Monday, April 16, 2007

Building Monuments

1 Samuel 15

One of the most interesting images coming out of the Iraqi war was the sight of Iraqis in Bagdad tearing down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein. Whether or not you agree with the war, there is little question Saddam was a megalomaniac who only wanted to be the center of the universe. The monuments and paintings of his images were not the honors given him by a loving populace—they were the self-worship of a mad man. But perhaps he wasn’t quite as insane as we prefer to think. His arrogance was just on a grander level than ours.

I don’t know how Saddam started out—I understand it wasn’t very honorable. He certainly did not start out with the spirit of humility exhibited by Saul, the future King. Unfortunately King Saul eventually becomes caught up in the same kind of arrogance and pride that led to Saddam’s execution.

The story begins with a clear reference point: Samuel says, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD." Saul is to serve as God’s arm of judgment and justice on an entire nation of people. As God judged the earth through sending a devastating flood to destroy all life, now God sends an army to do the same thing with Amalekites. Everything is to be “dedicated to the LORD” that is, destroyed in the field of battle. Now just a little point: if it is destroyed in the field, it is to be left there. All of whatever it is belongs to God and is not to be taken: not hide, hair, nor horn.

There is no question about the source of this command or the command itself.

Saul gathers his army and attacks. He totally annihilates the Amalekites with a couple of exceptions. Agag, the king, was spared—possibly for the purpose of public execution. They also spared the best cattle, sheep, fat calves and lambs. Verse 9 says the soldiers were unwilling to destroy these completely. They saved the best to be sacrificed to later to God. This sounds oh so religious and noble until you realize the difference between something ritually sacrificed and something banned or "dedicated to the LORD" in warfare. When you sacrifice an animal, the best parts are offered to the Lord. The rest is divided up to be eaten by those making the offering. In other words: when the soldiers and Saul looks at the cattle, sheep, lambs, and calves they are thinking: veal, steak, and lambchops--not sacrifice.

The word of the LORD comes to Samuel with the news in verse 10: "I am grieved I have made Saul king, because he has turned his back on me and has failed to carry out my command." This news crushes Samuel and he spends the entire night crying out to God.

Very early in the morning Samuel goes out to meet Saul. Saul, however, has left to travel to Carmel and to set up a monument for his own honor. (Note: this is significant). From there he went down to Gilgal. Finally Samuel catches up to him and Saul comes out to greet him.

I’m not certain what to think of Saul. Is he just dumber than a stone, a con-artist, or self-deluded? I can imagine him coming out grinning ear to ear. “Samuel, dear friend of mine! Good to see you. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve carried out what God commanded me.”

I’m sorry, couldn’t hear you. Seems you were drowned out by the sheep and cattle you’ve got penned up over there. Gee, Saul—where did all of these animals come from? I thought you said you carried out the LORD’s instructions.”

Um, well I did. It is just my men decided to bring these animals from the Amalekites in order to sacrifice to the LORD, your God—but we did totally destroy everything else…”

Stop!” Samuel shouts. Then he adds, “Let me explain to you what God told me last night.”

Go ahead,” Saul replies, perhaps a little miffed at being cut off.

Samuel tells him God’s message: “At one time you were humble. You didn’t think you amounted to much. Even so, God made you king. And he sent you on a mission with this one easy to understand command: 'Destroy everything!' Why did you not obey? Why did you plunder and so do evil in God’s eyes?

Saul gets defensive. “Wait a minute! I did what I was told! I completely destroyed the Amalekites—well, except for Agag, the king--oh, didn't I tell you about him? Must have slipped my mind. The soldiers took the sheep and cattle from the plunder—the best of that which was devoted to God in order to make sacrifices at Gilgal!”

Samuel’s reply cuts to the heart of the matter. In poetic form, Samuel gives us the basic message of all prophets of God. This is the prophetic word offered to Israel time and again when it comes to ritual obedience:

Does the LORD take pleasure in burn offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying his voice?
Obedience is better than sacrificial offerings,
and listening obediently is better than the ram’s fat.
Rebellion is the sin of superstitions fortune-telling,
and arrogance is the evil of idol worship.
Since you have reject the LORD’s command
he has rejected you as king.

Saul is apparently crushed by this news. “I’ve totally blown it!—I violated the directions of God and your instructions. I was afraid of my men so I gave in to them. Please, I’m begging you, forgive my sin and come back with me and let’s go worship.” Even so, Saul cannot admit is own guilt. He is King. He is the leader. The leader is supposed to lead the people, not be led by the people.

Samuel will have none of this. It is out of his hands. He turns his back and Saul makes a desperate grab for Samuel and only succeeds in ripping his robe. Recognizing a great metaphor when he sees one, Samuel says: "The LORD has torn the kingdom from you and is giving it to someone who is better than you—God isn’t a fickle human. He’s made this decision and he’s sticking with it."

Saul finally persuades Samuel to go back with him. Samuel has Agag brought before him. There is some question as to how to translate this passage. It isn’t certain whether Agag is “confident” or “in chains” and whether or not he is cheerful or resigned to his fate. In any case, Samuel reminds Agag of his violent lifestyle and executes him according to God’s judgment. Then Samuel leaves never to see Saul again in this life—but Samuel mourned over Saul—and God was grieved he made Saul king.

When I was growing up I heard this story referred to in Bible classes and sermons. The point was always the same: don’t innovate in worshipping God. Be careful not to mess with the plan laid out for worship in the Bible. The problem with that interpretation is there is no detailed New Testament plan spelled out in those areas. No, while the issue is certainly disobedience to the prophetic command—Saul was not making innovations in worship. There is no indication the sacrifices were offered in an un-proscribed way. Saul was actually using orthodox ritual to avoid obedience.

The key, I think is found in verse 12: "Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor…” This was all about Saul’s arrogance and pride. Verse one served as a reference point to demonstrate God was the one in charge and Saul was his instrument. Twice Samuel’s rebuke of Saul focuses upon his arrogance and use of religion as an excuse.

Throughout the Bible there are no shortage of stories describing this sin of arrogance and monument building: the tower of Babel; the Pharisees and their practice of corban; the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector are just a few of the stories. Even entire churches are not exempt from this tendency toward arrogance and pride—just consider the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3).

But what do we do with this? How do we tear down the monuments we build to ourselves? We need to realize arrogance and pride are broad stroke sins. One can have sins which seem opposite of each other and yet are fueled by pride and arrogance. Self-hatred is actually a demonstration of arrogance—because self-hatred is a focus on self as the center of everything. Depression can be a demonstration of pride, anxiety, anger, passivity toward evil and injustice, legalism, libertinism—traditionalists and progressives can both be motivated by the same arrogance. I can even look humble and sincere—and be in the middle of erecting my own monuments: honoring my own will over God’s will.

Like the mobs which tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein, we must storm our own hearts and begin the demolition of everything standing in the way of God’s will—to borrow from Paul: we must demolish every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. But how do I do this? I wish I had an easy three-step formula for you, but I don’t.

But there is good news and bad news. The good news is: there is only one easy to understand step. Bad news: it will take your entire life following this step—and you still won’t have total mastery. More good news: God’s grace will empower you and save you in spite of your insufficiency.

And the step? (If you are expecting an bit of amazing insight--be ready for disappointment). All you have to do is pray—not a magical formula—but with a heart-felt desire to be God’s person; with a heart-felt desire to tear down your own idols; with a heart-felt desire to love God and love neighbor. Pray in the morning, pray at noon, pray in the evening—this is not some legalistic formula designed to earn your salvation—rather this is a plea to the one who can transform you. Every day ask in you own words: God, break down my idols—help me to crucify my self-will—please help me tear down my monuments to self. Please make me aware of behavior and attitudes which demonstrate arrogance and pride. That’s it. Every day, pray and ask for help—and pay attention to what God teaches you.

When the Iraqis tore down Saddam Hussein’s statue it was too late for him. When he was found hiding in a hole he didn’t even resemble the proud dictator of Iraq. The image we saw then was a true picture of his spirit—even when he was in power. He never gave up his arrogance and pride even when he faced the noose. It was too late for him, but it is not too late for us. God has given grace to anyone who will come to him in humility and ask.

May we recognize the monuments we make to ourselves. May our hearts be broken by our rebellion. And may we seek God’s help to become a people defined by humility and love.

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