Samuel is one of my favorite Old Testament people, but his life shows the sometimes tragic limits of faithful leadership. Samuel was undoubtedly a good leader in Israel. He acted as the final Judge in a long line of judges. He was faithful to the Lord in such a way that he convinced Israel to destroy their idols and worship the Lord alone. He even went beyond the judges that came before him in that he not only fought for Israel, he interceded for them just as Moses did. He built an altar to the Lord just as Abraham did. He appointed his own sons to judge along with him, and with an eye to succeed him after he died. He even was the first circuit rider, traveling on a multi-point charge as he judged Israel rather than staying in one place (just like the early Methodists!).
Yet for all of this activity, for all of the leadership Samuel brought, and for all of the peace that was bestowed upon Israel through his leadership, Samuel had his limits. We read:
So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord. The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”
The people ultimately rejected Samuel’s leadership for two reasons. The first reason is tragic. Samuel’s two sons, just like Eli’s two sons, were not faithful and did not do what was correct. For all Samuel was able to do for the nation of Israel, he was not able to lead his own children into faithful service for the Lord. This had to be heartbreaking for Samuel, especially knowing firsthand how the Lord dealt with Eli’s sons, Phinheas and Hophni, and their unfaithfulness. This is a very stark warning to anyone in leadership in the Church–do not be so focused on others that you neglect to lead your own family with the same faith and grace you would offer others. Samuel may have thought the faith would simply be understood and accepted by his sons since they were around it all the time. Not only was he a judge, but he even built an altar at his home to worship the Lord. And although his sons grew up in this environment, Samuel did not lead them. They became greedy and wicked.
This was only the visible limitation to Samuel’s leadership, though, and the reason the Israelites give for rejecting it. The Lord shows the real reason–Samuel was not able to change the people’s hearts. He could lead them in battle. He could offer sacrifices on their behalf. He could judge rightly and justly for them, but he could not change their spirits and their attitudes towards God. This is another warning for anyone in Christian leadership–only the Holy Spirit can truly change a soul. People may follow us, listen to us, and learn from us, but if they have not truly experienced a transformation by the Holy Spirit they will only follow so long as they feel they can benefit from it.
The advantage we have today over Samuel is that God has given his Holy Spirit to the Church. God the Spirit lives with us and in us. He is in the transformation business, and as Christian leaders we must remember that real transformation is His business. As we lead, we must always remember that it is only through the Holy Spirit that real direction and momentum occurs. May we always depend upon the Spirit to do that work of transformation and not on our own abilities as leaders. If we forget this truth, we will be just like Samuel and find firsthand the limits of faithful leadership.