Read 1 Samuel 12, Ezekiel 23, and Colossians 2.
This devotional is about 1 Samuel 12.
When the people began clamoring for a king in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel took their demands before the Lord. Their desire for a king must have seemed like a personal rejection because God told Samuel not to feel as if he had been rejected: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:8). Since Saul had been anointed king, announced as king, and ratified as king, Samuel was ready to retreat from the stage of public leadership.
Here in 1 Samuel 12 we read Samuel’s retirement speech. In verses 1-2a, he acknowledged that leadership has fully and permanently passed from himself to Saul. In verses 2b-4, he challenged Israel to bring testimony against him. If he had abused his leadership in any way, the victims were now to speak up so that he could finish his administration cleanly by making restitution. No one brought any charges against him (v. 4-5).
But Samuel himself had a charge to make against God’s people. In verses 6-12, he rehearsed briefly Israel’s checkered spiritual history. Then in verses 14-15, he commanded the people to follow the Lord in obedience and warned them about the consequences of their disobedience. He then authenticated his message by calling on the Lord to send thunder and rain out of season which the Lord did (vv. 17-18). God’s people were afraid and felt regret (at least) and begged Samuel to pray that God would not kill them all (v. 19). Samuel reassured them and called on them to be faithful to the Lord (vv. 20-21), then reminded them of God’s covenant of love with them that he established through Abraham. Although God was loving toward his people (despite their lack of faithfulness to him), verse 22 reminded them that God would be faithful “for the sake of his great name.” In other words, to break his covenant with Israel, God would have act contrary to his nature.
Then, in verse 23, Samuel said: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.” That is quite a statement.
First, the people did not ask Samuel to make it a habit of praying for them; they asked him to pray for them now so that they would not die in God’s wrath in that immediate moment (v. 19). Yet Samuel generalized their request and reassured them that he intended to pray for them continually. Secondly, Samuel not only prayed for God’s people because of his love for them, but because it saw it as his obligation. That’s what the phrase, “…that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” means in verse 23. Prayerlessness could only be a sin if Samuel was obligated to pray for God’s people and refused to do so. Yet, that’s exactly how Samuel saw the situation.
Prayer is a privilege and it is our right as God’s children to do it, but have you ever thought about prayer as an obligation? We live in an age theologically where Christians do not like to talk about obligations. Because many of us grew up in legalistic environments, we have learned to lean on God’s grace in our failings—and we should! God’s grace is all over this passage. It is evident in God’s history with Israel (vv. 6-11) and in God’s mercy for not judging Israel for seeking a king (vv. 17-20). But the reason we need grace is because we fail in our obligations, not because no obligations exist. Grace does not relieve us of the responsibility to obey God’s word. It does not minimize our responsibilities as people who belong to God. Instead, it is an expression of God’s great compassion for us despite our weaknesses and failures. God’s grace is what put us in his favor and it is what keeps us in his favor when we fail to obey him—either through ignorance, or weakness, or direct disobedience.
So whom are we responsible to pray for? Here’s a quick list to think about: your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your nephews and nieces, your pastor, your church, your friends, your ministry team, your neighbors who need Christ, your co-workers, our missionaries, our nation. Are we prayerless toward any or all of these people? Do we seek God’s grace when we do fail to pray for them?
Remember, too, that Samuel seemed to be wounded emotionally by Israel’s desire for a king. Yet his feeling of rejection did not give him an excuse to stop praying for God’s people. Although Saul was now responsible to lead them and to judge them, Samuel still felt responsible to intercede with God for them. Keep this in mind if you have a parent who wounded you deeply, or a spouse who divorced you unbiblically, or children who denounced you and walked out on you, or anyone else who has wounded you. Since God commands us to intercede and pray for one another (even our enemies—Luke 6:28b), we should realize that the gift of prayer is also, in a sense, an obligation—a command to obey. Here’s an opportunity to think about whom you should be praying for and to ask God’s forgiveness if your prayer life has gone prayer-less.