Text: 1 Samuel 12:1–5, 19—25
Four factors have pressed me to preach about Samuel today.
First, I’m reading through the Bible’s historical books, and I just re-read this story, and it always rivets my attention.
Second, this is the last Sunday in 2013, and this is story conveys great truths for ending our year.
Third, I’ve been thinking about Axel Funke’s life story of God’s faithfulness, and Samuel’s account at its root sounds a lot like his.
Finally, I always like to preach about the family the last Sunday of the month, and this account certainly is about the family.
This is near the end of Samuel’s life. He was a great and godly prophet in Israel. He anointed the first two kings. He saw great triumph and tragedy. He was God’s man.
In this chapter he offers his valedictory. He recounts what God did, is doing, and will do. It’s a solemn and powerful sermon. It contains truths that can and should shape our lives.
Our Lifelong Faithfulness
Samuel was called by God from a child. His mother begged God to give her a child. She’d been barren. She was reproached by her husband’s other wife. She made a vow to God: if you give me a son, I’ll give him to you “all the days of his life” (1 Sam. 1:11). God heard her agonizing pleas. He gave her a son. And she fulfilled her vow. When she weaned him, she took him to the Lord’s temple and to Eli, God’s prophet. In due time, God revealed himself to this young boy, and he served God as a prophet in Israel the rest of his days.
Note carefully what Samuel said in v. 2 — “I have walked before you from my youth until this day.” Think of that testimony. Samuel challenged the Jews to indict him for public scandal or grave sin. They couldn’t do it (vv. 3–5). He wasn’t sinless, but he was godly. This is an important distinction. Just because we can’t be sinless doesn’t mean we can’t be godly. And Samuel’s very life — his entire life — was an example and testimony to the Jews.
Let’s explore this striking fact.
Samuel started walking before God as a child. He never stopped. His faithfulness was lifelong. He didn’t depart from the living God as a “teenager” (there were no teenagers in those days: teenager is distinctly modern, made-up category). Samuel didn’t go wild as a young adult and later settle down and come back to the Lord. He “walked [as a godly man] before [the Jews] from [his] youth until this day.”
This is normal Christian living. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) exceptional. I have many friends who have lived this way — in lifelong faithfulness. Some of you have. Your parents brought you up in the gospel and the church and the faith. You don’t recall a time that you weren’t nourished in the gospel. No, you aren’t sinless. You needed the gospel like we all do. But you’ve learned that God’s preventive grace is even greater than his recovering grace. Grace is displayed in an even greater way when God keeps a little child from a life of depravity than when he rescues a man from a life of depravity. It’s better to be preserved from immorality and drunkenness and covetousness and drug addiction and hatred than to be rescued from them. God is gracious in both cases, but preventive grace is even greater than recovering grace.
If you want to know why at Cornerstone we made abundant allowances for children and invite them to worship with us and preach a children’s sermon every Sunday have have the LAMBS group and baptize them and invite them to communion, it’s because God’s preventive grace is even greater than his recovering grace.
But Samuel’s testimony is an example for all the people of God, no matter how old you were when you started following Jesus. The message is this: we are charged to follow God totally, all the time, every time, in all we do.
We live in such a secular culture that it seems like a different world from the church and Christian family we inhabit. When we’re out in that world, it saps us of our Christian courage and vitality if we’re not careful. Filthy jokes seem less filthy. Sexual sins seem less sinful. Honesty in business seems less important. Training your children to love and serve God seems weird and radical. Remember this from David Wells: worldliness is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.
Today we often talk about the sacred and the secular. But that’s a false antithesis. The actual antithesis is the one our forefathers understood: the sacred and the profane. If it’s not sacred, if it’s not given to God, if it’s not in harmony with God’s Word, it’s profane. It’s contrary to God’s will.
Friends, we live our entire lives before the face of God. Nothing we do or think is hidden from him (Ps. 139). The entire universe is God-conditioned. Everywhere we go, God confronts us. All of life is designed to worship and glorify Him.
There is no area of our lives where we can say — “This is mine. I can do as I please.” Not our thoughts. Not our money. Not our sex lives. Not our entertainment. Not our vocation. Not our vacation. Not our children or grandchildren. Not our music. Not our words. Nothing.
Like Samuel, we’re called to be totally faithful to the Triune God.
Notice an act of faithfulness that Samuel mentions in v. 23: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you.”
Samuel knew the power of prayer. His mother was a prayer warrior. She poured out her soul to God. That’s probably where he learned to pray. He also knew that not praying is a sin. He was a shepherd in Israel. The Jews were under his spiritual care. If he didn’t pray for them, he shirked his responsibility.
Today we have plenty of CEO’s in the pulpit, but not enough shepherds. We need fewer CEO’s and more shepherds. We need elders who hold their sheep before the throne.
I have sinned in this area. I haven’t always prayed for you as I should. But I try, by God’s grace, and God is helping me.
And you fathers and mothers, we are charged to pray for our children. Husbands, we are required to pray for our wives.
Please don’t overlook the force of this passage. Samuel says that he sins if he refuses to pray for Israel. We sin if we refuse to pray for one another. In other words, this is a Christian duty that we have for each other. We owe it to one another to pray for each other. You have a Christian right to demand of your brothers and sisters that they pray for you.
That’s how important prayer for one another is.
In vv. 6–17, Samuel exhorts the people. I was talking to Don this week and we were discussing the role of the church and its leadership in staying true to the biblical message. Our job isn’t to conform to the culture but to confront the culture’s sin: lovingly but firmly. If you read Samuel’s words, you’ll note how clear and forceful they are. He’s saying that God did great things for you, and you sinned, but when you repented, God forgave you and restored you.
He reminds Israel how faithful God has been and how he requires his people to be faithful (vv. 13-15):
If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well. But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king.
That’s just as true of Jesus’ church, and the NT writers said things just like this (see, e.g., Gal. 6:7–8). God chose us and loves us and cares for us and wants what’s best for us. He doesn’t give his commands to us to hurt us but to help us. He is our designer and therefore he knows what enhances and what distorts the design. When we disobey God, we don’t just break his heart; we break the design. We hurt ourselves. God loves us so much that he refuses to let us hurt ourselves without going to extraordinary lengths to stop us.
God’s Lifelong Faithfulness
But the most weighty lesson we learn from Samuel’s farewell address is God’s faithfulness, not ours. Our faithfulness is possible only because of God’s: “I … plead with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your fathers” (v. 7). Now, did you notice something odd? Samuel didn’t speak of God’s grace or mercy, but of his righteous deeds. Of course, God is gracious to us, but he’s gracious in his righteousness.
Let me explain. Samuel is saying that God does right by his people. We often miss this. Because we don’t think covenantally, this fact of God’s character is invisible. We then think that God acts sentimentally. But God isn’t a sentimentalist. When he willingly bound himself to his people in covenant, he bound himself to act in a certain way toward them.
God isn’t arbitrary. He acts according to his character. He willingly entered into covenant with his people, Israel and us. This means that when he loves and protects and disciplines and forgives and restores us — he’s doing what he covenanted to do. God isn’t just “being nice.” We don’t serve a nice God. We serve a God far greater than a nice God. We serve a covenant-keeping God. And that God is much more loving, much more vigorous, much more powerful.
And this is why even though Israel sinned in demanding a king, God didn’t turn his back in his people. They confessed their sin (v. 19). See Samuel’s response: “Do not be afraid.” Isn’t that beautiful? God is bound to forgive, and he loves to forgive, his repentant people. That’s not God’s being nice. That’s part of his character. That’s who God is.
This is why God is relentless in his faithfulness to his people. Even when we sin against him, he acts to bring us back. He reminds the Jews that he sold them into captivity (see vv. 9–11), not to harm them, but to press them to repent and turn to him. Think of this. God doesn’t get fed up and annoyed and abandon his people. He doesn’t throw up his hands and say, “I’m through with you.” Even when he’s says things like this in exasperation (and he does say this from time to time), he always seems to relent. Why? He’s a covenant-keeping God. He loves to perform righteous deeds for his people. He’ll move heaven and earth to rescue his people.
And this is why Samuel says, “The Lord will not abandon his people because he wants to uphold his great reputation” (v. 22, NET Bible).
And this is why God’s people in the Bible again and again do not pray sentimental prayers to God, “God, you’re a nice God. Please be nice to us.” A thousand times no. They pray, “God, you’re covenant-keeping God. You have bound yourself to me, and us. You are bound by your own character to help me, to help us. God, I remind you of your covenant word to your people. If you don’t come through, imagine how your reputation will be ruined in the presence of the wicked. They’ll scoff at this God who couldn’t rescue his people. God, be faithful to your covenant. Be faithful to your character.”
These are the prayers that God answers. God isn’t a sentimentalist. God isn’t a nice God.
He’s much, much more. He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. This is the God we love and serve.