“Then Samuel Brought Them Near”
As we have studied the voluntary sacrifices—burnt offerings and peace offerings—over the past few weeks, we have stressed that their purpose is to draw near to God. The peace offering in particular is an occasion to share a covenant meal with God. We saw this morning how the offerings reenact Mount Sinai: God draws Israel near to Him, He establishes His covenant with them, and they offer burnt offerings and peace offerings, consummating the covenant with a feast (Ex 24.4-7).
But we have also seen how Israel can pervert the offerings. We considered Jephthah, who rashly vowed as a burnt offering the first thing that came out of his door to greet him if he returned home victorious against the sons of Ammon. The Lord gave Jepthah the victory, and Jephthah gave the Lord his daughter as a burnt offering (Jdg 11). Jephthah commited an abomination in a perverted attempt to draw near to God. We also saw how Israel immediately perverted their burnt offerings and peace offerings by offering them to the golden calf (Ex 32.1-6). The shared with the idol the covenant meal which they had just shared with God.
This week, we will consider a prominent example of Israel perverting the peace offering: the anointing of Saul to be king over Israel.
In 1 Sam 8, the sons of Israel demand that Samuel set a king over them. The Lord had told Israel in the Law of Moses that they could have a king, so long as the king was a native Israelite (Dtr 17.15). Had they asked rightly, their request would have been good. The sons of Samuel were false shepherds who perverted justice (1 Sam 8.1-3). A king would have been appropriate. Yet Israel asked with bad motives: “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8.5, emphasis mine). Their interest in justice, if they even had any, was secondary to their interest in being like their pagan neighbors.
God confirms Israel’s false motives to Samuel after Samuel prays to Him. “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you” (1 Sam 8.7-8). Israel’s desire for a king is of a piece with their idolatry; though they pretend to draw near to God, instead they depart from Him.
To draw out this irony and emphasize Israel’s perversion, the text of 1 Samuel uses the peace offering.
Samuel begins by instructing Saul to meet him in at Gilgal. On the way, Samuel says, “Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine” (1 Sam 10.3). This happens to be enough material for each of the men to offer a peace offering, and they are going to the place where the Lord first appeared to Jacob (plus, remember that “Bethel” means “House of God”). Saul will then meet two prophets in Gibeath-Elohim (“Hill of God”), where the Spirit of the Lord will rush on him. Samuel himself will also offer peace offerings at Gilgal, a week after Saul’s journey there. All in all, Saul’s ascent to the throne ought to signify a drawing near to God.
But things fall apart for Israel pretty quickly. When Samuel calls Israel together to reveal Saul as king, he chides them for their rejection of the Lord. Then, we read, “Samuel brought near all the tribes of Israel” (1 Sam 10.20). The verb translated “brought near” is karav, the root for korban, “sacrifice.” In describing the act of drawing Israel together to reveal the king, Samuel uses the language of sacrifice, “drawing near” to God—but nothing could be further from the truth. “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us’” (10.18-19).
We know the rest of Saul’s story. Far from drawing Israel nearer to God, he draws them further away, and God rejects him as king of Israel. In fact, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is a peace offering wrongly offered. Once again, Saul is to wait for Samuel at Gilgal for a week. This time, Samuel doesn’t appear, so Saul takes it upon himself to offer the burnt offerings and peace offerings—and he loses his kingdom because of it (1 Sam 13.8-14).
Let us beware how we offer our worship to God. We may well go through the motions of our sacrifice. We may attend worship each Lord’s Day. We may partake of the Lord’s Supper. But remember Israel and remember Saul. Those who wish to serve the Lord must draw near to Him in spirit and in truth.