For the last few months, I’ve been catching up weekly with my friend Alex. We meet to pray and read the Bible together, and, like a plague of two Egyptian locusts, to raid the contents of my fridge or the local takeaway (depending where we meet) for something resembling lunch.
Those times have been a great blessing as we’ve worked our way through 1 Samuel. Although there are some really super duper commentaries around, and although Alex assures me he has a passable grasp of Hebrew, we are just plodding our way through English translations and seeing how God decides to bless us (Alex through his NIV, me using my ESV translation, but usually not the one with the handy-dandy cross-reference column down the middle of each page).
The other day, we came across what we both agreed was a frightening verse in whatever translation you read it in. In verse 23 of 1 Samuel 12, the prophet Samuel says to Israel, “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way”. For those who know the context of 1 Samuel, this is an astonishing thing. Samuel has been dealing with a group of recalcitrant Israelites who have deliberately rebelled against God’s rule by seeking their own king. Their desire, clearly exposed through Samuel’s scorching response, is to reject God as ruler and become just like the other nations around.
So Samuel answered their request with a direct ‘no’, and then faced a political backdown of the most humiliating sort. God, despite endorsing Samuel’s diagnosis of the problem, told him to proceed with the appointment of a king
—even though, yes, Israel had done completely the wrong thing in asking. A lesser prophet might have done the king-anointing deed and then scurried off into early retirement in the hill country of Ephraim.
But here in this verse, Samuel has instead made two commitments: one is to keep doing his job (“I will instruct you in the good and right way”)—keep teaching Israel the word of God, despite their stubborn and disobedient hearts.
Second, and far harder than the first, Samuel says he will keep praying for them! This is hard because praying is essentially an unseen task. Perhaps a leader with a thick enough skin would be able to bounce back from public humiliation, and could continue to get out in front of the people, hectoring them over their sinfulness and telling them what they should now be doing. But in private, it takes an extraordinary amount of grace to pray for those who have hurt, rejected and humiliated you for no good reason other than their own selfishness.
The thing that Alex and I both found scary and that drove us straight to prayer was Samuel’s recognition that to do other than to pray was just plain old sin: “[F]ar be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you”, he declares.
Over the years, I have come across plenty of Christians who, in my less than humble opinion, have been careering off the rails either doctrinally, or in their actions and their attitude. Sometimes I’ve told them so in terms blunt enough to create all sorts of difficulty for all concerned. What I’ve been less good at is praying for those people. If Samuel is right in this verse, then I am going to stop writing this entry in a second, and spend some time in prayer.
Thank God that Jesus prayed in a way that we often fail to: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).