Reading my Bible, I’ve been stuck for 6 months in 1 Samuel, mostly because I haven’t been reading it. But I was struck by this passage today:
The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?”
1 Sam 16:1-11a ESV
There are so many things to look into here that my gut wants to look right past: Why were the people afraid of Samuel, when Samuel was afraid of Saul? How is it that God was concerned about Samuel’s dejection over Saul? How is it that Samuel was dejected, when so recently he was stony toward Saul? How could God tell Samuel to use misdirection to get to Bethlehem without arousing suspicion? Wasn’t that a little bit like lying?
I’m stuck on something a little more fundamental: what was it like for Samuel to speak with God like He was a man? How did he know it was the voice of God? Was it audible? Apparently it was enough like an audible voice, that he thought Eli was calling him from another room when he was a child, but not so audible that the people around him could hear it.
I picture Jesse standing there before Samuel, sweat dripping down his face, a little bit nervous and a bit concerned. There’s no indication from the text that Jesse knew why Samuel was there. Samuel says he’s here at Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice, though Bethlehem is not an official place for sacrifice. Then he picks out Jesse and has him consecrate himself and his family. No one knows what Samuel is doing. Again, when Jesse introduces his family, Samuel walks down the line like a judge at a beauty contest, saying nothing, having some kind of personal dialogue inside his head. His eyes light, and then he frowns, and frowning walks his way down the line, staring at each son like he’s weighing their souls. When he comes to the end of the line, he turns to Jesse: “The LORD has not chosen these.” he says, “Are all your sons here?”
What is anyone supposed to make of this? Ah, but Samuel is a prophet, and prophets do strange things. People, in turn, have strange ideas about prophets and what to do with them. Can you use a prophet as your personal tracking device – trade him a little produce and he’ll tell you where your goats have gone? Maybe. In a sense, it worked that way for Saul. At least, Samuel knew where the goats were, though for God, the goats were just an excuse. Can you ply them with gold to pronounce blessings and curses, to change the fate of history? Balak tried, and Balaam was plied, but with stunningly unintended results. How different was a Jewish seer, really, from the voice that moaned at Delphi?
The answer, is “very different.” But not because the prophets are a different kind of men. No, but God is a very different God. He is very hard to manipulate. “Our God is in heaven. He does whatever He pleases.”
But how did it happen, that Samuel heard the voice of God? Oh, don’t hide behind that mysticism. You’re only mystical when the lights are off. Yes, Samuel was God’s own prophet. He heard a voice that was somehow not quite inside his head, and knew that voice was God’s own word and not the frenzy of his own mind. Not a word of his fell to the ground. But how did he know?
It’s an urgent question precisely because it’s 3000 years later. Jesus Christ has come and brought God’s spirit with him. Peter preached at Pentecost that the very thing folks were laughing at – people proclaiming God’s grace, wildly, in every language they didn’t know, was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Suddenly, in some way, and in some sense, what applies to Samuel applies to me. I can grant all kinds of exceptions – Samuel was called to a national stage for a specific purpose, and so on. But it remains that Samuel was a prophet of God, and as a Christian I must believe that God’s spirit has been poured out “on all flesh.” Is Samuel a prophet? Why am I not one?
I can hear the charismatics and Pentecostals cheering. But let me ask you, do you mock the word of God? Not one of Samuel’s words fell to the ground. If you prophesy, do you prophesy nonsense? Do you hear words in your head that sound godly, or even just amazing, and assume they came from God? How can you tell?
On the one hand, I’m constrained to believe that, if Joel is true, then it must not be true, because prophecy now would supersede the personal work of Jesus Christ (See Hebrews 1). On the other hand, I’m compelled to believe that I should be frivolous with the very oracles of God.
But Samuel walked with God, and not one word of his fell to the ground. He mourned for Saul, challenged God like a friend, calmed the people, and appointed kings. If God has sent his spirit, there should be more men like him. How could it be that the coming of the Spirit would usher us from a golden age to bronze?