THE CAUSES OF GOD'S REJECTION OF THE FIRST KING.
We have already traced the steps which led to the setting up of Saul. It remains to consider the causes which led to God's rejection of him. Two acts of his are recorded, agreeing in character though differing in form, as a punishment for which he lost the kingdom. Both these acts were connected with religious worship; both excused by Saul; both, probably, such as Israel justified. Yet both were judged of God. The spirit of Saul yet lives and reigns; and acts, answering to those for which Saul lost the kingdom, still are wrought and still justified in the Church. Are we guilty of such acts? Are we approving them? Surely these are questions which deserve from us a careful and attentive answer.
1. Saul's sin was, first, disobedience in acting irrespective of God. The command given to him was, that, in certain circumstances which should arise, he should wait for the direction of the prophet of God, and not presume to act without that direction (1 Sam. 10:8). The circumstances arise precisely as foretold (1 Sam. 13:7). They are urgent in the extreme. Israel is sore distressed. The prophet lingers as though he would not come. Saul has no direction from God: yet he must himself do something for Israel's good. He knows this is disobedience, for the prophet's word was express; he was to wait at Gilgal for a word from God. But necessity seems to compel. He "forces himself" therefore, and acts irrespective of God. He offers a burnt-offering; but ere he can offer a peace-offering upon it, the prophet appears according to his word. And what is Saul's excuse, which he immediately pours forth into the ear of the sorrowing though faithful prophet? From first to last, a summing up of the circumstances in which he was placed, by them to justify a course which he knew was wrong. "I saw," says he, "that the people were scattered from me; I saw that thou camest not within the days appointed: I saw that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash: therefore I said, The Philistines will come down to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication: I forced myself therefore" (1 Sam. 13:11, 12). In a word, the hope of saving Israel; the fear of the danger which pressed upon him; the apparent failure of God's prophet, though he came as appointed; these are the grounds on which he seeks to justify an act, the performance of which he confesses was a "forcing of himself." But this justification is not accepted. "Samuel said unto Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord. And now thy kingdom shall not continue, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee" (1 Sam. 13:13, 14).
It needs not much discernment of what is going on in the Church, to see how the spirit of Saul still abides and works. How many things are there, acts of sacrifice it may be, now as then, which stand precisely on the same ground as this of Saul's; which are felt by the actors to be questionable at least; which need self-forcing to be performed; which are without commandment from the Lord, yea, contrary to His command; which yet are justified by the apparent necessity of the case. Some evil to be met seems great. God has bidden us wait on Him for direction. We have no such direction in the particular case. Shall we not act with what strength we have, and according to our own judgment? The sin of disobedience, at such a time, seems almost justified by our need. The disobedience is so trifling; merely acting without a command from God; acting according to the best of our ability, with a sincere desire for Israel's good. Surely in such circumstances we need not wait. True, we have been commanded not so to act—not to be forced by circumstances to act irrespective of a word from God, or take any step in doubt (Rom. 14:23), as though He had failed His Church, or needed us to sin and disobey Him to fulfil His purpose. But when circumstances press upon the Church, the spirit of Saul cannot so wait for God, or resist at once doing something which looks, at least, like aiding Israel. Something therefore is done: a sacrifice it may be: something good, something which looks religious: which yet, if it be analyzed before God, proves two things: first, infidelity in His presence; and secondly, confidence that our remedy, if not quite so efficient as God's, will yet do something to meet the need.
But religious acts performed with a bad conscience, performed without commandment from God, though their object be to help Israel, and trifling as their sin may be regarded by the doers, are very differently judged by God. To Him they are most hateful; far worse in His sight than those sins which most stink in the world's nostrils. For the exhibition of our filthiness, bad as it is, only proves what we are; but unbelief does what it can to misrepresent God. It gives Him a bad character, practically affirming Him to be, what man even most shrinks from being called, a liar, and one who cannot be trusted. All unbelief "makes God a liar" (1 John 5:10), and assumes Him careless about His saints; but acts of unbelief, which are like this of Saul's, and which, though begun and ended with a bad conscience, are covered with a cloak of worship and religious zeal, are doubly offensive to Him. For they assume not only that man is careful and God careless of the Church; but that man, acting in disobedience and with a bad conscience, can be accepted. But Saul thinks little of all this; for as he regards not Israel's conscience, he can scarcely be expected to regard his own. And it is a sure mark of Saul's rule yet, that those who exercise it, while perhaps seeking to bless the Church, as they live in practical unbelief of God's presence by the Holy Ghost, even while in religious acts they appear outwardly to be serving God and His saints, are by those very acts forcing their own conscience. Oh! what an unveiling will there one day be, when sacrifices and service are weighed in God's balances and not in man's! Then how many of the religious acts and religious deeds of religious men, will be found to have been unmixed unbelief; begun without command, performed in doubt with an evil conscience, and entailing shame and contempt rather than a good reward.
2. We return once more to Saul. Having begun, as we have seen, by acting irrespective of God's command, his next step is disobedience, in acting contrary to God's command. Here, as in the former instance, the word was express. Saul is to smite Amalek, and utterly to destroy them. Nothing is to be spared. "Both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass," all are to be destroyed (1 Sam. 15:2, 3). Instead, however, of obeying this command, the king of Amalek and the best of the spoil are spared. And, as a reason for the disobedience, Saul alleges that what had been spared was "spared for sacrifice unto the Lord." But the apology does not satisfy God. "Hath the Lord (He asks) as great delight in burnt-offerings, as in obeying His voice? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, He also hath rejected thee from being king" (1 Sam. 15:22, 23).
Now, this command, the way it was executed, the excuse rendered, and God's judgment of it, all these in spirit surely yet remain. It will not be difficult to point to the spiritual realities they prefigured, in the Church, and in the present day.
What, then, was the command? It was to "smite Amalek, and utterly to destroy all they had." In the letter, ("the letter killeth," 2 Cor. 3:6,) this command, with its dispensation, has passed away: the literal Amalek has long since perished; but, in spirit, it is binding still. To see its force, we have only to discern the spiritual idea or reality of which Amalek was the appointed figure. Of course, as one of Israel's enemies, Amalek represents some enemy of the Church, some spiritual enemy, for the Church is spiritual. "We wrestle not,"—as Joshua and the carnal Israel did,—"against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wicked spirits in heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And indeed our appointed weapons shew the character of our foe,—"the shield of faith," "the breastplate of righteousness," the "helmet of salvation," "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Eph. 6:14-17),—these, as they are forged by no earthly hand, so are they for no earthly conflict.
But which of our spiritual foes does Amalek represent? for as Israel had many enemies, so has the Church. Now, though to trace the true application of all the nations connected with ancient Israel, requires a measure of the gift of discerning of spirits, which few, I believe, if any, now possess: yet, to discern some of the plainer of these is surely within our reach. The typical idea of Egypt and Babylon is sufficiently plain. I believe it is so with Amalek also. Amalek was one of Esau's sons (Gen. 36:1-12). As such, as the offspring of him, who, as the rejected first-born, has ever been the chief type of fleshly strength, Amalek, like his father Esau, stands a figure of the same fleshly strength, though in rather a different aspect, and at a further stage. Just as Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, generation after generation, all represent the same elect, the one seed of promise; each, though in slightly different aspects, foreshadowing that same "younger son," whose blessing stands not in the right or strength of the flesh, but in God's electing grace (Gal. 4:22-31); so is it with Esau and his seed. From generation to generation they foreshadowed the one same "elder son." For "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6): and again, "As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual" (1 Cor. 15:46, 48). Esau and Amalek represent that which was first and natural, the strength of the flesh, the rejected firstborn, as distinguished from the new creature.
Now, this flesh and its strength, though one of Israel's foes, has good things of its own. Indeed, it is a great mistake to think the flesh has nothing but what is vile and refuse. The old or natural man has what may be esteemed good things: but of its best things the doom is fixed: the redemption of the elect seals their judgment (Gal. 5:24). What these good things are may be seen in the Jew. Indeed, the Jew is the true "elder son." In him we see the perfection, if perfection it may be called, of "that which is first and natural." And what were his good things? St Paul more than once refers to them, always in condemnation. "If any man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more." And then comes the catalogue of good things wherein the flesh might glory:—"Circumcised the eighth day; of the stock of Israel; of the tribe of Benjamin;"—that is, of the tribe which came up from Babylon;—"a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless" (Phil. 3:4-6). Here we have, first, birth in the flesh of Abraham's seed; next, the right administration of carnal ordinances; then, connexion with the most distinguished part of Israel; then, blameless moral conduct; then, religious zeal. These things may give us a clue to the other good things of the flesh. They are the good things which man can do without grace. They include all that prudence, and affection, and religiousness of the natural heart, which, though certainly religious, is as certainly not Christian; which may be seen now, as in Christ's days, under many forms; now compassing sea and land to make one proselyte; now zealous for the temple and its gold; now building the tombs of the prophets, and garnishing the sepulchres of the righteous; now saying, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets (Matt. 23:15, 16, 29, 30); yet ever to be known by this mark, "a desire to make a fair show in the flesh" (Gal. 6:12), a desire to be something or have something here. Well might Paul say, "These things were gain to me," for in these could Paul, as a man, glory: but all these things were to be "counted as dung," and judged by these, who, being "the true circumcision," could "rejoice in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:3, 7).
But these good things of the flesh, instead of being judged according to God's command, are spared for sacrifice by the spiritual Saul. Vicarial rule has ever approved the sparing and using of the flesh, in God's service, as it is said, but in truth to its own glory. I need not multiply examples. We cannot look around without seeing the wisdom of the flesh where it should never be, commending, or striving to commend, the truth of God; or making it less unpalatable to the world by garnitures which the flesh can own (compare 1 Cor. 2:1-5). So, again, with the affections of the flesh. To what but these do we owe the wholesale introduction of the good things of the world within the Church? Natural affection prompts it. And if the light of God's Spirit and Word should raise a single doubt, the plea to dedicate or "sacrifice to the Lord," is as ready now as of old to remove any remaining scruples. So with the religion of the flesh. Is this judged as it should be in the Church? Is it not considered right to spare it? In the Church of Rome, the most perfect antitype of Saul, we have the fullest exemplification of all this. There is not, I think I may boldly say, one good thing in the flesh which that system has not spared; and sparing, has consecrated, as it says, to God's service. But we have enough of it, alas! elsewhere. And in very deed, let God and His will be but out of sight, our wisdom will soon imitate Saul: the best of Amalek will be spared: and having done this, we may even boast of our obedience. But the boast, "I have performed the commandment of the Lord" (1 Sam. 15:13, 14), is answered by the lowing of Amalekite herds. Nor does the plea of sacrifice alter God's judgment. His answer in a moment overthrows it,—"To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." And, indeed, if it were rightly weighed, such justification is an aggravation of the sin. It shews not only how light God's commands are held; but how little communion we have with His mind, how little His purpose is understood, either towards His elect, or toward that flesh, of which redemption has sealed the judgment.
And here, by the way, I may observe how lightly many value a knowledge of the purpose of God in His acts, both of grace and judgment. The casting off of Esau and his seed; the call of Jacob; the bringing of the elect, in due season, over Jordan; the consequences of such acts; the purpose they shew in the mind of God; such subjects were evidently nought to Saul. And so, too, in these days. What is taught in the rejection of the Jew; how it seals the death and utter worthlessness of the flesh; what is taught in the call of the Church; how its new and heavenly life affects what is of nature—what is of the flesh; how all these acts and purposes of God throw light on His commands; these things, alas! are nothing to many saints.
Such were the causes for which Saul lost the kingdom: disobedience first and last: first, disobedience in acting without a command from God; and then, disobedience in acting contrary to His command, in sparing for sacrifice what He had devoted to judgment. Let it be remembered, that in both cases the disobedience was linked with sacrifice to the Lord; in the last case its justification was attempted on this very ground. Samuel's failure, too, was covered by service:—how similar in their workings are the forms of unbelief:—he, too, would help Israel by doing God's work. God, however, in both cases refuses the officious aid. Let this not be forgotten in these busy days, when on all hands, more than ever, the plea for unbidden and forbidden acts is, that they are service to the Church, or sacrifice to the Lord. "They also serve who only stand and wait." This is, perhaps, of all the greatest sacrifice, and the hardest service.
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