Case Study in Fear
Scripture: 1 Samuel 13
In some sense, every sermon is right on time, because God is sovereign. But today it feels especially true. It is what I needed to hear today.
Last week, Samuel spoke to the entire nation about fear. He told them not to be afraid, except only to fear the Lord. I want to suggest that today’s chapter is a case study in fear – of doing the opposite of what Samuel meant. Chapters 13 and 14 really go together, but I’m going to split them for the sake of time. We will look at chapter 14 next Sunday.
1 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.
This is a relatively small number of soldiers and should remind us Gideon and his three hundred men.
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.
This was Jonathan’s victory, but notice that Saul basically takes credit for it – because he’s the king.
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.
In Genesis, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the “sand on the seashore”. But so far in Joshua, Judges, and now in 1 Samuel – every time “sand on the seashore” has been used it was to describe the horde of enemies standing against Israel!
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.
It’s impossible to miss the connection between Samuel’s speech in chapter 12 and fear of the people in chapter 13. They hide or they run or the few that remain with Saul stand trembling with fear. Now we come to the heart of the text.
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.”
We will stop here today and look closely at Saul’s failure.
He was told to wait for Samuel. The soldiers begin to scatter on the seventh day and instead of commanding them to wait, Saul decides to do Samuel’s job for him. And Samuel basically catches him red handed.
Samuel asks, “What have you done?” And notice how Saul responds.
He blames the people… they were scattering.
He blames Samuel… you were late.
He blames the enemy… they were nearby.
And then, to minimize his own guilt, he says “I forced myself.” In other words, what else could I do? Isn’t this what God wanted me to do? Doesn’t he want me to lead? Am I not the king?
And Samuel matter of factly replies – no. You did something foolish – so foolish that it will cost you the kingdom. And then verse 14 gives us the first reference to David – the man after God’s own heart.
That’s the story. But we are tempted to ask a question about fairness. Is this fair? Did Saul really do something so bad that he should lose the kingdom?
We may sympathize with Saul. He waited most of the time required and in the end, doesn’t a king have the right to make difficult decisions on behalf of his people?
I want to suggest that this story is less about Saul’s failure and more about his refusal to accept responsibility for it. The failure could be forgiven, but the excuses tell us something about Saul’s heart.
In fact, there’s an obvious connection between this story and the story of Adam in Genesis 3.
Adam and Eve were caught red-handed by God. They broke the one commandment they had been given. And as God approaches, He asks the same question – “What have you done?”
And do you remember how Adam and Eve responded?
Adam said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The defensiveness… the blame shifting… the refusal to accept responsibility… these are the telltale signs of an unrepentant heart.
And at the core, there are two primary factors. More broadly, this is what sin does to all of us. But more specifically, I think it is important to see these two factors at work.
On the one hand is what the Bible calls pride. Pride is why Adam and Eve and Saul attempted to shift responsibility. “It’s not as bad as it looks, God… I can explain…” God asks the question, “What have you done?” and we respond, “Nothing all that bad. I’m a decent person. It’s not my fault.”
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18
“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” – Proverbs 26:12
“The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’” – Obadiah 1:3
“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” – Galatians 6:3
The Bible talks about pride quite often.
But the other factor is what the Bible calls unbelief. Unbelief is why Adam and Eve and Saul refused to obey God in their respective circumstances. They trusted their own assessment of the circumstances instead of trusting what God told them to do. “I know God said that, but maybe He was wrong… or maybe there’s something He’s not telling us… or maybe He didn’t really mean it.”
“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.” – Proverbs 3:7
“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” – John 12:48
“Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6
This is practically all sin at the heart level. We justify it – like Saul and like our first parents – by downgrading the seriousness of it because of our pride and trusting our own assessment of the circumstances instead of God’s unfailing promises.
Now, let’s go back and talk about fear. I told you that this was a case study in Samuel’s warning against fear, that they should fear only the Lord.
Practically speaking, this is not easy for anyone. The Israelites were severely outnumbered. And we are told at the end of chapter 13 that their military technology was vastly inferior. Saul and Jonathan were the only soldiers in their entire army with actual swords and spears.
Humanly speaking, I understand the fear. We’re talking about a great enemy. I don’t want us to minimize the reality of great enemies. There is great evil in this world. This is a scary world. The Bible doesn’t minimize the threats we face.
Instead, the Bible shifts our focus to someone who is greater than all our enemies. There is a figure looming larger over all of circumstances than the evils we face.
And if pride and unbelief are two sides of the same coin – the rejection of God and His Word – the opposite is simply trusting. And in this story, as well as most of our own stories (probably), trusting God usually looks like waiting. That’s all Saul had to do. Wait. That’s it. Just wait.
Specifically, we are waiting on God to “show up.” Of course, in one sense God is always there. He is always doing a million things all around us. He may not do what we want or what we expect, but He will always do what is best.
Trusting God to do that in every situation is the heart of the matter – it is the battle.
Jack Miller was the founder of World Harvest Mission, now called Serge. His son John wrote a book called Heart of a Servant Leader, which is a collection of letters his dad wrote to missionaries all over the world. This is my favorite quote from one of those letters:
“Remember, the only real leader you have is Jesus Christ. Unless you are daily taught of Him you will not be able to make the right decisions. To get to Him you need to pray, but it needs to be prayer of a unique quality. You can pray all night and all day and still not be in touch with His will. *** Prayer is not full and effective unless it adds up to our learning to wait upon the Lord for Him to make known His will. He needs to break down our tendency to cry out in prayer ‘Your will be done,’ and then to get up and still try to impose our will on circumstances.”
He goes on to explain that it is a demonic faith that seeks to do God’s job for him rather than wait. And that, I’m convinced, is why Saul’s sin was so bad. He was the king. And he used his authority to try and do God’s job for God. But God doesn’t want or need that, and He will not share His glory with a king or anyone else.
What God wanted from His leaders – then and now – is to point His people to their One true King. And it is so beautiful to me that even Jesus, our King, the second Adam, understood and demonstrated this.
How many times did Jesus say during His earthly ministry, “I’m only here to do what my Father in heaven wants me to do?” He praised the Roman centurion who understood that mission and called it a greater demonstration of faith than Jesus had seen in any of His Jewish disciples!
God doesn’t need us to do His job. He needs us to wait and trust Him to do His job.
David is coming… but not even David is the true King. David just does a better job, at times, of showing us what waiting and trusting can look like.
No, Jesus is the only man who is truly after God’s heart. He is the only man who would completely choose humility over pride and faithfully finish the mission, trusting God even when God’s will for Him was a gruesome death on a Roman cross. You understand, that was God’s will – the cross was the plan. And fear didn’t keep Jesus from going.
But fear got the best of Saul and many times it will get the best of us. It causes us to misjudge our circumstances and worse – we misjudge God. Do you remember what Saul said in his own defense in verse 12? He said he made the sacrifice because he realized he had not sought the favor of the Lord.
But that was a critical error. The favor of the Lord is not something earned, but something given.
Brothers and sisters, in Christ we already have the favor of the Lord. It is given. It is ours. We are adopted sons and daughters of the King. We have nothing to fear – not even death. No enemy will stand before the power of our God. No child of God will be abandoned or forgotten.
We don’t like waiting because it feels like doing nothing. Someone posted a picture of an Olympic swimmer this week, and in the background was a very bored lifeguard. The caption said, “If you’re feeling helpless today, remember that they have lifeguards at the Olympics!”
Katie Ledecky doesn’t need a lifeguard and Jesus doesn’t need us to do His job for Him.
I sat in the ICU waiting room for hours this week in support of Michael Ford – but I felt helpless. It felt like doing nothing. But it wasn’t “doing nothing”. It was waiting. And waiting is something.
Waiting is trusting in the face of fear. I may be helpless, but God is not… thanks be to Jesus Christ.