Finding Your Way in the Unfamiliar
Finding Your Way in the Unfamiliar
Over winter break, one of my goals was to reconnect with old friends. When school and work are moving full-speed ahead, long conversations about life and faith with anyone who’s not right in front of me take the back burner. Maybe I’m not the only one.
So my husband Andrew and I went home to Virginia and had a sort of friendship binge. I got breakfast with my small group from high school, talked on the phone with old college roommates, shared meals with several couples from church—it was great. These were the kind of macro-conversations you have when you haven’t seen each other in a while: not just “How was your week?” but “How was your year? How have you grown? What’s been hard?” Big-picture stuff. And as we listened to our friends and reflected upon this season in our own lives, a definite pattern emerged.
Almost every Christian we talked with is facing this all-consuming uncertainty about the future. It’s a ministry job that could send them across the country with only a month’s notice. Or it’s waiting to hear back from that PhD program that could move her thousands of miles from family and friends. Or it’s that new relationship or unplanned pregnancy that demolishes those well-laid career plans. For so many of us, the future feels formless and void.
I don’t think us Virginians are alone in the uncertainty. Many of us here are finishing up our programs and looking ahead into a future that’s cloudy and gray and trying to discern how God will use this thing we’ve been working on for what feels like forever.
Maybe you’re facing graduation and still on the hunt for the job that will take you who knows where. Maybe you’re looking at your bank account and wondering how you’re going to provide for those kids you have or want to have. Maybe you’re deeply unsatisfied with your current job situation but nervous to take the leap into the unknown. Maybe you’re questioning whether ministry is actually your calling and if you should pursue something else entirely. Maybe your life is running at this frantic pace and you feel like you might careen off the tracks but there’s no slow-down in sight.
It’s like we’re standing at a crossroads, shaking in our boots. There are four roads to choose from, and you’re afraid some of them might lead to disaster. Or there’s just one road ahead, but there’s a storm raging on it, and you’re afraid to step forward and be beaten down by it. Or the fog has descended, and the road signs are invisible and you can’t see more than two steps ahead, but you’ve got to keep moving forward.
Our Scripture today, 1 Samuel 8, tells the story of a people who stood at their own crossroads and felt as shaky as we do. They had a history with God and hundreds of stories of his faithfulness but wondered if the road was about to change dramatically. Tonight, we’ll read 1 Samuel 8 and find a way forward into the unfamiliar.
The problem of Israel’s vulnerability and their proposed solution: a king
In the early chapters of 1 Samuel, Israel is still stuck in the chaos of the judges period. There’s political turmoil because they are constantly threatened by neighboring enemies, and there’s spiritual turmoil because they disregard the Lord and do whatever is right in their own eyes.
In 1 Samuel 4, Israel loses the ark to that enemy they can’t seem to shake, the Philistines. They had rushed into battle without consulting the Lord and had treated his presence at the ark like a good-luck charm. The ark is only returned to Israel because the Philistines are too terrified to keep it.
In chapter 7, when faced with yet another Philistine threat, Israel repents and turns to the Lord, and the author reports peace for the nation during the lifetime judgeship of Samuel. Israel’s cycle of unfaithfulness, military defeat, repentance, and peace should sound familiar from the Book of Judges.
But now, in 1 Samuel 8, rather than starting the cycle all over again, Israel breaks the mold. They’re at the crossroads again, but this time they don’t take the expected path.
(Read 1 Samuel 8:1–5)
Standing at their crossroads, Israel faces yet another threat. But this time, it’s from within. Israel’s most faithful Judge, Samuel, is about to die and leave behind two worthless sons to lead in his place. Perhaps Israel is having flashbacks to two other worthless sons within their lifetimes—Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s idiot sons who walked Israel and the ark right into the jaws of the Philistines. That didn’t turn out so well. Now, faced with two leaders who have no interest in justice and a peace that feels like a ticking time-bomb, Israel proposes a new solution: a king.
The elders come to Samuel asking for a king like a middle schooler approaches a parent for that new bit of tech. Their reasoning is straightforward: All the other kids have one! Why can’t we?! Israel wanted a king because the other nations had kings. Israel wanted to be like the Canaanites.
The Lord’s Response: Displeasure at Israel’s Rejection
What does the Lord think of this?
(Read 1 Samuel 8:6–9)
The Lord cuts right to the heart of the matter: to ask for a Canaanite king is to reject his kingship. Ultimately, it’s not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God.
But why is asking for a king a rejection of Yahweh? A monarchy had been the plan for Israel since the beginning. In Genesis 17, God promises Abraham and Sarah that kings will come from them. Jacob and Balaam confirm that Judah will be the tribe that rules Israel in Genesis 49 and Numbers 24. Deuteronomy 17 gives instructions for Israelite kings without any hint of disapproval. We can tell that a king in Israel is not the problem.
What the Lord seems to oppose is not kingship itself but the kind of king they want and their motives for wanting him. They don’t want a king so that they can move forward with their national and spiritual identity under Yahweh; they want to move away from it. They’re not interested in becoming who the Lord intended them to be; they’re interested in becoming like the other nations. They want a Canaan-type king, not a Torah-type king.
Typical. This is classic Israel, says the Lord. From the very beginning of our relationship, they’ve been squirmy under my kingship. They’d rather serve any other god, rather be any other people, than serve me and be my people—even though I’ve been nothing but faithful to them. Typical.
Yet surprisingly, the Lord tells Samuel to listen to them. He doesn’t squash their demand and say, “I’m going to be your king whether you like it or not.”
Samuel’s Warning: A King’s Path is More Treacherous than the Lord’s
Instead, he warns them about what to expect from a Canaan-type king. Samuel conveys the Lord’s warning in verses 10–18.
(Read 1 Samuel 8:10–18)
This warning is no joke. The consequences of having a king can be summarized by this word that appears over and over again: lakah, “take.” The bottom line is that the king would be a parasite, taking and taking without giving in return.
What he’ll take is presented in a list-like form, indicated by the repeated fronting of the direct object. The list begins with their most treasured possessions and ends with the most basic necessities: He’ll take it all. He’ll take their sons and their daughters, take all their fields and property and crops, their servants, their young men, then take their sheep and livestock, until the people have nothing left to give but themselves as slaves. The punch line is that this path they’re choosing could take them right back into the slavery they just escaped.
No wonder that scenario ends with the Israelites crying out to the Lord, just like they did from Egypt. But this time, God will not hear and deliver them. Their last state will be worse than their first.
The Decision: A King for Israel
But Israel may as well not have heard this chilling warning, since their response is yet more insistent. Our story ends like this:
(Read 1 Samuel 8:19–22)
The Lord’s warning may as well have gone in one ear and out the other. They demand a king the second time, and this time more forcefully: “No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.”
This time we get a little more insight into what’s going on with the Israelites: Why do they want a Canaan-type king? The end of verse 20 tells us. They want a king to judge them, go out before them, and fight their battles. Israel wanted a king to be their military hero, protecting them from the constant threat of their enemies.
Now we have a clearer idea of why the Lord saw their demand as a personal rejection. In Deuteronomy 20, he had explicitly said: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.”
It’s the Lord’s job to be their military hero. It’s the Lord who protects them from their enemies. And he does it because they’re his special people, the ones he brought out of Egypt to be his own. From the very beginning, God called Abraham to be the father of a special people who would be set apart from the nations but a blessing to them. But rather than blessing and ministering to their surrounding nations as a kingdom of priests, Israel wants to be like them. They’ve decided that their special identity is not worth the fear and instability it brings. So they want a Canaan-type king, not the Torah-type king that God had promised.
We’re starting to see that this Canaan-type king wouldn’t just be a new leader for Israel, but an entirely new paradigm for their nation.
It takes bold faith to live within the judges system, exposed to political enemies and completely defenseless until the need arises. But now, Israel proposes a new system in which they won’t have to cry out to God and trust him to raise up a deliverer when they’re in danger. They won’t have to wait on God for marching orders. They’ll have a standing army supplied by a military-savvy monarch, a warrior they can see and count on as a tangible means of security.
The Lord’s paradigm for Israel takes patience and courage. His system is a lifestyle of faith, leading to guidance and victory. But rather than submitting to God’s way for Israel, they try to buck the system entirely. They’d rather work within a human system of tangible military power and security that yields predictable results and leaves them dependent on no one. No faith required.
This worldly paradigm that Samuel warns against, this Canaan-type paradigm, invites its victims into the values, convictions, and habits which pay no regard to God. This paradigm trains its prey to trust what it can work out with its own wit. That system doesn’t value things like faithfulness, loyalty, dependence, self-sacrifice, generosity, humility, gentleness, weakness. It conditions its targets to seek out power, prestige, and wealth, to protect reputation and comfort at any cost.
God’s warning is this: That system is parasitic. It’ll drain you dry and leave you lifeless. You’ll be worse off under the worldly paradigm than under God’s paradigm. It’ll end badly. You’ll be giving up the freedom that God gave you when he delivered you and trading it for slavery. The human system may seem a safer route, but in reality, it’s much more treacherous than the Lord’s way.
A Warning for Us
I don’t think the ancient Israelites are the only ones who have run against the grain of God’s paradigm in the face of an uncertain future.
When we stand at a crossroads, we tend to default to this human system and put our faith in tangible mechanisms that will yield predictable results. When we’re applying for that PhD or residency program, it’s easier to trust in our GPA, ministry experience, and the ways we’ve impressed our professors than it is to humbly entrust the future to God.
When life is busy and we feel like we’re drowning, it’s easier to distract ourselves and hide in the work and strive for perfection than it is to pause, rest, and ask God to accept our work as an offering. When we consider that new job or big move, it’s easy to value the wrong things: our security, our reputation, our comfort, our salary.
But these default habits of ours are not just neutral coping mechanisms. They’re not innocent problem-solving techniques we use to chart the way forward. They’re bold-faced rejections of the paradigm into which God has called us. When we value what the world values and practice its habits, we reject God as truly as the Israelites did when they asked for a Canaan-type king.
The warning to Israel is a warning for us, too. When standing at the crossroads, seek security within God’s system. When you fear that the next step forward could be your undoing, seek security within God’s system. Human systems will make big promises and fail to deliver. Like parasites, they’ll take and take, then let you down and expose you in your moment of need. So at the crossroads, seek security within God’s system.
But what does it look like to seek security under God? 1 Samuel gives some ideas as the author tells the story of Israel’s first kings. We know it doesn’t look like Saul in 1 Samuel 9, who has the build of a warrior but the heart of a coward. It doesn’t look like Saul in 1 Samuel 17, when he’s more concerned about his safety than the reputation of his God.
Seeking security within God’s paradigm looks more like David in 1 Samuel 24, who is so insistent on upholding God’s values that he will not even lay a hand on the man who wants nothing more than his extermination. It looks like David in 1 Samuel 25 when he entrusts justice to God rather than taking vengeance into his own hands.
It looks like Rahab and Ruth, who leave behind national identity in order to take refuge under the wings of the God of Israel. It looks like Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat, who seek God in prayer and make preparations but refuse to take military action without God’s marching orders.
Ultimately it looks like Jesus Christ, who was so convinced of the goodness and trustworthiness of God’s paradigm that he offered himself as a sacrifice to bring others in. He refused to accept the world’s offer of the easy way out, Satan’s cross-less route to power and fame, instead submitting himself to God’s way. When they heaped abuse on him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats but kept entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
These heroes of faith show us that seeking security within God’s system looks like priorities that match God’s priorities and conviction of things that are unseen. It’s patient preparation for the future and courage rooted in God’s past faithfulness.
Listen to the Lord’s warning and don’t be like Israel, whose fear of the future twisted them to default into a human system. They didn’t seek the Lord in prayer. They didn’t search what he had revealed to them in the past to look for direction. They didn’t listen to the warnings of their leaders. They didn’t value their unique identity but took their cues from the pagans around them. They didn’t trust God for the future.
Heed the warning that Israel didn’t: At the crossroads, embrace God’s paradigm and reject worldly, parasitic paradigms. Listen to those who have stood at that crossroads long before you got there. Prize your unique calling and identity and the values that must come with it. And step forward with courage, remembering that God’s paradigm has never failed you before, and he won’t start failing you now. He may not have mapped out the entire route for us, but we know the rules of the road and we know the way to our final destination.
1 Corinthians 1 and 2 announces that the wisdom of the world has been declared foolish by Jesus’ cross, and the Spirit has given us the mind of Christ. With that mind, he has empowered us to care about what he cares about and walk according to his ways. What business do we have walking according to the pattern the world, according to its wisdom? We who believe are those who have been given the mind of Christ.
So at the crossroads, when the way forward looks foggy and the ground beneath is unsteady, seek security within God’s system.
Stephanie Juliot is a Masters of Divinity student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She received a B.A. in Biblical Langauges from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where she met and married Andrew Juliot. They currently live in Vernon Hills, Illinois and attend Long Grove Community Church. Stephanie enjoys reading, taking walks, playing board games with friends, and visiting family in Virginia and Colorado.