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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's Bible

1 Samuel 12

Verses 1-25

Samuel's Defence

1 Samuel 12:0

IT would seem that a fitting time had now come for Samuel's retirement from his great position. We are all conscious of the fitness of certain historical occasions, so much so that we can adopt the duties which they suggest with a sense of harmony and rectitude. After the splendid victory acquired by Saul it would seem as if the dispensation of Samuel must naturally close. Blessed is he who can say, "He must increase, but I must decrease;" and still more blessed is he who looking back upon all his career can adopt the language and spirit of the veteran Samuel. In this noble speech there is no sign whatever of intellectual exhaustion or the blunting of that fine sagacity which had so long led the policy and fortune of Israel. It is better for men to retire whilst in full possession of their faculties, rather than to live themselves into the deserved contempt of their fellow-men. Still, throughout the speech there is a tone which expresses something like resentment, as if the old man would have gladly continued but for the impatience of the unruly populace. Who likes to resign a great leadership? We should consider these things in looking upon men, and their offices, and their supposed duties. Probably we do not make allowance enough for the instincts which constitute our very manhood. It is easy to stand by and to suggest to other men that they should resign their positions and abandon the fields in which they have won a hundred honours; but it is not always so easy for the man who is most deeply implicated to rise to this heroism of self-renunciation. We should be patient with our veteran leaders, our old statesmen, our well-proved teachers and guides. It is instructive to observe, however, the wonderful manner in which Providence intervenes, to show when times have arrived for the cessation of this or that function and the inauguration of a new period of rule and service. Things work together quite wonderfully in this way; so much so that an attentive observation of their course impresses the mind with the fact that there is a Power, call it by what name we please, which centralises all things and gives them their best applications. Samuel seems to have pondered upon all the events of his time so wisely as to have come to the conclusion that the hour of retirement had arrived. Let us now hear his valedictory speech. Even though the king walked before Israel, Samuel was not afraid to call attention to himself. It is notable that the whole reference is distinctly of a moral quality. He seems to be anxious only to come out of the court of trial with an unstained character. He asks for no crown or sceptre or purple of a merely artificial or decorative kind; his one desire is to be clothed with the robe of an unpolluted reputation. Truly, it is a kind of heaven which the old man claims. He would be called good, rather than great. Is there a finer picture upon earth than an old and grey-headed man who is able to challenge the world to bring a just accusation against him? Samuel was able to descend into minute details, and to show that in so-called little things he had lived a life that was beyond suspicion. Samuel had lived in the blaze of noonday since he was a child; indeed, he could hardly be said to have had any childhood, so early was he pressed into the public service. Now he looks up to the heavens, and asks that the people might witness against him if they had any charge to make. "Behold, here I am: witness against me before the Lord, whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken?" ( 1Sa 12:3 ). The ox and the ass represent possessions of considerable value in that primitive age and in a country where agriculture was the principal source of revenue. A further inquiry is, "Whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed?" For many years he had been supreme judge in Israel, and now that he is about to retire from the judgeship, he gives all men liberty to speak and to testify against him if they could. Throughout the whole year nothing was more common than for judges to receive bribes, in order that their favour might be bought and a wealthy criminal might escape. On this point Samuel puts a direct inquiry: "Of whose hand have I received any bribe to blind mine eyes therewith?"

These are searching questions, and every man who professes to be godly ought to be able to put them to his own age. What it we have kept all the dogmas of orthodoxy and performed all the ceremonies of artificial religion, if we have not been free from the spirit of covetousness, or if we have defrauded or oppressed the helpless and the weak? Away with the orthodoxy that is not supported by a pure morality! "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings." These are the conditions upon which God offers communion to man; not intellectual conditions which only a few can attain, but moral conditions which are open to the whole world. The virtue of our public men has a large influence upon the virtue of society. Where there is corruption at the head, there must of necessity be some measure of corruption in all the departments which that head rules. Like priest, like people. It is true that sometimes the nation has been in advance of the throne in the purity of its moral sentiment; but it is also true that where the throne has been renowned for probity and beneficence a very happy influence has been exerted upon the nation at large. In this regard it is of infinite importance that men should pray for their kings, rulers, judges, and magistrates, that society in its highest places should be kept pure and healthful. Every man will have to give an account of his life, and it rests with the man himself, to a large extent, whether that account shall be good or bad. It is not every one who may be able to stand up with Samuel and make the same wide and minute challenge, with the same consciousness that exculpation will be the result of the searching criticism; at the same time, here is a line by which we may be guided; here is an ideal towards which we may constantly aspire.

It is further noticeable that the challenge which Samuel addresses to the people is strictly limited to themselves. There is no appeal to God to testify that Samuel has always been in his sight a pure and holy character, without stain or blemish. There is no pharisaic boasting, no challenge addressed to Heaven, claiming the crown on the ground of good conduct. A very wide distinction is noticeable between an appeal to society and an appeal to Heaven. Samuel was talking in his public capacity, and in his public capacity he pressed every question which he asked; he was not engaged in the exercise of prayer, urging his respectability upon the attention of Heaven, and claiming to have been alone faithful in a faithless world. In this respect a man may adopt two distinctly different tones. Addressing his fellow-men, he may speak in a tone of superiority, moral dignity, and stainless honour; in doing so he may in reality be magnifying God, though there may be no nominal profession of so doing; on the other hand, when he comes face to face with God, none may hear the moaning of his discontent, or see the tears of his contrition, as he reflects upon his innumerable shortcomings and perversities. The purist and the Pharisee, therefore, must not be allowed to take encouragement from the example of Samuel, that they may boast themselves as before God. All such boasting is vain and false. Even Samuel himself may say, in the secrecy of the sanctuary, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"

"And Samuel said unto the people, It is the Lord that advanced Moses and Aaron, and that brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt. Now therefore stand still, that I may reason with you before the Lord of all the righteous acts of the Lord, which he did to you and to your fathers. When Jacob was come into Egypt, and your fathers cried unto the Lord, then the Lord sent Moses and Aaron, which brought forth your fathers out of Egypt, and made them dwell in this place. And when they forgat the Lord their God, he sold them into the hand of Sisera, captain of the host of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought against them. And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned, because we have forsaken the Lord, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee. And the Lord sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel, and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and ye dwelled safe. And when ye saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, ye said unto me, Nay; but a king shall reign over us: when the Lord your God was your king" ( 1Sa 12:6-12 ).

Once more we come upon an excellent practice established in olden times, namely, faithfully to recount the history of God's providence, so far as it is known in human experience. The days are never separated from one another, and treated as detailed points of time. The historians and prophets of Israel always seem to be searching for the central line of history, which indeed is the central line of purpose; hence we find continuity and cumulativeness in the statements of all the men who address the nation. Very noticeable are these speeches for their statesmanlike comprehensiveness. Every one of them begins at a well-ascertained historical point, and continues the story without omission or perversion up to the then immediate day: this is a philosophy as well as an example. We miss the whole meaning of divine providence if we look at events separately and incidentally, as we miss the whole meaning of the Bible if we read it in detached portions and texts. The providence of life is an inspired revelation of God, but it must be read in its continuity if its meaning is to be correctly and profitably seized. Not what was done yesterday, or the day before, but what was done on the earliest and on every succeeding day, is the inquiry which every man should put to himself. The expulsion of Memory from the service of the Church is an act of sacrilege. Praise is incomplete without recollection. Our hallelujah, though apparently an utterance of rapture, will be louder and sweeter in proportion to the critical accuracy and large comprehensiveness of our memory. So we find Samuel beginning at the beginning, with Moses and Aaron, and the deliverance from Egypt, and "all the righteous acts of the Lord, which he did to you and to your fathers;" Jacob is not forgotten, nor are any of the errors of Israel omitted, nor their consequent subjugation and cruel punishment, their bondage under the Philistines, and their sufferings under the hand of the King of Moab. On and on the great story rolls, up to the times of Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel himself; nay, the very last act which they themselves had witnessed is pressed into the great body of the accumulated evidence, and then the appeal is launched upon the judgment and conscience of the people. Consider what that appeal must be today if we take in the whole horizon of human history! This is literally impossible, but morally it lies within our power to make noble use of it. The world itself could not contain the books if all providential acts were minutely recorded; but the very fact of the literal impossibleness of the exercise constitutes a direct appeal to the spiritual imagination, which in its highest moods can unite all the courses of providence, and shape them into one sublime and holy appeal. Let this be done, and the judgment will be supported, conscience will be inspired, and the heart will be excited into new enthusiasm of trust and consecration.

"Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and, behold, the Lord hath set a king over you. If ye will fear the Lord, and serve him, and obey his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall both ye and also the king that reigneth over you continue following the Lord your God: but if ye will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, as it was against your fathers. Now therefore stand and sec this great thing, which the Lord will do before your eyes. Is it not wheat harvest to day? I will call unto the Lord, and he shall send thunder and rain; that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking you a king. So Samuel called unto the Lord; and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king. And Samuel said unto the people, Fear not: ye have done all this wickedness: yet turn not aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And turn ye not aside: for then should ye go after vain things, which cannot profit nor deliver; for they are vain. For the Lord will not forsake his people for his great name's sake: because it hath pleased the Lord to make you his people. Moreover, as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way: only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king" ( 1Sa 12:13-25 ).

With this appeal the function of teacher in Israel would almost seem to cease. Samuel avails himself of the old man's right to review the course of the nation's history, and to found certain appeals upon it. A younger man might have been interrupted in this historical review and moral application; but the venerable prophet seemed to have acquired a right to make the last great speech to his people. It was a kind of farewell sermon. Nor is it weakened by mere sentiment, or turned into an occasion of self-gratulation in any impious sense. It is the speech of a judge and a great man. Samuel accepts the monarchy, and calls upon the people to behold their king, and to see in that king an answer to their own desire. Samuel does not commit himself to the absolute righteousness of this choice of a king; but with marvellous sagacity points out that the people themselves had wished to have a king, and that God had so far granted the popular desire. But the presence of a king was not to dispossess the Lord of his throne in Israel. Samuel does not remit the nation to secondary authority, telling the people to await the decrees of the king that they may know the limits of duty and the bounds of responsibility. To Samuel's reverent mind the kingship did not displace the theocracy. In the fourteenth verse Samuel directs the attention of the people to the Lord, and calls upon them to serve him, and obey his voice, and take heed unto his commandment, and then promises them consequent reward. This is a very remarkable point in the grand appeal. Samuel clings to the eternal theocratic idea. It is God who must reign; it is God who must be for a man or against a man; it is God who can send forth great signs, and it is to the Lord all kings must look, if they would reign in righteousness and have honour in heaven. That such was Samuel's great conviction is proved by his performance of a miracle that day, in the sight of all the people. Even in the midst of wheat harvest he called upon the Lord to send thunder and rain, that he might himself testify that his throne was in the heavens, and that the crowning of Saul in nowise interfered with the glory of his crown and the completeness of his empire. The people themselves took a highly religious view of the occasion, and instinctively turned to Samuel that he might pray for them a kind of final prayer. This was the proper ending of a grand ministry. In putting the request to Samuel that he would pray for them, the people seemed to expunge the long record of waywardness and ingratitude. There was a turning of the heart in the right direction, and that turning was accepted as repentance and restitution.

Now comes the word of comfort, the great and holy word which is befitting for old age to speak to a new nation. A wickedness had been committed in asking for a king; still, that wickedness would be regarded as official rather than personal, if the people themselves would see to it that their hearts were kept right, and that their purpose was to serve the Lord with steadfastness of love. A distinction is made between official mistakes and personal transgressions. How otherwise than upon this ground could God spare even the nations which are called by the Christian name? Then Samuel utters a very tender word; he is about to retire from the priesthood and the official guardianship of Israel, but he says, "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" ( 1Sa 12:23 ). There is a private ministry by which every man can help his nation. Who knows how many priests there are in any country, who are obscurely, but sincerely praying to God that the land may be saved, that war may be averted, and that the ground may be fruitful in harvest-time? When we resign our public functions we may still be able to continue a private ministry. Samuel says he will not only pray for the people: he will teach them the good and the right way. In the presence of the regular authority of a royal power, surrounded by all the pomp and show of a great soldiery, the office held by Samuel must fall into secondary importance. But the teacher says he will still continue his instruction. Though Samuel practically ceased to be judge, he was determined to continue as a prophet. Here is the great function of men who have the prophetic gift. They cannot fight, they cannot make great proposals in the state, they cannot attract the attention of nations, they cannot command a field of battle; but they can constantly teach the good and the right way, they can protest against evil, they can rebuke injustice, they can cry shame upon oppression, they can call people back from negligence, dissoluteness, worldliness, and hold up evermore before the attention of the world great examples, and turn to moral account all the events which give vividness and significance to human history. The world may be poor by the loss of its kings, but it will be infinitely poorer by the removal of its prophets.

Verse 7

"Now therefore stand still, that I may reason with you before the Lord of all the righteous acts of the Lord, which he did to you and to your fathers." 1 Samuel 12:7 .

Samuel now enters upon a difficult part of his vocation. The minister of Christ has to exercise a variety of functions: sometimes teaching, sometimes rebuking, sometimes comforting, sometimes reasoning and expostulating in a tone that may have in it, however subtly, somewhat of rebuke and judgment. The appeal which Samuel makes is a noble one. He is not going to smite the people with thunder and lightning, but to "reason" with them, to state the case in all its historical bearings, to sum up all the providence of God and ask them to make inferences from the great historical review. The appeal which religion makes to a man is the largest appeal that can be addressed to his understanding, to his memory, and to his imagination. The Lord does not rest his case on what was done today, or yesterday; he goes back to the beginning of time, to the dawn of memory, and he asks that all the way along which he has led the people may be viewed in its entirety and seen in its suggestive shape; then the people may answer whether the purpose of the Lord has been good or evil. Nothing is to be feared from a large and complete survey of providence. All the mischief arises from taking in too little field. We think of the affliction, and forget the comfort; we think of the bereavement, and forget how our very loss became a gain; we look at the grave where the body lies, and forget the heaven where the spirit sings. Every man should take in his whole life when he would estimate the nature of the government under which he lives. How did the man's life begin, what were his early disadvantages, how were they overcome, how were they so transformed as to become actual advantages, how were gates opened for which there was no key? Let a man answer all these questions, and the whole crowd of inquiries to which they belong, and he will soon begin to see that there is a hand stronger than his own guiding the destiny of his life. A review of providence should become a great theological argument. Omit nothing from your purview; the very finest traces are needful to complete the picture; the palest tints are as necessary as the most vivid colours to effect thorough representation of the divine purpose. How many men have come to see that their losses have been the beginning of their profit! How many are able to realise that but for the tears they shed their sensibilities would have been less refined and less responsive to all the appeals of heaven! We are educated by the providence of God; not by this particular phase of it, or that transient act, which has scarcely remained long enough to be noticed, but by the totalising of the way; at the end we begin to see that God's meaning was good from the first, that no weight has been too heavy, no cloud too dense, no bereavement too painful, but that everything has been meted out to us with that measure which wisdom alone could calculate and mercy alone dispense.

Verse 10

"And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned, because we have forsaken the Lord, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee." 1 Samuel 12:10 .

Commercial piety is the subject of this text. Men who have forsaken the Lord and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth do not seem to have come from the forbidden altar with very exalted ideas of duty. Those who serve false gods must expect to have perverted consciences. Here we find Israel actually endeavouring to bargain with God for the price of worship. If thou wilt deliver, we will serve. To us it seems incredible that the proposition could have taken this form; yet this is the very form which it takes in our own life day by day. It is often in the hope that we may gain something that we do many a religious service. Sometimes it is the hope that we may be able to stave off some calamity: sometimes it is that we may be recovered from a great affliction: sometimes it is that a child may be saved from death, or turned back from ways of rebellion and iniquity: sometimes it is that we may make sure of heaven. It is almost impossible to exclude selfishness from the action of our pious sentiments. Even when we think we have subdued self, it reappears in many an unexpected form. We may even say to ourselves that we will not contemplate any ulterior gain or advantage, and yet there may be a sub-consciousness that after all some real personal good may come of our prayer or gift or sacrifice. No man repents of his sin until he sees the sin itself in its naked and unpardonable deformity, rather than its merely penal consequences which extort a cry of regret or a promise of amendment. When the heart is given to God it must be unconditionally, with all the unreserve of love, pure and absolute. If there should be some taint of selfishness in our best endeavours, yet our desire to extinguish it will be accepted as a conquest on the part of God, who always magnifies our purposes and regards them as accomplished facts. Let that be no bargaining with heaven. Our duty is clear, whatever the result may be. Is our service of so great consequence to God that it is worth his while to deliver us from any danger or fear? Do we not over-estimate ourselves? Is there not an element of intense selfishness in this offer of service and consecration? If the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness!

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 12". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/1-samuel-12.html. 1885-95.