The Bible in a Year – 3 April

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

3 April. 1 Samuel chapters 28-31

The end of the first book of Samuel is set after the death of the eponymous prophet, but we haven’t heard the last of him yet!  King Saul, seeking wise advice, misses Samuel, and in the absence of any other form of guidance from God, resorts to consulting the medium at Endor (in older translations she was called a “witch”) to summon up his spirit, a practice which Saul himself, under Samuel’s guidance, had banned!  So not surprisingly the advice he does get from Samuel’s ghost is basically “I told you so!”, or more specifically, that God’s destiny for Saul that Samuel had already prophesied will come true, and David will succeed him as king.  At the end of the book, Saul does indeed die, committing suicide rather than be killed in battle.  The lesson from this is that God really is our only guide. While it is understandable that people who have lost (or never had) faith in God might look to the spirits instead, they will never know the truth as he does.  There are good reasons why God’s followers in all the major religions have been at least suspicious of mediums and other occultists, for although we believe in the afterlife, the consistent message of scripture is that the dead should be left to God’s mercy and not summoned back to this life.



Meanwhile David, a typical mercenary, would be happy to fight for the Philistines against his own people Israel in order to claim the crown, but the Philistine generals will have none of it. However, in returning to his base David finds that another tribe, Amalekites, have carried off all the people and animals, and he has to go and rescue them.  What adventures! Is this turncoat warrior really fit to be king?  We shall see, in 2 Samuel.



The Bible in a Year – 30 March

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30 March. 1 Samuel 15-17

So far we have seen Saul proclaimed as King by God’s decree and filled with the Holy Spirit; but also learnt of his weaknesses, which were impatience and lack of foresight.  In chapter 15 he achieves his greatest military victory to date, but shows another weakness by failing to slaughter the animals as well as the people, as God commanded.  For this his kingship was rejected by God, and the Spirit of God left him.   Leaving aside for now the question of why God commanded the slaughter of innocent civilians and animals as well as soldiers, in this rejection by God we see perhaps the first statement in the Bible (15:22) that obedience to God is what God desires, more than obedience to religious laws.


The boy David from Bethlehem was anointed King in his place by Samuel, but secretly. David goes on to achieve the archetypal giant-slaying feat of killing the heavily armed Goliath with a simple sling and stone, turning the tide of battle against the Philistines.


Saul, we are told, became troubled by an “evil spirit” after his rejection by God, and the boy David – later known as a famous composer of many of religious songs that we call Psalms -plays the lyre to soothe him.  This “evil spirit” may have been depression; but at the end of Chapter 17 when David is brought before Saul after defeating Goliath, Saul appears not to recognise him.  So either the stories have got out of order, or maybe Saul was suffering from dementia? Playing familiar music is often a good way to calm the distress of people with this illness.

The Bible in a Year – 29 March

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29 March. 1 Samuel chapters 13-14

Saul proved himself to be a strong warrior; towards the end of chapter 14 it lists several other tribes that he conquered during his reign. But he had his faults, most of which had a common root in impatience and not thinking of consequences.  At the start of this section, he leads a small and successful raid on the arch enemy, the Philistines. He should not have been surprised that this unprovoked attack ended a period of truce and drew out the full strength of their army, which was better equipped with infantry, cavalry and chariots, while Israel had few weapons of any kind as a result of the Philistines ‘arms embargo’.  Clearly military strategy was not his strong point.  Fortunately God was with the Israelites and they were not defeated.


A second failure as a result of impatience was religious rather than military, when he offered a sacrifice (which only Levites were supposed to do).  Not even a king could offer sacrifice, just as our Queen, although titular head of the Church of England, is not ordained and so may not celebrate communion.


Saul’s third, and nearly most disastrous mistake was to impose a fast on his troops on penalty of death, not realising that his own son was out of the camp at the time and did not hear it.  When Jonathan is found to have broken the fast (and incited others to do so), his father appears more inclined to keep his oath at the expense of his son’s life than to see sense and admit his mistake.  This is not quite the same as Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, as it was not God who put Saul to the test. It is closer to Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11 where his own daughter is unwittingly the subject of her father’s unthinking promise. But it still shows what we would now consider dangerous fanaticism that puts “religious truth” ahead of even one’s own children’s lives.  Fortunately for Jonathan, his fellow soldiers see sense and pay an unspecified ransom to redeem him.


The Bible in a Year – 28 March

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28 March. 1 Samuel chapters 9-12

Two days ago we encountered Samuel as a young boy, dedicated to God by his mother. Yesterday we saw him as a wise leader – not leading his people in battle as other ‘judges’ did, but keeping the peace with his wise judgements. Today we see him hand over leadership as another young man (Saul) is chosen by God to lead his people, this time not as a priest, judge and prophet like Samuel but as a military king, as they wanted.  In what to Saul must have seemed a chance encounter with Samuel, he is anointed as the future king of his country.  Late, he is officially elected (by God’s will made known through the drawing of lots that is, not by democracy as we know it) and crowned in front of representatives of all the tribes. After that, he goes on to lead a successful military campaign against the Ammonites.


But in between the intimate personal encounter when he is told of God’s choice (confirmed by a prophecy fulfilled in his own life), and the public event, Saul is sent by Samuel to encounter the ecstatic prophets at Gibeah, where he is caught up in their ecstasy himself.  In modern Christian terms we would say he was “filled (or baptised) with the Holy Spirit”.  The coming of the Spirit on a person is usually understood as an equipping for service,  a giving of gifts or talents from God that they were not born with, for the purpose of making God’s ways known, or his will done, on earth.


Saul was from a rich family and so presumably would have been educated, but like so many other great Biblical characters (Abraham,  Moses, David and Amos among them) he was a herdsman as a young man – in his case of donkeys rather than sheep.  For all these people, their time alone away from the busy ways of a town, and in nights under the stars, helped them to be open to God’s call, and to his indwelling Spirit.  But he would not have encountered Samuel if his companion (probably a family servant) had not known of him and pointed Saul to him for guidance. So often it is true that one person can, by a single encouraging or corrective word, witness to God’s truth and point another on the right path for their life.

All these elements came together to make Saul the great king that he would become: an education, time spent meditating in solitude, a religious friend who was not afraid to witness to him, the word of prophecy given by someone else, a sacramental anointing, and finally the encounter with God’s spirit of ecstacy.  To quote from John Bell’s hymn “enemy of apathy”:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

The Bible in a Year – 27 March

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27 March. 1 Samuel chapters 4-8

These chapters tell of how Israel fought unsuccessfully against the Philistines (their enemies to the west), falsely trusting in the ark of the covenant as assuring God’s presence with them for victory; of the plagues on the Philistines as a result of them capturing the ark, until they sent it back to Israel; and of Samuel’s reign of peace following the death of Eli from shock.


Rather than find a lesson in these ‘big picture’ stories I will pick on one word – Ebenezer (4:1 and 7:12). Just yesterday I saw a Baptist church called Ebenezer Chapel and wondered where the name came from, as I have seen other 19th century chapels of the same name. Now I know.  The footnotes translate it as “Stone of Help”. Presumably the chapel builders, looking for a suitable Biblical name, thought that this would do, partly as their church would be built of stone (actually this one had brick walls, but on a stone foundation).  The other reference may be to one of the names of God, “Rock of Ages”, or perhaps Jesus as the “Cornerstone of the Church”, both of which were popular images in Victorian times, and sometimes still today.


Jesus also told a parable of the men who built their houses, one on sand and the other on rock, and of course when floods came the one on the rock stood firm.  The existence of the rock is not enough though: it still takes work to build on.  Having a personal faith in God, not his mere existence, is what gives a sense of purpose to life that can resist its storms.  The builders of the several Ebenezer churches must have hoped by their labours in building them to inspire a rock-like faith in God in those who would worship there.  Rock of Ages, Stone of Help, help me today when my life seems insecure.


The Bible in a Year – 26 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

26 March. 1 Samuel chapters 1-3

Hannah is one of the several women in the Bible who are described as barren but are granted a special child by God’s grace.  She has been compared to Mary the mother of Jesus, for a similar song of praise is attributed to them both. Also, both of them were told that their special son had to be dedicated to God. Whereas Mary at least had Jesus with her until he was 30 (although she had been warned she would face the agony of his suffering) Hannah has to give up her child as soon as Samuel is weaned – maybe 1 or 2 years old. Although she had further children, she did not know that at the time she left him in the care of the elderly high priest.  When God calls people to a special task, he often tests their faith.


Samuel himself faced a test of faith at the start of his ministry as a prophet.    Although still only a boy – and no doubt having to show deference to the priest whom he served – the first prophecy he is given is a very unpleasant one for Eli, namely that because of the sins of his own sons, the right to be priests is being taken away from his family.  But Samuel passes the test of a prophet of “speaking truth to power” and passes on the prophecy rather than hiding or sweetening its message, as many people would be tempted to do.


Whether each of us is called to be a prophet, or a parent making sacrifices for their children, God honours those who put his truth and others before their own needs.