Sermon 9. Wilfulness, the Sin of Saul

"It repenteth Me that I have set up Saul to be king; for he is turned back from following Me, and hath not performed My commandments." 1 Sam. xv. 11.

{156} THE three chief religious patterns and divine instruments under the first Covenant, have each his complement in the Sacred History, that we may have a warning as well as an instruction. The distinguishing virtue, moral and political, of Abraham, Moses, and David, was their faith; by which I mean an implicit reliance in God's command and promise, and a zeal for His honour; a surrender and devotion of themselves, and all they had, to Him. At His word they each relinquished the dearest wish of their hearts, Isaac, Canaan, and the Temple; the Temple was not to be built, the land of promise not to be entered, the child of promise not to be retained. All three were tried by the anxieties and discomforts of exile and wandering; all three, and especially Moses and David, were very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.

2. The faith of Abraham is illustrated in the luke-warmness {157} of Lot, who, though a true servant of God, and a righteous man, chose for his dwelling-place the fertile country of a guilty people. To Moses, who was faithful in all God's house, is confronted the untrue prophet Balaam, who, gifted from the same Divine Master, and abounding in all knowledge and spiritual discernment, mistook words for works, and fell through love of lucre. The noble self-consuming zeal of David, who was at once ruler of the chosen people, and type of the Messiah, is contrasted with a still more conspicuous and hateful specimen of unbelief, as disclosed to us in the history of Saul. To this history it is proposed now to draw your attention, not indeed with the purpose of surveying it as a whole, but with hope of gaining thence some such indirect illustration, in the way of contrast, of the nature of religious Faith, as it is adapted to supply.

3. It cannot be denied that the designs of Providence towards Saul and David are, at first sight, of a perplexing nature, as implying distinctions in the moral character of the two men, which their history does not clearly warrant. Accordingly, it is usual, with a view of meeting the difficulty, to treat them as mere instruments in the Divine Governance of the Israelites, and to determine their respective virtues and defects, not by a moral, but by a political standard. For instance, the honourable title by which David is distinguished, as "a man after God's own heart," is interpreted with reference merely to his activity and success in enforcing the principles of the Mosaic system, no {158} account being taken of the motives which influenced him, or of his general character, or of his conduct in other respects. Now, it is by no means intended here to dispute the truth of such representations, or to deny that the Church, in its political relations, must even treat men with a certain reference to their professions and outward acts, such as it withdraws in its private dealings with them; yet, to consider the difference between Saul and David to be of a moral nature, is more consistent with the practical objects with which we believe Scripture to have been written, and more reverent, moreover, to the memory of one whose lineage the Saviour almost gloried in claiming, and whose devotional writings have edified the Church even to this day. Let us then drop, for the present, the political view of the history which it is here proposed to consider, and attempt to discover the moral lesson intended to be conveyed to us in the character of Saul, the contrast of the zealous David.

4. The unbelief of Balaam discovers itself in a love of secular distinction, and was attended by self-deception. Saul seems to have had no base ends in view; he was not self-deceived; his temptation and his fall consisted in a certain perverseness of mind, founded on some obscure feelings of self-importance, very commonly observable in human nature, and sometimes called pride,—a perverseness which shows itself in a reluctance absolutely to relinquish its own independence of action, in cases where dependence is a duty, and which interferes a little, and alters a little, as if with a view of satisfying its own fancied dignity, though it {159} is afraid altogether to oppose itself to the voice of God. Should this seem, at first sight, to be a trifling fault, it is the more worth while to trace its operation in the history of Saul. If a tree is known by its fruit, it is a great sin.

5. Saul's character is marked by much that is considered to be the highest moral excellence,—generosity, magnanimity, calmness, energy, and decision. He is introduced to us as "a choice young man, and a goodly," and as possessed of a striking personal presence, and as a member of a wealthy and powerful family [Note].

6. The first announcement of his elevation came upon him suddenly, but apparently without unsettling him. He kept it secret, leaving it to Samuel, who had made it to him, to publish it. "Saul said unto his uncle, He (that is, Samuel) told us plainly that the asses were found. But of the matter of the kingdom, whereof Samuel spake, he told him not." Nay, it would even seem as if he were averse to the dignity intended for him; for when the Divine lot fell upon him, he had hid himself, and was not discovered by the people without Divine assistance.

7. The appointment was at first unpopular. "The children of Belial said, How shall this man save us?" Here again his high-mindedness is discovered, and his remarkable force and energy of character. He showed no signs of resentment at the insult. "They despised {160} him, and brought him no presents. But he held his peace." Soon the Ammonites invaded the country beyond Jordan, with the avowed intention of reducing its inhabitants to slavery. They, almost in despair, sent to Saul for relief; and the panic spread in the interior, as well as among those whose country was immediately threatened. The conduct of their new king brings to mind the celebrated Roman story. "Behold, Saul came after the herd out of the field and Saul said, What aileth the people, that they weep? And they told him the tidings of the men of Jabesh. And the Spirit of God came upon Saul, and his anger was kindled greatly." His order for an immediate gathering throughout Israel was obeyed with the alacrity with which, in times of alarm, the many yield themselves up to the will of the strong-minded. A decisive victory over the enemy followed. Then the popular cry became, "Who is he that said, Shall Saul reign over us? Bring the men, that we may put them to death. And Saul said, There shall not a man be put to death this day: for today the Lord hath wrought salvation in Israel."

8. We seem here to find noble traits of character; at the same time it must not be forgotten that sometimes such exhibitions are also the concomitants of a certain strangeness and eccentricity of mind, which are very perplexing to those who study it, and very unamiable. Reserve, sullenness, headstrong self-confidence, pride, caprice, sourness of temper, scorn of others, a scoffing at natural feeling and religious principle; all those characters of mind which, though distinct {161} from mental aberration, are temptations to it, frequently take the form, and have in some degree the nature, of magnanimity. It is probable, from the sequel of Saul's history, that the apparent nobleness of his first actions was connected with some such miserable principles and feelings, which then existed only in their seeds, but which afterwards sprang up and ripened to his destruction; and this in consequence of that one fatal defect of mind which has been already noticed, as corrupting the integrity of his faith.

9. The world prevailed over the faith of Balaam; a more subtle, though not a rare temptation, overcame the faith of Saul; wilfulness, the unaccountable desire of acting short of simple obedience to God's will, a repugnance of unreserved self-surrender and submission to Him. This, it will at once be seen, was one characteristic of the Jewish nation; so that the king was but a type of the people; nor, indeed, was it likely to be otherwise, born as he was in the original sin of that very perverseness which led them to choose a king, instead of God. It is scarcely necessary to refer to the details of their history for instances of a like wilfulness,—such as their leaving the manna till the morning, their going out to gather it on the seventh day, Nadab and Abihu's offering strange fire, their obstinate transgression of the Second Commandment, their presumptuous determination to fight with the Canaanites, though Moses foretold their defeat, and, when possessed of the promised land, their putting under tribute the idolaters whom they were bid exterminate. The {162} same was the sin of Jeroboam, who is almost by title the Apostate; when God had promised him the kingdom of Israel, he refused to wait God's time, but impatiently forced a crisis, which ought to have been left to Him who promised it.

10. On the other hand, Abraham and David, with arms in their hands, waited upon Him for the fulfilment of the temporal promise in His good time. It is on this that the distinction turns, so much insisted on in the Books of Kings, of serving God with a "perfect," or not with a perfect, heart. "Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser, King of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus; and King Ahaz sent to Urijah the priest the fashion of the altar, … and Urijah ... built an altar according to all that king Ahaz had sent from Damascus." Here was a wanton innovation on received usages, which had been appointed by Almighty God. The same evil temper is protested against in Hezekiah's proclamation to the remnant of the Israelites: "Be ye not like your fathers, and like your brethren, which trespassed against the Lord God of their fathers, who therefore gave them up to desolation, as ye see. Now be ye not stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves unto the Lord, and enter into His sanctuary." It is indirectly condemned, also, in the precept given to the Israelites, before their final deliverance from Pharaoh. When they were on the Red Sea shore, Moses said, "Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord … The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace." Again, in the Book of Psalms, "Be still, and {163} know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth;" the very trial of the people consisting in their doing nothing out of their place, but implicitly following when the Almighty took the lead.

11. The trial and the sin of the Israelites were continued to the end of their history. They fell from their election on Christ's coming, in consequence of this very wilfulness; refusing to receive the terms of the New Covenant, as they were vouchsafed to them, and attempting to incorporate them into their own ceremonial system. "They being ignorant of God's righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."

12. Such was one distinguishing sin of the Israelites as a nation; and, as it proved the cause of their rejection, so had it also, ages before, corrupted the faith, and forfeited the privileges, of their first king. The signs of wilfulness run through his history from first to last: but his formal trial took place at two distinct times, and in both cases terminated in his deliberate fall. Of these, the latter is more directly to our purpose. When sent to inflict a Divine judgment upon the Amalekites, he spared those whom he was bid slay; their king Agag, the best of the sheep and cattle, and all that was good. We are not concerned with the general state of mind and opinion which led him to this particular display of wilfulness. Much might be said of that profaneness, which, as in the case of Esau, was a distinguishing trait in his character. Indeed, we might even conjecture {164} that from the first he was an unbeliever in heart; that is, that he did not recognize the exclusive divinity of the Mosaic theology, compared with those of the surrounding nations, and that he had by this time learned to regard the pomp and splendour of the neighbouring monarchies with an interest which made him ashamed of the seeming illiberality and the singularity of the institutions of Israel. A perverse will easily collects together a system of notions to justify itself in its obliquity. The real state of the case was this, that he preferred his own way to that which God had determined. When directed by the Divine Hand towards the mark for which he was chosen, he started aside like a broken bow. He obeyed, but with a reserve, yet distinctly professing to Samuel that he had performed the commandment of the Lord, because the sheep and cattle were reserved for a pious purpose, a sacrifice to the Lord. The Prophet, in his reply, explained the real moral character of this limited and discretionary obedience, in words which are a warning to all who are within the hearing of Revealed Religion to the end of time: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice; and to hearken, than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry."

13. The moral of Saul's history is forced upon us by the events which followed this deliberate offence. By wilful resistance to God's will, he opened the door to those evil passions which till then, at the utmost, only {165} served to make his character unamiable, without stamping it with guilt. The reserve and mysteriousness, which, when subordinate to such magnanimity as he possessed, were even calculated to increase his influence as a ruler, ended in an overthrow of his mind, when they were allowed full scope by the removal of true religious principle, and the withdrawal of the Spirit of God. Derangement was the consequence of disobedience. The wilfulness which first resisted God, next preyed upon himself, as a natural principle of disorder; his moods and changes, his compunctions and relapses, what were they but the convulsions of the spirit, when the governing power was lost? At length the proud heart, which thought it much to obey its Maker, was humbled to seek comfort in a witch's cavern; essaying, by means which he had formerly denounced, to obtain advice from that Prophet when dead, whom in his lifetime he had dishonoured.

14. In contemplating this miserable termination of a history which promised well in the beginning, it should be observed, how clearly the failure of the divine purpose which takes place in it is attributable to man. Almighty God chose an instrument adapted, as far as external qualifications were concerned, to fulfil His purpose; adapted in all those respects which He reserved in His own hands, when He created a free agent; in character and gifts, in all respects except in that in which all men are, on the whole, on a level,—in will. No one could be selected in talents or conduct more suitable for maintaining political power at home than the reserved mysterious monarch whom God gave to His people; {166} none more suitable for striking terror into the surrounding nations than a commander gifted with his coolness and promptitude in action. But he fell from his election, because of unbelief,—because he would take another part, and not the very part which was actually assigned him in the decrees of the Most High.

15. And again, considering his character according to the standard of moral excellence, here also it was one not without great promise. It is from such stern materials that the highest and noblest specimens of our kind are formed. The pliant and amiable by nature, generally speaking, are not the subjects of great purposes. They are hardly capable of extraordinary discipline; they yield or they sink beneath the pressure of those sanctifying processes which do but mature the champions of holy Church. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel," is a representation true in its degree in the case of many, who nevertheless serve God acceptably in their generation, and whose real place in the ranks of the unseen world we have no means of ascertaining. But those minds, which naturally most resemble the aboriginal chaos, contain within them the elements of a marvellous creation of light and beauty, if they but open their hearts to the effectual power of the Holy Spirit. Pride and sullenness, obstinacy and impetuosity, then become transformed into the zeal, firmness, and high-mindedness of religious Faith. It depended on Saul himself whether or not he became the rival of that exalted saint, who, being once a fierce avenger of his brethren, at length became "the meekest {167} of men," yet not losing thereby, but gaining, moral strength and resoluteness.

16. Or again, a comparison of him in this respect with the Apostle who originally bore his name, is not perhaps so fanciful as it may appear at first sight. St. Paul was distinguished by a furiousness and vindictiveness equally incongruous as Saul's pride, with the obedience of Faith. In the first persecution against the Christians, he is described by the sacred writer as ravening like a beast of prey. And he was exposed to the temptation of a wilfulness similar to that of Saul—the wilfulness of running counter to God's purposes, and interfering in the course of Dispensations which he should have humbly received. He indeed was called miraculously, but scarcely more so than Saul, who, when he least expected it, was called by Samuel, and was, at his express prediction, suddenly filled by the Spirit of God, and made to prophesy. But, while Saul profited not by the privilege thus vouchsafed to him, St. Paul was "not disobedient to the heavenly vision," and matured in his afterlife in those exalted qualities of mind which Saul forfeited. Every attentive reader of his Epistles must be struck with the frequency and force of the Apostle's declarations concerning unreserved submission to the Divine will, or rather of his exulting confidence in it. But the wretched king of Israel, what is his ultimate state, but the most forlorn of which human nature is capable? "How are the mighty fallen!" was the lament over him of the loyal though injured friend who succeeded to his power. He, who might have been canonized in the catalogue {168} of the eleventh of Hebrews, is but the prototype of that vision of obduracy and self-inflicted destitution, which none but unbelieving poets of these latter ages have ever thought worthy of aught but the condemnation and abhorrence of mankind.

17. Two questions must be answered before we can apply the lesson of Saul's history to our own circumstances. It is common to contrast Christianity with Judaism, as if the latter were chiefly a system of positive commands, and the former addressed itself to the Reason and natural Conscience; and accordingly, it will perhaps be questioned whether Christians can be exposed to the temptation of wilfulness, that is, disobedience to the external word of God, in any way practically parallel to Saul's trial. And secondly, granting it possible, the warning against wilfulness, contained in his history and that of his nation, may be met by the objection that the Jews were a peculiarly carnal and gross-minded people, so that nothing can be argued concerning our danger at this day, from their being exposed and yielding to the temptation of perversity and presumption.

18. (1.) But such an assumption evidences a great want of fairness towards the ancient people of God, in those who make it, and is evidently perilous in proportion as it is proved to be unfounded. All men, not the Jews only, have a strange propensity, such as Eve evidenced in the beginning, to do what they are told not to do. It is plainly visible in children, and in the common people; and in them we are able to judge what {169} we all are, before education and habit lay restraints upon us. Need we even do more than appeal to the events of the past year, to the conduct of the lower classes when under that fearful visitation, from which we are now, as we trust, recovering, in order to detect the workings of that innate spirit of scepticism and obduracy which was the enemy of Jewish faith? Of course, all places did not afford the same evidence of it; but on the whole there was enough for my present allusion to it. A suspicion of the most benevolent exertions in their favour, a jealousy of the interference of those who knew more than themselves, a perverse rejection of their services, and a counteraction of their plans and advice, an unthankful credulity in receiving all the idle tales told in disparagement of their knowledge and prudence; these were admonitions before our eyes, not to trust those specious theories which are built on the supposition, that the actual condition of the human mind is better now than it was among the Jews. This is not said without regard to the difference of guilt in disobeying a Divine and a human command; nor, again, in complaint of the poorer classes, of whom we are especially bound to be tender, and who are not the worse merely because they are less disguised in the expression of their feelings; but as pointing out for our own instruction the present existence of a perversity in our common nature, like that which appears in the history of Israel. Nor, perhaps, can any one doubt, who examines himself, that he has within him an unaccountable and instinctive feeling to resist authority as such, which {170} conscience or the sense of interest is alone able to overcome.

19. Or, again, to take the case of young persons who have not yet taken their place in the serious business of life; consider the false shame they feel at being supposed to be obedient to God or man; their endeavours to be more irreligious than they really can be; their affected indifference to domestic feelings, and the sanctity and the authority of relationship; their adoption of ridicule as an instrument of retaliation on the constraints of duty or necessity. What does all this show us, but that our nature likes its own way, not as thinking it better or safer, but simply because it is its own? In other words, that the principle of Faith is resisted, not only by our attachment to objects of sense and sight, but by an innate rebellious principle, which disobeys as if for the sake of disobedience.

20. (2.) Now if wilfulness be a characteristic of human nature, it is idle to make any such distinction of Dispensations, as will deprive us of the profitableness of the history of Saul; which was the other question just now raised concerning it. Under any circumstances it must be a duty to subdue that which is in itself vicious; and it is no excuse for wilfulness to say that we are not under a positive system of commands, such as the Mosaic, and that there is no room for the sin in Christianity. Rather, it will be our duty to regard ourselves in all our existing religious relations, and not merely according to some abstract views of the Gospel Covenant, and to apply the principles {171} of right and wrong, exemplified in the Jewish history, to our changed circumstances on the whole.

21. But, to speak plainly, it may be doubted whether there be any such great difference between the Jewish system and our own, in respect of positive institutions and commandments. Revealed Religion, as such, is of the nature of a positive rule, implying, as it does, an addition, greater or less, to the religion of nature, and the disclosure of facts, which are thus disclosed, because otherwise not discoverable. Accordingly, the difference between the state of Jews and Christians is one simply of degree. We have to practise submission as they had, and we can run counter to the will of God in the very same way as they did, and under the same temptations which overcame them. For instance, the reception of the Catholic faith is a submission to a positive command, as really as was that of the Israelites to the Second Commandment. And the belief in the necessity of such reception, in order to salvation, is an additional instance of submission. Adherence to the Canon of Scripture is a further instance of this obedience of Faith; and St. John marks it as such in the words with which the Canon itself closes, which contain an anathema parallel to that which we use in the Creed. Moreover, the duty of Ecclesiastical Unity is clearly one of positive institution; it is a sort of ceremonial observance, and as such, is the tenure on which the evangelical privileges are chartered to us. The Sacraments, too, are of the same positive character.

22. If these remarks be well founded, it is plain that {172} instead of our being very differently situated from the Jews, all persons who are subjects of Revealed Religion, coincide in differing from all who are left under the Dispensation of Nature. Revelation puts us on a trial which exists but obscurely in Natural Religion; the trial of obeying for obedience-sake, or on Faith. Deference to the law of Conscience, indeed, is of the nature of Faith; but it is easily perverted into a kind of self-confidence, namely, a deference to our own judgment. Here, then, Revelation provides us with an important instrument for chastening and moulding our moral character, over and above the matter of its disclosures. Christians as well as Jews must submit as little children. This being considered, how strange are the notions of the present day concerning the liberty and irresponsibility of the Christian! If the Gospel be a message, as it is, it ever must be more or less what the multitude of self-wise reasoners declare it shall not be,—a law; it must be of the nature of what they call a form, and a bondage; it must, in its degree, bring darkness, instead of flattering them with the promise of immediate illumination; and must enlighten them only in proportion as they first submit to be darkened. This, then, if they knew their meaning, is the wish of the so-called philosophical Christians, and men of no party, of the present day; namely, that they should be rid altogether of the shackles of a Revelation: and to this assuredly their efforts are tending and will tend,—to identify the Christian doctrine with their own individual convictions, to sink its supernatural character, and to constitute themselves the prophets, {173} not the recipients, of Divine Truth; creeds and discipline being already in their minds severed from its substance, and being gradually shaken off by them in fact, as the circumstances of the times will allow.

23. Let us, then, reflect that, whatever be the trial of those who have not a Revelation, the trial of those who have is one of Faith in opposition to self-will. Those very self-appointed ordinances which are praiseworthy in a heathen, and the appropriate evidence of his earnestness and piety, are inexcusable in those to whom God has spoken. Things indifferent become sins when they are forbidden, and duties when commanded. The emblems of the Deity might be invented by Egyptian faith, but were adopted by Jewish unbelief. The trial of Abraham, when called on to kill his son, as of Saul when bid slay the Amalekites, was the duty of quitting the ordinary rules which He prescribes to our obedience, upon a positive commandment distinctly conveyed to them by revelation.

24. And so strong is this tendency of Revealed Religion to erect positive institutions and laws, that it absorbs into its province even those temporal ordinances which are, strictly speaking, exterior to it. It gives to the laws of man the nature of a divine authority, and where they exist makes obedience to them a duty. This is evident in the case of civil government, the forms and officers of which, when once established, are to be received for conscience-sake by those who find themselves under them. The same principle is applied in a more remarkable manner to sanction customs originally indifferent, in the case of the Rechabites; who were {174} rewarded with a promise of continuance as a family, on the ground of their observance of certain discomforts and austerities, imposed on them by the simple authority of an ancestor.

25. With these principles fresh in the memory, a number of reflections crowd upon the mind in surveying the face of society, as at present constituted. The present open resistance to constituted power, and (what is more to the purpose) the indulgent toleration of it, the irreverence towards Antiquity, the unscrupulous and wanton violation of the commands and usages of our forefathers, the undoing of their benefactions, the profanation of the Church, the bold transgression of the duty of Ecclesiastical Unity, the avowed disdain of what is called party religion (though Christ undeniably made a party the vehicle of His doctrine, and did not cast it at random on the world, as men would now have it), the growing indifference to the Catholic Creed, the sceptical objections to portions of its doctrine, the arguings and discussings and comparings and correctings and rejectings, and all the train of presumptuous exercises, to which its sacred articles are subjected, the numberless discordant criticisms on the Liturgy, which have shot up on all sides of us; the general irritable state of mind, which is every where to be witnessed, and craving for change in all things; what do all these symptoms show, but that the spirit of Saul still lives?—that wilfulness, which is the antagonist principle to the zeal of David, the principle of cleaving and breaking down all divine ordinances, instead of {175} building up. And with Saul's sin, Saul's portion awaits his followers,—distraction, aberration; the hiding of God's countenance; imbecility, rashness, and changeableness in their counsels; judicial blindness, fear of the multitude; alienation from good men and faithful friends; subserviency to their worst foes, the kings of Amalek and the wizards of Endor. So was it with the Jews, who rejected their Messiah only to follow impostors; so is it with infidels, who become the slaves of superstition; and such is ever the righteous doom of those who trust their own wills more than God's word, in one way or other to be led eventually into a servile submission to usurped authority. As the Apostle says of the Roman Christians, they were but slaves of sin, while they were emancipated from righteousness. "What fruit," he asks, "had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?"

26. These remarks may at first sight seem irrelevant in the case of those who, like ourselves, are bound by affection and express promises to the cause of Christ's Church; yet it should be recollected that very rarely have its members escaped the infection of the age in which they lived: and there certainly is the danger of our considering ourselves safe, merely because we do not go the lengths of others, and protest against the extreme principles or measures to which they are committed.

(Preached on Sunday morning, December 2, 1832, in his turn as Select Preacher.)

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Note

Some sentences which follow have already been inserted in Parochial Sermons, Vol. iii. Serm. 3.
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