Recharge: Bible Study
…And Samuel returned to Ramah
Recharge is a Bible study just for you, to nurture your own relationship with God. So stop, sit, breathe and read. This month, Mark Griffiths explores Jesus and some of his disciples.
At the end of Hebrews, there is a list of people that the writer says he doesn’t have time to talk about. It is an extraordinary list of individuals and, despite the writer’s reluctance, I want to write about one of them to explore something of what it’s like to be a follower of God.
So let’s spend a little time with Samuel, my favourite Bible character. Diving straight into his story, allow me to introduce Samuel the king-maker! In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel arrives at Jesse’s house in Bethlehem and commands him to bring his sons out. The sons pass by; Eliab comes out and Samuel is sure the Lord’s anointed stands there. But the Lord speaks and says those familiar words, ‘People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ Further sons appear and are examined, but God says ‘No’. Don’t miss that. The quote about outward appearance is helpful, but learning can be found in the intimacy of the relationship between God and Samuel. Samuel has conversations with God as if he were talking to a friend. So attuned is Samuel that he can hear the very whispers of God.
More brothers are brought out: ‘No, no and no.’ So Samuel makes the necessary enquiry: is there another son? Samuel asks the question because God has said that he must anoint one of Jessie’s sons and, since he hasn’t seen the right one yet, there has to be another. David is fetched and Samuel anoints him. He pours oil on him and the Spirit of the Lord comes up on David. And at the end of the chapter, ‘Samuel returns to Ramah.’
SAMUEL… THE KING-MAKER
This is not the first king Samuel has anointed. Israel had cried out for a king. The nation never had one before and Samuel (begrudgingly) agreed to find them one. So we turn to 1 Samuel 8. Kish, a Benjamite, has a son named Saul, who has lost his donkeys. As dusk approaches, Saul and his search party think about returning home, but they hear about a prophet in the nearby town who might be able to help them find the donkeys. It’s Samuel. The day before, the Lord had spoken to Samuel and told him that a man from Benjamin would come. ‘Anoint him to be king.’ When Saul arrives, Samuel knows he’s the one.
He anoints Saul with oil. Read 1 Samuel 10:2–8 to discover Samuel’s instructions to Saul. Samuel’s words deal with a level of detail that can only have come from God. And it all happens exactly as Samuel says. Eventually, Saul becomes king and Samuel returns to Ramah.
But let’s look at Samuel a little more closely. What’s he like? In Chapter 16, that happy chapter in which David is anointed, the elders of the town trembled with fear at the sight of Samuel and asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’ In 1 Samuel 7, the Philistines invade. Samuel comes to Mizpah and offers sacrifices and prayers. And then he lifts his hands to Heaven and God answers in thunder, throwing the Philistines into such panic that they run away. And then he returns to Ramah.
Later, Samuel makes his farewell speech. At the end of the speech he asks the Israelites to once again commit themselves to the Lord. They do and, as a sign, Samuel announces, ‘I will call on the Lord to send thunder and rain’ (1 Samuel 12:17). Here is a picture of this almost-Gandalf-like character silhouetted by the storm. He hears what God is whispering, and he is the most powerful man in Israel. But Samuel’s character is probably revealed most clearly not when he’s making kings, but when he’s breaking them.
SAMUEL… THE KING-BREAKER
The Philistines are assembling at Mikmash and Samuel is coming. He will pray and make a sacrifice and bless Israel before they advance. But he’s late. Saul panics and decides that he can do it himself. He makes the sacrifice himself, believing that he can do it in his own strength. And then Samuel arrives… He is not happy: ‘You have done a foolish thing. You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command’ (1 Samuel 13:13–14).
And Samuel returns to Ramah. In chapter 15, Saul is sent to fight the Amalekites. The instructions are simple: kill them all, even their livestock. But Saul is full of pride; he wants to do it his way. So he keeps the healthy livestock and takes King Agag captive , rather than killing him. Samuel arrives and asks: ‘What is that sound of bleating? Why have you been so arrogant as to disobey the Lord? You have rejected God’s words, so you are rejected as king.’ Samuel begins to walk away, so Saul grabs Samuel’s robe and it tears. Samuel declares, ‘In the same way, God will rip this kingdom from you, Saul.’
‘But I brought the livestock to sacrifice to God.’
‘Do you think God prefers sacrifice over obedience?’ Just do what you are told, Saul! Samuel catches sight of Agag. He tells one of the soldiers to give him a sword, and then he announces, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.’ Samuel kills Agag. Very few denominations would license Samuel!
And then he returns to Ramah.
On a particular leadership course I attended, Samuel was presented as one of the examples of a servant leader. I disagreed passionately. Not to the concept of leaders who serve; I just didn’t believe Samuel was a good example. You see, Samuel didn’t serve anyone other than the Lord his God. And he served him passionately and zealously all his life. But he was often brutal in his passion to see God’s will done.
SAMUEL… THE MAN
The Bible offers us a few insights into Samuel’s character. The people asked for a king because they didn’t want Samuel’s sons succeeding him. Why not? Because both were godless and out of control. But what chance did he have as a father? Samuel had been raised by Eli the priest. Eli’s sons were put to death by God because, instead of behaving like priests, they stole the meat that was to be sacrificed and slept with the women of the sanctuary. Samuel never saw a model of how to parent.
Samuel was powerful beyond understanding, he was the king-maker and king-breaker, he heard the very whispers of God, but he was brittle, devoid of mercy, without grace and endued with a fanatical desire to serve God and see God’s will done. Again and again, we read, ‘And he returned to Ramah.’ This phrase appears 13 times in 1 Samuel.
I wonder if Samuel would have given the whole thing up to hug his mother and play with his brothers and sisters
David spent much time in the king’s palace, but Saul’s jealousy is too much and he tries to kill David. David flees to Samuel who is at Ramah. Samuel dies and all Israel gathereds to bury him; Samuel, who judged Israel so well, God’s voice to Israel, has died and the whole nation has gathered… in Ramah.
Perhaps we should go back to the start. There was a man named Elkanah who lived in Ramah. He was married to a woman named Hannah. She couldn’t have children so, on their annual visit to Shiloh, she would pray. She promised that, if God granted her a son, she would give him back to God. Samuel was born and when he was weaned (in Jewish culture that’s about three years old), she took him to Eli the priest. And God blessed Hannah with other children.
Samuel was taken from his mum when he was three. He grew up with Eli, who has no parenting skills, in a cold, uncomfortable temple. The Bible describes Samuel as ‘the child in the Ephod’. We sigh and think it cute, but it’s horrific. He was surrounded by others making blood sacrifices and was soon making blood sacrifices himself. He should have been out playing with his siblings, but he was the child priest.
Every year his mother came from Ramah with a new garment, which he grew into over the year. God is always putting new things on us that we must grow into. It’s part of the journey. And the Lord spoke. ‘Samuel!’ Samuel heard, and even in this piece of narrative there is a further indictment on Eli, but Samuel began a conversation with God as a child that continued for all of his life. He became one of the most powerful men in Jewish history. But without his mother, without her love, he grew up brittle, devoid of compassion and his eyes burned with the fire of the zealot. He served God with ferocity. Samuel’s not quite like the cute Sunday School lesson now, is he? So strong, so powerful. But I wonder if he would have given the whole thing up to hug his mother and play with his brothers and sisters, as soon as he was able to, he moved back to Ramah. His parents would have been dead by then. But he would have been close to what could have been. Ramah represents extraordinary sacrifice for Samuel. And not one he really had a choice in. He walked with God in a way that few people ever will, but it cost him. Samuel is flawed, broken, fragile and brittle. And very very human. Just like us. God looks at the heart and often finds flawed, broken, fragile humanity. He says, ‘I can use that.’ And the cost is often great. But God continues to look for broken, fragile, people who will submit to his will, even through the sacrifice.