Failing to PrayBy Nathan Mates
He was the effective ruler of the nation. He had led them in battle, and peace. He had led them in worship of the nation. He had replaced a corrupt set of rulers, and led with integrity and holiness. He had been personally called by God at an early age to a relationship with him.
Until one day, he was thrown out of office by those he had cared for.
In these times, rulers did not give up power easily-- they held onto their office with whatever means they could until they died. There were no elections. Thus, a death in battle, of old age, or assassination was the normal ways of changing leaders. And yet this leader did step aside. And, his reaction was even the more stunning:
"As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you."
This is an amazing statement of grace and continued love towards his ex-subjects that it bears more examination. This quote is from 1 Samuel 12:23, as Samuel was giving up his position as judge over Israel, now that King Saul had been anointed and confirmed as ruler over Israel.
From 1 Samuel 1, we see that Samuel was conceived by a previously barren woman, Hannah. While praying for a son, she promised to "give him to the Lord" [1 Samuel 1:11]. And so, once Samuel was weaned, he was given to the sanctuary, where the ark of the covenant. In charge of the sanctuary was the priest Eli. Eli had a bit of respect for God and the office, but had some failings-- he didn't care for the lamps properly [1 Samuel 3:3], tended to fatten himself on the spoils of the sacrifices [1 Samuel 3:18 shows his weight, 2:29 is God's comment on it], and didn't recognize the call of God.
However, "Eli's sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD." [1 Samuel 2:12] "Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. So he said to them, "Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the Lord's people." [1 Samuel 2:22-24]
In contrast to Eli and his sons, Samuel was called by God at an early age [1 Samuel 3] -- the Jewish historian Josephus figured that Samuel was 12 at the time. Samuel's first message from God was to declare judgment on the house of Eli. And so, Samuel's first message was to his boss that he would be replaced. Eli's reaction was fatalistic: "So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, "He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes."" [1 Samuel 3:18] Eli essentially gave up in the face of judgment, walking away from his responsibilities to the nation.
Eventually, Eli and his sons died on the same day, as the Philistines captured the ark. [1 Samuel 4:17-18] Samuel had grown up knowing God, and twenty years after the ark was returned from the Philistines, he was their leader. In 1 Samuel 7, Samuel becomes the intercessor for, and judge (leader) over Israel. As he led the Israelites in sacrifice to God, the Philistines were defeated by God [7:10-11]. By his attitude of humility to God (the true leader in war), "Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites." [1 Samuel 7:13b-14]
With the external threat subdued, Samuel turned his focus inward on the country: "Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places." [1 Samuel 7:15-16] Being the judge over Israel meant that he was following in the tradition of Moses, Joshua, Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Eli -- leaders for Israel raised up out of the nation. These judges weren't necessarily priests, or of priestly background, but they handled civil disagreements [see Exodus 18:15-16, 24-26] and leading an army into battle as needed.
Even though Samuel had served God during his life, his family was a disappointment to him. We do not know any details of his family (beyond the names of two of his sons), or how he raised them, "but his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice." [1 Samuel 8:3] These sons turned into such a shame that the elders of Israel noticed and demanded that these sons not follow as Judges [8:5]. While the wickedness of Samuel's sons was one thing cited, the elder's motives were clear as well: they wanted a King, "as all the other nations have. [also 8:5] In short, they rejected Samuel and his family.
Samuel was hurt, but God gave Israel what they wanted, stupid as it was. God's judgments can end up that way-- he gives up what we want, not what he wants. Samuel anointed King Saul, the tallest Israelite. [9:2] After a victory over the Ammonites, Saul's anointing was clear to all and confirmed by the nation. So, it was time for Samuel to step aside. In his farewell speech in 1 Samuel 12, Samuel notes that his rule has been holy and honorable [12:3-5]. He notes that their desire for a King was done to reject God's ultimate rule over them, and says "And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the LORD when you asked for a king." [12:17b] Samuel called down a disaster on the wheat harvest as a sign of that.
And yet, even as Samuel had just chewed out the people, called down God's judgment on them (mercifully on their crops instead), he still showed his love for them: "As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right." [12:23] Samuel still cared for the people. Despite the direct, personal, affront to God and him, he forgave the people and promised to care for them.
Samuel's words are interesting: he considers failing to pray to be a sin before God. Most of the time, we would consider failing to pray to be a slip-up when we get too busy, or a minor problem. Our callous attitude towards prayer means that prayer is the first thing dropped when we are pressed for time, but suddenly remembered when we are desperate. Samuel had lived life with God, and his attitude towards prayer is much more serious-- failing it was a sin in his eyes. "Pray continually" [1 Thessalonians 5:17] is what the New Testament says, but this misses the importance that people such as Samuel and Jesus put on prayer.
While we may not be called to lead a nation, and hopefully our children (physical or spiritual) turn out better than Samuel's children, keeping Samuel's seriousness about prayer for others is a good idea.