Convictions are easy to hold, so long as they are never tested. Ideals that remain idealistic and never realistic–as in, put into practice–are a breeze. You can read a book about a new diet, or time management regimen, or parenting philosophy and transport yourself mentally into an imagined future where you wake up early in the morning, run five miles, read and pray for two hours, journal, clean your home, pay your bills, meal plan, and cook a healthy breakfast—all before your children get up. Imagining that is easy. Living it isn’t so much.
It’s amazing how great of a parent I was before I had children. The picture I had in my mind of the kind of father I would be was fantastic, creative, patient, structured, understanding. But then along came my actual children and they just ruined it. The fantasy of the father I thought I would be was quickly replaced by reality. Convictions and ideals are easy to hold, until they are tested.
In our text today, we see the convictions of King Saul put under some serious pressure that leads to him compromising. And while the circumstances make it seem so understandable, so relatable, it comes with absolutely devastating consequences:
Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel, 2 Saul chose three thousand men of Israel. Two thousand were with Saul in Michmash and the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin. The rest of the people he sent home, every man to his tent. 3 Jonathan defeated the garrison of the Philistines that was at Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.” 4 And all Israel heard it said that Saul had defeated the garrison of the Philistines, and also that Israel had become a stench to the Philistines. And the people were called out to join Saul at Gilgal.
5 And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude. They came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth-aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, 7 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”– 1 Sam 13:1-14
The Problem (13:1-8)
Saul is following through on his commission to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16). He selects men for a standing army and divides them into different companies, and puts Jonathan, his son, in charge of a thousand men. Jonathan takes action and defeats a garrison of Philistines nearby at Geba. The rest of the Philistine army hears of this, as do the rest of Israel, and Israel becomes a “stench” to the Philistines—they view Israel the way you view rotten garbage.
The Philistines respond with devastating force. They possess 6,000 horsemen, 30,000 chariots, and an army of foot soldiers so incalculable that they are like the sand of the sea. The tiny army of 3,000 Israelites stands no chance, and they all know it. “When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling,” (1 Sam 13:6-7). As the Israelite soldiers line up and see the Philistine army amass together, they realize that they have bitten off far, far more than they can chew.
Embarrassingly, they hide in holes and caves and even tombs to escape—they are burying themselves alive to escape the Philistines. Even more serious, some cross the Jordan river–the natural barrier that separated the Promised Land from the wilderness. They are hoping that the Jordan river will be a natural barrier for the Philistines as well, keeping them at bay, but they don’t realize that they have unwittingly just fled out of the very land that God had promised them. Even those who have the courage to stand with Saul tremble in fear. What is Saul going to do?
Well, the problem gets even worse: “[Saul] waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him,” (1 Sam 13:8). Apparently Samuel has commanded Saul to wait till he arrives, giving him seven days. We are not told if this is the seventh day, or if this is after the seventh day, but either way you could imagine the pressure Saul is facing. He is a newly minted king who only has one major military success under his belt (1 Sam 11). A gargantuan force stands before him and the already small numbers he has are rapidly melting away. And, the prophet of the Lord said he would be there by the seventh day, and the seventh day is nearly over. You could imagine Saul’s thoughts: The Philistines could attack at any minute…sacrifices haven’t been made, so we can’t bank on God’s help…not to mention, the soldiers will know we haven’t made sacrifices and that may make them feel more cowardly…how much longer do we have before our entire army has deserted?
What would you feel were you in Saul’s shoes?
What would you do?
How Things Normally Work (1 Sam 13:9-12)
“So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering,”(1 Sam 13:9). Saul realizes that unless he takes action, the battle will be lost. Sure, Samuel had specifically told Saul to wait seven days and then he (Samuel) would offer the sacrifices (1 Sam 13:13; cf. 1 Sam 10:8), but what was he expected to do? Sit idly by while his army deserted him? Abdicate his responsibility as king? Let the enemies of God score another victory? No, he knows he must act. He summons men to bring him the burnt offering and the peace offering, and offers the first of them himself.
Saul is not a villain–at least, not yet. He waited the seven days, just like Samuel told him to. He is attempting to face down the Philistines, just like he was supposed to. And he knows it is important to seek God’s favor. He may not be “technically” allowed to do this, but given the circumstances, it seems understandable. Everyone realizes that in real life, we have to be flexible with some of our convictions. The person who has fantastic dreams for what they are going to be like once they become a parent find out that actually being a parent is much harder than imagining yourself as one, and so many of the ideals change. The student who has strong convictions about not participating in what she deems to be sinful practices of her non-Christian friends, may find her perspective changing as she spends more time with them. Life is about compromise. And if they are sinful, they are only little, simple sins, right?
Well, Samuel doesn’t think so. As Saul is making the very first offering, Samuel shows up. “As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him,” (1 Sam 13:10). As soon as he had finished, Samuel walks over the hill! Ah, if only Saul could have waited just a few minutes longer!
Waiting is hard, and it is only easy in retrospect, after you have received what you were waiting for and look back. And what temptations do we face when we wait? Perhaps you are tempted to bitterness and despair, confident that you will spend the rest of your life shut out, on the wrong side of the door to joy. Or perhaps you are tempted to speed things along through illicit practices, as Saul did: if God won’t give me what I want, I’ll get it myself. But see the price Saul paid for his impatience? He loses his kingdom for lack of a few minutes more of patience.
Saul is polite; he seeks Samuel out, he doesn’t wait for Samuel to come to him. He approaches him and offers him a formal blessing (“greet him” is literally “bless him”). But Samuel waves away the niceties, “Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering,” (1 Sam 13:11-12).
In verse 11 Saul lays out three things he has going against him as a defense for his action:
1) The people are scattering from me.
2) You did not come within the days appointed.
3) The Philistines had mustered at Michmash.
The Philistines are likely going to come again against me any minute now, and I haven’t sought the favor of the Lord—I haven’t said my prayers yet! So, I didn’t want to, my conscience warned me, but what else could I do in the situation that I was in: the people were leaving, you were late, the Philistines were drawing close–my hand was forced, Samuel.
See how Saul has painted the scene in such a way that he isn’t responsible for anything, only a victim—and a righteous and pious one, at that. What else could he have done?
Here’s how things normally work: you have a job, you have a responsibility, or a certain task in front of you. And you have a set of convictions about how to do those things rightly, faithfully, in a way that pleases God. You have a picture in your mind of the kind of Christian you should be in your workplace, in your parenting, in your friendship with others. But then along comes the circumstances of life that suddenly make sticking to those principles and convictions hard, exhausting, discouraging, fearful.
What would have happened to Saul had he waited, if he stuck to his convictions? He would not only have risked looking like an incompetent leader, he also would have been in physical danger—maybe the Philistines would have attacked and because he waited, he would have had no army left to help. Saul was practical and pragmatic; his convictions would need to flex some. It would be irresponsible if he didn’t. That’s just how the world works.
A mentor of mine when I was younger was a youth pastor when it became evident to him that he needed to leave the church he was working at, despite not having another job lined up yet, and just wait for the Lord to open a new door of opportunity for him. Confident that God would provide, he resigned and intended on supporting his wife and three children just off the money they had in savings while they waited. They were confident that this was what the Lord wanted for them. But they had supported a number of different missionaries financially each month. While going over their budget, looking at what they could do to make their savings stretch, the husband assumed that they would need to suspend their support of their missionaries and stop tithing. The wife, however, looked at him puzzled. Why are we doing that? So, the husband fumblingly explained to her basic economics: we need to make money before we give money away. That’s just how the world works. But, she replied, that isn’t how God works. And she turned to the example of the Corinthians who gave generously despite their great poverty. So, they decided to keep giving generously. That’s how God works.
How God Works (1 Sam 13:13-14)
What did God expect of Saul? “And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever,” (1 Sam 13:13). Here is what God expected of Saul: keep His commands. Kings were not expressly forbidden from making sacrifices in situations like this. Later, David and Solomon will make similar sacrifices. But apparently, Samuel had explicitly told Saul that God had wanted Saul to wait seven days and then Samuel would make the sacrifices. It was a clear command, it wasn’t ambiguous, wasn’t murky. But Saul, when things look dire, tosses the command aside.
Friend, are God’s commands disposable when obeying them is hard?
What Saul thought was practical wisdom and strategic leadership is, in God’s eyes, foolishness. You have done foolishly. There may be times where you come to a crossroad where you know that faithfulness will take you down a hard path, and compromise just makes sense, looks smart, looks even responsible. But disobedience always is foolish. It isn’t just “technically” sinful, but maybe makes good business sense—no, it is foolish. God’s commands are the path to life.
Sometimes the path of faithfulness is a strange path. Sometimes it is a winding, dark, and baffling path that looks as if it leads to doom, not life. Jesus taught, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few,” (Matt 7:13-14). The Jesus path is a hard path, and the path that makes sense, that is well-lit, comfortable and attractive, is a path that ends in destruction.
And we see that in what it cost Saul.
“But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you,” (1 Sam 13:14).
Why does Saul receive such a severe punishment for seemingly such a small sin? Particularly in contrast with the sin of David later on? David’s sin with Bathsheba is arguably far more severe than Saul’s, yet he doesn’t lose his kingdom. Why?
1. God sees the heart, and the simplest of sin may be hiding a wretched heart that is merely constrained by circumstance and custom. No one looking at a Pharisee in Jesus’ day would have thought they were wicked, yet Jesus describes them as “whitewashed tombs” outwardly clean, but inwardly full of death and decay. Saul’s sin may seem very prosaic now, but over time, the true nature of Saul’s heart is going to be revealed.
2. There is no simple sin. Matthew Henry writes, “There is no little sin, because there is no little god to sin against.” The heinousness of a crime depends on who the crime is perpetrated against. If your child tells another child, “You’re stupid,” you pull them aside and say, “Buddy, we don’t talk like that.” If your child tells their teacher, “You’re stupid,” you sit them down and say, “You go apologize right now!” And if your child says to God, “You’re stupid,” you tremble.
3. How we respond to our sin really matters. When Saul is confronted about his sin, he evades responsibility. When David is confronted, he admits and repents. It is not sinning alone that will ruin the Christian ultimately—sin will cost you dearly, it cost David dearly, his kingdom was thrown into turmoil and his family ruptured because of his sin—but it is not sin alone that will ruin you ultimately, but unrepented sin that will truly sink you.
The paradox of the story of Saul and David’s sin is that it simultaneously shows you the profound depth of the mercy of God given to heinous, heinous sinners who repent, and the uncompromising judgment of God that awaits the “simplest” of sinners who refuse to turn from their sin and trust in Christ.
And this passage becomes the launching pad for David’s reign. Saul’s kingship now becomes the foil for the true king to come, David, the one who is “after God’s own heart.” That phrase of course implies relationship, affection, a love of God for who He is. But the wider context makes it clear that Samuel is emphasizing how this promised king would orient himself to God’s law, what God had commanded. In the Bible the “heart” doesn’t merely refer to emotions, but it is also the place of thought, will, plans—so God’s “heart” is God’s will, His thoughts, His commands. You cannot divorce God’s commands from His person. How you respond to God’s words reveal what you think of His person. Saul had received a clear command from God, but found it disposable when the goings got tough. God is looking for one who holds to His commands, even when it feels strange, foolish, or hard.
Which draws our mind to the final Son of David, Jesus, who was obedient to God’s commands to the point of death, even death on a cross. The convictions Jesus had did not make His life easier, but much harder. They led him to be reviled, despised and rejected. And His relief only came on the other side of the grave, through the resurrection. But this gives us two encouragements. One, Jesus’ obedience led to the total oblivion and desecration of Good Friday so that you and I would never experience it. He absorbed the wrath reserved for us, so our deepest dilemma—total rejection and judgment—has been settled. Second, it now gives us a paradigm for life. The cross comes before the crown. Good Friday before Easter. We enter through the narrow gate and go through the hard path now, because that is the path that leads to life, to resurrection. But now, our narrow gate, our cross we bear, isn’t the dreadful cross that Christ bore. It isn’t an atoning cross, but simply a tutor to make us more like Christ. So, when you fear following through on your convictions, what it will cost you, what it will take from you, you can be comforted that the worst has already past in Christ, God is for you, and while life may be hard, it will not result in another Good Friday and the path of faithfulness that looks like it leads into grave, is actually the path to resurrection life.
So, I wonder where you are today? What convictions do you hold that feel most scary to follow through on? Where are you compromising because obedience feels too hard?
How to Weigh Your Convictions
When Saul says that he had to “force himself” to make the sacrifice, he reveals (1) he was himself convinced, convicted that it was wrong because (2) God’s command was clear. The entire confrontation with Samuel emphasizes that God had explicitly commanded Saul, but Saul disobeyed.
Our obligation to adhere to our convictions depends on where they come from.
1. The Bible–unyielding
2. The Church—take seriously
3. Wisdom of the World–consider