Dr. A. Donald MacLeod
Samuel, Who Called On The Name Of The Lord: The Lessons of a Lifetime of Praying
Preached at Newton Presbyterian Church of Boston
75 Vernon Street, Newton Corner, MA 02158
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME
January 5, 1997
(1) The secret of answered prayer
“Because I asked…”
I Samuel 1
January 12, 1997
(2) The gift of answered prayer
The listening ear
I Samuel 3:1 – 19
January 19, 1997
(3) The example of answered prayer
A leader who prays
I Samuel 7:3 – 17
January 26, 1997
(4) The cost of answered prayer
Accepting failure with God
I Samuel 8
February 2, 1997
(5) The transparency of answered prayer
Prayer by the brokenhearted for the hardhearted
I Samuel 12:20 – 25
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME (Psalm 99:6)
(1) The secret of answered prayer
“Because I asked…”
I Samuel 1
How many of us can remember coming down early in the morning to find our mothers at the kitchen table with an open Bible before her, and her head bowed in prayer. Or – at the other end of the day – can we recall our mothers praying beside our beds hearing our prayers. Many of us are here this morning for one reason and one reason only: the prayers of our mothers.
A mother’s prayers. No better description can be found anywhere than in The Man From Glengarry as Ralph Connor1 recalls his childhood growing up in a Manse on the Canadian frontier. A rough and ready eighteen year old has arrived unexpectedly and discovers that the family has the custom of worship after meals. Father is away at Presbytery in Montreal. He listens to the mother praying, utterly amazed:
“the first thing that surprised Ranald was the absence of the set form and tones of prayer with which he was familiar. It was all so simple and real. The mother was telling the great Father in heaven her cares and anxieties, and the day’s needs for them all, sure that he would understand and answer. Every one was remembered – the absent head of the family and those present; the young man worshiping with them, that he might be a truue man and a good soldier of Jesus Christ; and at the close, the little lad going away this morning, that he might be kept from all harm and from all evil thoughts and deeds. The simple beauty of the words, the music in he voice, and the tender, trustful feeling that breathed through the prayer awakened in Ranald’s heart emotions and longing he had never known before.”2 Seventy years later he would write: “…it is only fair to say that the inspiration for whatever small service I may have done for my fellow men came from her.”3
In Psalm 994 three of the great leaders of Israel are mentioned with their outstanding characteristic: Moses and Aaron are priests. But the other member of the trio is simply described as “among those who called in [the Lord’s] name.” That is how he would be known throughout history – a single epitaph. Samuel was a man of prayer.
What are you going to be known as? What greater tribute can be paid to any minister or elder, any individual, anyone of us here this morning, than that the one quality that stands out most conspicuously when people think about us is: there was a person of prayer.
And what a legacy for a parent to leave! If Samuel could be described as “one who called on the name of the Lord” we find the reason for it here in the first chapter of I Samuel. The next four Sundays we will be discovering four great principles of prayer: chapter 3, Samuel with a listening ear, chapter 7 Samuel modelling intercession for and before his people, chapter 8 as disappointment drives him to his knees, and finally in chapter 12 at the very end of his life saying that the one thing I do not want to be accused of is prayerlessness. But all of these principles in chapters 3 through 12 would not have happened had Samuel not had a praying mother. Indeed, his mother’s prayers (according to that old gospel hymn) followed him throughout his life.
I HANNAH’S MOTIVATION FOR PRAYER
To understand Hannah as a woman of prayer you need only look at her explanation for her praying that she provides (in verse 16) for Eli when he interrupts her in the Temple. “I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
For Hannah was childless. Her reproach was apparent to all. She had endured those questions, those sly looks, that gossip as month after month it became apparent that her husband Elkanah – who loved her dearly – would not have an heir. Her pain was compounded by the fact that Elkanah then took a second wife, Peninah who was – true to the meaning of her name – fecund, prolific, always pregnant. Being “charming” as Hannah’s name proclaimed was not enough. And to make it worse – verses 5 and 6 – repeated as though for emphasis “the Lord had closed her womb.”
Matters came to a head – as they so often do – at a family gathering in Shiloh. Peninah, surrounded by her children, taunted Hannah who rushed out of the room in tears. Elkanah tries to help but, as a clumsy male, his protestations that he loves her more than any child, make matters worse. Comfort can be so cheap and cold.
Where could she go, but to the Lord? Where are you God: You have closed my womb. “She trusted in God to deliver her, let Him deliver her.” “Where is God in all of this? Where are you Lord?” C. S. Lewis once stated that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts to us in our pain.” Hannah is being brought to the place where prayer is not some casual religious exercise but a desperate struggle to survive. God is schooling her in what it really means when we are driven to our knees simply because there is nothing else there for us. May be that is what God is shouting to you this morning in your pain. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
II HANNAH’S PRAYER
So Hannah comes to the house of prayer, the temple of the Lord. Verse 10 – “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.” And then she prayed “Oh Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not gorget your servant buyt give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
Now I want you to reflect not just on the content of her prayer but on her feelings as she prayed. Four times in this chapter there is reference to the intensity of Hannah’s feeling as she bares her soul to the Lord. The word for prayer here is the pouring out of her feeling to the Lord. Indeed Eli thinks her intoxicated so profound is her emotion. “I was pouring out my soul to the Lord,” she explains. She comes to God with a profound sense of need, as though prayer was her single hope, her only resource. “You are the only One Who understands my need.”
And then look at the name of the God to whom she addresses her prayer. We’ve met that title already in verse 3 and now we hear her using it on her knees: “Lord Almighty.” This is a new title for a God who is about to break through in new deliverance of His people. It is the designation for the Lord who is Captain of the armies of Israel, who surrounds and guards us, keeping us from danger, and protecting us, even in the ark night of the soul. So, as God has with Sarah and Rachel and Manoa, three infertile women who gave birth to deliverers, and as he will do with Zechariah and Elizabeth when John the Baptist is born, he provides from a childless woman a supernatural evidence of His power and glory. I Samuel – which in the Hebrew Bible follows directly after Judges – reminds us that God is about to do a new thing. Israel’s great days are ahead.
Hannah’s prayer reminds us that prayer is not manipulation nor magic. Prayer is simply getting our lives in focus, praying God’s thoughts after Him. As Archbishop Trench once stated: “We must not conceive of prayer as overcoming God’s reluctance but as a laying hold of His greatest and highest willingness.” Hannah’s prayer brings her on board the plan and purpose and providence of God. He is now her Captain, the Lord of Hosts.
III THE ANSWER TO HANNAH’S PRAYER
The prayer is over, the explanation is accepted. And Eli says: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” And – verse 18 – literally “her race was the same face no more to her” and unity and harmony are restored and the family return to their home at Ramah. And a son is born. And they live happily ever after, and the prince and the princess disappear into the sunrise. Is that the way the story ends.
It’s all so neat and tidy, you tell me. And I am here this morning and God hasn’t answered me. My child is a constant concern. The cancer hasn’t gone. The relationship isn’t mended. I don’t have the child we had so much wanted. Where was God when I needed Him? We go on and on with our litany of complaints and excuses as to why prayer really doesn’t work.
One thing we are not told in this story is how Samuel felt when, after being weaned, he was left at the Temple. Did he cry for his mother, tugging at her skirts as she left him. Did Hannah want to renege on her vow? Did the heart of Elkanah break as he saw his son for the last time, this child of his union with the woman he loved. It is all left to our imagination.
But I think that Hannah’s prayer in the Temple that day had been answered not in the gift of a child, but in a new understanding of what prayer is all about. And prayer is ultimately renunciation of my way, of figuring it all out on my own, of getting my way. It is about renunciation and leaving my life, my future, my loved ones, into the hands of a loving Lord.
Hannah was on the wrong side of Calvary. But you and I know that on that first Good Friday another Parent gave His one and only Son as both Priest and Victim, gave Him willingly to die for us, to take our sin, our grief, our heartache upon Himself. Calvary is where the unanswered questions, the longings, the shattered dreams, as well as the hopes and joys of ouyr life can be addressed and when I can say, as Jesus did, “Not my will but Yours be done.” If we can say that then we have learned what prayer is all about.
“She called the child Samuel.” Literally the name means, “the name of the Lord”5. Samuel was the personification of all that God’s name means to us as God walks alongside of us on our pilgrim journey. Prayer is ultimately that and nothing more or less: that God is there for us and with us, reminding us “I am the Lord.” “She called him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’”
For our confidence in prayer is simply this: “If God is for us, who can be against uys? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”6
“She called him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’”
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME
(2) The gift of answered prayer
The listening ear
I Samuel 3:1 – 19
In one of his editorials in The Alliance Weekly (as it used to be called) A. W. Tozer told of the time that he played hooky from his own pulpit and went to hear another preacher. The sermon was not memorable except for a single line, which he said was worth the entire experience. It was a sentence that kept resonating in his head the following week: “Listen to no person who fails to listen to God.” As he developed that them he wrote this unforgettable line: “God has His chosen people still and there are without exception good listeners. They can hear when the Lord speaks. We may safely listen to such and to no others.’
“Listen to no person who fails to listen to God.” The first great prayer principle in the life of Samuel was the importance of developing a listening ear. It is summarized in what is perhaps one of the greatest sentence prayers of all: Speak Lord, Your servant hears. And there are two remarkable things about this incident in chapter 3: the one is that Samuel learns a foundational principle of prayer when he is in his mid teens – probably somewhere around fifteen to seventeen – and that it takes place in a theological seminary, a school for clergy.
Shiloh Theological Cemetery. Several times when I’ve been introduced to an audience I have been described as being a “graduate of Westminster Theological Cemetery”. And often a theological education is, indeed, just that: death to the development of the spiritual. When I went to seminary after graduate studies at Harvard I thought that it would be a time of intense spiritual enrichment, with like-minded people, providing not only the study of Scripture but also its application. In short, I thought that seminary would make me a saint! I learned what Samuel must have discovered: that those years spent preparing for ministry is a time full of spiritual peril and temptation. As he watched Hophni and Phineas accepting bribes, dealing under the counter with sacrifices, perpetrating all kinds of abuse, he must have been tempted by those two snares of the clergy: professionalism and cynicism. Did he question his own call? And how Hannah’s prayers must have followed him as he spent those years in the Temple! Just as our prayers need to follow those who are in seminary, who are preparing for ministry.
For these were days of great spiritual peril in Israel. As chapter 3 opens: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” And then look at the end of chapter 3 – “The Lord was with Samuel — he let none of his words fall to the ground.” So God raised up for himself – look at 2:35 – “a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind.” Samuel the man who filled the breach, Samuel a man of prayer. Samuel the one whom, as a teenager, God taught the first principle of prayer: a listening ear.
Soren Kierkegaard once shared his own experience: “A man prayed and at last he thought that prayer was talking, but he became more and more quiet until in the end he learned that prayer is listening.” Have you learned that lesson? If you want to learn how to pray then you need to learn the secret of intercession as Samuel discovered it that evening in the Temple:
I A LISTENING EAR IS IN TUNE WITH GOD
Three times the voice rings out in the silence of the shrine: “Samuel”, “Samuel”, “Samuel”. Three times he runs to Eli and says: “Here I am, you called me.” And finally Eli realizes what is happening and says: “The next time you hear the voice saying, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ you say “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel, we are told in verse 7, “did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” He needed to know the Lord before he could speak to the Lord.
This is so basic that one might think it is unnecessary to emphasize. But we need to say that prayer is a privilege. It is a privilege that is given to those who know God, who can recognize God’s voice, who can tell who God is and that it is God and no one else that is calling to them. They need in other words to be in a relationship, a relationship with Jesus, God’s Son.
Too frequently, in these days when a formless spirituality is all the rage, we hear references to prayer. We are reminded – correctly – that prayer is at the heart of the religious expression of all the major religions. But we need to say that Christian prayer, prayer in the Biblical sense, is premised on, and pre-conditioned by, a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. Prayer is a door that is opened when we pray that first prayer of the supplicant: “God be merciful to me, forgive my sins in Jesus’ name, enter my heart and save me.”
That’s what Jesus means when he speaks of the Shepherd’s voice. He tells His followers that the sheep are those who hear the voice of the shepherd and follow him as he opens the gate. They can tell who it is because he calls them by name and leads them out. They follow him because they know his voice. They refuse to follow anyone else. A stranger they will run away from because they do not recognize his voice. The first principle of prayer is that I can tell the voice of my Shepherd..
Are you able to tell the voice of Jesus, your shepherd today? Do you know Him as your personal Savior and Lord? Don’t ask Him for anything else until you have first said that prayer of prayers, that prayer that makes all other prayer possible and not just empty soliloquies: “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Jesus forgive my sin. Jesus enter into my life.”
That prayer then opens the door to a whole adventure of prayer. It means that you are then in communication with the God of the ages, the Jesus Who calls Himself the Good Shepherd. The One whose voice you recognize. The One who calls you by name.
II A LISTENING EAR IS NOT AFRAID OF SILENCE
“So Samuel came and lay down in his place.” There is a profound truth in verse 9. It is the second principle of the listening ear. To listen you must first be quiet, stilled, before God, “hushed in expectancy.”.
Our lives are filled with hustle and bustle, with noise and clamor. We are so rushed and pressured in our experience. We fill our lives full and over-full. And God can only speak to us in the silence as we wait for Him.
The Psalms are full of such references:
“Be still and know that I am God.”7
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”8
“My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.”9
God is with us in the silences of our lives. God had to teach Elijah that lesson. He had been “very zealous for the Lord Almighty” and had achieved a stunning victory on Mount Carmel for the Lord of Israel. But then depression and anxiety flooded in. He was warned that “…the Lord is about to pass by.” And the story continues10: “And there was a great and powerful wind which tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
The still small voice. As we sing11:
“Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease:
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.”
Principle two of the listening ear is the rule of silence. Quiet your heart before God. Take the clutter out of your life. Know that God will speak in the silence. It has been said that for everyone who says “Speak Lord your servant hears” there are ten who yell to God: “Hear Lord for your servant speaks.” And the difference between those two approaches two prayer is a vast chasm. Only in the silence can we say: “Speak Lord, your servant hears.”
III A LISTENING EAR IS QUICK TO OBEY
And so the word comes to Samuel. It is not a comfortable word. It is a word of judgment. In the silence the voice comes and it is a terrifying message. “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about … “ Swift and inevitable judgment coming upon the man who was Samuel’s surrogate parent, his mentor, his spiritual leader. A word that the teen-ager would be asked to deliver. “What was it that he said to you?” How Samuel must have trembled. But Samuel was obedient. “Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him.” And the old man accepts it as God’s truth: “It is the Lord, let him do what is good in his eyes.”
A word of judgment is never popular. No one wants to tell someone else that there is, indeed, a time when the accounts will be balanced and a reckoning demanded. That God is not mocked and whatever a person sows that also will he reap. And yet because Samuel had a listening ear he took that word that the Lord had spoken and declared it fearlessly and courageously. He was not – as Paul would say later of his Damascus Road experience – “disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
Judgment is never a popular theme. We want messages that are uplifting, joyful, filled with hope, radiant with possibility thinking. But to give that part of the picture – and it is indeed a part of the gospel – would be to tell only a half truth. There is, indeed a heaven to win and a hell to lose. To do anything less would be to give God’s truth a distortion, to be a false prophet who declares “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Samuel know this and he was not afraid to speak the truth, to obey the voice that he had heard that day in the Temple. And God knew that he could be trusted. And – as is so often the case when we are obedient – he was given more light, more truth.
It was the great missionary martyr to Islam, Henry Martyn, who prayed: “Lord, let me have no will of my own, or consider my true happiness as depending in the smallest degree on anything that can befall me outwardly but as consisting altogether in conformity to Your will.” Obedience. The third condition for having a listening ear. Is an obedient heart.
“Those who honor me, I will honor.” Does I Samuel 2:30 seem familiar to you? If you saw Chariots of Fire you may recall that it was that verse that was handed to the runner Eric Liddell as he was about to run the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He had refused to run the 100 meters, his usual distance, because the race was to be held on the Sabbath. And as he was about to run someone handed him a note with the verse written on it. And he went on to win the race in a record 47 3/5 and gained a Gold Medal. Eric Liddell had learned the lesson of a costly obedience that God honored. The Edinburgh Evening News the next day captured the drama: “It was the last fifty meters that meant the making or breaking of Liddell. Just for a second it was feared that he would kill himself by the terrible speed he had got up, but to the joy of the British camp he remained chock full of fight … Liddell got home first.”
Indeed he did – those word proved prophetic. After completing Seminary he went to China as a missionary, and was eventually interned by the Japanese in Weihsien prisoner of war camp. There, among the young people of the camp, he conducted a Friday evening Youth Club but at the age of 43, on February 21, 1945, he died of a brain tumor. As one of the men at the camp said on hearing the news of his death: “Yesterday Jesus Christ lived among us; together he is no longer with us.” As one boy who was in his youth club stated years later: “We who had the privilege of being with him as he lived and suffered his last years caught a glimpse of the depth of his love for God and His Word that enabled him to walk away from the glory this world offered in exchange for a glory that surpasses everything in time and eternity.”12
Them that honor me I will honor. It starts with a listening ear, ready for the silence as we wait upon God having turned our back on the busy-ness of our lives. Absolute obedience as the condition for a life that God can use and for prayers that God can hear.
Be still and know that I am God.
Speak Lord, for your servant hears.
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME
(3) The example of answered prayer
A leader who prays
I Samuel 7:3 – 17
The year 1966 was important to me for two reasons. They both relate to a trip that I made to England that year. The first – and most obvious one – is that I met Judy. In an English garden. And where would I be without Judy? But that’s another story …
The second thing that happened to me in 1966 was that I visited a friend who was a curate – an Assistant Minister in Church of England terminology. He and I had been at Harvard together and now we were beginning ministry. I’d been ordained for three years – I think he had served about the same time. And we had a problem. Both of us were extremely busy, and were caught up in all of the routine of parish life. Demands were being made on our time at every point, and there seemed to be an inadequate number of hours in the day. Something was missing in our ministries ….
And then I made my second great discovery. He showed me a book. It’s a book that has shaped the subsequent character of my ministry. A book to which I turn regularly. Next to the Bible I am more dependent on this book than any other. It’s called The Minister’s Prayer Book. And it has wonderful excerpts from the Christian wisdom of the ages. It contained devotional guides, prayers and quotations from many writers as to how a minister can have a successful life of prayer.
You may think that that’s easy but believe me it isn’t. I struggle as much as any of you with late night meetings, early appointments and an over-full appointment schedule. One quote that I have read and reread from this book is Forbes Robinson’s advice to his fellow clergy13:
“One thing you must learn to do. Whatever you leave undone you must not leave this undone. Your work will be stunted and half developed unless you attend to it. You must force yourself to be alone and to pray. Do make a point of this. You may be eloquent and attractive in your life, but your real effectiveness depends on your communion with the eternal world. Work is so pressing, and work is necessary. Other engagements take time. You are tired. You want to go to bed. You go to bed late and want to get up late. So simple prayer and devotion are crowded out. And yet … the necessity is paramount, is inexorable. If you and I are ever to be of any good, if we are to be a blessing, not a curse, to those with whom we are connected we must enter into ourselves, we must be alone with the only source of unselfishness.”
I find the modeling provided by Pastor Samuel almost as unsettling as that quotation. Throughout his life time Samuel has been an example of a minister who set his heart and his mind on prayer. From the earliest days, from his mother’s breasts, he had been nurtured in prayer. His mother’s prayers had kept him in Shiloh Theological Cemetery. He had listened as his Lord spoke. Now, in chapter 7 a lifetime of prayer is put to the challenge, and tremendous blessing results:
I The priority of prayer in the life of a pastor
For over twenty years Samuel had been Israel’s senior pastor. Those years are bracketed by the loss and the recapture of the ark of the Lord. The ark had been taken from Shiloh to the encampment of the Israelites, in company with Hophni and Phinehas. It had been taken as a kind of magic talisman in order to prevail against the Philistines. But the Philistines prevail against the Israelites. Hophni and Phinehas are killed. And the ark is captured by the Philistines. There is no more great spiritual and moral – to say nothing of military – disaster for Israel. Not only are Hophni and Phinehas killed in battle. Their father Eli, ninety-eight years of age, waiting anxiously at the side of the road for news, falls backward off his chair “fearing for the ark of the Lord.” Hophni’s wife prematurely delivers a child who is called “Ichabod”, for “the glory has departed from Israel.”
What does a pastor do when he is desperately anxious for the spiritual life of his congregation? With the glory departed from Israel, what intervention could Samuel mount that would bring them back to the Lord so that the glory would no longer have departed? Samuel knows the one thing that leaders of God’s people do when the enemy seems to advance like a might flood. Samuel prays. Indeed prayer becomes the priority of his life.
There are some memorable words to which I often refer from Arthur John Gossip14:
“…the whole point of the ministry, the reason why there is a ministry at all, is that people out in the press of life and finding that there they cannot keep in sight of God but get continually drifted away from him, that the little matters, to which it is their duty to attend, or necessity crowd him out of their preoccupied minds – lay hands upon a [person], praying … ‘Live in the secret of God’s presence; and in the hush there, which we cannot know, commune with him face to face; and week by week, come out and share with us the message which, in that stillness, you have had a chance of hearing. We’ll pay you for it … if you will only do it!’ But now the ministry is every whit as busy as the rest of folk; and , in the roar of its machinery, can hear no more than anybody else. If only we would pray! But we, too, put our trust in our own animal heart and hard-breathing activity.”
Do you regard prayer the number one priority in your pastor’s work? It was for Samuel and may it be so for any woman or man who occupies the pulpit of this congregation. Is it the number one priority in your life?
II The content of a pastor’s prayer: “Bring renewal!”
Now what was the content of Samuel’s prayer? What was it that he made a priority in his intercession. Let’s remind ourselves of the situation. The Israelites are in gross idolatry, the vassals of the Philistines. And though the ark is returned after the Philistines discover it is more of a liability than an asset, it is lodged temporarily in Kiriath-jearim, not far from the Philistines and unusable in the worship of the Lord at Shiloh. Their condition is described in verse 3: they havae sold themselves out to the gods of the nations around, particularly the sexual god of the Canaanites, the fertility cult of Ashtoreth They need to be committed to the one true God of Israel, Jahweh the Lord. They need – as Samuel says in verse 3 -0 to return to the Lord with all their hearts.
If you remember my biography of George Murray you may recall the reference15 to the member of this congregation that stopped George and said “I have been a church member for twenty-five years. Why is it that nothing vital has happened to me in all that time?” And George’s response was: “Our churches are frequented by many sincere and well-meaning men and women who believe certain things about God and about Christ, but who never have had, and are not now having, any great power in their Christian lives. These are facts that must haunt every Christian minister who is acquainted with history. It has not been so in other days.”
Do you long to see that kind of powerful renewal of the church – this church – as God visits us in fresh power and glory?
III The answer to a pastor’s prayer: revival
And so the answer came to the prayers of Samuel: “and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the Lord.” “So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashteroths, and served the Lord only.” And there is more. Israel is called to assemble at Mizpah and there Samuel pleads with God, pouring out his heart in public prayer. And the power comes down. For there at Mizpah the Lord drew water and poured it out before the Lord. And Israel fasts and confesses their sin. “We have sinned against the Lord.” The revival begins with prayer. Israel comes before God and confesses its lack of commitment, its sin, and in its brokenness pours out its heart before God. And there is healing and restoration and mercy.
Again to quote George Murray: “…there is no Biblical reason for believing that the day of revivals is over.” But there will be a cost: “The church must demand of its communicant members a greater separation and consecration, evidence that they have passed from death to life.” And the pulpit? “The Church will likewise demand of the pulpit a return to the simplicity of the Gospel with less vagueness, uncertainty, and ambiguity.” And his conclusion: “When we fulfill those conditions, when we return to the Lord, in every walk of life giving him pre-eminence, then shall He open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing until there is no place to receive it.”16
Mizpah. A place of revival. God pouring down the blesing on the expectant and responsive people. Because of the prayerful persistence of their pastor, their leader.
“And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah.”
What a leader! Would that we had more of them!
IV The reaction to a pastor’s prayer: attack
Revival and then a vicious counter-attack. That has always been the way through the ages for the community of faith. When the Lord builds a church, the devil erects a chapel next door, was Luther’s famous dictum. The Philistines are alarmed. They are threatened. This group of subservient Israelites, who had accommodated themselves to the Philistine’s gods and worship, were starting to make noises. And they start to attack. And the Israelites are afraid. And what do they ask Samuel ?
“Don’t stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” And so the place of commitment becomes a place of consecration as Israel readies itself for battle. Samuel makes a burnt offering and “cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf and the Lord answered him. “
Why did the Lord answer? Because they had confessed their sin, admitted their guilt, and been brought back into a vital relationship with their God. And behind it, and in front of it, there was prayer. Samuel prays to the Lord. It’s not a sudden prayer, interrupting a lifetime of prayerlessnes. It’s not a foxhole devotion as the bombs come flying over us. It’s in the pattern and discipline of daily intercession that God hears His servant and the Lord hears. The armies of the Philistines are routed.
V The result of a pastor’s prayer: celebration
And so finally there is celebration. Joy breaks out in the camp. And there is a stone of remembrance as Israel marks the place where God spectacularly intervened. And the place is called Eben-ezer. Thus far the Lord has helped us. This is a people who will always remember what God has done in their lives, who have seen the power of the Almighty demonstrated, who know a person of prayer, a leader for whom prayer is a priority.
“We’ll praise Him for all that is past,
And trust Him for all that’s to come.”17
One of the books that I met through The Ministers Prayer Book that has made a profound impact on me is Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest. The young priest has been assigned a difficult country parish and wonders how he can pray for them. He writes in his Diary.
”This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last … My parish! The words can’t even be spoken without a kind of soaring love … I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction, but a living cell of the everlasting church. But if only the good God would open my eyes and unseal my ears, so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice. Probably that is asking too much. The face of my parish! The look in the eyes … They must be gentle, suffering, patient eyes. I feel they must be rather like mine when I cease struggling and let myself be borne along in the great invisible flux that sweeps us all, helter-skelter, the living and the dead, into the deep waters of Eternity. And those would be the eyes of all Christianity, of all parishes – perhaps of the poor human race itself. Our Lord saw them from the cross. ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’”18
Do you look at the parish – this church – your church as did that parish priest? Do you see that, as in the days of Samuel, God is waiting to pour His blessing on us. That all of us – minister and congregation alike – need to be praying for that renewal, and that that renewal will only come through the confession of sin. And then there will be attack. But God is powerful. And we will, in the end be able to raise our Ebenezer’s, Thus far the Lord has brought me.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God:
he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”19
God be merciful to me, to this congregation.
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME
(4) The Cost Of Answered Prayer:
Accepting Failure With God
I Samuel 8
The following letter was received by the parents of a college student:
“Dear Mom and Dad:
Just thought I’d drop a note to clue you in on my plans. I’ve fallen in love with a guy called Jim. He quit high school a year before graduation to get married. About a year ago he got a divorce. We’ve been going steady for two months and plan to get married in the Fall. Until then I’ve decided to move into his apartment. ( I think I might be pregnant.) At any rate I dropped out of college last week, although I’d like to finish my courses some time in the future.”
That was the first page. The second continued:
“Mom and Dad:
I just wanted you to know that everything I’ve written so far in this letter is false. None of it is true. But Mom and Dad it is true that I got a C- in French and flunked my math. It is true that I am going to need some money to settle my account at college.”
I use this piece of correspondence to illustrate two points. The first (and most obvious) is that one’s definition of failure is very relative. The second is that failure could be defined as the inability to meet the expectation that I, or my parents, or friends, or the church, or an employer or even God, may have of me.
Accepting failure with God is the title of this morning’s message on I Samuel 8. The chapter is indeed a study in failure. Samuel has failed in two of the most sensitive areas that anyone can fail in. He’s failed as a parent and as a leader. And what can this aging man do when he is confronted with these failures? Look at verse 6. The charge of failure brings the man back to the pattern of lifetime: “this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.” A lifetime habit is affirmed at this moment of truth. He spreads the whole matter before God and says: “Speak Lord, for your servant hears.” As he has prayed as a teenager, so he prays in his old age. Prayer is a discipline, but it is also a habit, a habit instilled in the quiet of our lives, so that when the storms press around us we have developed those inner springs of devotion and intercession that will help us weather the tumult.
Look with me at the way in which Samuel’s prayer life at a crunch point in his life is disclosed in this chapter.
I The failure Samuel brings to the Lord
Samuel is old, the story begins. His sons are as inadequate for leadership as were the sons of Eli. But
Samuel is in Ramah, and they are at the end of the country, in Beersheba. He blocks out those reports that had trickled back to him about his children. He doesn’t recognize the approach of anno domini. Persistently he refuses to face the realities of his situation. He refuses to deal with the facts as they are. We don’t like unpalatable information, particularly when we are older, that will disturb the peace that we think we deserve.
We deserve to spend our final years in quiet dignity, reaping a harvest from years of sacrifice and toil.
Verse 5 breaks the calm. Like a quiescent volcano, the unhappiness that Samuel has refused to face breaks out. The elders of Israel come to Samuel. And they speak directly without any concern for the delicacies of the situation Commentators who understand the nuances of the Hebrew reflect on the brutality of their words: “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” They are abrupt and cruel. They attack those two points at which Samuel is the most vulnerable: his parenting and his teaching – his professional ability to communicate the message that God had given him for Israel. “You’re old, you’ve failed as a parent, and your lifetime’s work as a priest has been rejected by the people.” “WE WANT A KING!” And what an awful reason: the other nations around have one.
Theirs is a kind of anger that may have built up as they have been unable to make their point and when they finally say what is on their mind they overstate it in bitterness, anger and hostility. For forty years Samuel
has told them they are a unique people. He has stood in the breach, set the Philistines at bay. He has restored the spiritual identity of the people of God, recalling them from their rejection of the pure worship of Jahweh their God. The glory has, indeed, no longer departed from Israel. And now all of the accomplishments of a lifetime are flushed away in this rude and vulgar expression of an unappreciative and unimaginative group of men whom have little appreciation for his vision. They simply want to be like everyone else.
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.”
Would you have prayed at that point? Would you not rather have retaliated, brought down the judgement of God upon these people? No. Samuel – in the words of the hymn20 – “takes it to the Lord in prayer.” There’s a lifetime of spiritual wisdom and insight in those last six words. Samuel, before he replies, first speaks to God. If you and I prayed first and then responded to words spoken in anger second, there would be a lot more grace and love present. And we would deal with criticism with a good deal more objectivity and grace.
II The answer Samuel receives from the Lord
When Samuel says “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” he receives a reply that is reflected both in verse 7, verse 9, and again in verse 22 – “Listen.” “Hear what they are saying, learn from it. Pay attention to your critics. They have something useful to teach you.”
It’s not easy to hear that sort of word. But it’s a lot easier, let me assure you, when you are on your knees. I think that all of us in the presence of criticism are instinctively unrealistic, deny the truth, run away from any perception that we are less than we think we are, or that other people view us in an less than positive light. God is telling Samuel: “With all the isolation and insulation that leadership and age can sometimes bring, don’t fail to hear what they are saying to you. It may be unpalatable, difficult to accept. But they have something to teach you.”
And what is more Samuel is told: “Don’t take it personally.” “It is not you they have rejected as king, it is me.” It is so easy to beat up on ourselves. To say, when we see a son or daughter of ours losing the way,
rejecting the faith: “If only I had been clearer in my teaching. If only I had given them more time when they were growing up. If only I had not accepted that promotion that kept me away from home so often.” We can beat up on ourselves. It’s unhealthy, it’s unproductive, and it’s often untrue. The blame game is ultimately self-destructive. But these are the kinds of things that go through one’s mind when one has been forced to come to terms with one’s failure – as a parent, as a leader, whatever. The “if only’s” of life press in on us, particularly in old age. And graciously God tells Samuel: “You’ve told me about it. Leave it with me.”
As parents you and I cannot live our lives through adult children. They are now accountable to God. As leaders we have to admit that those we are leading are free to make decisions on their own and live with the consequences of their own actions. What God is saying to Samuel God may be saying to you this morning. “Trust your children, trust an institution, trust a career into the hands of God, who is a God of providence and grace.” In spite of all the mistakes, and indeed because of the mistakes, God is working to will and to do His good pleasure. He is in providential control of our lives, and His sovereign will is the thing that ultimately keeps and sustains us in the midst of failure. And we are never to lose sight of God’s perspective of life, of time, of history, of eternity.
And finally, God tells Samuel: “Don’t lose your nerve. You’ve come this far, don’t destroy your lifetime of ministry with a mistake at the very end.” “Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” It’s not your word but it’s my word. Speak with all the authority of a prophet who is also a priest.” I find that sometimes, at the very end, we can capitulate to the power of evil and darkness, allow things in our family that are not honoring to God to pass without comment, to even weaken in our own faith commitments because others have let down standards. God is still God. His Word is unchanged and unchanging. We ultimately obey Him, no matter what, and to journey’s end.
And so “Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.” He held
nothing back. Every word was repeated. Popular or unpopular he told it “like it is.” As Samuel had repeated the truth to Eli about his future, so now he repeats the awe-full and awe-some message to Israel. Judgement is going to come. Your desire to be just like the surrounding nations, your accommodation to what you want rather than what God wills, all that is going to be costly. You are caught up in the web of self-destructive behavior. And you will pay a heavy price. Verses 11 to 18, God’s word given to Samuel on his knees, concludes with a solemn warning: “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen and the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
III The peace that comes from Samuel’s acceptance on his knees of the reality of failure
Instead of hearing God’s word, they become more clamorous. “We want a king! Then we will be like
all the other nations.” And again Samuel drops to his knees and repeats what they have said to the Lord and
the Lord says: “Listen to them and give them a king.”
There is a new poise and power to Samuel. He’s accepted the fact that his instruction, his example,
his leadership, all that he treasured for the children of God, has been rejected. “He is the Lord, let him do what
is good in his eyes,” Eli had said21 in his old age. Now Samuel says the same thing in a different set of words:
“Everyone go back to his town,” he tells them. And he begins the search for what they have asked and for which he has no heart. He sets out to find them a ruler. And in the next chapter he anoints Saul as king. Saul’s rule would be a powerful substantiation of all that God had told them about kingship. Samuel would, indeed, be vindicated but he would not be alive to witness it.
But Samuel does not need vindication. He has accepted the rejection of Israel of his vision, of his sons,
of his instruction, of his parenting. And he has done so with equanimity and poise. Very much as Jesus, the
“King of the Jews” would do from the cross:
“For Calvary interprets human life;
No path of pain but there we meet our Lord;
And all the strain, the terror and the strife
Die down like waves before His peaceful word.
And nowhere but beside the awful Cross,
And where the olives grow along the hill,
Can we accept the unexplained, the loss,
The crushing agony, and hold us still.22
Our Lord’s final prayer came from a heart of tender love, not bitterness and anger at the seeming defeat and failure of His work on earth: “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.” “It is finished.”And crucifixion reminds us that seeming failure was followed by resurrection. And we look back at those three days not from the perspective of Easter, not Good Friday.
“God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain.”23
There’s a beautiful old hymn we no longer sing that best summarizes the prayer of Samuel in this chapter:
“Father, hear the prayer we offer;
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength, that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.
Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be:
But by steep and rugged pathways
Would we strive to climb to Thee.
Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly quiet stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide;
Through endeavor, failure, danger,
Father, be Thou at our side.”24
SAMUEL, WHO CALLED ON GOD’S NAME
(5) The Transparency Of Answered Prayer
Prayer By The Brokenhearted For The Hardhearted
I Samuel 12
Do you know what are the four must disruptive words in the English language? Four words that ruin a relationship, end a marriage, finish a friendship. Do you know what those four dangerous words are?
“I told you so.” Have you ever told your spouse after a bad investment, a poor choice of a job, a decision that never should have been made: “I told you so.” It could be the beginning of the end.
Or as a parent. Your growing child makes a choice. Growing in independence that son or daughter chooses a college, a partner, a job and you warn him or her about the implications of that choice. But stubbornly he or she persists. And later they come back and say: “I made a mistake.” And the worst thing you can say to them is: “I told you so.”
That’s the situation in I Samuel 12. As we saw last week, Samuel has warned them about what will happen if they get a king. And suddenly they realize that they have made a terrible mistake. They come to him saying (verse 19) “… we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.” But in stead of saying: “I told you so. You’d come to your senses sooner or later.” Samuel says that he will continue to pray for them. He will not write them off, nor will their God. Verse 22 is emphatic: “For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you His own.” And then he makes a commitment to them, a solemn pledge. He tells them “I will continue to do what I have always done. I will not give up praying for you because you made a mistake. Indeed, I will redouble my efforts because you will need prayer more than ever before.”
Do you sometimes find it easier to write someone off than to pray for them? Have you given up praying for a son or a daughter who has turned their back on faith? Have you said – if not to them, to yourself – “I told him so. I told her that’s what would happen” and then felt you no longer had any responsibility, especially not the obligation to pray.
If you have ever felt that prayer was useless, then listen to the pledge Samuel made instead of wiping his hands of them and saying “I told them so.” Hear a broken hearted man commit himself to a hard-hearted people stubborn in their own obstinacy:
“As for me far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”
I The sin of prayerlessness
The Hebrew original is even stronger than we have in our English translations: “As for me, let death be my lot if I sin against Yahweh by ceasing to pray on your behalf.” I would rather be dead than be convicted of failing to pray for you.
Samuel’s words remind me of the English Congregationalist minister and author, P. T. Forsyth, who in a little jewel of a book titled The Soul of Prayer, stated emphatically that “The worst sin of all is the sin of prayerlessness.” Or reflect on these words of E. M. Bounds: “Nonpraying is lawlessness, discord, anarchy. Prayer, in the moral government of God, is as strong and far-reaching as the law of gravitation in the material world, and it is as necessary as gravitation to hold things in their proper sphere and in life.”25
Why is it that we find so much difficulty in praying? Why is praying a struggle, a battle. Why do we have to force ourselves to find enough time to intercede with God? Why is that every minute we spend in prayer seems to be an effort? Listen to what one expert says is the reason:
“We live in a culture that discourages prayer. We are a mechanized, secularized society. We are surrounded by appliances that satisfy our every culinary need, home entertainment devices that stimulate our sense both good and bad, transportation possibilities that take the sting out of travel, and working tools that make labor a misnomer. This ease of satisfying want and whim is what makes prayer so difficult. Prayer, the essence of which is obedience and submission, runs counter to a culture where we are beholden to very few. Further, some cultures have revolved around the church and the monastery. Ours doesn’t. We live in a secular culture where man, not God, is the measure of all things.”26
Obedience. That’s the only way to avoid prayerlessness. I pray not because I feel like it, not because I am in the mood, not because I have a need, but because God has issued me a summons to appear before Him. He – the Maker of the universes, the God of the ages – wants me to speak to Him. With Calvin we say that
“God’s command and promise is our solve motive for prayer. Nothing could be commanded more precisely than what is stated in the Psalm, ‘Call upon me in the day of tribulation’ (Psalm 50:15) Those who try to wriggle out of coming directly to God are not only rebellious and stubborn, but are also convicted of unbelief because they distrust the promises.”27
Seeing the dozing disciples in the Garden Jesus asked Peter: “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?”28 And then after another hour he returned and, we are told, “he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.” And yet a third time he returned and asked: “Are you still sleeping and resting?” But by then the hour had come and there was no one to stand with Him in prayer as He made His way towards a cross.
Jesus would have appreciated disciples like Samuel who preferred death to the sin of prayerlessness.
II A continuing obligation to pray
But it was more than just an obligation, it was a continuing obligation – “…far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by continuing to pray for you.”
Let’s remember the context. Israel is told of its waywardness and its sinfulness over its history since it deliverance from Egypt. They forgot the Lord and God sent them a deliverer. And now finally God has granted their plea, misguided as it is, to provide them a king. But you did an evil thing, Samuel tells them, and you need to be reminded that God is still God. So he gets down on his knees, prays, and thunder and rain come down in a month (September) that is always dry in Israel. And then they learn that God is God. “So all the people stood in awe of the Lord and of Samuel.”
Now they are scared. “We want you to pray for us again, Samuel, this time for mercy. We’ve sinned. We need forgiveness. Pray that God will heal us, pray for pardon for our pigheaded ways. We don’t need to hear you say: ‘I told you so.’ We’re scared. And your prayers are powerful.” Do you pray for the sinner, asking God in His mercy to forgive in stead of being judgmental and harsh. When you see someone has lost the way, do you pray for them, as Samuel did for Israel. Samuel did. And the Lord heard. “The Lord will not reject His people,” he reassures them.
Then he assures them that his prayers will not stop now. They have been with Israel for a life-time, they will continue. Indeed, in old age, Samuel will have more opportunity to walk with the Lord and to remember God. A life time of prayer grows to a mighty crescendo of intercession at the end of his life. Perhaps there is some retired person her this morning, someone who has great leisure, who can make their life’s work in the remaining years a prayer ministry.
III An obligation to pray on behalf of others
What kind of prayers will Samuel make? They will be on behalf of other people. He will take their needs, their wants, their concerns, yes even their prayers, and bring them before God and say: “Lord, this person needs prayer. Lord, this individual has a great burden.” How many of you use our congregational Prayerguide? How many of you are involved actively in the ministry of intercession? One old saint said that “Whenever I go to God on behalf of someone else, I always get a blessing for myself.”
Samuel prayed for Israel to the end of his life. Indeed, as Saul was battling against the Philistines and the Lord no longer heard him, he called up a medium, the witch of
Endor, and brought dead Samuel back and said: “God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”29 Prayers that went beyond the grave. When Samuel died, the thing women and men missed most about him was his prayers. Will that be said of us?
How easy it is to say “I’m praying for you” and then not to pray at all for that individual. It takes integrity to commit ourselves to pray and then really pray. As Samuel did. I was reminded of that when I called a friend of mine in England in the days when trans-Atlantic phone calls were by cable, not satellite, and were very unusual and expensive. “Are you praying for me?” I asked without much thought. There was a long silence on the line – a costly one – and then he changed the subject. Several weeks later I got a letter I have never forgotten. “I had not been praying for you when you asked me, but now I have prayed regularly on your behalf and will continue to do so.”
That incident challenged me as Samuel’s words should challenge each of us today:
“As for me far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”
1. The pseudonym for the Rev. Charles Gordon, for 35 years minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg and a best selling author at the beginning of the century.
2. The Man From Glengarry; Toronto (McClelland and Stewart), 1928 Ed.; page 89.
3.Postscript To Adventure; Toronto (McClelland and Stewart), 1975 Ed.; page 11.
5. I’ve chosen this among the three possibilities of what Samuel could mean. Another is that it means “calling on God” or (NIV margin) “heard of God.”
8. Psalm 37:7.
11. “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, verse 4 by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872.
12. David Michell in A Boy’s War; Singapore (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), 1988; pages 121-2.
13. Quoted in The Minister’s Prayer Book, page 286 as found in Forbes Robinson’s Letters to His Friends, pages 96-97.
14. Quoted in The Minister’s Prayer Book, pages 298-9 as found in Arthur John Gossip’s Experience Worketh Hope (New York, Scribner’s, 1945), page 59.
15. George Murray of the ‘U.P.’, page 65.
16. Ibid, pages 65 and 66.
17. The last two lines of the hymn “How good is the God we adore” by Joseph Hart (1712 – 1768).
18. Quoted in The Minister’s Prayer Book, page 387 as found in Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, (trans. Pamela Morris), page 28-9.
19. “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, verse 2, by Robert Robinson, 1758.
20. “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” by Joseph Scriven.
23. Fourth verse of “God Moves In A Mysterious Way” by William Cowper, 1774.
25. The Reality of Prayer; New Ed.; Grand Rapids, MI (Baker Book House), 1991; page 14.
26. Jacques Ellul in Prayer and Modern Man; New York (Seabury Press), 1970; page 21f.
27. Institutes, 866.
29. I Samuel 28:15.