On March 21,1556, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake for his leadership role in the reformation of the English church. As the fire kindled around him, he plunged his right hand into the thickest flames—the hand that earlier had signed his repudiation of his faithfulness to God—and held it there, saying: “This hath offended! Oh this unworthy hand!”
We can understand being ashamed of things we have done. But faithfulness unto death is something from which we shrink even while we admire it in others. We wonder whether we, in similar circumstances, would not just cave in, say whatever was needed to save our skins, and live with our shame afterward. We might console ourselves by thinking: “God knows our weaknesses. Will He not forgive us?”
As it is, too many Christians in North America are scared into silence about the Gospel of Christ and the claims of God’s righteousness. It is as if no issue is great enough to demand a public stand that could cost us embarrassment or inconvenience, never mind our lives.
What Is Really Important?
Nobody dies a martyr’s death in the portions of 1 Samuel that we are studying this month, but there are plenty of unworthy hands signing off on things of which God does not particularly approve. Samuel sums up the issue in one breath-taking sentence: “ ‘But you have today rejected your God … and you have said to Him, “No, set a king over us!’ ” ” (10:19). God had predicted they would ask for a king, but specified that he must be God’s choice (Deut. 17:14–20). However, the Israelites are asking God to support their decision rather than truly seeking His will! The issue is the sovereignty of God and His lordship in His people’s lives at every level. The king they want is really the wrong king at the wrong time for the wrong reason. What is important to them is not the Lord’s will and kingly rule, but a worldly desire for a glamorous monarchy like other nations.
It is true that God leads Samuel to Saul, who has attributes suitable to a king (9:1–2). The impression, however, is that public opinion likes Saul less for being God’s choice and more for his being high, wide, and handsome. Saul’s good looks win out over the lordship of God.
How Does God Show Us Our Folly?
Why does God give the Israelites their way? Don’t we sometimes say that we have to allow our children to make their own mistakes? God tells the people they are making a mistake, but promises that if they and their king are faithful, He will bless them. He makes sure they know they are responsible for what happens and that He, as their heavenly King, is not to be denied. “ ‘Only fear the LORD, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king’ ” (12:24–25). Three centuries later, Hosea records God’s last word on this episode: “ ‘I gave you a king in My anger, and took him away in My wrath’ ” (Hos. 13:11).
God frequently gives us our way. We decide this or that, sure that it is God’s will. But we turn out to be wrong and need hard experience to teach us to choose God’s way next time. The prodigal son in Jesus’ parable only chose to return from the “far country” after his pride was shattered by the consequences of his decisions (Luke 15:13). Far from justifying willfulness and youthful indiscretion, this is a word to the wise to listen to the Lord, to submit gladly to His lordship and follow His leading. Learning from the prodigal’s experience means making every effort not to repeat it!
Who Is Your King?
Cranmer realized that Jesus Christ, not Mary Tudor, must be the true ruler of England in order for England to be blessed of God. The same is true for the nations today. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). The state, as much as the church, must answer to God for its actions. And the people who want to be satisfied with “good things” will find that only the Lord who forgives and redeems will give them these things and sustain them in them (Ps. 103:5).
Joshua calls us to the way to blessing for church and nation: “‘Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spoke concerning you.… Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all the good things have come upon you which the LORD your God promised you, so the LORD will bring upon you all harmful things, until He has destroyed you from this good land.… When you have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the LORD will burn against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which He has given you’” (Josh. 23:14–16).
Jesus is God’s appointed “ruler over the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). If we want to enjoy the fullness of God’s goodness in the land of the living, individuals and rulers alike must heed His call to “kiss the Son,” for “blessed are all those who put their trust in Him” (Ps. 2:12).