Things to remember in difficult times

Our lives can certainly be difficult. I think we can all testify to that. We have our daily stresses and hardships. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (He is talking about securing our food and clothing needs.) So we have it on Jesus’ authority that each day has more than enough problems in it.

On top of this we go through times of intense testing, crises that stretch us to the breaking point. Speaking of this kind of testing, Hebrews 12:11 says, it “always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time.” So we have it on Scriptural authority that testing is indeed painful.

God allows us to go through these things. Now notice, I’m not saying that God causes these things to happen in our lives. We live in a sinful and broken world and bad things happen all the time. But God definitely does allow us to go through them. And these things can weigh us down and wear us out. So I want us to look at four things this morning that will hopefully encourage us and give us strength to carry on.

Know that even in hard times, God loves you

When you’re in a time of testing you can definitely feel forgotten, alone and abandoned. So it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care about you. We ask, “Why would God let me go through this?” But we need to understand that even if God lets us go through tough times, God still deeply loves and cares for us.

We know this first of all because we see that God let his own beloved Son, Jesus, go through difficulties. And we know that God loved Jesus above all. So there is allowance of hardship and love together.

Second, Hebrews 12:5-8 teaches us that God will also let us, his beloved children, go through hardship. Again there is allowance of hardship and love together. Let’s look at these verses. The readers were having hard times for sure, experiencing persecution.

The writer says, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children? “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every child whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as children. For what child is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate and not children.”

In this we see that God allows and uses hardship for the benefit of those he loves. In fact, God’s allowance of hardship actually shows that God loves you and owns you as his own child. You are not abandoned, but loved. God is concerned about you and your well-being.

This leads us to the second thing we should remember –

God can bring something good out of your suffering

Now, this is not something you can share with someone flippantly. When you are going through hard times this isn’t usually what you want to hear. Or even need to hear. It is nevertheless true.

It was true for Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 says, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” And we also learn through our suffering about following God and being righteous.

Scripture talks about this in a number of places:

  • God allows us to be tested “for our own good, in order that we may share his holiness” – Hebrews 12:10.
  • Going through difficult times “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” – Hebrews 12:11.
  • Romans 5:3-4 says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • Testing “is intended to make you worthy of the Kingdom of God” – 2 Thessalonians 1:5.
  • James 1:3-4 says, “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God is doing a great work within us as he allows us to be tested and tried.

Romans 8:28 is a familiar verse and it comes from a context of talking about suffering. It says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas for so many in the world, their suffering seems to be pointless and for no reason, the promise of God to us, his children, is that whatever God allows us to go through he is able to use for our good; and for the good of others. He can bring something good out of it. And we can hold on to this, even if in our trial we can’t possibly see how it is so at the time.

God won’t let you be tested beyond what you can bear

1 Corinthians 10:13 is a great verse. It says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

When we are going through hard times, these become a test of our faith. The question is, “Will we remain faithful to God in the midst of it?” What this verse says is that God will not let us get into a situation that we cannot handle in terms of remaining faithful to him.

Satan will try to discourage us, and cause us to give up. But God always provides a way of escape. God will make sure that we have the grace and strength we need to get through it, or that the situation will change.

This is God’s promise to us and we need to remember it when we think that we can’t handle our testing. The fact that God has allowed it, means you can handle it.

You will be blessed if you endure

Let’s look at some Scriptures:

  • Paul said, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” – Galatians 6:9.
  • Jesus says to us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” – Revelation 2:10.
  • As Paul said, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” – 2 Timothy 2:12.
  • James tells us, “Blessed is anyone who endures testing. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” – James 1:12.

As difficult as our trials are, we can know that the blessings will far outweigh them. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” It is more than worth it.

The last straw: Saul is rejected as king. 1 Samuel 15:10-35

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 15:10-35

We’re coming to the end of our series on 1 Samuel, at least for now. We’ve been looking at Saul’s downfall, and since we haven’t gone over this since the beginning of October, I think a bit of review is in order.

We saw how –

Saul’s core weakness is fear

This was his main temptation and struggle. In chapter 10 after God gave him three providential signs and the Holy Spirit came upon him, out of fear, he hesitated to attack the Philistines. Also, in chapter 10 he was afraid of being chosen as king, so he hid in the baggage when the lots were drawn.

His fear eventually led him to outright disobedience to God. In chapter 13, because he was afraid that the Philistines would attack quickly, he didn’t obey God and wait for Samuel to come before the battle. He offered up his own offering to God. If God was merciful before, here he is judged. He will not have a dynasty. After him, his kingdom will be over.

Saul continued to walk in foolishness (13:13), doing what he thought was right, regardless of God’s will – making his army swear a foolish oath and nearly killing his son Jonathan because of this foolish oath.

And today we reach the breaking point, when out of fear, once again, he disobeys explicit instructions from God. We saw last time how God commanded Saul to devote to destruction the Amalekites and how he did this, except that he left king Agag alive, and the best of the livestock.

So God sends the prophet Samuel to confront him – and it’s an epic confrontation.

1 Samuel 15:10-35

Samuel finds Saul

10The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.

Regret can be translated “change your mind,” although this doesn’t really fit here. God had set up the terms for Saul to be king and these included him being obedient (12:14-15). So, God is just recognizing that Saul has broken these conditions and judgment is about to happen. And God is sad about this. (God’s regret here echoes Genesis 6:6 regarding the creation of humanity, just before the judgment of the flood.)

God is saying, ‘he just won’t do what I tell him to do.’ He does what he thinks is right based on the circumstances and his fears.

Samuel was upset also. He invested a lot in Saul and was genuinely rooting for him.

12And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.”

Setting up such monuments was common among ancient kings. Saul certainly seems set on exalting himself for the victory. (The Carmel here is not the mountain in the North but a small town in Judah. Gilgal is the site of their last confrontation.)

The confrontation: part one

13And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”

If Samuel and God are unhappy, Saul is pretty happy with himself. He seems to really think that he’s obeyed God, even though he hasn’t. Is he self-deceived?

Samuel points out the obvious –

14And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”

There was to be no livestock left; no plunder. All Samuel had to do was listen, to know that Saul didn’t listen to God (Bruce Birch).

Saul then deflects and rationalizes –

15Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”

His deflection is saying that the people did it (not him). It’s the soldiers’ fault, if there is any. And he rationalizes that these are for sacrifice, which is a good thing, right? Even though God told him to destroy them all and take no plunder. And note – even if they are sacrificed, Saul and the men would get some of the food (Tsumura)

16Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.” 17And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”

Stop deflecting. You are in charge of “the people.” You were given the mission. You are responsible. And stop rationalizing. You pounced on the spoil, you did what was evil in God’s sight. When, in a similar context Achan took spoil from Jericho, he was killed for it.

Saul goes on to insist he was obedient, even while undermining his defense . . .

20And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. 21But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”

Now we learn that the king, Agag was spared – probably as a trophy of war, which is another evidence, along with the monument, to Saul’s pride. And he continues to deflect and rationalize. The people did it. It was for sacrifice.

Then Samuel destroys his pretense with what has become one of the most well-known OT passages –

22And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. 23For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as the evil of idolatry (italics NIV).”

Sacrifice is good, but obedience is better. And besides what good is sacrifice if it comes from a disobedient heart? God is not interested in mere outward ritual, but with a heart of love for him that is expressed in obedience.

  • Saul has rebelled. He willfully refused to do what God said, which is a rejection of God similar to divination.
  • And he has presumed to do what he thought was right, instead of God’s will, which is a rejection of God similar to the evil of idolatry.

This is no little matter. These are capital crimes. And because of this he is judged.

“Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”

He may continue on in the role, but not under God’s blessing.

The confrontation: part two

With his pretense shattered, Saul fesses up.

24Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.

He went from insisting, “I have obeyed” to “I have not obeyed.” And he even confesses why – he feared the people. (The conditions for his kingship were that he was to fear God and obey his voice. Here he feared the people and obeyed their voice – 1 Samuel 12:14.)

25Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”

Saul asks for forgiveness, but is it sincere? Saul wants Samuel to come with him for his own reasons. To project that everything is OK. Which is why Samuel refuses. His repentance isn’t right, because he’s using it to get what he wants – his status.

27As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”

To grab the hem or skirt of someone’s robe is to take up the position of a supplicant. He wants Samuel to change his mind. But this accidental tearing becomes a metaphor of God’s judgment. The kingdom has been torn from him and given to another, that is, David.

29And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”

God regrets making Saul king in vs. 11 and 35, but here God doesn’t have regret? (It’s the same Hebrew word). As we saw in v. 11, it is not so much that God changed his mind, as it is that he was sorrowful because Saul broke the conditions of his kingship.

Here Samuel seems to mean that, as opposed to Saul, whose kingship was conditional, David’s kingship will be unconditional. God will not change his mind about choosing David and his line. (2 Samuel 7:15) (See Terrence Fretheim)

30Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.” 31So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the Lord.

Here we see more clearly his real motive is not forgiveness. He drops this request. What he really wants is to be honored before the elders. He is interested in his status.

Samuel acquiesces, because Saul finally gets it that he has been rejected and that God will not restore his kingship.

 Conclusion

32Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

Samuel finishes what Saul left incomplete.

34Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death . . .

This represents a full break in their relationship. Samuel no longer recognizes him as the rightful king. (And notice throughout this passage Saul’s use of “your” God (vs. 15, 21, 30), which his own recognition that he is alienated from God.)

And then our story ends as it began –

but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

Lessons

What do we learn from this. Let me highlight three things.

1. Saul show us how not to respond when we sin. Even when caught in the act, he blamed others, he rationalized his wrong choices, he made excuses and he lied. Even when he confessed, it was to get what he wanted from Samuel.

This is a portrait of the sad state of humanity. And we do these very things ourselves when we are caught in our sin.

The right way to respond to sin is displayed by David, Saul’s replacement. When Nathan the prophet confronted him, he simply said, “I have sinned against the Lord” 2 Samuel 12:15. He confesses with no strings attached. And then he accepted the consequences.

2. God’s patience has an end. And then comes judgment.

God was very patient with Saul. He told Saul ,do what I tell you and your kingdom will be established forever over Israel (13:13). But Saul chose to disobey God’s specific commands over and over. And judgment came.

When we are not obeying God, we ought not test God’s patience with us. Paul tells us in Romans 2:4 that God’s patience and kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. But if we don’t repent, eventually we will be judged.

Are any of us here this morning presuming upon God’s patience?

3. God demands our full obedience.

Saul gave partial obedience. But partial obedience is no different than disobedience. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of God’s will be put into practice.

And outward expressions of religion will not make up for our disobedience – going to church, saying you are a Christian, feigning respect for God, wearing a cross or a Christian T-shirt.

What delights God is a heart set on loving him, expressed in careful obedience to his Word. Do we keep “the word of the Lord?” Do we obey “the voice of the Lord?”

The destruction of the Amalekites (& the Canaanites. 1 Samuel 14:47-15:9

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 14:47-15:9

Our topic today, the destruction of the Amalekites, is really just background in terms of what is focused on in the broader story of 1 Samuel 15, which is Saul’s disobedience. We will come back to this theme.

Background

The events of Exodus 17:8-16 set up our story. This tells how the Amalekites attacked Israel, when they were leaving Egypt. And God promised there that because of this “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (v. 14).

And then Deuteronomy 25:17-19 says, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” These verses establish Amalek’s guilt. They sought to destroy Israel, killing the weak among them. And so God will use Israel to destroy them.

If you’re wondering why the material on Saul’s family and military pursuits comes here, it shows that the right conditions have been met, according to Deuteronomy 25, “when God has given you rest.” Israel had rest under Saul and so now is the time to deal with Amalek. (V. Philips Long)

Questions

Now as Christians we rightly have questions about the destruction of whole peoples. If this was merely background in their day because this kind of warfare was known and practiced around them (and so we see no reaction to it recorded in Scripture) for many today this is the focus (even the only focus) of reading this passage.

We know that God loves and cares for all people. So, why would God command this, and previous to this the destruction of the Canaanite nations? These are the two, and only two places where this command is given.

Devotion to destruction

Referring to the Canaanites Deuteronomy 7:2 says, “you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” And Joshua 6:21 records the fulfillment of this in relation to Jericho – “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”

And these are Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

These verses speak of the practice of Herem, a Hebrew word which refers to something beyond normal warfare – protecting land or invading but making treaties and intermarrying. It is translated here as “devote to destruction,” something more brutal and bloody than the already brutal and bloody warfare of the day in which they lived.

So this is our topic.

What should we say about this?

First, we need to see what actually took place, which is to say that 1. not everyone was killed. Scripture itself makes this clear.

In the case of the Canaanites, Joshua 10:40 says, “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (This refers to the conquest of southern Canaan. See also Joshua 11:12 for his conquest of northern Canaan.) So Joshua was successful and fulfilled the command of the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:2).

But . . . later Joshua 23:12 talks about “the remnant of these nations remaining among you” and gives instructions for how to relate to them. (See also Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:13. Also Judges 1:1-4. And note the contrast regarding Hebron between Joshua 10:36-37 and Judges 1:10.) Many Canaanites remained.

So there’s some hyperbole going on here. You can actually see this in the space of one verse in Joshua 10:20 – “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities . . .” it goes on to say that Joshua’s army came back to him. So they are “wiped out,” but in the same sentence, it acknowledges that a “remnant” remains.

In the case of the Amalekites, Saul was faithful to the command. As 1 Samuel 15:8 says he, “devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” Except, of course, he left king Agag alive and as well, the good livestock. There’s no criticism of him other than these two things. So a straightforward reading of the story seems to tell us that all the rest of the Amalekites are dead.

But . . . later 1 Samuel 27:8 says, “Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt.” Many Amalekites remained. Even in the same geographical area. And later in chapter 30 they attack David. (See also 1 Chronicles 4:43. In the book of Esther, Haman was an Agagite.)

So there’s some hyperbole going on here too. Just as Joshua destroyed the Canaanites, and is praised for being faithful – but many remained, so Saul destroyed the Amalekites, and carried out the instructions in this regard – but many remained.

In both of these cases a Herem war can come across as the complete destruction of a people. Now, this was, no doubt, a bloody affair, but it was not this. In the first, Joshua dealt a crippling blow to the Canaanites to establish Israel in the land. In the second, Saul dealt a crippling blow to the Amalekites who were mortal enemies of Israel.

Judging from all this, it seems that the commands to “devote to destruction” (Herem) were never meant to accomplish complete destruction.

Now, in all of this, we need to understand that 2. God is the sovereign judge of all peoples and nations. As our creator, God has the right and even the obligation to judge evil. Do we not get frustrated when God doesn’t deal with evil as quickly as we want?

And all nations and peoples deserve judgment because of human sin and evil. This is not the world God intended. And it is this way because God allows us to make our own choices. And we are accountable to our creator for these choices.

And God can choose how and when judgment will happen. That’s what it means to be sovereign. The timing and severity of God’s judgments are set by God. Some things are more fully judged in this life, and some will be more fully judged in the age to come. So yes, God can bring about a severe judgment on the Canaanites and the Amalekites for their evil, and others experience less intense expressions of this. Just as God brought a more severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – fire from heaven – than on other sinful peoples.

And God still raises up nations to judge other nations in various ways – just as God used Babylon to judge his sinful people, Judah and then in turn judged Babylon for their sin and evil at the hand of the Persians. And God continues to use the governments of nations to punish evil among their citizens.

The bottom line is that this is not Israel acting on its own. This is God the rightful judge of he universe, sovereignly choosing to judge the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

And judgment, whether in this life or the next is never a pleasant thing. It involves suffering and death. As Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31.

We know that none of this was God’s original plan. And given who God is, as Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?  . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – given this, we know that God judges with a heavy heart.

Now, if we accept the message of the book of Job, that we as humans are not in a place to assess the full moral calculus of God’s administration of this sinful world, we should still note that 3. God is working here in the context of a moral framework.

In both cases we are looking at, the Canaanites and the Amalekites, there are reasons for judgment.

  • Amalek’s attempt to wipe out Israel, which we have seen. (In 1 Samuel 15:18 God call them “the sinners.”)
  • And the religious and moral depravity of the Canaanites. This is noted in numerous passages – things like idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, incest and more. (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29-31; Hebrews 11:31.)

But also in both cases there is amazing patience on God’s part.

  • He gave the Canaanites 400 years to change according to Genesis 15:16. And no doubt God was working among them, seeking their change. But they didn’t. They got worse.
  • And likewise there is a similar span of centuries between Amalek’s attack and the judgment for this. And no doubt God was working among them. But they continued to be hostile to Israel.

Also, we need to remember that non-Israelites could escape by becoming a part of Israel, just as Rahab and her family escaped Jericho. They were to show no mercy, but there was mercy for those who turned to the true God. No doubt many of the remnant of the Canaanites that remained in Israel eventually became a part of Israel.

God also severely judged his people when they practiced what the Canaanites did. God doesn’t play favorites. The northern kingdom of Israel was judged and passed from the annals of history. The southern kingdom of Judah was judged and spent 70 years in exile, vomited out of the land for their sins, just as the Canaanites were. (Leviticus 18:28; Jeremiah 25:9; Amos 3:2)

We also need to take into account 4. the context of God’s larger purpose. These severe judgments were a part of a bigger process of movement forward meant to bless all peoples and nations. This was God’s purpose for Israel. He said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 – “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Israel had to be established, and protected from the influence of idolatry to accomplish its mission to the world (Deuteronomy 7:4; 12:29-31). And as the prophets foresaw, this mission comes to include even Israel’s foremost enemies (Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 9:7; Isaiah 19:23-25) including for sure the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

Finally, 5. God’s highest revelation in Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. One of the most difficult parts in all of this , is that God used his own people as the instrument of his judgment. So could God come to us today and command us to do this? The answer is clearly no.

In certain situations, God allowed and even commanded his people to hate (Deuteronomy 23:6) and kill their enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) in the Old Testament. Jesus notes this and then raises the standard in Matthew 5:43-44. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

And whatever love means, it certainly does not include killing the person. So not only are Christians forbidden to even entertain the thought of devoting people to destruction, we are not to be involved in any situation that would lead us to kill someone.

Things have indeed changed. We are living under the New Covenant, not the Old. Yes, there is still judgment and the final judgment is coming. But God’s people are not to be his instrument of destruction, but his instrument of grace to the world.

(I am indebted to Christopher J.H. Wright, Paul Copan and Stephen N. Williams)