Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 66


The Appointment of the First King in Israel

Preached March, 1848

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And Samuel said unto all Israel, Behold, I have hearkened unto your voice in all that ye said unto me, and have made a king over you.” - I Samuel 12:1


Our subject to-day is the selection of the first king of Israel.

We have arrived at that crisis in Israel’s history when the first shock occurred in her national life. That shock was bereft of part of its violence by the wisdom of a single man. By the lustre of his personal character, by his institutions, and by his timely concessions, Samuel won that highest of all privileges which can be given to a mortal-the power of saving his country. He did not achieve the best conceivable; but he secured the best possible. The conceivable best was, that there should have been no shock at all, that Israel’s elders should have calmly insisted on a reformation of abuses: that they should have come to Samuel, and demanded reparation for the insulted majesty of Hebrew law in the persons of the young judges, his sons, who had dared to dishonor it. This would have been the first best. The second best was the best practicable-that the shock should be made as light as possible; that Samuel should still control the destinies of his country, select the new king, and modify the turbulence of excess. So that Israel was in the position of a boat which has been borne down a swift stream into the very suction of the rapids. The best would be that she should be put back; but if it be too late for this, then the best is that there should be in her a strong arm and a steady eye to keep her head straight. And thus it was with Israel. She plunged down the fall madly, rashly, wickedly; but, under Samuel’s control, steadily. This part of the chapter we arrange in two branches:


I. Samuel’s conduct after the mortification of his own rejection.

II. The selection of the first monarch of Israel.


1. The tenth chapter broke off in a moment of suspense. The people, having accepted Saul as their king, had been dismissed, and Samuel was left alone; but his feeling as were very different from those which he had in that other moment solitude, when he had dismissed the delegates of the people. That struggle was past. He was now calm. The first moment was a terrible one. It was one of those periods in human life when the whole meaning of life is perplexed, its aims and hopes frustrated; when a man is down upon his face and gust after gust sweeps desolately over his spirit. Samuel was there to feel all the ideas that naturally suggest themselves in such hours-the instability of human affection-the nothingness of the highest earthly aims. But by degrees two thoughts calmed him. The first was the feeling of identification with God’s cause. “They have not rejected thee, bit they have rejected Me.” Had it been mere wounded pride, or pique, or family aggrandizement arrested, or ambition disappointed, it would have been a cureless sorrow. But Samuel had God’s cause at heart, and this gave a loftier character to his sadness. There was no envenomed feeling, no resentment, no smarting scornfulness. To be part of a great Divine cause which has failed, is an elevating as well as a saddening sensation. A conviction mingles with it that the cause of God will one day be the conquering side.

The other element of consolation was the Divine sympathy. If they had been rebellious to their ruler, they had also been disloyal to Jehovah. An unruly subject has had a poor school in which to learn reverence for things heavenly. Atheism and revolution here, as elsewhere, went hand-in-hand. We do not know how this sentence was impressed by the Infinite Mind on Samuel’s mind; all we know is, he had a conviction that God was a fellow-sufferer. This, however, was inferior, in point of clearness, to our knowledge of the Divine sympathy: Jehovah, the unnameable and awful, was a very different conception from “God manifested in the flesh.” To the Jew, His dwelling was the peak round which the cloud had wreathed its solemn form, and the thunders spent themselves; but the glory of the life of Jesus to us is, that it is full of the human. The many-colored phases of human feeling all find themselves reflected in the lights and shadows of ever-varying sensitiveness which the different sentences of His conversation exhibit. Be your tone of feeling what it may, whether you are poor or rich, gay or sad-in society or alone-adored, loved, betrayed, misunderstood, despised-weigh well His words first, by thinking what they mean, and you will become aware that one heart in space throbs in conscious harmony with yours. In its degree, that was Samuel’s support.

Next, Samuel’s cheerful way of submitting to his fate is to be observed. Another prophet, when his prediction was nullified, built himself a booth and sat beneath it, fretting in sullen pride, to see the end of Nineveh. Samuel might have done this; he might have withdrawn himself in offended dignity from public life, watched the impotent attempts of the people to guide themselves, and seen dynasty after dynasty fall with secret pleasure. Very different is his conduct. He addresses himself like a man to the exigencies of the moment. His great scheme is frustrated. Well, he will not despair of God’s cause yet. Bad as things are, he will try to make the best of them.

Now remark in all this the healthy, vigorous tone of Samuel’s religion. This man, the greatest and wisest then alive, thought this the great thing to live for to establish a kingdom of God on earth-to transform his own country into a kingdom of God. It is worth while to see how he set about it. From first to last, it was in a practical, real way-by activity in every department of life. We recollect his early childhood; his duty then was to open the gates of the temple of the Lord, and he did that regularly, with scrupulous fidelity, in the midst of very exciting scenes. He was turning that narrow circumscribed sphere of his into a kingdom of God. Afterwards he became ruler. His spirituality then consisted in establishing courts of justice, founding academies, looking into every thing himself. Now he is deposed: but he has duties still. He has a king to look for, public festivals to superintend, a public feast to preside over; and later on we shall find him becoming the teacher of a school. All this was a religion for life. His Spirituality was no fanciful, shadowy thing; the kingdom of God to him was to be in this world, and we know no surer sign of enfeebled religion than the disposition to separate religion from life and life-duties.

Listen: what is secularity or worldliness? Meddling with worldly things? or meddling with a worldly spirit? We brand political existence and thought with the name “worldly”-we stigmatize first one department of life and then another as secular; and so religion becomes a pale, unreal thing, which must end, if we are only true to our principles, in the cloister. Spirituality becomes the exclusive property of a few amiable mystics; men of thought and men of action draw off; religion becomes feeble, and the world, deserted and proscribed, becomes infidel


II. Samuel’s treatment of his successor, after his own rejection, is remarkable. It was characterized by two things-courtesy and generosity. When be saw the man who was to be hiss successor, he invited him to the entertainment; he gave him precedence, bidding him go up before him; placed him as a stranger at the post of honor, and set before him the choice portion. This is politeness; what we allude to is a very different thing, however, from that mere system of etiquette and conventionalisms in which small minds find their very being, to observe which accurately is life, and to transgress which is a sin.

Courtesy is not confined to the high-bred; often theirs is but the artistic imitation of courtesy. The peasant who rises to put before you his only chair, while he sits upon the oaken chest, is a polite man. Motive determines every thing. If we are courteous merely to substantiate our claims to mix in good society, or exhibit good manners chiefly to show that we have been in it, this is a thing indeed to smile at; contemptible, if it were not rather pitiable. But that politeness which springs spontaneously from the heart, the desire to put others at their ease, to save the stranger from a sensation of awkwardness, to soothe the feeling of inferiority-that, ennobled as it is by love, mounts to the high character of a heavenly grace.

Something still more beautiful marks Samuel’s generosity. The man who stood before him was a successful rival. One who had been his inferior now was to supersede him. And Samuel lends him a helping hand-gracefully assists him to rise above him, entertains him, recommends him to the people. It is very touching.

Curiously enough, Samuel had twice in life to do a similar thing. Once he had to depose Eli, by telling him God’s doom. Now he has to depose himself. The first he shrank from, and only did it at last when urged. That was delicate. On the present occasion, with a large and liberal fullness of heart, he elevates Saul above himself. And that we call the true, high Gospel spirit. Samuel and the people did the same thing-they made Saul king. But the people did it by drawing down Samuel nearer to themselves. Samuel did it by elevating Saul above himself. One was the spirit of revolution, the other was the spirit of the Gospel.

In our own day it specially behooves us to try the spirits, whether they be of God. The reality and the counterfeit, as in this case, are singularly like each other. Three spirits make their voices heard in a cry for freedom, for brotherhood, for human equality. And we must not forget, these are names hallowed by the very Gospel itself. They are inscribed on its forehead. Unless we realize them, we have no Gospel kingdom. Distinguish, however, well, the reality from the baser alloy. The spirit which longs for freedom puts forth a righteous claim; for it is written, “If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.” Brotherhood the Gospel promises brotherhood also-“One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” Equality-yes. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” This is the grand federation, brotherhood, emancipation of the human race.

Now, the world’s spirit aims at bringing all this about by drawing others down to the level on which each one stands. The Christian spirit secures equality by raising up. The man that is less wise, less good than I-I am to raise up to my level in these things. Yes, and in social position, too, if he be fit for it. I am to be glad o see him rise above me,as generously as Samuel saw Saul. And those that are above me, better than I, wiser than I, I have a right to expect to elevate me, if they can, to be as wise and good as themselves. This is the only levelling the Gospel knows. What was the mission of the Redeemer but this? To raise the lower to the higher, to make men partakers of the Divine nature-His nature, standing on His ground; to descend to the roots of society, reclaiming the outcasts, elevating the degraded, ennobling the low, and reminding, in the thunder of reiterated “woes,” those who had left their inferiors in the dark, and those who stood aloof in the titled superiority of rabbi-of the account to be rendered by them yet.

And if we could but all work in this generous rivalry, our rent and bleeding country, sick at heart, gangrened with an exclusiveness which narrows our sympathies and corrupts our hearts, might be all that the most patriotic love would have her. Brethren in Christ, I earnestly urge again the lesson of last Sunday. Not by pulling down those that are above us, not by the still more un-Christlike plan of keeping down those that are beneath us, can we make this country of ours a kingdom of Christ. If we cannot practise nor bear to have impressed upon us, more condescension, more tenderness, and the duty of unlearning much, very much of that galling, insulting spirit of demarkation with which we sever ourselves from the sympathies of the class immediately beneath us, those tears may have to flow again which were shed over the city which would not know the day of her visitation: lulled into an insane security even at the moment when the judgment-eagles were gathered together and plunging for their prey.

Once more: there is suggested to us the thought that Samuel was now growing old. It seems by the eleventh and thirteenth chapters, in connection with the text, that the cause which hastened the demand of the elders for a king was the danger of invasion. The Ammonites and Philistines were sharpening their swords for war. And men felt that Samuel was too old for such a crisis. Only a few Sundays ago we were considering Samuel’s childhood, his weaning, education, and call. Now he is old: his hair is gray, and men beginning to feel that be is no longer what he was. A high, great life; and a few chapters sum it all up. And such is all life.

To-day we baptize a child; in a period of time startlingly short, the minister is called upon to prepare the young man for confirmation. A little interval and the chimes are ringing a merry wedding-peal. One more pause, and the winds are blowing their waves of shadow over the long grass that grows rankly on his grave. The font, the altar, and the sepulchre, and but a single step between. Now we do not dwell on this. It is familiar-a tale that is told.

But what we mention this for is, to observe that though Samuel’s life was fast going, Samuel’s work was permanent. Evidence of this lies in the chapter before us. When Saul came to the city and inquired for the seer’s house, some young maidens, on their way to draw water, replied; and their reply contained an accurate account, even to details, of the religious service which was about to take place. The judge had arrived; there was to be a sacrifice, the people would not eat till he came, he would pronounce a blessing, after that there would be a select feast. Now compare the state of things in Israel when Samuel became judge. Had a man come to a city in Israel then, there would have been no sacrifice going on, or if there had, no one would have been found so accurately familiar with the whole service; for then “men abhorred the offering of the Lord.” But now the first chance passer-by could run through it all, as a thing habitual-as a Church of England worshipper would tell you the hours of service, and the order of its performance. So that they might forget Samuel-they might crowd round his successor-but Samuel’s work could not be forgotten: years after he was quiet and silent under ground, his courts in Bethel and Mizpeh would form the precedents and the germs of the national jurisprudence.

A very pregnant lesson. Life passes, work is permanent. It is all going-fleeting and withering. Youth goes. Mind decays. That which is done remains. Through ages, through eternity, what you have done for God, that, and only that, you are. Ye that are workers, and count it the soul’s worst disgrace to feel life passing in idleness and uselessness, take courage. Deeds never die.