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BaptistWay: Samuel transitioning from leadership

• The BaptistWay lesson for August 11 focuses on 1 Samuel 8:1-10; 12:1-5.

The mother of one of my friends recently lost her job. She had worked as the church secretary many years. A new pastor arrived, and about a year and a half after his debut, he called her into his office and fired her. Regardless of the reasons he gave (and I don’t really know what they were), my friend’s mother was deeply wounded. She loved her job. She loved her church. And all of the sudden, she had been betrayed by both and was devastated.

Transition happens all the time in our lives. We find jobs; we lose jobs. We get in shape; we lose our health. We get married; we get divorced. We get promoted; we retire. But it’s the negative transitions that are hardest to recover from, especially when we feel wronged or misunderstood.

Long service to Israel

Samuel served Israel many years. As a young boy, he demonstrated honesty and integrity, in contrast to Eli’s sons, who were despicable priests (1 Sam. 2:22—3:18). As a young man, he judged Israel and served as priest and prophet (3:19-21), leading Israel to victory against the Philistines (7:3-14).

But in 1 Samuel 8:1, we learn Samuel was old and had taken it upon himself to appoint his two sons, Joel and Abijah, as judges in Beersheba (8:1-2). He apparently intended for them to take over leadership upon his death. But Samuel’s solution was problematic. First, judges were not appointed by their fathers; they were appointed by God (see the book of Judges).

Samuel was attempting to establish a dynastic judgeship, which definitely was not the way judgeship had worked in the past. Second, Samuel’s sons were horrible judges. They did not follow in Samuel’s ways but instead went after money, took bribes and perverted justice (8:3). Joel and Abijah were not worthy successors to Samuel’s leadership.

Fired by the elders

So, the elders of Israel approached Samuel in his hometown of Ramah and, in essence, fired him. They stated their case succinctly: “You are old; your sons are scoundrels, so appoint a king to govern us like the other nations” (8:4-5).

As you can imagine, Samuel was deeply wounded. The Hebrew literally says, “The thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes” (8:6). He felt that what the elders of Israel were demanding was evil—towards him. So, Samuel prayed (which, of course, is good), but I suspect he expected God to side with him. Surely God would agree that the elders were wrong to reject Samuel’s leadership.

But Samuel got an unanticipated answer from God: “Obey the people. Do everything they say” (8:7). This was not what Samuel wanted to hear. But God interrupted any protest Samuel might have attempted by saying, “They are not rejecting you; they are rejecting me from being king over them” (8:7-9). What Samuel took personally, God saw from a much broader perspective. By asking for a king, Israel had rejected God, and this rejection would have dire consequences.

God told Samuel to go back to the elders and tell them they could have their king. But Samuel was to warn them about the ways of the king—how he would tax them and conscript their sons into his army and use their daughters as his “perfumers” and require portions of their crops (8:11-18). In spite of Samuel’s warnings, the people said, “No, we want a king!” (8:19-20).

Israel's first king

In 1 Samuel 9-11, Samuel anointed Israel’s first king, Saul, first in a private ceremony (9:1-10:16), then in a public one (10:17-26). Initially some did not accept Saul’s leadership (10:27), but after Saul won a battle against the Ammonites, he was finally acknowledged as king (10:27b-11:15).

Subsequently, in 1 Samuel 12, Samuel gave his retirement speech. And it was not a gracious one. Samuel stated he did exactly what Israel asked him to do: He set a king over them (12:1). He reminded them how he led them from his youth, and, in what may be a subtle jab at their rejection of his sons, he stated Joel and Abijah were still with them (12:2). In v. 3, Samuel demanded the people show him where he went wrong. Did he steal anything from them? Had he oppressed anyone? Did he bribe them? “Testify against me!” he cried. And the people affirmed Samuel did nothing wrong (12:4-5).

Revisionist history

In the remainder of the chapter, Samuel engages in a little revisionist history (12:6-12; see especially v. 12). He berated the people for their disobedience, once again chastising them for choosing a king over God (12:13-16). He told them choosing a king was evil and called for thunder and rain from heaven as a sign he was right, terrifying the people (12:17-18). At the end of the speech he offered hope if the people should repent but disaster if they did not (12:19-25). Thus, Samuel went out in a blaze of righteous (?) anger, stunning the people into silence and setting kingship on precarious pillars. Bitter, much, Samuel?

Samuel did not exactly transition from leadership gracefully. He was angry. He was jealous. He felt rejected and unwanted. But, in the end, he did step down. And, in spite of his warnings about kingship (which were spot on), he was given the solemn—and, perhaps in his mind, unsavory—task of anointing the first two kings. He died after David gained solid control of the throne (1 Sam. 25:1) but makes a haunting reappearance in 1 Samuel 28.

The story of Samuel’s demise raises interesting questions about transitions and how we handle them. Samuel was dealing with a transition brought on because of his age. This, of course, is an issue many people in the church are facing or have faced. If you teach a class of senior adults, this might be a good opportunity to let them tell their stories. How did they deal with retirement? What was it like to have to move to a retirement community? Have they been asked to give up their driver’s license? What transitions have been the most difficult?

For younger adults, Samuel’s story still is relevant. They may not be facing forced retirement or other issues of aging just yet, but hard transitions still occur. Ask the class to discuss any difficult transitions they have encountered and how they handled them.

Transitions are a part of life. The challenge is whether we will handle them with grace or bitterness.

       
 
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