My friend and co-laborer Laurence Windham has a way with words. When he is not busy stating the stupendous (telling everyone who will listen, and even those who won’t, “Oh, you’ve got to try such and such restaurant. It has the greatest food ever prepared on the planet—I promise.”), he is stating the obvious. One truism that frequently escapes his lips is this: “We are all born at a particular time.” While we may not know the exact time we were born, I’m quite sure we all are fairly well aware of the fact that there was a time when we were born. What Laurence is trying to communicate is all that comes with being born in a particular time. The time in which we are born comes with a whole set of assumptions, presuppositions, and expectations of what is normal, of what the good life is. Our trouble is that, like the fish that doesn’t know it is wet, because we are born in this time, we do not see these things. Like sweets that pass directly from our lips to our hips, we carry these saddlebags wherever we go.
Saul also was born in a particular time. He had a host of assumptions peculiar to his age. God had told him that He was his hope and salvation. But when enemies came, Saul didn’t turn to God. He determined he would ensure the right outcome. It was his plan that would bring the victory. It was his rash vow that would push the soldiers to do mighty deeds. Wasn’t this, after all, what kings did? Wasn’t it the king’s job to give Knute Rockne speeches to the troops so as to put the fear of the king in them? That’s what all the manuals seemed to say.
Of course, some errors are not necessarily peculiar to only one age. We, too, face much the same temptation as Saul. It may not be Philistines breathing down our necks, but we do face challenges, enemies, hurdles. And our tendency is to look to someone else to solve the problem, or, if we like to think ourselves something of the hero, to gird up our loins like a man. We, too, think we can bluster and bootstrap our way out of any situation. But as with Saul, our folly all too often only makes things worse. Whether we follow princes and kings, or whether we are princes or kings, our call is not to put our trust in princes and kings.
Of course, Saul had even less of an excuse, didn’t he? God has just given him a clear picture of how God defeats our enemies. The Philistines are at each other’s throats, a common tactic of the Captain of the Lord’s hosts. They are destroying themselves. All Saul needs to do is lead a mopping-up operation. Sure, there’s not much glory in that, but then, Saul is not supposed to be in this for his glory. Seeing easy victory within his grasp, Saul, in seeking to seize glory, nearly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Now the Philistines are no longer God’s enemies, but Saul’s. And while a soldier may eat while doing battle with God’s enemies, none shall eat before Saul’s enemies are gone. And so Saul seeks to hide God within his own shadow.
Pursuing self-glory is a perennial temptation. Satan used it on Adam and Eve—“You will be like God”—and succeeded. He used it likewise with the second Adam, offering the kingdoms of the world if He would merely bow, but there he failed. He does the same today, albeit rarely in such dramatic fashion. Usually the temptation sneaks up on us. We beat temptation not with the spirit of the age, but with the Spirit of God. And we beat it in a non-dramatic fashion, on our knees.
When we puzzle over the relationship of our prayers and the sovereignty of God, we tend to look at it from the wrong angle. Why should we be bothered with this kind of spiritual exercise, we wonder, if it won’t really change anything? (This too is the spirit of the age—pragmatism.) While we who affirm the sovereignty of God answer rightly by affirming our prayers as secondary but real means for bringing to pass God’s decretive will, that also may miss an important point. We know prayer at least changes this—it changes us. We do not pray to remind God of some tidbit of wisdom He might have forgotten. We do, however, pray to remember a mountain of wisdom we always forget: that God is our King, that God is our deliverer, that God alone is due all glory. This may be the most astounding power of prayer, that it can even humble people like us. In reminding us of the unchanging wisdom of the power and glory of God, prayer takes us outside our own peculiar time. It shows us the timeless God as He is. It sets us free from both the peculiar folly of our own day and the all-too-common folly of our own kind.
Had Saul remembered who was truly King over Israel, he would have faced the challenge of the Philistines like a man of God, on his knees. Had Saul remembered the wisdom that the true King of the Jews would remember, that our meat and our drink is to do the will of our Father in heaven, then he and all his soldiers would have feasted before God’s presence in a complete and joyful victory. Would that we would remember that on our knees we feast at the table that He has laid in the presence of our enemies, and that we, too, would fear no evil, that we would remember that He is with us.