A perilous beginning
No president in American history inherited as perilous a situation as Abraham Lincoln.
In response to his election to the presidency, and his opposition to expanding slavery to new territories, six states had secceded from the union prior to Lincoln taking the oath of office. Once he became president in March of1861, it took less than six weeks for the Battle of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War.
When we read about Israel and the Promised Land in the Bible, I think we have a tendency to imagine Israel as one unified state.
But Israel was composed of 12 tribes who had their own territories within the Promised Land.
Kind of like a United States of Israel.
The tribes did not always get along with each other. For instance, the territory of Benjamin fought a civil war of their own at the end of the Book of Judges. In that war, the rest of Israel went to war with Benjamin. Thousands of Israelites died.
Later in Israel’s history, that same Benjaminite territory would be the birthplace of King Saul.
We’ll have more on that later.
Similar to America, there were also divisions in Israel among the northern and southern tribes. Saul was the first king, followed by David, followed by Solomon. By the end of Solomon’s reign, Israel was a divided kingdom between the north and south and never reunited.
But in First Samuel, the even bigger threat to the flourishing of Israel were the surrounding nations. The most prominent foe of the Israelites were the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites had lost to them in battle and the Philistines actually confiscated the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle.
Eventually the Ark was given back but the Israelites but the Philistines remained hated enemies. One of the reasons why the Israelites had wanted a king was to have someone to lead them to victory over the Philistines.
Now at the end of chapter 10, Saul became king of Israel. And it was a fairly underwhelming begin to his reign. We don’t see any royal action or speech.
Chapter 10 ends.
Going to battle
And then Chapter 11 abruptly changes to a new scene.
Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you” (1 Samuel 11:1).
So instead of the Philistines, the Israelites come under threat from another surrounding nation. The Ammonites. It’s another reminder of how weak Israel was at the beginning of Saul’s reign. They have foes on multiple borders.
And so in this passage, we see Saul’s first test as king of Israel. And it’s also the high point of his reign. But it’s not primarily a passage about Saul or a battle. It’s a passage about God’s faithfulness.
Israel under threat
Let’s look at verse 1 again:
Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.”
The name Nahash in Hebrew actually means serpent. It’s the same word that’s used in Genesis for the serpent in Eden.
And he’s an Ammonite.
The Ammonites were cousins to the Israelites. Their genealogy is traced back to Abraham’s nephew Lot having an incestuous relationship with his daughter.
36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day.
And the Ammonites lay siege on a city called Jabesh-Gilead which was in eastern Israel.
And the citizens beg for mercy when they say: “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.”
In exchange for their lives to be spared, they’d rather make a treaty which would effectively make them vassals to the Ammonites.
Now, on the one hand, their response is understandable. If you were facing overwhelming might, wouldn’t you be tempted to do whatever you could do to preserve life and limb? To protect your family? To keep your home?
I think most people want to take the path of least resistance and avoid pain for themselves and their families.
It’s a very challenging situation.
But the problem is that the Israelites are overlooking their covenant with God. They are a chosen people who are set apart. It is the Lord who has given them this Promised Land. They have a covenant with God. And it is the Lord who is meant to be the protector of Israel.
Israel doesn’t need to cut a deal. What they need to do is to trust the Lord.
To look at a couple of Old Testament passages where this idea is expressed.
Exodus 23:22 says:
if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
We also see this in Deuteronomy 20:1-4:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. 2 And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people 3 and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, 4 for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory
Where are the places in our lives where we forget about God’s promises?
I’ll start with the most significant. I think for a lot of Christians, we forget that we’re forgiven because of the gospel.
Sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we have an area where we’re really struggling and feel like we’re constantly going two steps forward, and one step back. And we sin, and there can be this shame. And if it’s something really bad, we can feel so down about ourselves.
Sometimes when we sin, we can try to atone for our own sin or resort to works or other actions we’re doing to try to make ourselves feel like we’re right with God.
You can’t do it.
Yes we should repent and turn from our sins.
But we can’t atone for our sins. We can’t do something good to cancel out our sin.
But the good news is the gospel.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
We don’t have to wallow in shame and despair. We don’t have to go through life feeling like God doesn’t love us every time we don’t get it right.
I think we can forget that sometimes. We are not our own saviors. Jesus is and he did it perfectly.
And the promise we so often forget is that God is gracious. Not only is God gracious but the only way to be forgiven by God is through his grace.
We aren’t given two options. It’s not that we can try to earn God or we can take the option of grace. The first option is not an option because we can’t earn God because we can’t be good enough if we try.
Again, I’m not saying our sin doesn’t matter. We should be working to kill sin in our lives. But it’s not so that God can love you. But so you can live a life to God’s glory, so you can serve him and love him more fully, so you can experience joy without being encumbered by sin, and so that you can live a more fulfilled life in living in accordance with the wisdom of God.
The people in Jabesh-Gilead either forgot or didn’t fully trust God’s faithfulness to them as his people. And I think we can also be guilty of that sometimes.
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