Monday, March 20, 2023 | Trey Comstock
At the opening of our story, Samuel runs smack into one of the more mysterious aspects of God – God’s freedom. The first chunk of the 1 Samuel focuses on Saul as king. God doesn’t think that there should be a king. It’s not really what God wanted, but God gives the people what they asked for. God’s spirit enters Saul. Saul becomes the anointed king. Saul fails at being the anointed king. Samuel pours his life into making Saul’s kingship work, but by 1 Samuel 15, God pulls support from Saul and sends God’s official spokesman, Samuel, to deliver the news. This is how we find ourselves in 1 Samuel 16, with God telling Samuel to snap out of it, “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’” (1 Samuel 16:1)
You can understand why Samuel might be a bit out of sorts. God had anointed Saul. Samuel did his best to support Saul and built a deeply personal relationship with him. Now, God goes a totally different way with Samuel having to anoint the next king, in secret, while the current king still very much reigns. I think we would all have some version of the same question, “how can you do this God?”
God can because of all beings in the universe, God alone stands truly free. God has infinite time, infinite strength, and infinite resources. God knows all, sees all, and can do all. God can create and tear down. God represents the definition of power, might, and wisdom. If God so chooses, there’s simply nothing God can’t do. If God’s season with one king has been brought to an end because that king no longer serves reliably, God can move on with no restrictions on God’s action.
I can hear the chorus of questions now. What about the gift of free will? What about the promise to Noah to not destroy the world again? What about the covenant with Abraham? What, indeed, about the promises about the house of David? Each of those things limit God in keyways, but God imposed them on God. God self-limits. No outside force imposed them on God. God freely chose them. God rigorously keeps to them because of God’s righteousness. God is inherently free, but God self-imposes limits out of love. God’s eternal consistency with those self-imposed limits is what we mean, when we describe God as righteous. It’s not that God can’t revoke the gift of free will, wipe out the world, or go back on the covenant. It’s that we can trust on an intrinsic level that God won’t do those things.
One can easily promise to not do things that one simply could never do. I can solemnly swear never to drop a ton of nuclear weapons on a foreign power, but as I’m not (nor ever will be) President, this doesn’t constitute much of a promise. On that note, I won’t raise taxes, invade an oil producing or non-oil producing country, or bring disgrace on the office of President. Or, I can stand in the public square and affirm my intentions to never upend our financial structure through fiscal malfeasance. As I’m a pastor, not a banker, and my organization only makes a few hundred thousand dollars a year, you can be forgiven for not really caring about my assurances. Or, I can declare the world over my sworn assignation that I won’t go 200mph on a highway. Great! My little blue truck can barely do 100mph, so keeping that promise ain’t much of a hardship.
God, however, can do anything, including all the things that God promised not to do. This is partly God’s point as God responds to Job after Job makes his formal complaint.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7 NRSV)
I cannot overstress the vastness of God’s power and with that power comes the total freedom to do what God wills. Thus, that God expends this energy for us, and that God purposefully limits God’s unlimited freedom reveals the true depth of God’s concern for us and God’s righteousness in that concern. God can do literally anything. In God’s infinite freedom, God chooses us.
I often circle back to this theme because I never want us to get entitled about our relationship with God, to think of God like a devoted pet or a legally mandated caretaker. Only God can require God to do anything. God chose to enter covenant relationships with us and to give us the ability to freely choose them or not. These are only the structures of the universe because God freely deemed them so.