20 October 2008

Honey for Your Weariness

We're working our way through First Samuel in our Sunday morning Bible class, and we're at the point of dealing with King Saul's fall from grace. The Prophet Samuel has already declared that God has found a man after His own heart, who shall be raised as a prince over His people Israel. On the horizon, of course, we know that He'll anoint young David to be King Saul's immediate successor, but David hasn't yet been introduced within the narrative. Ultimately, the Man after God's own heart is the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father has already found and always has in view. In the meantime, we're given a picture of Jonathan, Saul's own son, as the very sort of man with the very sort of heart that God would have rule over His people. In contrast to the sons of Eli and Samuel, here is a son to be proud of, holding all the promise of a future king. That won't prove to be the case, but it does say something significant in view of the friendship that emerges between Jonathan and David.

Anyway, the contrast between Saul and Jonathan in their opposition to the Philistines has been striking. Outwardly, Saul makes a show of piety and seems to be trying very hard to play by the rules, whereas Jonathan proceeds with the impetuousness and reckless abandon of a young man. Thus, while Saul is cowering with what's left of his little army, desperately trying to figure out what he should do, Jonathan and his armor bearer go "charging" up a hill on their hands and knees to take on the Philistines, and the Lord is with him. Twenty Philistines fall beneath Jonathan's sword, his armor bearer mopping up after him, and the rest of the Philistine army begins melting away in fear and confusion, turning their own weapons against one another.

Then, after the reader has already been told that the Lord has delivered Israel from the hand of the Philistines, we're presented with King Saul intent upon getting his vengeance against his enemies. Quite a contrast to the same Saul, who previously declined to punish his detractors when the Lord had given victory to Israel by his hand. Now, instead of mercy, he lays a heavy burden on his own men, in the interest of venting hurt against his foes. Is he determined not to let the Lord or his own Jonathan get the glory? That will be a weakness in Saul when it comes to David. Whatever the rationale, King Saul binds the people with an oath and curses any man who would take food before evening. So he deprives his army of nourishment, in consequence of which they become weak and weary. In fact, more than once we are told of their weariness.

But once more, enter Jonathan. We're told that, as the army moved in pursuit of the Philistines (under Saul's metaphorical whip), honey flowed within the forest and covered the ground. Here is the honey of the promised land, covering the ground much like the manna in the wilderness. Here the Lord opens His hand to feed and sustain His people. Yet, no one dared stretch out his hand to take any of the honey, because of Saul's oath; except for Jonathan, who had not heard his father's words. Jonathan stretches out the staff in his hand (like a new Moses) and takes some of the honey to his mouth. He tastes, and he sees that the Lord is good; for his eyes are immediately brightened. When he is then told of the curse that King Saul has sworn against any man who eats, Jonathan forthrightly declares that his father has troubled the land. How much stronger the army would have been, had it eaten freely of the spoil of the Philistines, which God gave into their hands. Jonathan is ready and willing to die for the sake of the honey, but the army is dying without it!

There's more to the story, before and after, and lots of great things to consider. When the men are finally able to eat that evening, famished and frenzied with hunger, they pounce like hyenas on the animals they've captured, killing them on the grond and eating the meat with the blood, contrary to the explicit Law of the Lord. In this case, King Saul has a great stone rolled to him, upon which he slaughters the animals, so that the blood runs out and over the stone and away from the meat. Almost in spite of himself, it would seem, by virtue of his office as the Lord's anointed, he presents this type of Christ, the Stone of stumbling and the Rock of offense, who takes our violence and bloodshed upon Himself by His sacrificial death, that we might be cleansed by His blood and fed by His true meat indeed. From the strong, something sweet; out of the eater (death), something to eat.

Thanks to Eleanor for her brilliant observation in class yesterday, calling attention to the parallel between Jonathan and Samson, each of whom took forbidden honey to be strengthened in the fight against the Philistines. Neither of them is condemned for this violation, because they are proceeding in faith and receiving what the Lord provides. King Saul, on the other hand, at pains to follow the letter of the Law, and foolishly driving his army with laws of his own, proceeds with a heart that is not right but idolatrous. The people had asked for a king like all the nations around them, and that is what they have gotten. By force of might and power, he would take for himself what the Lord has not given; and at the same time, he rejects and forbids the gifts freely given by the Spirit of the Lord. Jonathan gets it, by faith, in a way that Saul does not.

There is the temptation in my own heart, I recognize, and I reckon it resides in all of us, to strive for accomplishments and glory of my own. How shall I achieve the victory? How shall I establish myself? How shall I get vengeance against my enemies? The idolatrous instinct of my sinful heart is to appease the wrath of God by following the letter of His commandments, and to get what I want by laying down a law of my own devising for anyone under my power and command. Instead of mercy, I make sacrifice, and I sacrifice others in pursuit of my goals. As a father, I exasperate my children. I demand obedience instead of faith. I trouble the land and weary the troops.

Lord, have mercy upon me, and break my stubborn heart of stone. Create in me a new heart, O God, one after Your own, beating with faith and love. Feed me with the milk and honey of Your Word, the healing medicine of your Gospel. Anoint me with the Spirit of Your Christ.

The Law of God is good and wise. There is a salutary place, I am convinced, for godly rules that guide and govern our Christian faith and life in love for our neighbor. There is a need for real wisdom, that is, the fear of the Lord, which abides in the true humility of repentance. There is a need for discernment, for discretion and discipline, by which the authority of parents and pastors is exercised with confidence, for the good of the people entrusted to their governance and care. But all of this is bent in service to the Gospel. It is exercised in the freedom of faith.

How easily the church on earth is bent and driven, instead, by the force of fear and the fierce regulation of law. How often do we bind ourselves and one another to foolish oaths, cursing the very gifts Christ freely gives. I am reminded of the easy temptation to rely upon the power of polity and politics to fix what is broken, to remedy what ails us, to supply what is lacking, and to accomplish what must be done. But it won't work. We cannot conscript an army to pursue the Philistines and fight them to the death without food, and expect to win the war. It is flat-out foolish to forego the food the Lord provides for the fight. Not only foolish, but contrary to faith; for it presumes that we shall overcome by our own resolve and resources, rather than relying on the gracious providence of God. But we dare not engage the battle that way.

It isn't our battle to begin with. The battle belongs to the Lord. It always has. The enemy may have us hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, but that is no matter. The Lord has found a Man after His own heart, and by Him He wins the victory for His people. That one Man charges the hill on His hands and knees, and by the sacrifice of His Cross He lays waste all our enemies; they melt away before our eyes. We who bear His armor, shielded by faith, helmeted with righteousness, shod with peace, wielding the sword of His Word and Spirit, follow in His train and simply mop up the foes He has already felled beneath His feet.

If we would be faithful in our calling as Christians, in our various and sundry stations in life, then let us eat freely of the spoils that Christ has obtained by His Cross. Here there is the milk and honey of His Word, the blood and water from the Rock, the bread of life from heaven. It flows in abundance in the good land of His Church. It covers the ground at our feet. There is no lack of food and drink. Take and eat. Drink of it, all of you. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Then shall our eyes be brightened. Then shall we be strengthened for the fight and sustained in the midst of battle. Then shall the Church live and grow in the one true faith of Christ our King.