On September 1st, 1939, the poet W.H. Auden, sat in a dive bar on 52nd street in Manhattan. Earlier that day, Hitler and his armies invaded Poland, plunging the world into a second world war. In the wake of this earth-shattering event, Auden reflected on the previous decade. The 1930’s saw a strange mixture of optimism and despair. The roaring 20’s brought a huge economic boom to America and the age of the skyscraper was born, especially in New York City. But, the fervor was quickly squashed by the Great Depression. The hope that WWI, “The Great War,” would bring about the end of all wars was punctured with the rise of fascism across Europe, and finally crushed with Hitler’s action that very day. Auden’s poem, September 1st, 1939, is a poignant reflection on the spiritual malaise and dis-ease that hung over modern man; the man who would shuffle into a dark bar in the middle of the week:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The whole poem paints a bleak scene of what modernity has done to mankind. Despite the marvels of technology, architecture, modern democracy, people are miserable, bored, and scared. Auden calls the dingy bar he sits in a “fort”, but not a defense against an enemy like Hitler, but the enemy of the truth of what we really are: frightened children lost in the haunted forest of the world we have created, never happy nor good. So, like a dive bar sets up cheap furniture to give the illusion of a home, we fill our lives with distractions that give us the illusion of a meaningful life, but (Auden argues) it’s all paper mâché, a thin veil stretched over a great hollowness, a cold darkness: we are broken. This is why the lights must never go out, and the music must play, because if the distractions shut off, if we unplug and we are left alone with our thoughts, we might actually see not only where we are, but what we are.
Is Auden right? Well, the Bible says that Auden is half right. We are broken. Yet, Auden’s bleakness only spins inward upon itself. Despairing of our ourselves is a great place to start, but not a good place to stop. The Bible invites us to allow the despair of our condition to launch us into the hope that God offers. In our text today we get to reflect upon the diagnosis of Samuel as he slices into Israel’s heart, pointing out where their sickness lies and how bleak the condition is. But Samuel doesn’t stop there. He invites Israel to see that there is a path to life, a path found in God’s faithfulness to them and their obedience to His law.
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. 22 For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. 23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. 24 Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” – 1 Sam 12:19-25
Faithfulness Displayed (12:1-11)
And Samuel said to all Israel, “Behold, I have obeyed your voice in all that you have said to me and have made a king over you. – 1 Sam 12:1
While the nation is still gathered at Gilgal (1 Sam 11:12-15), Samuel takes this opportunity to make a formal farewell to Israel. Samuel will continue serving as a prophet till the day he dies, but he notices that with the installment of a king, there has been a major shift in his role as judge to Israel. So, from verses 2-6, Samuel establishes that he has been faithful in his post as a judge over Israel: he hasn’t not taken bribes or robbed anyone. And the people all affirm this. Samuel appears to be establishing his faithfulness in order to build a solid foundation for what he is about to say: Look, I am reliable, I am faithful, you all agree—now listen to me:
Now therefore stand still that I may plead with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your fathers. – 1 Sam 12:7
Samuel then provides a very concise history of the people of Israel, from the time of Exodus to the time of the Judges:
When Jacob went into Egypt, and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your fathers cried out to the LORD and the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your fathers out of Egypt and made them dwell in this place. 9 But they forgot the LORD their God. And he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab. And they fought against them. 10 And they cried out to the LORD and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD and have served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. But now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, that we may serve you.’ 11 And the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak and Jephthah and Samuel and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and you lived in safety. – 1 Sam 12:8-11
What’s the point? God has always been faithful to his people, despite their faithlessness. The pattern of God’s people is to get into a desperate situation, cry out to help from God, receive God’s help, and then forget Him. This is the repeated cycle throughout the book of Judges: sin, punishment, cry for help, salvation, forget, sin. And notice that Samuel includes himself in the list of judges that God sent to help—in other words, the people of Israel are just like their fathers in the book of Judges.
Unfaithfulness Exposed (12:12-19)
12 And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the LORD your God was your king. 13 And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. –1 Sam 12:12-13
Israel is just like the book of Judges. Another cycle of sin and destruction starting over again. Samuel quotes Israel back to herself, “No, but a king shall reign over us.” That was their response after Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of their lust for a king. Israel got what she wanted.
14 If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. 15 But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king. – 1 Sam 12:14-15
Surprisingly, God makes an allowance for Israel’s king. Remember, Israel was permitted to have a king (Deut 17:14-20). What was wrong with Israel’s desire for a king was their rejection of God as king with it. But Samuel lays out a choice for Israel and her king, reminiscent of Moses laying before Israel the blessings of obedience and the curses for disobedience: life and death (Deut 30:19). Notice how the king is isolated out from the rest of Israel and charged to obey or perish: if Israel and her king disobey, then the hand of the Lord will be against them both, and Israel will watch their champion who they thought would save them fall.
16 Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the LORD will do before your eyes. 17 Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking for yourselves a king.” 18 So Samuel called upon the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. – 1 Sam 12:16-18
Israel does not want to live by faith, so God gives them evidence their eyes can see. A thunderstorm falls during the dry season (unusual) at the command of Samuel (extraordinary) that they may know that their wickedness is great. Their unfaithfulness has been exposed and so they are afraid.
Have you ever had a moment where your mask is ripped off, and you are shocked by what you just said or what you just did? Maybe it is after you cool down from the argument or after you caved into temptation and you are left thinking: what kind of person am I? Don’t rush past that too quickly. Don’t be like the faces along the bar that have to keep themselves distracted lest they see where and what they really are. See yourself.
Faithfulness Summoned (1 Sam 12:19-24)
Towards the end of Samuel’s speech, he is going to summon Israel to faithfulness: Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. – 1 Sam 12:24
God has been faithful to His people. Israel has been woefully unfaithful, so Samuel summons them: be faithful! God has been nothing but good to you, but you have been faithless. So, stop being faithless. In a way, that’s true. But Israel realizes, rightfully, that there is something broken deep down in her and so, after their sin is exposed, they go to Samuel:
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” – 1 Sam 12:19
Israel sees herself and that makes her realize a number of things:
One, her sins are vast. “We have added to all our sins this evil,” Israel sees herself in line with the Judges generation, the wilderness generation.
Two, she sees her sins as serious, “pray…that we may not die.”
Three, she sees that she can’t do this alone. Israel realizes that they need an intercessor to go to God on their behalf.
And Samuel recognizes himself as a critical intercessor for Israel:
23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. – 1 Sam 12:23
Samuel possesses a unique role in the life of Israel. He is a priest, a prophet, and a judge. But this makes us think of the final and true Prophet, Priest, and King: Jesus. King Jesus is our great and final intercessor who stands up for us on our behalf in the courtroom of God, pleading for us with His very own blood.
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. – Heb 7:25
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world – 1 John 2:1-2
This is what Samuel points forward to, the great High Priest. But let’s draw six practical applications out of the rest of Samuel’s speech:
1. Do not be afraid…but fear
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid.” – 1 Sam 12:20a
Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart – 1 Sam 12:24
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. – 1 John 4:18
I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 9 And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. – Jer 33:8-9
“Godly fear flows from a sense of the love and kindness of God. Nothing can lay a stronger obligation upon the heart of God than a sense of, or hope in, mercy,” (John Bunyan).
2. Do not deceive yourselves
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. – 1 Sam 12:20
3. Do not turn aside
Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. – 1 Sam 12:20b-21
“You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters).
4. Do not doubt God’s commitments
22 For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. –1 Sam 12:22
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. – Eph 1:4-6
5. Do not forget what God has done for you
For consider what great things he has done for you. – 1 Sam 12:24b
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder. – 2 Pet 1:13
To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. – Phil 3:1
I perceive that our minds are more earnestly elevated into a flame of piety when [words] are sung than when they are not. -Augustine
6. Do not presume
25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” – 1 Sam 12:25
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Rom 2:4-5