I Samuel 12 – Samuel’s Last Sermon
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 27, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church coming to you live from the chapel of Home Church. Let me remind you that we have worship at 11:00 a.m. in the main sanctuary. Mention this radio broadcast and you can receive a 10% discount off of your offering this Sunday only. It has been quite a month for religion in America. It may be the first time that we have had two men called “your holiness” in the country at the same time. Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama made official visits. They, of course, did not meet with each other, and they spoke in quite different settings. One of the signs of secularization in the modern world is that the Pope has to serve mass in baseball stadiums because they are the largest arenas. I wonder what effect it has a team when their field is officially sanctified as holy ground. There was a Winston-Salem connection to the pontiff’s visit: Father Sam Weber of Wake Forest Divinity School wrote the chants that were sung at the mass. We are so sad that Father Sam is leaving for a new position in the Catholic Church.
By the way, the two religious leaders share something more than the title “your holiness.” Both of them claim to be a head of state as well as a religious figure. The Dalai Lama is the exiled leader of Tibet and Benedict is the sovereign of Vatican City. It was in 1929 that the fascist dictator of Italy made an agreement with the papacy granting sovereignty to the Vatican. As a result, the Vatican has embassies in many countries and a seat in the UN, which grants the Catholic Church a voice denied to Protestants and members of other religions. This does have an impact on our world. People are dying by the millions in Africa, but Pope Benedict aggressively opposes efforts of the World Health Organization to deal with AIDS as a public health issue. While in the US, his holiness did issue an apology to the thousands of Americans who have been abused by Catholic priests over the years, but in ethics, actions speak louder than words and apologies are less important than justice.
Closer to home, this week will be our last Wednesday evening program until fall. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the programs and fellowship. We’re coming to the end of term at the Divinity School and there is a little more fervor in the students’ prayers than usual. We’ve had a lot of great speakers and programs at Wake this year, and we look forward to the fall program. Tomorrow night the joint boards will be meeting with PEC to discuss the triennial review of the ministry of Home Church. They would all like you to support them in prayer.
Samuel’s Final Speech Our lesson for today comes from ch. 12 of I Samuel, which is a long public pronouncement by Samuel. The setting is not a major sports arena, but Samuel, like Benedict was speaking in front of the ruler of a nation. Based on the context, we might assume that he is preaching at the celebration held in Gilgal when Saul was made king, but the tone of the sermon does not fit such a festive occasion. Hans Hertzberg and others propose that this sermon was originally located at the shrine at Mizpah since it reflects the suspicion of the monarchy expressed earlier at Mizpah. It is possible that the author of I Samuel intentionally left the location and time of the sermon vague so that it would have a timeless quality.
For centuries scholars have identified this as Samuel’s “farewell address” because he refers to his old age and is clearly transferring the government to a king. It is clear that Samuel is adjusting the end of the age of Judges and the beginning of the monarchy. Samuel is becoming obsolete in Israel, and that is never a comfortable feeling. However, there is nothing in the sermon or in the chapters that follow that indicate that Samuel retired. He is passing on the political and military leadership of Israel to the king, but Samuel will remain a prophet, priest, and judge until he dies. He is not making a speech like MacArthur in which he promises to fade away; he is claiming his proper role in the new political system in Israel.
Jeremiads and Election Sermons The comparison of Samuel’s speech in ch. 12 to Pope Benedict’s address in Washington, DC was not frivolous. This is the first example we have in the Bible of a prophet preaching to the king and the people on the theme of social justice and righteousness. The fact that the king is not mentioned by name reinforces the impression that this sermon is not about a particular king in a particular moment in history. It is a sermon for all kings and rulers. One of the distinctive features of the Israelite monarchy is that prophets, who were often called “men of God”, often preached before the people and the rulers on the theme of the covenant with God. This was an accepted office in Israel. The prophet, like the chaplain of a hospital or a college, was appointed to be the conscience of the government. Some of these sermons have been recorded in the books of the Old Testament. There you can read Amos’ words directed against economic injustice in Israel. You can read Jeremiah’s warnings against the kings of Judah and their efforts to cozy up to the Egyptians. Jeremiah’s sermons are such an important part of the history of Christian preaching that a new word was created to describe a sermon in the mode of Jeremiah. It is called a Jeremiad, and many Jeremiads of the Puritan preachers in New England have been published. Though named for Jeremiah, the practice of addressing issues of public policy in the pulpit goes back to Samuel.
For much of American history Protestant clergy preached special sermons on election days. The people were urged to come to church, to listen to the words of Scripture, to pray for wisdom, and to hear the preacher’s reminder that God does care about our politics. Election Day sermons did not endorse a particular candidate or political party, but they did remind the people that our political decisions should be grounded in our covenant with God. The clergy called the people to reflect on their political lives in the light of God’s law, and to choose people whose social ethic exemplifies the values revealed in Scripture. This was not simply a discussion of whether individuals were moral and descent human beings; it included discussions of ethics in government and the big issues of the day.
Religion and Poltics In our day, Protestants have grown wary of discussing politics in church. I think some of that caution is a result of the turmoil of the late 60s. People who lived through the angry church fights over the peace movement and women’s liberation are often reluctant to stir the flames again. Part of the caution comes from the way some political operatives manipulate religious people to claim that one political party is more righteous than the other. I can certainly respect such caution, and I have no desire for a theocracy led by the Christian version of the Taliban, but I am concerned that so many Christians approach politics as something completely separate from faith. I Samuel reminds us that we need prophetic voices in the realm. We need to let people of faith raise serious questions about public policy and political ethics. We need to move beyond attacking candidates for their gaffes and ask the questions that Scripture indicates God would have us ask.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the moderator of a debate asked the presidential candidates: “how would your policies affect the widows, orphans, and sojourners in our land,” which is a major theme of the biblical law. If they asked “How will you labor for peace, not just in America, but peace on earth” as the gospels proclaim. “How will your work as a politician bring good news to the poor and release to the captives?” These are questions that Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can discuss together. All of the major religions have a tradition of the holy person speaking the truth to those in power and calling for the nations to live according to the highest standards of justice and righteousness. Christians and Jews, in particular, can draw upon the example of Samuel here in chapter 12.
Exegetical Comments Before reading Samuel’s sermon, I will note that this is probably not the transcript of an actual sermon that Samuel preached in front of the king and the elders of Israel. They did not have a press core then writing down every word spoken by the prophet and then discussing its implications for hours afterward. There are a number of reasons to conclude that this sermon is actually a composite piece that was added to other the years. It is like a pearl that began with a bit of irritating grit and grew into an object of beauty as layers were added. The original sermon may have begun at verse 13 when Samuel presents the king to the people as the one they have chosen. Samuel calls upon the LORD who sends a thunderstorm to confirm that this is the king who will rule in power and in the fear of God. The coronation included an act of re-covenanting as the people confirmed that Israel was still in covenant with God even though they now had a king.
At some point the storyteller added a history of Israel to this story of the renewal of the covenant. The history given reflects the perspective of the book of Deuteronomy and the prophets of Judah; therefore scholars often call this a Deuteronomic history. Some biblical scholars theorize that during the Babylonian exile a great Judean scholar rewrote much of the history of Israel from this Deuteronomic perspective as a way to make sense of the destruction of Judah. At times the hand of the historian is more visible than at other times. The book of Joshua, for instance, is more clearly crafted by the Deutoronomic historian than the book of Judges. The Deuteronomic perspective is most clearly seen in I Samuel in the seams between the stories he is working with.
Read: I Samuel 12:.
Accountability of the Priest In light of the Pope’s visit to the US and the Triennial Review here at Home Church, our lesson for this morning has particular relevance. Samuel begins his speech with questions about his own behavior. He asks the crowds assembled to judge his behavior before he presumes to preach to them. The list of possible offenses that he gives provide us with a quaint picture of what was important in the bronze age, but that should not distract us from the significance of Samuel asking if he has taken anyone’s donkeys or cattle. He is acknowledging the sad reality that people in positions of trust often abuse that trust and steal from the people they should serve. We have already seen this in the book of I Samuel, and we have seen it even more in our day and age.
A recent study of philanthropic organizations by fraud examiners discovered that there is indeed a great deal of graft within the philanthropic world. More than $30,000,000 was stolen in 2004. Most of the perpetrators were women, but the biggest thefts were by men who ran the organizations. It appears that those leaders were honest for many years, but eventually the temptation to increase their salary illegitimately was too great and they faltered. This should not prevent you from giving generously to charities, but all of us should demand that every organization be required to give full accounting and hold its staff to high standards of accountability. Churches in particular have proven far too trusting of employees, including pastors.
Samuel is an example of a priest who publically asked the people to hold him accountable for his behavior. The worst thing about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was not that the priesthood was attractive to pedophiles; it was that the officials responsible for supervising priests knew about the pedophilia and protected the priests rather than their victims. The church was far more worried about public scandal than the welfare of the people in the church. The institution was so worried about protecting itself that it violated the most sacred trust imaginable, and it was only the secular legal system that forced it to be truthful. But Samuel stood before the crowd and asked them to come forward and tell everyone if he has done anything wrong.
Such openness is necessary for all institutions, especially religious ones. Secrecy is a sign of fear. One of the things we have learned about ethics is that when institutions adopt policies of secrecy and hiding, they will be prone to abuse. I simply do not trust institutions that do not reveal the salaries of the key employees or provide clear financial statements to the people who give money to them. Billy Graham tried to get all evangelical organizations to sign on to a standard for ethical reporting of finances, but few followed his lead.
Hypocrisy It is possible that Samuel was defending himself from accusations from his enemies. Anyone who works with the public will have enemies and will face unfair accusations. That is just the fallen world in which we live. One of our presidential candidates is accused of being Muslim because of his name. Another was accused of being unpatriotic even though he was a POW. A third has been attacked for having made money on the stock market. We could continue. Samuel was a judge and he had enemies. It’s possible that this speech in chapter 12 was originally a response to unfair accusations, but that does not change the meaning or significance of what Samuel is doing. The best way for public figures, including pastors and priests, to respond to unfair accusations is with greater openness and accountability.
What is more important in this story is that Samuel is about to give a sermon on the responsibility of the king of Israel. The office Samuel holds includes the right to speak the truth to those in power. He is the conscience of the nation who holds the powerful accountable to the law of God. He wants to make it clear that he has the moral authority to speak about right and wrong. The words that Samuel says about the king would be a mockery if he were dishonest and abusive. There have been far too many people through the centuries who have claimed the right to condemn others without being accountable for their own behavior. John Hus’ best defense in his trial at Constance was the fact that he was a good priest who was being persecuted by priests who were corrupt and greedy. The prophets and priests of the Lord do not have to be morally perfect or without flaws, but they must be trustworthy. Most of all, they must not be hypocrites.
Those who preach about sacrifice and service must lead by example. Those who proclaim that people should turn away from the pursuit of status and power must first put aside their idols and demonstrate the courage of faith. Those who preach forgiveness must learn to forgive and to be forgiven. Much of the harm in this world is caused by hypocrisy, and we need to acknowledge that hypocrisy is a trap that any of us can fall into. There are liberal hypocrites and conservative hypocrites; Christian hypocrites and Buddhist hypocrites; preacher hypocrites and doctor hypocrites. The only way to get out of the trap of hypocrisy is the path chosen by Samuel. Embrace accountability. Allow others to critique you and hold a mirror up to you. Look honestly at yourself and the temptations you face in your own profession. Most of all, do not preach to others until you know who you are and that you are willing to be held to the standards you proclaim.
Historical Theology Samuel next gives a history of Israel that begins with Moses and Aaron. This is typical of Old Testament preaching. Although the pre-history of Israel goes back to Jacob and the patriarchs, the national history really began with the Exodus and the covenant on Sinai. Samuel reminds the people that it was the LORD God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and the same God established a covenant with them. They had no king in those days, but God sent leaders when Israel was oppressed by enemies like Sisera, the Philistines, and the king of Moab. Samuel gives a brief synopsis of the Book of Judges and tells the people that when their ancestors prayed to idols they were oppressed by their enemies. It was only when they turned away from idolatry that God saved them. This is the heart of Old Testament theology: idolatry will not save us in this life or the next. It is God who saves.
I know that many listeners were raised in religious households that used the theology of Deuteronomy oppressively. Many people grew up with the idea that religion is nothing more than being rewarded or punished for obedience or disobedience. Passages like this speech from Samuel are often used to portray God like an animal trainer with treats in one hand and a whip in the other. One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of dogs in church with the preacher shouting out “bad dog; bad dog.” The caption read “Hellfire and Dalmatians.” Many of us rebelled against a narrow and moralistic view of God who punishes pleasure and happiness, but I think many churches moved too far from the biblical image of God. In our eagerness to reject religious oppression, we forgot that God does care about ethics and justice. Obedience is an important biblical theme. Samuel is not preaching about petty sins and human frailty; he is preaching about living lives of integrity, honesty, and justice. Samuel asks us to ponder idolatry in our day and age. If we place our trust in idols of our own making, we will ultimately fail. We may perceive such failure as God’s punishment, but it may simply be a natural consequence of trusting our own illusions. Samuel tells us that if we give up our idolatry and try to be just and merciful as God teaches us to be, we will be blessed. This does not mean that we will succeed in all things, but we will find that even in difficult times we will be strong because we are just. A case in point is global warming. If we reclaim our belief that the world belongs to God and stop trusting in the idols of industry and autonomy, our meek grandchildren may have an earth to inherit.
National Idolatry Samuel identifies the sin of Israel as idolatry, and he warned them of the dangers of viewing the king as their savior and God. The issue is not about which form of government is divinely ordained; it is about our attitude toward all governments and nations. In the past century, nationalism became a form of religious idolatry, and normally decent people committed horrible crimes for the sake of their nation. People thought that having a German state or a French state or an Israeli state would save them. They fought in the wars of their nations and persecuted aliens and sojourners in their lands. Samuel would have recognized nationalism as idolatry, particularly when God’s name is invoked to bless one nation above all others. And he could have warned the people that idolatry brings its own destruction. The arrogance of nation-states led to apocalyptic wars and to greater terror than the world had ever known. The crimes of the kings of Israel seem so mild in retrospect, but the Israelites acknowledged their sin, which is something we seem incapable of in our more enlightened age.
At a critical moment in Israel’s history Samuel to warned the nation that if they became unrighteous because of the kings, then the kingdom would be destroyed. One certainty in this world is that Empires all ultimately fail. Typically, they collapse from their own injustice and oppression. Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.