in the order that we must not overlook, because it gave a complexion to the transaction quite different from that of ordinary massacres. That circumstance was, that the prey was to be destroyed as well as the people. In the case of an ordinary massacre, the conquering people abandon themselves to the licence of their passions, and hasten 245 to enrich themselves by appropriating everything of value on which they can lay their hands. In the case of the Israelites, there was to be nothing of the kind. They were to destroy the prey just as thoroughly as they were to destroy the people. They were to enrich themselves in nothing. Now, this was a most important modification of the current practice in such things. But for this restriction, the extermination of the Amalekites would have been a wild carnival of selfish passion. The restriction appointed to Saul, like that which Joshua had imposed at Jericho, bound the people to the most rigid self-restraint, under circumstances when self-restraint was extremely difficult. The extermination was to be carried into effect with all the solemnity of a judicial execution, and the soldiers were to have no benefit from it whatever, any more than the jailer or the hangman can have benefit from the execution of some wretched murderer.
Now, let it be observed that it was in entirely disregarding this restriction that a chief part of Saul’s disobedience lay. “Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.” The sparing of King Agag seems to have been a piece of vanity with Saul, for a conqueror returning home with a royal prisoner was greatly thought of in those Eastern lands. But the sparing of the prey was a matter of pure greed. Observe how the character of the transaction was wholly changed by this circumstance. Instead of wearing the aspect of a solemn retribution on a sinful nation, on a people laden with iniquity, all the more impressive because the ministers 246 of God’s vengeance abstained from appropriating a vestige of the property, but consigned the whole, like a plague-stricken mass, too polluted to be touched, to the furnace of destruction—instead of this, it just appeared like an ordinary unprincipled foray, in which the victorious party slew the other, mainly to get them out of the way and enable them without opposition to appropriate their goods. It was this consideration that made the offence of Saul so serious, that made his breach of the Divine order so guilty. Had he no knowledge of the history of his people? Did he not remember what had happened at Jericho in the days of Joshua, when Achan stole the wedge of gold and the Babylonian garment, and, in spite of the fact that the rest of the people had behaved well and that God’s purpose in the main was amply carried out, Achan and all his family were judicially stoned to death? How could Saul expect that such a flagrant violation of the Divine command in the case of the Amalekites, perpetrated not on the sly by a single individual, but openly by the king and all the people, could escape the retribution of God?
Such then was Saul’s conduct in the affair of Amalek. The next incident in the narrative is the communication that took place regarding it between the Lord and Samuel. Speaking after the manner of men, God said, It repented Him that He had set up Saul to be king. That these words are not to be explained in a strictly literal sense is evident from what is said in ver. 29: “The strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for He is not a man that He should repent.” The intimation to Samuel was equivalent to this: that God was now done with Saul. He had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. He had had 247 his time of probation, and he had failed. He was joined to his idols, and must now be let alone. This last and very flagrant act of disobedience settled the matter. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man.”
How did Samuel receive the announcement? “It grieved Samuel, and he cried to the Lord all night.” It is the same word as is translated in Jonah, “It displeased Jonah.” But there is nothing to show that Samuel was displeased with God. The whole transaction was disappointing, worrying, heart-breaking. Doubtless he had a certain liking for Saul. He admired his splendid figure and many fine kingly qualities. It was a terrible struggle to give him up. The Divine announcement threw his mind into a tumult. All night he cried unto the Lord. Doubtless his cry was somewhat similar to our Lord’s cry in Gethsemane, “If it be possible, let this cup pass.” If it be possible, recover Saul. And observe, Samuel had good cause to raise this cry on account of the man who would naturally have been Saul’s successor. He must have had great complacency in Jonathan. If Saul was to be set aside, why should not Jonathan have the crown? On whose head would it sit more gracefully? In whose hand would the sceptre be held more suitably? But even this plea would not avail. It was God’s purpose to mark the offence of Saul with a deeper stigma, and attach to it in the mind of the nation a more conspicuous brand, by cutting off his whole family and transferring the crown to a quite different line. It took the whole night to reconcile Samuel to the Divine sentence. How very deeply and tenderly must this man’s heart have been moved by regard for Saul and for the people! In the morning, his soul seems to have returned to its quiet 248 rest. His mood seems now to have been, “Not my will but Thine be done!”
Next comes the meeting of Saul and Samuel. Samuel seems to have expected to meet Saul at Carmel—the Carmel of Nabal (chap. xxv. 2)—but, perhaps on purpose to avoid him, Saul hastened to Gilgal. And when they met there, Saul, with no little audacity, claimed to have performed the commandment of the Lord. That this plea was not advanced in simple ignorance, as some have thought, is plain enough from Samuel’s reception of it and his rebuke. “What meaneth this bleating of sheep in mine ears and the lowing of the oxen in my ears?” Facts are stubborn things, and they make quick work of sophistry. Oh, says Saul, these are brought as a sacrifice to the Lord thy God; they are an extra proof of my loyalty to Him. Saul, Saul, is it not enough that thou didst allow the selfish greed whether of thyself or of thy people to overbear the Divine command? Must thou add the sin of hypocrisy, and pretend that it was a pious act? And dost thou imagine that in so doing thou canst impose either on Samuel, or on God? O sinners, you do miscalculate fearfully when you give to God’s servants such false explanations of your sins! How long, think you, will the flimsy material hold out? In the case of Saul, it did not even enable him to turn the corner. It brought out a fact which he must have trembled to hear: that Samuel had had a communication about him from God the very night before, and that God had spoken very plainly about him. And what had God said? God had proceeded on the fact that Saul had disobeyed his voice, and had flown upon the spoil to preserve what God had commanded him to destroy. “Nay,” says Saul, “it was not I that did that, but the people, and they did it 249 to sacrifice to the Lord thy God in Gilgal.” The excuse hardly needed to be exposed. Why did you let the people do so? Why did you not fulfil God’s command as faithfully as Joshua did at Jericho? Why did you allow yourself, or the people either, to tamper with the clear orders given you by your King and theirs? “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” Moral conduct is more than ceremonial form. “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, He also hath rejected thee from being king.”
This terrible word pierces Saul to the quick. He is thoroughly alarmed. He makes acknowledgment of his sin in so far as he had feared the people and obeyed their words. He entreats Samuel to forgive him and turn again with him that he may worship God. He shows no evidence of true, heartfelt repentance. And Samuel refuses to return with him, and refuses to identify himself with one whom God hath rejected from being king. But Saul is deeply in earnest. He tries to detain Samuel by force. He takes hold of his mantle, and holds it so firmly that it rends. It is a symbol, says Samuel, of the rending of the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, to be given by God to a neighbour of thine that is better than thou. And this is God’s irreversible sentence. Your day of grace is expired, and the Divine sentence is beyond recall. One more appeal does Saul make to Samuel. Again he owns his sin, but the request he makes shows clearly that what he is most anxious about is that he should not appear dishonoured before the people. It is his own reputation that concerns him. “Honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship the 250 Lord thy God.” Samuel yields. The abject wretchedness of the man seems to have touched him. But it is not said that Samuel worshipped with him. Samuel would no doubt continue firm to his purpose not to identify himself with Saul as king, or give him any moral support in his attitude of disobedience. So far from that, Samuel openly superseded him in dealing with Agag; he went out of his way, and did an act which could not but appear a frightful one for a venerable prophet of the Lord. It is the voice of the real king that sounds in the command, “Bring ye hither to me Agag, the king of the Amalekites.” We seem to see the royal prisoner advancing cringingly before that imperial figure, in whose eye there is a look, and in whose face and figure there is a determination, that may well make him quail. “Surely,” says Agag, imploringly, “the bitterness of death is past.” Spared by the king, I am not to fare worse from the prophet. Samuel knew him a merciless destroyer. “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. “Cursed be he that doeth the work of God deceitfully, and cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from shedding of blood.” It is a scene of terror. The swift retribution executed on the one king was but the sign of the slower retribution pronounced upon the other. In the one case the doom was rapid; in the other it was deferred; in both it was sure. And have we not here a sad picture of that retribution which is sure to come on the impenitent sinner, and in the procedure of Samuel a foreshadowing of Him who cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, who will one day speak to His enemies in His wrath and vex them in His hot displeasure? 251 Have we not here a foretaste of the opening of the sixth seal, when the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, shall say to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: “for the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand”?
And oh! how little in that day will those plausible excuses avail with which men try to cover their sins to themselves, and it may be to others. How will the hail sweep away the refuges of lies! How will the real character of men’s hearts, the true tenor of their lives, in respect they have set aside God’s will and set up their own, be revealed in characters that cannot be mistaken! The question to be determined by your life was, whether God or you was King. Which did you obey, God’s will or your own? Did you set aside God’s will? Then you are certainly a rebel; and never having repented, never having been washed, or sanctified, or justified, your portion is with the rebels; the Father’s house is not for you!
And now the breach between Samuel and Saul is final. “Samuel came no more to visit Saul until the day of his death; nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul; and the Lord repented that He had made Saul king over Israel.”
Saul is cut off now from his best means of grace—he is virtually an excommunicated man. Was it hard? Do our sympathies in any degree go with him? To our compassion he is entitled in the highest degree, but to nothing more. Saul’s worst qualities had now become petrified. His wilfulness, his selfishness, his passionateness, his jealousy, had now got complete control, 252 nor could their current be turned aside. The threat of losing his kingdom—perhaps the most terrible threat such a man could have felt—had failed to turn him from his wayward course. He was like the man in the iron cage in the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” who gave his history: “I left off to watch and be sober; I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit and He is gone; I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger and He has left me; I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”
It is a terrible lesson that comes to us from the career of Saul. If our natural lusts are not under the restraint of a higher power; if by that power we are not trained to watch, and check, and overpower them; if we allow them to burst all restraint and lord it over us as they will,—then will they grow into so many tyrants, who will rule us with rods of iron; laugh at the feeble remonstrances of our conscience; scoff at every messenger of God; vex His Holy Spirit, and hurl us at last to everlasting woe!
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