Samuel the Judge
Recently I went into a shop to buy some drinks and the woman who served me came from another country; I could tell by her accent. She had trouble reaching over the counter and apologised to me that she had short hands so she couldn’t reach. A person who had learnt to speak English as a child would have apologised for having short arms rather than short hands. However, she was still thinking in her original language and it was correct for her to use the word “hands” in that context. We often make some mistakes when we read the Bible by putting an English sense onto words that were written by Greek or Hebrew speakers. Some critics even find “mistakes” in the Bible by doing this. For example: do we know exactly what the expression “three days and three nights” actually meant to the original hearers?
- One word that we can have trouble with is the word “Judge”. We are considering Samuel the Judge today but what did that mean? In our system a judge is someone who sits in control of a court and makes decisions about evidence and gives instructions to the jurors. In some countries, where they don’t have jurors, there is a panel of judges and they decide the case after they have listened to the evidence and examined the witnesses. Our system is based on the doctrine of separation of powers. The judges are don’t make the laws although they can interpret the laws that have been made by the parliament.
- We should really call Samuel the “Ruler” rather than the “Judge” if we want to get the sense of his role in Israel. In that time the people knew the law but they didn’t think that they were ruled by the law, they believed that they were ruled by a man, or a woman (for example, Deborah). The judge would also decide in disputes between people and had executive powers as well, in that he had to make sure that decisions he made were carried out.
- However, Israel’s situation was further complicated by the fact that they were designed to be a constitutional monarchy ( see Deut 17: 14-20). The Ten Commandments were their basic constitution while the rest of the Law gave a practical application of the way the Law should be interpreted in daily life. The Lord promised Israel that He would choose their king when the time came. Until that time Israel was ruled, from time to time, by “Judges”. Each of these Judges was expected to remain under the rule of the constitution at all times. The king’s first task as ruler was write out, in his own hand, a copy of the book of the Law, most probably the book of Deuteronomy so that he would have a proper insight into the constitution that governed his monarchy and restricted his powers under God. Not only did he have to write out his own copy, he was expected to read it every day of his life so that he was constantly reminded of his duties to God and the people.
- We know that Israel’s Ruler even though he was not God’s chosen king was expected to keep the law because God told Joshua that the book of the Law was to be constantly in his thoughts so that he could obey the Law all the days of his life. Not only that, the Lord told Joshua that he would prosper if he kept the Law. Joshua kept the Law all the days of his life and he demanded that those who worked with him do the same thing because Israel didn’t fall away into sin until Joshua and all the elders that outlived him (Josh 2: 7).
- There is no evidence that any of Israel’s or Judah’s kings actually did this and we know that Josiah was absolutely horrified that they had not kept the words of the book when a copy of the book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the Temple, while it was being restored, and read to him (2 Chron 34: 19-21).
- When Samuel was a child, he lived in a time when the people had completely lost contact with the Lord (compare 1 Sam 3: 1) and he was probably the first person to actually hear a message from the Lord in many years.
- Samuel was still quite young when Eli, the priest died so he became the Judge at a young age and he remained Israel’s ruler until he was very old. In fact, he acted as mentor to king Saul for the first few years of his reign and he anointed God’s chosen king, David.
- As Judge his took his responsibilities seriously and travelled around Israel each year so that the could deal with the problems that occurred on a regular basis. Ramah was in the north of the country, north west of the Sea of Galilee. Gilgal as in the middle of the country in the hill country of Ephraim.It is hard to identify Mizeh but it was probably in the south because Samuel travelled in circuit and this would give the people of each region a local place where they could contact the Judge. Ramah is probably close to modern day Jerusalem. Samuel built and altar to the Lord for that was a very important part of Israel’s ceremonial worship, the Ark of the Covenant was kept there as well. This was required for sacrifices and they were commanded to offer sacrifices on a daily basis, even though the Temple had not yet been built.
- Samuel didn’t learn the lesson from Eli’s failing and he made his sons into Judges. Eli’s problem was with his sons and their sins. It is sad that children who are brought up with familiarity with the things of God but not taught to have deep respect for His holiness with treat sacred things with disdain. Samuel’s sons didn’t have the respect for the Lord that Samuel did and they didn’t follow the constitution with the devotion that Samuel did.
- One of the secrets to Samuel’s devotion to the Lord was the fact that he had an encounter with the Lord when he was young and an awe of the Lord’s holiness and majesty remained with him all the days of his life. Samuel’s sons didn’t have this experience and they didn’t have the same awe that their father had.
The first question we can ask at this stage is: why should we care about Samuel and the fact that he was a judge of Israel anyway. Will that make any difference to our lives or to our Christian experience? If Samuel didn’t learn from Eli’s mistakes then will we be able to learn anything from Samuel’s mistakes? The issue of good leaders having bad sons seems to crop up from time to time in the Bible but that really isn’t the important issue for us to consider.
The Lord Jesus said that He didn’t come to the earth to destroy the law or the prophets but He came to fulfil them (Matt 5: 17). If the Lord said that then there must be some important issues for us in the Law. But, you may say, we are under Grace and not under Law so we don’t have to worry about things like the fact that Israel was designed to be a constitutional monarchy.
To add to that fact the Lord said that anyone who wanted to follow Him would have to deny themselves and take up their cross daily (Luke 19: 23). This is part of the reason that the Lord Jesus fulfil the law and the prophets. If we look at the first three clauses in the Israeli Constitution we see that they are essentially the same as the words of the Lord Christ. They were expected to understand that God was massively superior to them and they were expected to obey Him wholeheartedly in complete humility.
Israel sinned because they wanted to be like the nations that were around about them; they wanted to have gods that they could manipulate and so get their own way but the Lord demanded that they submit to Him. Even though Samuel was a godly man, his sons were more interested in self indulgence than in submission to the Holy God because they didn’t know Him as the Holy God.
We are taught to believe that our culture is indistinguishable from our Christianity today and it is very easy to go astray because our culture is firmly based on the doctrine of self indulgence. We believe that it is important for leaders to set goals and have dominant minds when God calls upon our leaders to have servant hearts.