Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Lord is King (I Samuel 1-6)

The book of Samuel begins with a touching story that we should be growing familiar with by now. A woman named Hannah cannot have children (much to the cruel delight of her husband’s other wife). In tearful anguish, she cries out to the Lord, and promises that if he opens her womb, she will give her firstborn to his service.

The God of Israel loves this sort of thing! Hannah gives birth to Samuel (meaning heard of God), and composes a song of thanksgiving to the one who sets slaves free:
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
Indeed he does. The case in point is the current high priest, Eli. His sons are bullying the people bringing forth the sacrifices, taking the choice portions of the meat without even giving them time to burn the fat on the alter. They treat the offering of the Lord with contempt.

Eli tells them they really ought not to be doing that sort of thing. But they don’t listen. And so Eli receives this message from a prophet:
Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
Meanwhile, young Samuel is growing up under Eli’s patronage in the Tabernacle. One night Lord speaks to Samuel, who is just learning to recognize His voice. Samuel responds “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears,” while God proceeds to tell him about the downfall of Eli’s house. Both his sons, promises the Lord, will die on the same day.

The next morning Eli demands that the poor boy tell him God’s message. Fearful, but honest, Samuel relays the whole thing. With a shrug of his shoulders, Eli responds:
It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.
Compare Eli’s reaction to the destruction of his house to Moses’ on hearing of the impending destruction of Israel. When a people fall under judgment, what is the proper response of their leader? Calm acceptance of their fate? Or wrestling with God on their behalf? Moses pleaded with God and turns his wrath from the people. Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, speared an idolatrous couple and saved the people from the plague.

The Israelites go to battle against the Philistines, and are having trouble. In order to secure the Lord’s help, they bring the Ark of the Covenant with them to battle. This hardens the resolve of the Philistines with the cold courage of despair:
And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
The Philistines win the battle, capture the Ark, and kill the two sons of Eli. But they wake up the next morning to find their great idol smashed down before the ark, and their cities suffering horrible plagues. So, in humility, they send the ark back to Israel, with golden replicas of their plague tumors as tribute. (Incidentally, does this shed some light on what it meant for them to make a bronze snake in the wilderness?)

There is a lovely finishing touch to this story. When the Ark returns to Israel, the townsfolk of Beth-shemesh are ecstatic to see it. The glory of the Lord has returned to Israel – to their little town, no less. So they pull out all the stops, offer sacrifices, and throw a huge party. Then seventy of them are struck dead, for looking upon the ark of the Lord. So they beg the Levites to take the thing away.

The message is clear. This God is not to be trifled with. His ark is not a talisman that can be used for the purposes of whoever happens to be carrying it at the time. His promises are not to be presumed upon. Though compassionate and loving towards those in distress, he cannot be expected to simply underwrite the agenda of men, each doing what is right in his own eyes. No, the Lord is sovereign. The Lord is king.

'Eli the fatalist'. Now there's an interesting idea...

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