The arguments pro and con have been made and the Lord has given his judgment: Israel will become a monarchy. The next time the nation assembles it will be to receive her new king (10:17ff.). But now, in a brilliant stroke of narrative art, the attention shifts suddenly, surprisingly to “a leisurely account of a young man’s mission to retrieve [his father’s] lost [donkeys] and of his…meeting with a “man of God.” [Gordon, Com., 112]
There are several things of interest to notice in the literary style of this narrative. First, the chapter begins with what is, in the Bible, a literary convention in narratives of this time. Look at verses 1-2 of chapter 9 as I read you Robert Alter’s characterization of these two verses as a beginning to the Saul narrative.
“The paradigmatic biblical story [i.e. the story that is told according to the standard pattern or example; or, perhaps we could say the “ideal” biblical story] –compare, for example, the beginning of the Ruth, the beginning of Job, the beginning of Samuel, the beginning of the Saul narrative in 1 Samuel 9, the beginning of the parable of the poor man’s ewe in 2 Samuel 12 – starts with a few brief statements that name the principal character or characters, locate them geographically, identify significant family relationships, and in some instances provide a succinct moral, social, or physical characterization of the protagonist. It should be noted that this initial exposition is as a rule devoid of verbs except for the verb “to be,” which…often does not even appear textually.” [That, by the way, is true of these two verses: no verb except “to be”.]
There is a biblical Hebrew “style” of telling a story and this story of the anointing of Saul is told in that style.
Second, there is a literary strategy used here that, until recently was thought by many scholars to betray the existence of different sources, reflecting different traditions, different versions of the story. These then were pasted together by a later editor. One tradition supposedly had Saul meeting an obscure village “seer.” Another tradition had him meeting the famous Samuel. The reason they have thought that is that the “man of God” or “seer” remains anonymous until verse 14. If it were Samuel, why not identify him as such? Why is Samuel not named earlier? Now, however, with the greater recognition of the artistry of the biblical narrative that has come with the modern study of it, scholars are realizing that the anonymity of Samuel is a literary strategy, not an evidence of a patchwork text. The anonymity of Samuel through the first part of the narrative allows the reader to share in Saul’s process of discovery. It is, as one scholar put it, “one of the dramatic highlights of the story.” [N. Na’aman cited in Long, The Art of Biblical History, 187-188]
v.2 This is not a rags to riches story. Kish was a man of standing and the mention of servants and donkeys indicates some measure of wealth. Saul looked like a king. However, this description corresponds most closely to the one given of Absalom in 2 Samuel 14:25-26. Given the entirety of the narrative of Samuel, one commentator detects what he calls a “discordant subtone” in this otherwise complementary description. [Humphreys in Gordon, Com. 112]
v.5 Zuph was Samuel’s family’s territory. In 1:1 we read that his father was a Zuphite.
v.7 It was customary to take a gift to a seer when one went to him seeking help, as we know from other OT texts. A kind of fee for the interview.
v.9 This explanatory aside anticipates the expressions to follow.
v.10 Ramah, Samuel’s center of operations, or some other town (7:17).
v.11 As with many towns of those days, this town was set on a hilltop, which made it easier to defend. Sources of water were often outside of the town walls and the women would normally visit the spring or well in the evening.
v.12 Such an event must have happened regularly in the larger towns of Israel in those days. The high place would be the local shrine. Usually it was an elevated place, an open-air natural altar with some structure alongside it (note the “hall” in v. 22). Later, because of the tendency to incorporate pagan elements in such worship the high places became a snare and were denounced repeatedly in the later books (the Kings; the prophets). But, v. 9 has already alerted us to the fact that considerable time had passed between the events being recorded and their being written down in Samuel. This is an earlier period and high places did not have the negative connotation they would later acquire.
v.13 In an otherwise quite spartan narrative “the reply of the young women is notable for its garrulousness.” [Alter, Com., 49] One talmudic sage explained it very simply: “women are talkative.” The Midrash – an ancient Jewish commentary on the text – suggests that the girls kept talking because they were smitten with Saul’s handsome appearance.
v.16 Anointing with a fragrant oil was a sign of consecration to a divinely-assigned task. Priests were anointed in this way also, as were altars, for that matter. Interestingly, the word the NIV translates “leader” is explicitly not the word for king. It is not clear whether that is significant, given the fact that the term “king” is later used definitely of Saul. Perhaps the idea is that, at this point, Saul would occupy a role that was transitional, not yet the full king he would later become.
The point is made explicitly that Saul is being anointed to deal with the Philistine menace. That point is going to become more significant as the narrative proceeds.
v.18 Saul does not yet know who Samuel is.
v.20 Here Samuel reveals that he has access to supernatural knowledge. He knows all about the donkeys: that they were lost and where to find them.
v.21 Saul’s reply is self-deprecating, in the same way Moses (Exodus 3:11) and Gideon (Judges 6:15) had been before him. It was a startling thing to hear from Samuel in any case. But why him? Benjamin was the smallest tribe in Israel and had been, not so long before, in a sordid rebellion against the other eleven (Judges 19-21). His statement about his clan being the least of those in Benjamin may be more etiquette than a statement of the actual circumstances.
v.22 Samuel does not answer Saul and he does not explain to those who had been invited to the feast why Saul and his servant were given the place of honor.
v.24 There are translation problems in the verse, but the sense seems clear enough: Samuel has reserved for Saul the special portions of the sacrifice. Ordinarily the priests would get these portions. Samuel knew ahead of time that Saul was coming and made appropriate preparations to demonstrate to him the new status that was about to be conferred on him.
v.27 Clearly the chapter break here interferes with the flow of the narrative, but we’ll pick up where we left off next time.
We are in the midst of the narrative of the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel, but this chapter does make a discrete point that can be made without going on to the end of this account. 1 Samuel 9 is all about how Saul was identified to Samuel as the Lord’s chosen one. The OT does not have a word for “providence”, the name usually given in Christian theology to the divine superintendence and control of all affairs in the world by which they are brought to those ends that God has appointed. Our catechism defines providence as “God’s most holy wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.” But, though it may lack a term for the doctrine, the OT has no difficulty whatsoever in confessing its belief in divine providence, and it does so in many narratives like this.
And, it is clear enough that this is the great theme of this chapter. The story unfolds, incident by incident, in what seems to be an entirely serendipitous manner, but, we learn in v. 16 that all of this, as a matter of fact, was the means by which God himself was identifying Saul as the man he had chosen to be Israel’s first king and by which God was sending Saul to Samuel.
See how the story unfolds. Some donkeys are lost. That seems a small thing, but the fact that Kish’s son Saul must go look for them and that these donkeys keep moving so that he cannot readily find them is essential to all that is to happen. Just as Joseph would never have been sent a slave to Egypt if Jacob hadn’t given him that fancy coat, so Saul would never have become the king of Israel if his father’s donkeys hadn’t somehow got loose and got lost and, then, instead of wandering home, had stayed lost.
Then, after looking for a time for the donkeys and having no success, Saul proposed to return home before his father began to worry about him (a fair enough concern as we will be told in 10:2). Fortunately, Saul’s servant was no “yes-man.” He had a better idea and, fortunately as well, Saul was willing to listen to it. Otherwise the two men would have headed home, found that the donkeys had been found and returned, and never met Samuel. What is more, their searching for the donkeys had led them, quite unintentionally on their part, into the very area where Samuel lived.
Ah, but there is a problem. Saul has no gift to give the seer, a fee that was expected to be paid if one wished for an interview. What is amazing is that the son has no money but the servant has enough and is willing to suggest spending his money on the gift. The servant here plays a role like that unidentified man in Genesis 37 who found Joseph wandering around Shechem looking for his brothers and pointed him to Dothan. Otherwise Joseph would have returned home and his brothers would never have been given the opportunity to sell him into slavery in Egypt.
When they get to the town where the seer lived, or, at any rate, where he was expected to be, the two men encounter some chatty girls and discover that the seer had not been there, but that he just arrived for a sacrificial service. They came at exactly the right time! A day earlier they would have missed him. And, the right time in another way. There was to be a sacrifice and a feast with it, by which Samuel could further indicate the divine calling with which Saul had been called.
But, still we are not done. Upon entering the town they meet an older man and ask him for directions to the seer’s house. “I am the seer,” he said.
All of this, step by step, had brought Saul to Samuel. But, what does the Lord say in v. 16? The day before he had said to Samuel, “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him leader.” I will send you a man. The donkeys, the servant, the girls, meeting Samuel in the street, all of this was the Lord sending Saul to Samuel.
Now, usually sermons on the theme of the Lord’s orchestration of affairs so as to bring a certain result to pass are preached from the Joseph story in Genesis or from Esther. But the very same combination of seemingly fortuitous incidents to accomplish a divine purpose is found here in 1 Samuel 9. As John Flavel, the Puritan put it, providence is like a Hebrew word, it must be read backwards. Only in retrospect can we see how these various incidents inexorably brought Saul to Samuel at just the right time. Only after the fact can it be seen that, in fact, it was God who was, in all of this, sending Saul to Samuel. It may seem like chance or fortune that caused Kish’s donkeys to wander off, but, as Basil, the church father, wrote long ago, “’fortune’ and ‘chance’ are pagan terms.”
Now, in a passage like this one, or the Joseph story, or that of Esther, the divine purpose in all that transpired is easily seen, at least after the event. One can see how if this thing had not happened, something else would not have happened either, and then something else and then something else. All had to fall out as it did for the outcome to be realized as it was. The dots can be connected to one another rather easily in such stories because in each case the main point that is being made in the text is precisely that God was in control of these seemingly accidental, fortuitous events, and used them to bring to pass some important result he had willed. In this case it is the fact that it was God himself who chose Saul and identified him to Samuel. And, no doubt, after the fact, it occurred to Saul as well to notice how perfectly everything had fallen out to bring him to Samuel’s table at exactly the right time.
In our lives too we can see only from time to time the otherwise hidden threads of the divine providence. I can think of any number of instances in my own life, some of which I have shared with you before. I wouldn’t be married to Florence except for something like what happened to Saul. She wanted to spend a year at seminary after graduating from university. Being from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church she naturally thought first of Westminster Theological Seminary. Edmund Clowney was then the president – this was before there was a Westminster Seminary in California as well – and he knew Florence’s family. Dr. Clowney is a great man and I admire him very much. But he was not the greatest manager of his desk. He set Florence’s letter expressing interest in attending the seminary in Philadelphia aside intending to answer it personally. By the time he got round to it she was already on her way to Covenant in St. Louis. She never would have considered Covenant except for the fact that George Knight was then teaching NT there and the family knew George because he was an OPC minister and had even supplied the pulpit in their Iowa church from time to time. It was George Knight that saw to it that I was assigned, as a senior seminary student, to welcome the new first year student from Iowa and introduce her to the campus. It was not so many years later that George Knight left the seminary faculty to teach elsewhere. So, I’m sure that I am not exaggerating when I say that the primary reason for his years in St. Louis was to bring Florence to the campus so that I could meet her and fall in love with her. But, you see the point. If Dr. Clowney had written the family back immediately, if George Knight had not been teaching at Covenant, I would be married to someone else right now and so would Florence.
Or, in another case, we left the USA for Scotland in the Autumn of 1975 knowing that Florence would have to work. In those days, whether a foreigner needed a work permit or not depended entirely on how your passport was stamped when you entered the country. Strange but true. We assumed any job would be enough to cover our bills: a clerk in a store, a waitress, a secretary. We were mistaken about that, as it happened. Food and rent would have required more than she could have earned in such jobs in those days. The second Sunday she was in Aberdeen, we met in church a fellow who taught piano in the Aberdeen school district. He alerted us to an opening for a violinist. An interview was arranged and Florence got the job. Hers was the only opening to be filled in the three years we lived in Aberdeen. And it was a wonderful job, gave her a chance to experience Scottish culture first hand, and an opportunity to do the one thing she had trained to do – viz. teach music. Oh, it also paid not only what we needed, but more. But if her passport had been stamped differently, if we had not met the pianist in the church, if there had been another qualified candidate, especially a Scot, who wanted that job…
You have your stories like that, I know: times when you have been able, at least after the event, to see the threads of God’s providence connecting one thing to another to bring his will to pass in your life.
But, the point of the Bible’s doctrine of divine providence is that God is always in control of the events of our lives, not just when we are able to detect how he has woven a particular part of the fabric. “All things work together for good to those who love God…” “Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of your heavenly father.” “Even the hairs on your head are numbered.” Things fall out according to “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” And a hundred other texts like that. Such an account as 1 Samuel 9 is just a striking illustration of what is always true. Divine providence is like the granite formations that underlie the other strata of the earth. It is always down there, upholding everything, but only now and then does it crop out so that it can be seen.
So let me remind you, this evening about that divine providence, and God’s complete control of the events of your life.
- First, it is mysterious, beyond our comprehension. God may be at work in every incident, small and great, in your life, but most of the time what he is doing, how, and why is beyond our understanding. “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” In this life and this world, “we see through a glass darkly.” God knows precisely what he is doing and how one thing is connected to another. But we do not. We must wait in patient hope to see the outcome of God’s ways.
John Chrysostom, the great preacher of early Christianity, put it this way.
“Imagine someone without the least notion of agriculture, he says, ‘observing a farmer collecting grain and shutting it in a barn to protect it from damp. Then he sees the same farmer take the same grain and cast it to the winds, spreading it on the ground, maybe even in the mud, without worrying anymore about the dampness. Surely he will think that the farmer has ruined the grain, and rebuke him.’ The reproof, Chrysostom says, comes from ignorance and impatience; by only waiting until the end of the summer, he would see the farmer harvest that grain, and be astonished at how it has multiplied.” [David Calhoun, Presbyterion XXIV, No. 1 (Spring 1998) 6]
Probably there is much that we will never fully know or understand. We must live by faith and not by sight here as well. But passages like the one we read this evening remind us that our inability to detect God’s hand or purpose hardly means that his hand is not upon us and that he has no purpose in what is happening in our lives. Quite the contrary. It may be a mystery to us; it is definitely no mystery to Him.
- Second, it is a gracious and merciful providence. Paul tells us that God’s love lies behind his superintendence of all things in the lives of his people. Of course, we don’t doubt that when God appoints good things for us and leads us in prosperity, health, and happiness. But, we struggle when instead God has led us into sickness, trouble, or sorrow. But, that is the point. It is God who has led us into these things. Remember, Saul, the man the Lord himself brought to Samuel was a failure! And caused all manner of trouble in Israel.
Nothing is more useful to us when we are suffering in some way than the knowledge that this too is from God, that he thought to order our lives in just this way – remember the Bible says every day of our lives was ordered for us before there was a one of them – and that he is, by these things, working his purposes out for our lives. Love holds the reigns of God’s providence. He controls the existence of little sparrows, our Savior said, and then he went on to say, “you are much more important to him than sparrows!” God’s providence, Calvin says [Institutes, I, xvii, 7], provides “an incredible freedom from worry” for Christians, because in all things it teaches us to believe that we are in our heavenly Father’s hands. Or, as Benjamin Warfield told his Princeton Seminary students, “A firm faith in the universal providence of God is the solution of all earthly troubles.”
If you know that someone of infinite power and goodness and who loves you so much and so powerfully that he sent his only and beloved son to die for you when you were still his enemy is at the tiller of your life, you have only to relax, however high the waves and see where he takes the ship of your life. You may still get seasick – and it is no fun to be seasick – but you know you are heading exactly where you ought to go.
1 Samuel 9 is one of those delightful reminders in Holy Scripture of what is true about our lives at every moment. That fact supercharges our days and nights with significance. Not a thing happens apart from the will, the purpose of our Father in heaven, not even the hair falling out while we sleep and resting on our pillow in the morning. How much more then the important matters of our daily life. We may not understand his purposes until much later – Saul didn’t either – but knowing that they are his purposes should give us a peace of mind that is impervious to all trouble. If we are not at peace in our minds regarding the progress of our lives, then we are not believing God’s providence as we should. There is the summons and the challenge of 1 Samuel 9. Let us all heed it.