“Living Under the Dome”

15 February 2004

Texts: I Samuel 12; Psalms 144:9-15; 33:12-15

 

Main Idea: He who sets his hope on God knows a wish and its perfect fulfillment.

Purpose: Encourage the saints to lean on God.

Question: What is the one perfect wish, the one which never disappoints?

 

            “Thy kingdom come,” or so we plead from week to week.  Today we shall consider the tensions of two kingdoms (one human, one divine) present in two epochs: the world of Samuel (1st millennium B.C) and our world (3rd millennium A.D.).  Three thousand years lie between us and yet the contrast of the divine kingdom for which we pray and the “kingdoms of this world” with which we deal on a daily basis still remains.  And what is your stake in this dynamic?  Your prosperity, your peace of mind depend upon which kingdom has your ultimate allegiance.  What’s the perennial, practical and current concern before us today?  How can we keep our allegiance to the kingdom of God clear and strong.  Last week, people were really helped by the word picture conveyed by stray donkeys--the donkeys stood for the common and everyday stuff that we often think of as distracting.  We learned that God is in the common and ordinary working His splendid purposes out.  The word picture for this week is found in the word “dome.”  In 1971, the American author, Sylvia Plath wrote an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  A bell jar is a tall cylindrical piece of laboratory equipment usually made of thick glass with a domed top--you can make a simulated bell jar by turning a large glass upside down.  A bell jar allows us to establish a controlled atmosphere inside under the dome, a controlled environment for the purposes of observation and experimentation.  Now, here’s the application: the “kingdom of God” is like a huge bell jar for His creation.  It sits over and covers all the kingdoms of this world, picture them as smaller bell jars under the cover of the huge one, the kingdom of God.  His law, ever-present and irresistible, surrounds those lesser kingdoms--even where the people therein are in full, open rebellion.  We may think that our little bell jars are all is, we may even choose to live as if they are our total environment, but they are not.   God’s purposes stand above, beyond and all around us; and they, like the walls of the bell jar, surround us and everything that happens to us.  It is our Father’s world after all; He creates, sustains and provides for life.  When we bump up against the wall of our bell jar, we are startled, surprised--an strangely comforted.  That’s what happens in 1 Samuel 12.  The people think that by having a king they will have more control over their own lives.  But God is still their king; He is no less in control.

 

            Think with me.  Sin never satisfies.  Have you noticed that? Have you experienced its keen disappointment?  And even apart from sinful longings, have you ever wanted something ever so much and then, once you have attained it, realized that it wasn’t satisfying?  The gild wears off, the shine tarnishes, or the toy breaks all too soon, all too unexpectedly--predictably perhaps but still unexpectedly.  This is Samuel’s predicament with the people Israel.  They want a king.  They want to be just like all the other nations round-about.  So far, so good, but to put that trust which only belongs to God in a king, another human being, , that is a very serious mistake.  Or, in a less intense manner, to put the kingdoms of this world in front of God’s kingdom, that is a terrible, costly error. 

 

            We have come to the final sermon in this series on 1 Samuel.  I am camping out on Chapter 12 which contains Samuel’s farewell address to Israel.  The age of the judges is drawing to a close with Samuel, his farewell address speaks to the significance of this change for Israel.  Let’s see if we can grasp some of Samuel’s perplexity.  God has been, and still remains the protector of His people--that does not mean that God’s people never come to harm.  It does mean that even if they do come to harm, they are okay; that in terms of eternity they are safe, secure . . .blessed.  To the eyes of unbelievers, the troubles and afflictions of Christians have no redeeming importance.  They vainly imagine that evil has triumphed, people suffer, end of story.  But our good news is that the apparent ending is not actually an ending at all, but a beginning--we have a future and a hope because we believe on Jesus Christ and He says we do.  For many centuries the experience of Israel, leading up to the time that they demanded a king, has been that blessing, sin, distress, repentance and finally deliverance--of crying unto the Lord in their distress and then experiencing deliverance from those distresses.

 

            I want to make this contrast as strongly as I can.  We, Christians, acknowledge Jesus as our King of kings, He is our strong Deliverer.  In Samuel’s days, this expectation was future, it was a hoped for thing.  When an Israelite thought of great deliverance he thought historically, to the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt through God’s co-workers Moses and Aaron.  Moses was the human deliverer, but all that he attained was accomplished by the hand of the Lord.  God did it--real events in real time.  However, I’m not sure that it is as accurate to think of Israel as a historically minded people as it is to think of them as a memorial people.  To be historically minded means that one pays attention to context, dates and details--that information about the past is important and needs to be accurate and  The Israelites were always, if we are to judge from the record, putting up monuments and markers--right along with altar construction!  Cross the Jordan?  Put up a marker.  Renewing the covenant at Gilgal?  Put up the twelve stones drawn from the Jordan River bed.  The stone at Mizpeh known as Ebenezer, Rachel’s tomb, the tombs of all the patriarchs and even of Joseph dot the countryside of modern Israel--more prolific than historical markers in the colonial states of America!  But the mere presence of markers and monuments did not mean that a people are historically-minded.

 

            So, “deliverance” to the ears of Samuel’s audience meant Exodus and Exodus summoned up memories of the covenant-law of Sinai.  It was a corporate, or nation experience, a defining moment.  This proves very important in Chapter 12, as you shall see.  The result?  The Israelites didn’t understand God’s protection over the years, during the time of the Judges for instance, as deliverance.  Samuel did though and he was astounded, even, perhaps, offended at the ingratitude of this prevailing attitude.  He couldn’t see anything wrong with the old system.  It wasn’t broken.  Why, even in the lifetime of those demanding a king now, the people had seen God deliver the nation from the Philistines under his own intercession!  You will recall that Samuel had called a convocation at Mizpeh and the Philistines, viewing this as a prelude to warfare had amassed their troops and were about to attack when God thundered against them, threw them into panic and many of them were slain that day.  Just as a practical matter, why replace something that isn’t broken, or worn out?

 

            Why, indeed.  Samuel sees in the request for a king a preference for the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of God.  It was the kingdom of God which had prevailed for Israel up to this time.  God was yet near to Israel, fighting her battles for her as would a mighty man of war.  And better, actually.  But the people, faithlessly and selfishly, would rather rely on what they could see, a human king, than an invisible God.  Unimaginable sorrow must have come down on Samuel; it resonates in his farewell address [1].  But God instructs Samuel to listen to the people, to give them a king.  “It’s Me that they have rejected as king over Israel.”  And, none of God’s purposes for Israel are frustrated because God takes the sometime success and the failures of Israel’s kings and uses those experience to prepare His people for Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews and our King, too.  Modern Jewry and contemporary Christians are far better off in terms of preparation for the coming reign of Christ on earth by virtue of the Old Testament experiences!  Note, I didn’t say, we were ready.  I simply have asserted that we are better off having experienced Saul, David, Solomon and all the rest of the kings, far more open to Jesus as King than we could ever have been if the monarchy had never existed.  Certainly trusting God seems a clearer option if we study the alternatives!  And, again, we, on a weekly basis, profess our preference for the divine monarchy when we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”  And I want to stress again, that what we wish for in this case (God to rule, His will to prevail) is a wish that will be fully as satisfying in its fulfillment as it promised to be when it was the object of our longing.  Yes, our wish for God to rule in our lives is a desire which shall be every bit as wonderful in its fulfillment as it is in its longing.

 

            I Samuel 12:1-5 focus on Samuel’s innocence, his faithfulness to God.[2]  He is speaking as the king-maker and he has passed on the mantle of leadership to King Saul.  What a scene of contrast, the aged Samuel and the vigorous, handsome young king.  The cast aside and the acclaimed share the platform for a few more, poignant moments.  The speech doesn’t exactly ring with congratulations.  Samuel may sense that the people’s ingratitude toward him has played into this--certainly the mention of his sons supports the idea that Samuel has in mind his sons  being rejected successors to himself.  Samuel is not super-human, an idealized and faultless saint!  His agedness, infirmity and fatherly blindness are all humanizing elements.  Still, Samuel’s life was marked by calm, consistently God-ward direction.  In spite of Eli’s failures and the ensuing destruction of life, and peace of mind, he quietly entered into and fulfilled the promise of his youth.  One in Israel at least had not turned to the left, or to the right.  There is a nod to simplicity and rural-ity of the times:  plunder is livestock, not stocks, bonds and personal identity.  Personal property was safe under his leadership as it has unhappily not been since in other times and places.[3]  So, while he may have exited the stage of life a poor man, his integrity was intact.

 

            Verses 6-12 summarize the dealings of God with Israel.  They highlight His faithfulness, His “righteous acts.”  He begins with the nation under Jacob coming to Egypt and teaches that clinging to God always brings deliverance--whereas departing from the Lord brings disaster.  This law, this spiritual principle unites the witness of the Old Testament.  Under the topic of deliverances, Samuel lists the redemptive work of the judges, Zerubbaal, Barak, Jepthah and  Samuel, himself.  What is there in the present threats of Nahash, the Ammonite, that persuades you to demand a king?  There is something in us that seems to persuade us that the latest danger, or threat is always the worst!

 

            Now comes verse 13, the so-called “hinge” verse because it operates between two parallel sections of scripture and verse 13 declares: “"Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen, whom you have asked for, and behold, the LORD has set a king over you.”  God has granted their selfish, faithless and foolish request--selfish because it puts their sense of interests above God’s, faithless because they have rejected the divine monarch and foolish because this decision decreases their liberty and increases their burdens!  Samuel has laid out the costs of supporting a monarch on earth--all they owed previously was love and loyalty and now a tenth of all they own goes to keep the king in men as soldiers, women as cooks, in horses and chariots and weaponry and, of course, palace upkeep--make that plural.  It is clear (v.14) that the history of all nations teaches the same lesson: righteousness and fear of the Lord are the sure foundations of genuine prosperity--the kingdoms of this world do not, rumors to the contrary,

belong to the Devil!  The laws of God hold for each and every one.  Living by the laws of God, as revealed in Scripture, might not insure worldly success in worldly terms, but no such nation would be subject to wholesale robbery, murder, mayhem and every social disorder!  Psalm 33:12  Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance. (Psalm 144 is worth reviewing as a picture of this blessedness.)  In v. 15 Samuel warns about the cost of disobedience--what is known elsewhere as the covenant curse.

 

            Verses 16-19 frame for us a miracle.  This miracle has a cautionary use: it reminds the people that God is still God, powerful, majestic and quite beyond rational containment.  He is evermore greater than we may think Him to be.  Stand, Samuel demands, and be confronted by the God of power whom you have dissed.  Samuel will perform a sign of divine displeasure at their sin in asking for a king.  I will call upon the Lord, Samuel says, and it will rain.  You can imagine how clear the sky might have been when Samuel spoke these words--and you can imagine the panic that seized their minds when a tornado watch ensued!  A storm in the bell jar!  Rain was not typically expected in the midst of the dry season.  Furthermore, a sudden, violent storm had the potential of wiping out the whole wheat harvest in a moment.  The thunder and voices that follow are intended to evoke the Sinai covenant I spoke of earlier.  Samson had greatly weakened the Philistines by putting their wheat to the torch in days gone by.  The fact that Samuel’s prayer was readily answered, that day, brought apprehension and terror to the Israelites.  They bumped into the wall of the God who was truly there.  And they responded with appropriate repentance, owning their own apostasy. (vv.18-19)

 

            1 Samuel 12 concludes with a call to covenant faithfulness.  Verses 20-25 form a literary unit framed by the concluding verses: do good, not evil.  God graciously overlooks the sin of asking for a king and if Saul proves to a weak king, he does, the people have only themselves to blame.  Don’t pursue the vanity of trusting in kings and treaties!  However God’s elective purposes (“It pleases Him to make you His people, or, to make you a people of His praise”) do not depend on either your merit or choice.  God’s love, His desire to fulfill His oath (sworn to the patriarchs), His  action for His great Name’s sake are the ingredients of the bell jar under which we live and move and have our being.  The people’s choice, the kingship, are both implicitly gathered into this covenant extension and renewal.  Samuel towers as a giant of intercession, right up there with Moses, Daniel, Nehemiah, Paul and Jesus when he prays for the people to live a life pleasing to God.  He commits himself to teach them the way in which they should walk.

 

                                                                                    Amen.



[1] Samuel’s farewell address falls into four equal parts which hinge upon verse 13.  It is a literary unity which, by virtue of its structure, hangs together despite, rather than because of it’s being presented as a chapter in the Bible.  The structure, in the original language, is known as “chiastic.”  This is what it looks like:           Vv 1-5 Samuel vindicates his personal faithfulness.                        Vv. 6-12 Samuel summarizes God’s faithfulness to His people     Verse 13: God has granted the people their selfish, apostate desire for a king.                       Vv. 14-19 Samuel presents the prospect of blessing for obedience (as well as the reverse).     Vv. 20-25 Samuel calls the people to corporate, covenant faithfulness.This Hebraic style of organizing their literature is called a “form”; it occurs throughout the Old Testament and invites further study through comparison as a means of understanding the Word of God more fully and more deeply.        On a thematic level, this passage also conforms to what is known as the “covenant code” which is found in Deuteronomy, particularly with Moses (Exod. 23:8 and Deut 16:19) and Joshua (24:2-15)--but  it is also found in Samuel and in Nehemiah as a formula for the renewal of covenant faithfulness.  It follows this form: a historical prologue (see what God has done), points out the disloyalty of God’s Elect, issues in a call to repentance and leads on to restoration.  Covenant renewal transpired at Gilgal, after the people crossed the Jordan River, an was instituted as an annual event.

[2] Verse 3 gives the first instance of the use of the name ‘Messiah’ in Scripture; it is applied here to Saul who contrasts ever so sharply with Jesus.

[3] Samuel was not, and never could be bought.  He never placed pieces of gold, figuratively speaking, on his eyes so as to pervert justice.