I love it when I am reading the Bible and a detail jumps off the page at me; this happened to me the other day as I was reading 1 Samuel from my Septuagint (LXX). I was reading from 1 Samuel 13 where Israel was about to go to battle against their perennial enemy the Philistines. Jonathan had just attacked a Philistine garrison, which caused the Philistines to unify for retaliation (vv. 1-5).
This was a dire situation for the Israelites; when Saul’s army realized the severity of the situation, “the people did hide themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in high places, and in pits” (v. 6). The people who didn’t run away were still scared: “all the people followed [Saul] trembling” (v.7).
Before going into battle, it was customary to offer sacrifices and pray for God’s protection and favor. Two years earlier (1 Samuel 10 with 13:1) the prophet Samuel had already told Saul to wait for seven days for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices before going into battle. With his army terrified and steadily diminishing, Saul began to get impatient.
“And [Saul] tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings. And he offered the burnt offering. And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him” (vv. 8-10).
Saul, desperate to keep his army and attain victory, got tired of waiting for Samuel—and so he offered the sacrifices for himself. Let me pause here to note: it is very dangerous to get impatient with God’s timing. We can get ourself into trouble when we try to take matters into our own hand. God had already promised, through Samuel, that the situation would work out. And we can see in hind sight, if Saul would have waited just a few moments later, Samuel would have arrived and offered sacrifice according to plan.
So Samuel showed up as soon as Saul got done offering sacrifices; and Saul went out to meet him. Samuel is immediately upset: “And Samuel said, What hast thou done?” Saul begins to explain the situation: the people were scattering, and you hadn’t come yet Samuel, and the Philistines had gathered together. “Therefore [said Saul], The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD.”
The situation was desperate and an attack was immanent, Saul said, and I didn’t want to go into battle without seeking God. But what Saul said next jumped out at me: “I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering” (v. 12).
I’ve always read this verse to mean something like, “I didn’t want to disobey, but I made myself, and did it anyway, against my better judgment.” I’m sure that this reading is correct. But “I forced myself” took on an entirely new meaning for me when I read it from my LXX the other day.
The Greek verb for “I forced myself” here is ἐγκρατεύομαι. This verb refers to having self-control, or mastering strong emotional impulses in order to make a clear decision.
- Paul used this verb in 1 Corinthians 7:9—But if they cannot contain (οὐκ ἐγκρατεύονται, “if they do not have self control” NET, NASB), let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
- Paul used this verb again in 1 Corinthians 9:25—And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things (πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται, “exercises self-control in all things” ESV).
- Genesis describes Joseph with this word when he was overcome with emotion when he saw his brothers— “And he washed his face, and went out, and refrained himself (ἐνεκρατεύσατο, “controlling himself” ESV, “regaining his composure” CSB)
This is the verb that Saul used when he told Samuel what he had done: “I exercised self-control, and disobeyed you.”
That was the problem, Saul! You took control. You willfully disobeyed the voice of God, even though everything inside you screamed that you were making a bad decision. You purposely silenced your conscience in order to do what you knew was wrong. You can’t brush this one off as a mistake, Saul: your emotions didn’t get the better of you. You weren’t carried away in a lustful passion, or overcome by years of grief. You didn’t loose control. No, you purposefully—with self-control—disobeyed God’s word to you.
Saul’s statement is so shocking because the concept of self-control is overwhelmingly positive in scripture. The noun form of this verb, ἐγκρατεία, is used multiple times in the NT—always as something righteous and godly (Acts 24:25, 1 Cor 7:9, 9:25, Titus 1:8, 2 Peter 1:6). Paul even lists it as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23!
Christians should be self-controlled—that is, of course, as long as we are being led by the Spirit. Our self-control must be submitted to God’s control. When God is controlling us, our self-control will be righteous. What we see with Saul is the exact opposite. He is self-controlled in the worst possible way—because he is controlled by self! God will often use our conscience: the Spirit will prick our heart that we are about to sin. But this is exactly the feeling that Saul over-ruled so that he could do what he felt was best.
If we consider our circumstances from a carnal perspective and do what seems right to us, we will sin every time. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12). “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil” (Proverbs 3:5-7). This is exactly what Saul did not do. Rather than fear the Lord, he feared the Philistines. Rather than fear the Lord, he used a sinful self-control to override his conscience and did what was right in his own eyes.
Notice this: Saul failed so badly here, because he did the right thing in the wrong direction. Saul used self-control to override his conscience and disobey God’s word. Instead, Saul should have used self-control to override his fear and wait for Samuel like God had said. The problem was not self-control per se, but how the self-control was used. The “fruit of the Spirit” quickly rots when we separate the “fruit” from “the Spirit.” Instead of self-controlling his conscience, he should have self-controlled his concerns.
I want to encourage us today. We should walk in the fruit of self-control, but not like Saul did! Godly self-control does not mean that self is in control. Rather, it means that, we control ourselves through God’s Spirit and in accordance with God’s word. We control self, but we don’t let self (alone) be in control. We let the Spirit control us, and then we control ourselves. When we try to do it on our own, we are forcing ourselves to sin!
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