Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Saul and Symbols: The Servants

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When God’s presence turned from the crucified Jesus Christ, the anguished cry “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” was heard echoing from the cross. I bet King Saul wailed this same phrase out many times in his private. And just as with Jesus, the cry merely rose and dissipated in the sight of an empty sky. Yet for both these kings, there was, in truth, no need to raise the question, except through despair. They knew exactly why God abandoned them; both, however, for different reasons. With Jesus, it was His obedience; with Saul, disobedience. And in the days that followed after being withdrawn the kingship did Saul’s life plunge into psychological hell.

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The disobedience of Saul stands before a background of irony in that at the beginning of his account, he was one never seen with the slightest thread of rebellion. His first appearance in 1 Samuel 9 presents him as a good son whom his father trusted to find and bring back their lost donkeys (verse 3). Unknowingly, he embarks on a spiritual journey of destiny that leads to the first royal throne of Israel. As he and his servant meandered into Ephraimite territory, it was as if they were bring strung along to cross paths with “a man of God…highly respected” whose every word “comes true” (1 Samuel 9:6). At that moment, Saul’s mission gained a new objective: to seek and consult this “seer” (verse 11). The rest of the story from verses 11 to 19 came like a swift cascade of events as one turn “up the hill to the town” of Zuph (verses 5 and 11) brings him face-to-face with the seer and the offer of kingship (10:1). At this point, God begins to unravel His plan for Saul’s life. Note that God does not reveal His plan for one’s life in an explosion of instant information, but as Proverbs 4:18 explains, “like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” It is a condition that requires one to abide in Him in obedience and perseverance through the early steps and stages necessary in the foundation of His design, faithful with the early hints and pieces that build up in time to the perfection of His vision.

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When God promised to His people the land of Canaan to possess and occupy, He did not supernaturally translate them from the gates of Egypt and into borders of the land flowing with milk and honey. On the contrary, through Moses He guaranteed to “drive out those nations…little by little” (Deuteronomy 7:22). In the rest of the passage, He elaborates: “You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you.”

Saul had nothing but questions, inquiries, for this are what his name stood for: literally, “asked.” The Hebrew  shâ’ûl is a past participle of shâ’êl, meaning “to inquire, to request” and to a greater extent, “to demand.” And throughout his account, it is very interesting to note that the most significant milestones of his life were not without the initial insinuation of a servant. And Saul in all these welcomed them.

From the beginning of his story, it was a servant that gave him the idea to consult a seer to help them locate the missing donkeys:

“’Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take’” (1 Samuel 9:7).

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It is interesting to note that it was the servant who had something to give and willingly volunteered to give the seer (verse 8). For a moment a thought may jut into a reader mind as to who between Saul and the servant actually owns the donkeys!

“’Look,’ [the servant] said, ‘I have a quarter of a shekel of silver. I will give it to the man of God so that he will tell us what way to take.’”

In 1 Samuel 13:11, Saul admitted that his fear was compounded when he saw his soldiers scattering in panic at the sight of the great Philistine army assembled at Micmash. In other words, he did what everyone else on his side did and, as a result, lost the favor of God and the chance for his name to be established over Israel for all time (verse 13 to 14).

 “Saul replied, ‘When I saw that the men were scattering…I felt compelled to offer the burnt sacrifices’” (1 Samuel 13:11-12).

 In the fourteenth chapter, Saul could do nothing but bend to his soldiers’ protest against Jonathan’s execution.

 “Saul said, ‘May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.’ But the men said to Saul, ‘Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.’ So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death” (verses 44 to 45).

The soldiers continued to be faithful to Saul, but there was more to lose that day than a moment’s spark of mutiny. Saul was about to take the battle to enemy territory, an act that would significantly neutralize the Philistine military strength to regroup and invade. Instead, “Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land” (verse 46). In this context, this is why, “All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines” (verse 52). The forty-seventh and forty-eighth verses seem to romanticize Saul’s heroic prowess as he “fought against [Israel’s] enemies on every side” (verse 47); that “wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them” (Ibid.); and “he fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them.” The passages portray the king as a merciless and relentless butcher of pagans. And he should have truly been such. For failing to bring the fight into enemy territory, the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zobahites, Amalekites, and the Philistines must have been as common as a landscape feature arrayed every now and then taunting Saul with their war chants to engage them on the battlefield.

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Saul never broke the power of Israel’s belligerent neighbors, an ominous indication of the Prophet Samuel’s prophecy coming to past: “…your kingdom will not endure, the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command” (1 Samuel 13:14).

Saul’s loss of control over his soldiers was a frequent feature of his account. Before the incident with Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14:45, the distress created by Saul’s rash vow was so great that it drove his soldiers mad with hunger and exhaustion that they “pounced on the plunder and, taking sheep, cattle and calves, they butchered them on the ground and ate them, together with the blood” (verse 32). Fortunately, Saul was able to recover them to their senses and discipline them accordingly (verses 33 to 35).

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But the costliest failure to rein his men was during the very important mission to annihilate the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. The order was, as we already know by now from several articles we’ve discussed, to “totally destroy everything that belongs to them…not [to] spare them [but] put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (verse 3). Saul and his force slew the women, the children, the infants, most of the men except for the Amalekite king Agag, and the weak of the cattle and sheep. Why? Saul explained:

“I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal” (verses 20 and 21).

And in boasting he claimed, “I did obey the Lord” (verse 20).

[And we ain't done! Stickeround 'coz we ain't done!]

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