Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’
…Saul took King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.
The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.’ Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night. Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul…Samuel said, ‘Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, “Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.” Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?’ Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But from the spoil the people took sheep and cattle, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.’
…Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.’ Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.’ As Samuel turned to go away, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you. Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’
So Saul has done some of what the Lord commanded but not all of it; and it is not his first offence. God gives Samuel full rein to speak unequivocally, condemning the anointed King and letting him know that God has rejected him. A United Reformed Church General Assembly would applaud the fearless speaking of truth to power. A world of goodies (including us) and baddies (including people not like us) is so tidy and easy to grasp.
Samuel does his job before the King but we get an insight into his private thoughts. He had a sleepless night because he was deeply troubled by God’s anger. Samuel knew Saul well by this point. Perhaps he even liked him at some level. Perhaps he had some sympathy with Saul’s view that he had done what the people he was supposed to lead and motivate wanted: when we like that sort of behaviour we call it democracy. Perhaps he saw in Saul one more imperfect human being like the rest of us, struggling to know what is right when life’s crises pummel us.
It is not very difficult to condemn leaders who do wrong. Social media mean we do not need to go near them to do so. Perhaps a distinctively Christian element is to still see them, through it all, as human beings made in the image of God, always with potential for redemption; and even more in need of our prayers given their burdens of responsibility. It may then be harder to see the world simply as goodies and baddies, but we were warned that if we think we can separate the wheat and the tares we have misunderstood how God works.
Almighty Father When I see wrong today, give me the courage to condemn it. And when I see the person who has done wrong, give me the love to see them as another human being, to long for their wellbeing with a heart like yours, to ask what I can do to restore them to the right path. And if I do wrong today, please inspire someone to be merciful to me. In Jesus’ name Amen.
John Ellis, former Moderator of the General Assembly and Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent