Kings and prophets
Much has been written on the subject of leadership in the last few decennia. Our language has been filled with associated jargon; words such as vision, strategy, structures, roles, and long-range planning have become normal for us, even in the context of church planting. We borrow models and concepts, because we deem them helpful. Since leadership is part of God’s created order, the thinking seems to go, good thinking about leadership will apply across the board.
One can wonder about this assumption. To what extent is the leadership-thinking of the last few decades consistent with a Biblically-inspired worldview? Whatever the answer to that question may be – the intention of this paper is to introduce an idea one will not quickly find in secular leadership-thinking. This paper is about the divine intention for leadership (‘kingship’) to have a partnership with a prophet. My thesis is that the leadership of God’s people lies both with leaders and with prophets. In the old testament there is a common association of kings and prophets: Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha – these are but a few names of the well known prophets who delivered the word of the Lord to the Kings of Israel. In the New Testament we see the leadership of the church again lies with leaders – apostles, church-leaders – and with prophets. My thesis is furthermore that where we narrow our view of leadership by excluding the role of prophets in the church, the church is impoverished as a result. God is a speaking God, and his desire is to speak to his people. Leadership, whether it is kingship, pastoring, or apostleship, without the aid of a prophet, functions in a vacuum.
This association between kings and prophets can be clearly seen throughout scripture. The need for a counter-partner for a king in the form of a prophet, can perhaps be best observed in the story of Samuel, and his uneasy relationship with Israel’s first king, Saul. My intention is to support my thesis and draw out a number of related principles out of this story.
THE WORD OF THE LORD
The story of Samuel begins with his calling. After two opening chapters, which set the stage for the story that is about to take place, we come to the well-known story of the calling of young Samuel in the middle of the night. The story starts with an amazing statement: “in those days the word of the Lord was rare, there were not many visions (I Samuel 3:1).’ With these two simple lines the author paints a picture of an Israel that has lost contact with its God.
Then the Lord calls Samuel. At this point Samuel is a young boy, left alone in that big temple. The author makes especially clear where Samuel sleeps at night. There is no reference to where Eli’s sons sleep, except for an earlier reference to them ‘sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the temple’ (2:23). There is a reference to where Eli sleeps, ‘in his usual place’ (3:2). But Samuel ‘was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was’ (3:3). “Then,” writes the author, “the Lord called Samuel (3:4).”
The story is of course familiar – particularly to those who attended Sunday school classes when they were younger. But it ends with a statement equally amazing to the one it started with – and no doubt the author meant for the reader to understand the connection: after his initial statement ‘In those days the word of the Lord was rare’ he now adds ‘And all of Israel from Dan to Berhsheeba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word (3:20).’
The implication is obvious. God acts to lift the vacuum that exists. He is not happy with the situation. There needs to be a place where the people of God can go to ‘enquire of the Lord.’
There is a little phrase at end of the passage that offers some insight into the way Samuel functioned in his prophetic office: “the Lord was with Samuel, and he let none of his words fall to the ground.” The statement about God honoring Samuel’s words must have something to do with the extent to which Samuel honors the word of the Lord that comes to him. Samuel honors that word, and treats it with respect. He is careful to relay all the words the Lord has spoken to him to Eli, even the words of judgment. We read a similar thing in v. 8:10: “Samuel told ALL the words of the Lord to the people.”
IN SEARCH OF A KING
The role of the prophet in the search for a king is pivotal. The people of Israel, wanting to look more like the nations around them, approach Samuel and ask for a king (8:5). At this point Samuel is the judge of Israel (7:15). “It is not you they reject, Samuel,” says the Lord. “It is me they reject as their King. Give them what they want” (15:7-10). Samuel relays all the words of the Lord.
The people are determined in their desire for a king. Samuel sends the people home, and a little while later God leads the man to Samuel He has selected for the role. He reveals his choice to Samuel: “about this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him as leader… I have looked upon my people, for their cry has reached me (9:16).“‘The next day Samuel meets Saul, and anoints him.
THE FIRST OF ISRAEL’S KINGS
As far as leadership stories in scripture go, Saul’s story is one of the saddest the Bible has to offer. It’s the story of a man who shows much promise early on, but who finishes his life and role in the worst way possible. In the beginning the Holy Spirit comes on him, and he removes all witches and diviners from the country. At the end he is tormented by an evil spirit, and consults a witch. In this context it is interesting to note what it is it that Samuel says to him as he announces the end of Kingship: for rebellion is like the sin of divination…” (15:23).
Interesting also to see how well Samuel ends his reign over Israel in the same passage. “If I have wronged you in any way,” he says, “step forward and I will make it right.” But no one does. “You have not wronged anyone,” say the people. The passage is clear: Samuel has been a faultless leader over Israel. It is almost as if the author puts the passage of Samuel’s confirmation of Saul as king, and Samuel’s farewell-speech so close together to attract special attention to it. As well as Samuel ends his ministry to Israel, so poor is the end of Saul’s reign. The contrast between the two is stark, and enhanced by proximity.
The difference between Samuel and Saul is further illustrated by their different responses when a different leader is selected in their place. When Saul is selected to replace Samuel as leader over Israel, Samuel’s response is ‘as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you! (12:24).’ When Samuel tells Saul the Lord will replace him with another, Saul’s response is ‘come and honor me by coming in with me so the people will see us together.’
THE DEMISE OF A KING
Every leader would be a David – a man after God’s own heart – but too many turn out to be like Saul. Where does Saul go wrong?
When Samuel first anoints Saul as King, Saul is not very impressed with himself. “Am I not a Benjaminite from the smallest tribe, and do I not come from the smallest clan? (9:20)” When the day comes for Saul to be inaugurated, the people find him after the Lord has told them ‘he is hiding among the luggage. (10:20)’ But the Lord confirms the calling miraculously in a number of ways, and soon all of Israel recognizes Saul as King.
Saul’s first error is that he offers the burnt offering (13:10), whereas Samuel had told him a few chapters before to wait: “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. But you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do (10:8).” But on the 7th day Saul sees the people are starting to scatter and Samuel has still not arrived. So he offers the burnt offerings.
Samuel arrives just as Saul finishes. “What have you done?” asks Samuel. Saul’s answer sounds spiritual and mature – but Samuel sees right through it, and announces that as a result of Saul’s impatience, the throne will be given to one outside his family line.
Saul’s error is twofold, and is illustrative for our discussion. First,
Saul disregards the clear instruction that the Lord has given him through the
prophet. Had a prophet not been present, how would instructions about the war
have come? What if the word of the Lord had still been rare? The prophet is an
essential part of the people of God, and the King needs him.
Saul’s second error, and the one that will cost him the Kingship, is another occasion of blatant disobedience of the word of the Lord as it has come through the prophet. Again, from a human or 20th century perspective, Saul makes a good decision. Samuel has instructed him to attack the Amalekites and to completely destroy them. God’s hatred of the Amalekites after their evil attack on his people while they were traversing through the desert is explained by Samuel to Saul as part of the operating instructions.
But Saul refuses. Why kill the good, the strong, the beautiful? ‘But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and the cattle and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that despised and weak they completely destroyed (15:9).’
If a prophet had not been present, Saul might well have gotten away with it. But the word of the Lord comes to Samuel: ‘I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and not carried out my instructions (15:10).’ The reason why God is grieved is important: Saul has not carried out God’s instructions. How would those instructions have come without the presence of a prophet? The presence of the prophet is what helps the King know the Lord’s instructions.
In the morning Samuel goes to find Saul. He learns that Saul has left the battlefield and has erected a monument for himself at Carmel. When he finds him, Saul’s first words are: ‘the Lord bless you: I have carried out the Lord’s instructions (12:13).’ This is where the difference between an advisor or counselor on the one side, and a prophet on the other side, becomes most clear. Without special revelation of God, Saul’s lie would have sounded great: excellent – Saul has carried out the Lord’s instructions…! But the person opposite Saul is no mere friend or advisor. He is a prophet, and God has revealed to the prophet what has really happened.
Fascinating also, how Saul’s lie centers exactly around the issue that most troubles the Lord: “he has not carried out my instructions” meets “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”
Samuel’s response shows he understands the lie. ‘What then is this bleeting of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle U hear (15:14)?’ No doubt the bleeting and lowing is not just a reference to the presence of the conquered cattle, but also to Saul’s feeble lie.
Saul immediately starts to blame everyone except himself: “the soldiers brought them… they spared the best… but WE totally destroyed the rest (15:16)!”
“Stop!” Samuel says to Saul. “let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”
Then Samuel proceeds to remind Saul of his humble origins. ‘You were once small in your own eyes.’ The message is straight forward. Don’t you remember how you got here? Who made you king? Don’t you understand where your loyalty should lie?
Saul changes his story: ‘but I brought the best of the cattle here, to sacrifice them to God (15:21).’ And that is when Samuel explains that obedience is better than sacrifice. God prefers simple listening to anything that we can give. “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as King (15:23).”
ABOUT THE PROPHET
What can we learn from Samuel? In what ways is Samuel an example to us of a good prophet? What does Samuel model for us?
THE ALLIANCE BETWEEN KINGS AND PROPHETS
My thesis is that all kings need to form an alliance with a prophet. God wants to speak and give direction to his people. Scripture demonstrates that such an alliance is never easy. The story of Samuel and Saul is a clear example of this, but also in many other places in scripture the alliance between leaders and prophets is uneasy. Even in the New Testament Paul has to navigate his relationship with prophets. In Acts 20 we read how Paul writes that in every city the Holy Spirit forewarns him of what will happen to him if he returns to Jerusalem. In Acts 21 a prophet named Agabus takes Paul’s belt and ties himself up with it as a sign of what will happen. There is skill involved in navigating the relationship with a prophet. Yet, if navigated successfully, such a relationship can have profound benefit for both the people and the leader. Those benefits include the following.
At the start of the 21st century we live in a time in which ‘the word of the Lord’ is rare. This creates a vacuum for leadership. It is not the situation God desires. Leadership should function in coalition with prophets. The story of Samuel gives us helpful insight into the benefits the presence of such a prophet brings to us, the type of person he or she should be, and how leaders should relate to them. Could it be that God wants to raise up prophets who can deliver to us the word of the Lord, help us know how to fight our battles, and who can keep us accountable and on track?