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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

1 Samuel 12

Verses 1-12

1 Samuel

SAMUEL’S CHALLENGE AND CHARGE

1Sa_12:1 - 1Sa_12:15 .

The portion of Samuel’s address included in this passage has three main sections: his noble and dignified assertion of his official purity, his summary of the past history, and his solemn declaration of the conditions of future wellbeing for the nation with its new king.

I. Probably the war with the Ammonite king Nahash, which had postponed the formal inauguration of the king, had been carried on in the neighbourhood of the Jordan valley; and thus Gilgal would be a convenient rendezvous. But it was chosen for other reasons also, and, as appears from 1Sa_10:8 , had been fixed on by Samuel at his first interview with Saul. There the Covenant had been renewed, after the wanderers had crossed the river, with Joshua at their head, and it was fitting that the beginnings of the new form of the national life should be consecrated by worship on the same site as had witnessed the beginnings of the national life on the soil of the promised land. Perhaps the silent stones, which Joshua reared, stood there yet. At all events, sacred memories could scarcely fail, as the rejoicing crowd, standing where their fathers had renewed the Covenant, saw the blackened ruins of Jericho, and the foaming river, now, as then, filling all its banks in the time of harvest, which their fathers had crossed with the ark, that was now hidden at Kirjath-jearim, for their guide. The very place spoke the same lessons from the past which Samuel was about to teach them.

There is just a faint trace of Samuel’s disapproval of the new order in his first words. He takes care to throw the whole responsibility on the people; but, at the same time, he assumes the authoritative tone which becomes him, and quietly takes the position of superiority to the king whom he has made. 1Sa_11:15 seems to imply that he took no part in the rejoicings. It was ‘Saul and all the men of Israel’ who were so glad. He was still hesitant as to the issue, and obeyed the divine command with clearer insight into its purpose than the shouting crowd and the proud young king had. There is something very pathetic in the contrast he draws between Saul and himself. ‘The king walketh before you,’ in all the vigour of his young activity, and delighting all your eyes, and ‘I am old and gray-headed,’ feeble, and fit for little more work, and therefore, as happens to such worn-out public servants, cast aside for a new man. Samuel was not a monster of perfection without human feelings. His sense of Israel’s ingratitude to himself and practical revolt from God lay together in his mind, and colour this whole speech, which has a certain tone of severity, and an absence of all congratulation. Probably that accounts for the mention of his sons. The elders’ frank statement of their low opinion of them had been a sore point with Samuel, and he cannot help alluding to it. It was not for want of possible successors in his own house that they had cried out for a king. If this be not the bearing of the allusion to his sons, it is difficult to explain; and this obvious explanation would never have been overlooked if Samuel had not been idealised into a faultless saint. The dash of human infirmity and fatherly blindness gives reality to the picture. ‘I have walked before you from my youth unto this day.’ Note the recurrence of the same expression as is applied to Saul in the former part of the verse. It is as if he had said, ‘Once I was as he is now,-young and active in your sight, and for your service. Remember these past years. May your new fancy’s record be as stainless as mine is, when he is old and grayheaded!’ The words bring into view the characteristic of Samuel’s life which is often insisted on in the earlier chapters,-its calm, unbroken continuity and uniformity of direction, from the long-past days when he wore ‘the little coat’ his mother made him, with so many tears dropped on it, till this closing hour. While everything was rushing down to destruction in Eli’s time, and his sons were rioting at the Tabernacle door, the child was growing up in the stillness; and from then till now, amid all changes, his course had been steady, and pointed to one aim. Blessed they whose age is but the fruitage of the promise of their youth! Blessed they who begin as ‘little children,’ with the forgiveness of sin and the knowledge of the Father, and who go on, as ‘young men,’ to overcome the Evil One, and end, as ‘fathers,’ with the deeper knowledge of Him who is ‘from the beginning,’ which is the reward of childhood’s trust and manhood’s struggles!

Samuel is still a prophet, but he is ceasing to be the sole authority, and, in his conscious integrity, calls for a public, full discharge, in the presence of the king. Note that 1Sa_12:3 gives the first instance of the use of the name ‘Messiah,’ and think of the contrast between Saul and Jesus. Observe, too, the simple manners of these times, when ‘ox and ass’ were the wealth. They would be poor plunder nowadays. Note also the various forms of injustice of which he challenges any one to convict him. Forcible seizure of live stock, fraud, harsh oppression, and letting suitors put gold on his eyes that he might not see, are the vices of the Eastern ruler to-day, and rampant in that unhappy land, as they have been ever since Samuel’s time. I think I have heard of politicians in some other countries further west than Gilgal, who have axes to grind and logs to roll, and of the wonderful effects, in many places of business, of certain circular gold discs applied to the eyes. This man went away a poor man. He does not seem to have had salary, or retiring pension; but he carried away a pair of clean hands, as the voice of a nation witnessed.

II. Having cleared himself, Samuel recounts the outlines of the past, in order to emphasise the law that cleaving to God had ever brought deliverance; departure, disaster; and penitence, restoration. It is history with a purpose, and less careful about chronology than principles. Facts are good, if illuminated by the clear recognition of the law which they obey; but, without that, they are lumber. The ‘philosophy of history’ is not reached without the plain recognition of the working of the divine will. No doubt the principles which Samuel discerned written as with a sunbeam on the past of Israel were illustrated there with a certainty and directness which belonged to it alone; but we shall make a bad use of the history of Israel, if we say, ‘It is all miraculous, and therefore inapplicable to modern national life.’ It would be much nearer the mark to say, ‘It is all miraculous, and therefore meant as an exhibition for blind eyes of the eternal principles which govern the history of all nations.’ It is as true in Britain to-day as ever it was in Judea, that righteousness and the fear of God are the sure foundations of real national as of individual prosperity. The kingdoms of this world are not the devil’s, though diplomatists and soldiers seem to think so. If any nation were to live universally by the laws of God, it might not have what the world calls national success; it would have no story of wholesale robbery, called military glory, but it would have peace within its borders, and life would go nobly and sweetly there. ‘Happy is the people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is the people, whose God is the Lord.’

The details of Samuel’s resume need not occupy much time. Note the word in 1Sa_12:7 , ‘reason,’ or, as the Revised Version renders, ‘plead.’ He takes the position of God’s advocate in the suit, and what he will prove for his client is the ‘righteousness’ of his dealings in the past. The story, says he, can be brought down to very simple elements,-a cry to God, an answer of deliverance, a relapse, punishment, a renewed cry to God, and all the rest of the series as before. It is like a repeating decimal, over and over again, each figure drawing the next after it. The list of oppressors in 1Sa_12:9 , and that of deliverers in 1Sa_12:11 , do not follow the same order, but that matters nothing. Clearly the facts are assumed as well known, and needing only summary reference. The new-fashioned way of treating Biblical history, of course, takes that as an irrefutable proof of the late date and spuriousness of this manufactured speech put into Samuel’s mouth. Less omniscient students will be content with accepting the witness to the history. Nobody knows anything of a judge named Bedan, and the conjectural emendation ‘Barak’ is probable, especially remembering the roll-call in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where Gideon, Barak, and Jephthah appear in the same order, with the addition of Samson. The supposition that ‘Samuel,’ in this verse, is an error for ‘Samson,’ is unnecessary; for the prophet’s mention of himself thus is not unnatural, in the circumstances, and is less obtrusive than to have said ‘me.’

The retrospect here given points the lesson of the sin and folly of the demand for a king. The old way had been to cry to God in their distresses, and the old experience had been that the answer came swift and sufficient; but this generation had tried a new method, and fear of ‘Nahash the Ammonite’ had driven them to look for a man to help them. The experience of God’s responses to prayer does not always wean even those who receive them from casting about for visible helpers. Still less does the experience of our predecessors keep us from it. Strange that after a hundred plain instances of His aid, the hundred and first distress should find us almost as slow to turn to Him, and as eager to secure earthly stays, as if there were no past of our own, or of many generations, all crowded and bright with tokens of His care! We are always disposed to doubt whether the power that delivered from Sisera, Philistines, and Moab, will be able to deliver us from Nahash. The new danger looks the very worst of all, and this time we must have a king. All the while Israel had God for its king. Our dim eyes cannot see the realities of the invisible world, and so we cleave to the illusions of the visible, which, at their best, are but shadows of the real, and are often made, by our weak hearts, its rival and substitute. What does the soldier, who has an impenetrable armour to wear, want with pasteboard imitations, like those worn in a play? It is doubtful wisdom to fling away the substance in grasping at the shadow. Saul was brave, and a head and shoulders above the people, and he had beaten Nahash for them; but Saul for God is a poor exchange. Do we do better, when we hanker after something more tangible than an unseen Guide, Helper, Stay, Joy, and Peace-bringer for our hearts, and declare plainly, by our eager race after created good, that we do not reckon God by Himself enough for us?

III. The part of Samuel’s address with which we are concerned here closes with the application of the history to the present time. The great point of the last three verses is that the new order of things has not changed the old law, which bound up well-being inseparably with obedience. They have got their king, and there he stands; but if they think that that is to secure their prosperity, they are much mistaken. There is a touch of rebuke, and possibly of sarcasm, in pointing to Saul, and making so emphatic, as in 1Sa_12:13 , the vehemence of their anxiety to get him. It is almost as if Samuel had said, ‘Look at him, and say whether he is worth all that eagerness. Do you like him as well, now that you have him, as you did before?’ There are not many of this world’s goods which stand that test. The shell that looked silvery and iridescent when in the sea is but a poor, pale reminder of its former self, when we hold it dry in our hands. One object of desire, and only one, brings no disappointment in possessing it. He, and only he, who sets his hope on God, will never have to feel that he is not so satisfied with the fulfilment as with the dream.

Israel had rejected God in demanding a king; but the giver of their demand had been God, and their rejection had not abolished the divine government, nor altered one jot of the old law. They and their king were equally its subjects. There is great emphasis in the special mention of ‘your king’ as bound to obedience as much as they; and, if we follow the Septuagint reading of 1Sa_12:15 , the mention is repeated there in the threatening of punishment. No abundance of earthly supports or objects of our love or trust in the least alters the unalterable conditions of well-being. Whether surrounded with these or stripped of all, to fear and serve the Lord and to hearken to His voice is equally the requisite for all true blessedness, and is so equally to the helper and the helped, the lover and the loved. We are ever tempted to think that, when our wishes are granted, and some dear or strong hand is stretched out for aid, all will be well; and we are terribly apt to forget that we need God as much as before, and that the way of being blessed has not changed. Those whose hearts and homes are bright with loved faces, and whose lives are guarded by strong and wise hands, have need to remember that they and their dear ones are under the same conditions of well-being as are the loneliest and saddest; and they who ‘have none other that fighteth for’ them have no less need to remember that, if God be their companion, they cannot be utterly solitary, nor altogether helpless if He be their aid.

Verses 13-15

1 Samuel

SAMUEL’ S CHALLENGE AND CHARGE

OLD TRUTH FOR A NEW EPOCH

1Sa_12:13 - 1Sa_12:25 .

Samuel’s office as judge necessarily ended when Saul was made king, but his office of prophet continued. This chapter deals with both the cessation and the continuance, giving at first his dignified, and somewhat pained, vindication of his integrity, and then passing on to show him exercising his prophetic function in exhortation, miracle, and authoritative declaration of Jehovah’s will.

I. The first point is the sign which Samuel gave. Usually there is no rain in Palestine from about the end of April till October. Samuel was speaking during the wheat harvest, which falls about the beginning of June. We note that he volunteered the sign, and, what is still more remarkable, that he is sure that God will send it in answer to his prayer. Why was he thus certain? Because he recognised that the impulse to proffer the sign came from God. We know little of the mental processes by which a prophet could discriminate between his own thinkings and God’s speech, but such discrimination was possible, or there could have been no ring of confidence in the prophet’s ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ Not even a ‘Samuel among them that call upon His name’ had a right to assume that every asking would certainly have an answer. It is when we ask ‘anything according to His will’ that we know that ‘He heareth us,’ and are entitled to predict to others the sure answer.

It seems a long leap logically from hearing the thunder and seeing the rain rushing down on the harvest field, to recognising the sin of asking for a king. But the connecting steps are plain. Samuel announced the storm, he asked God to send it, it came at his word; therefore he was approved of God and was His messenger; therefore his words about the desire for a king were God’s words. Again, God sent the tempest; therefore God ruled the elemental powers, and wielded them so as to affect Israel, and therefore it had been folly and sin to wish for another defender. So the result of the thunder-burst was twofold-they ‘feared Jehovah and Samuel,’ and they confessed their sin in desiring a king. They were but rude and sense-bound men, like children in many respects; their religion was little more than outward worship and a vague awe; they needed ‘signs’ as children need picture-books. The very slightness and superficiality of their religion made their confession easy and swift, and neither the one nor the other went deep enough to be lasting. The faith that is built on ‘signs and wonders’ is easily battered down; the repentance that is due to a thunderstorm is over as soon as the sun comes out again. The shallowness of the contrition in this case is shown by two things,-the request to Samuel to pray for them, and the boon which they begged him to ask, ‘that we die not.’ They had better have prayed for themselves, and they had better have asked for strength to cleave to Jehovah. They were like Simon Magus cowering before Peter, and beseeching him, ‘Pray ye for me to the Lord, that none of the things which ye have spoken may come upon me.’ That is not the voice of true repentance, the ‘godly sorrow’ which works healing and life, but that of the ‘sorrow of the world which worketh death.’ The real penitent will press the closer to the forgiving Father, and his cry will be for purity even more than for pardon.

II. Samuel’s closing words are tender, wise, and full of great truths. He begins with encouragement blended with reiteration of the people’s sin. It is not safe for a forgiven man to forget his sin quickly. The more sure he is that God has forgotten, the more careful he should be to remember it, for gratitude, humility and watchfulness. But it should never loom so large before him as to shut out the sunshine of God’s love, for no fruits of goodness will ripen in character without that light. It is a great piece of practical wisdom always to keep one’s forgiven sin in mind, and yet not to let it paralyse hopefulness and effort. ‘Ye have indeed done all this evil, . . . yet turn not aside from following Jehovah.’ That is a truly evangelical exhortation. The memory of past failures is never to set the tune for future service. Again, Samuel based the exhortation to whole-hearted service of Jehovah on Jehovah’s faithfulness and great benefits 1Sa_12:22 - 1Sa_12:24, It is suicidal folly to turn away from Him who never turns away from us; it is black ingratitude, as well as suicidal folly, to refuse to serve Him whose mercies encompass us. That divine good pleasure, which has no source but in Himself, flows out like an artesian well, unceasing. His ‘nature and property’ is to love. His past is the prophecy of His future. He will always be what He has been, and always do what He has done. Therefore we need not fear, though we change and are faithless. ‘He cannot deny Himself.’ His revealed character would be dimmed if He abandoned a soul that clung to Him. So our faith should, in some measure, match His faithfulness, and we should build firmly on the firm foundation.

III. Samuel answers the people’s request for his prayers with a wise word, full of affection, and also full of dignity and warning, all the more impressive because veiled. He promises his continued intercession, but he puts it as a duty which he owes to God rather than to them only, and he thus sufficiently asserts his God-appointed office. He promises to do more than pray for them; namely, to continue as their ethical and religious guide, which they had not asked him to be. That at once makes his future position in the monarchy clear. He is still the prophet, though no longer the judge, and, as the future was to show, he has to direct monarch as well as people. But it also hints to the people that his prayers for them will be of little avail unless they listen to his teaching. Whether a Samuel prays for us or not, if we do not listen to the voices that bid us serve God, we ‘shall be consumed.’

Verses 16-25

1 Samuel

OLD TRUTH FOR A NEW EPOCH

1Sa_12:13 - 1Sa_12:25 .

Samuel’s office as judge necessarily ended when Saul was made king, but his office of prophet continued. This chapter deals with both the cessation and the continuance, giving at first his dignified, and somewhat pained, vindication of his integrity, and then passing on to show him exercising his prophetic function in exhortation, miracle, and authoritative declaration of Jehovah’s will.

I. The first point is the sign which Samuel gave. Usually there is no rain in Palestine from about the end of April till October. Samuel was speaking during the wheat harvest, which falls about the beginning of June. We note that he volunteered the sign, and, what is still more remarkable, that he is sure that God will send it in answer to his prayer. Why was he thus certain? Because he recognised that the impulse to proffer the sign came from God. We know little of the mental processes by which a prophet could discriminate between his own thinkings and God’s speech, but such discrimination was possible, or there could have been no ring of confidence in the prophet’s ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ Not even a ‘Samuel among them that call upon His name’ had a right to assume that every asking would certainly have an answer. It is when we ask ‘anything according to His will’ that we know that ‘He heareth us,’ and are entitled to predict to others the sure answer.

It seems a long leap logically from hearing the thunder and seeing the rain rushing down on the harvest field, to recognising the sin of asking for a king. But the connecting steps are plain. Samuel announced the storm, he asked God to send it, it came at his word; therefore he was approved of God and was His messenger; therefore his words about the desire for a king were God’s words. Again, God sent the tempest; therefore God ruled the elemental powers, and wielded them so as to affect Israel, and therefore it had been folly and sin to wish for another defender. So the result of the thunder-burst was twofold-they ‘feared Jehovah and Samuel,’ and they confessed their sin in desiring a king. They were but rude and sense-bound men, like children in many respects; their religion was little more than outward worship and a vague awe; they needed ‘signs’ as children need picture-books. The very slightness and superficiality of their religion made their confession easy and swift, and neither the one nor the other went deep enough to be lasting. The faith that is built on ‘signs and wonders’ is easily battered down; the repentance that is due to a thunderstorm is over as soon as the sun comes out again. The shallowness of the contrition in this case is shown by two things,-the request to Samuel to pray for them, and the boon which they begged him to ask, ‘that we die not.’ They had better have prayed for themselves, and they had better have asked for strength to cleave to Jehovah. They were like Simon Magus cowering before Peter, and beseeching him, ‘Pray ye for me to the Lord, that none of the things which ye have spoken may come upon me.’ That is not the voice of true repentance, the ‘godly sorrow’ which works healing and life, but that of the ‘sorrow of the world which worketh death.’ The real penitent will press the closer to the forgiving Father, and his cry will be for purity even more than for pardon.

II. Samuel’s closing words are tender, wise, and full of great truths. He begins with encouragement blended with reiteration of the people’s sin. It is not safe for a forgiven man to forget his sin quickly. The more sure he is that God has forgotten, the more careful he should be to remember it, for gratitude, humility and watchfulness. But it should never loom so large before him as to shut out the sunshine of God’s love, for no fruits of goodness will ripen in character without that light. It is a great piece of practical wisdom always to keep one’s forgiven sin in mind, and yet not to let it paralyse hopefulness and effort. ‘Ye have indeed done all this evil, . . . yet turn not aside from following Jehovah.’ That is a truly evangelical exhortation. The memory of past failures is never to set the tune for future service. Again, Samuel based the exhortation to whole-hearted service of Jehovah on Jehovah’s faithfulness and great benefits 1Sa_12:22 - 1Sa_12:24, It is suicidal folly to turn away from Him who never turns away from us; it is black ingratitude, as well as suicidal folly, to refuse to serve Him whose mercies encompass us. That divine good pleasure, which has no source but in Himself, flows out like an artesian well, unceasing. His ‘nature and property’ is to love. His past is the prophecy of His future. He will always be what He has been, and always do what He has done. Therefore we need not fear, though we change and are faithless. ‘He cannot deny Himself.’ His revealed character would be dimmed if He abandoned a soul that clung to Him. So our faith should, in some measure, match His faithfulness, and we should build firmly on the firm foundation.

III. Samuel answers the people’s request for his prayers with a wise word, full of affection, and also full of dignity and warning, all the more impressive because veiled. He promises his continued intercession, but he puts it as a duty which he owes to God rather than to them only, and he thus sufficiently asserts his God-appointed office. He promises to do more than pray for them; namely, to continue as their ethical and religious guide, which they had not asked him to be. That at once makes his future position in the monarchy clear. He is still the prophet, though no longer the judge, and, as the future was to show, he has to direct monarch as well as people. But it also hints to the people that his prayers for them will be of little avail unless they listen to his teaching. Whether a Samuel prays for us or not, if we do not listen to the voices that bid us serve God, we ‘shall be consumed.’

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 12". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mac/1-samuel-12.html.