King Saul, Israel’s new thousand pound gorilla du jour, armed his soldiers to take on the Philistine hordes. The problem: the hordes were legion! The scripture describes their number like this: “Thirty thousand chariots, six thousand calvary and as many soldiers as there is sand on the seashore [1 Sam 13:5].” Saul had only brought two thousand men to the party.
Apparently, Saul was supposed to wait seven days before engaging the Philistines after, and only after, Samuel had joined his army to present an offering to the Lord.
What would you do? You have a problem, you are outnumbered, inexperienced, the clock is ticking, the results of waiting might be disastrous…and all you have to do is wait. Your life, your company, is entirely dependent on someone else’s calendar. Do you stay smart? Do what you are supposed to do?
Or make up new rules and hedge your bets?
In A Storm of Swords, the third book in the Game of Thrones series, Samwell Tarly is at the end of his rope, and what he thinks to do is to pray. His prayer goes like this:
“Old gods, hear my prayer. The Seven were my father’s gods but I said my words to you when I joined the Watch. Help us now. I fear we might be lost. We’re hungry too, and so cold. I don’t know what gods I believe in now, but . . . please, if you’re there, help us. Gilly has a little son.” That was all that he could think to say. The dusk was deepening, the leaves of the weirwood rustling softly, waving like a thousand blood-red hands. Whether Jon’s gods had heard him or not he could not say.”
There is a fearful moment of faith that upsets everyone.
As his soldiers begin to desert, he pushes the schedule up and leads the full sacrifice by himself. Samuel gets there just as he is finishing up. At this, his monarchy is ruined. “So I took control of myself, and offered up the entirely burned offering [1 Sam 13:12].”
Samuel responds, “You idiot!” OK, maybe he didn’t do that, but he did say, “How stupid of you to have broken the commands the Lord your God gave you? The Lord would have established your rule over Israel forever, but now your rule won’t last [vv.13-14]”
So what was the big deal? Why did Saul lose his empire for doing what Samuel was going to do anyway? Doesn’t God have a sense of humor? I thought the whole sacrifice thing pleased God.
Reality is, it wasn’t the sacrifice that concerned God. It was Saul’s ability to trust; his ability to be obedient under mortal threat. God wanted to give Saul an opportunity to be faithful. Turns out, faithfulness isn’t Saul’s spiritual gift. Like the great pop theologian Thomas Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Instead of waiting on Samuel, Saul hedges his bets. Who knows what god he thought he was sacrificing to. Maybe, he was having an ‘I don’t believe in a God, per se, but in a force that commands the army of Israel’ moment and sacrificed to that. In 1947, C.S. Lewis said these brilliant words that I wish that I had known about before today
“. . . When [people] try to get rid of manlike, or, as they are called, ‘anthropomorphic,’ images, they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kinds. ‘I don’t believe in a personal God,’ says one, ‘but I do believe in a great spiritual force.’ What he has not noticed is that the word ‘force’ has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation. ‘I don’t believe in a personal God,’ says another, ‘but I do believe we are all parts of one great Being which moves and works through us all’—not noticing that he has merely exchanged the image of a fatherly and royal-looking man for the image of some widely extended gas or fluid.”
By hedging his bets, Saul loses favor with the God of Israel and loses the crown of Israel.
It’s about faith and Israel’s king doesn’t have it.