A friend of mine referred to the “sons of Issachar… who understood the times” recently when speaking of the evangelical support for Donald Trump. The reference comes from 1 Chronicles 12:32 where the “sons of Issachar” (descendants of Issachar) who joined with David were described as men “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do”.
As I drifted near consciousness in my sleep last night, the phrase came back to me and ran through my head. I roused myself from a semi-conscious state and gave myself a reminder to look up the reference.
I followed up the next day. What does it mean? What does it mean for me? What does it mean in these times?
These were men apparently understood the changing times in some unique way. Whether they were in tune with God’s purposes or simply saw that Saul was loosing stature in their society, while David was gaining in influence, we don’t know. My friend assumed the former meaning.
The context was a period in time when David was in hiding from King Saul. God was in the process of rejecting Saul and announced (at least to David) that He was making David king.
King Saul was pursuing David to kill him. Instead of confronting Saul, the man God chose as the King, forming a coupe and dethroning him, David went into hiding.
During his time of exile, men began coming over to join him. The initial surge of supporters included warriors from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s own relatives. (1 Ch. 12:2) Members of the tribe of Manasseh joined David even though their desertion of Saul could cost them their heads. (1 Ch. 12:19) Day after day, men came to David’s help at a place called Ziklag. (1 Ch. 12:20-22)
If the sons of Issachar knew the times, one might assume that they were among the first to join David, but that assumption would be wrong. They were not the first. They weren’t even in the first group. The 200 sons of Issachar joined David at Hebron, later.
God had rejected Saul as king, and it was only a matter of time for Saul’s demise. God was making a change, and David was the chosen one by God to replace Saul. We know today that David was also the man through whom God planned, eventually, to raise up the Messiah – the root of Jesse’s seed – Jesus.
Saul’s reign had run its course. Saul was out of touch with God. His head had gotten too big. Pride had taken over, and he no longer bowed to God in his heart. He was losing his grip on reality and the kingdom God had given him.
We know the rest of the story, but they surely didn’t. They just believed that it was time for a change. How much they knew of God’s role in this story is just conjecture. I think we might take for granted that they did, but we have the benefit of hindsight memorialized in Scripture.
As I read the story when I woke up in the morning, the number of the sons of Issachar who joined David struck me: 200 “chiefs” from the tribe of Issachar and all their kinsmen at their command. And, then I noticed something else.
Men from all twelve tribes of Israel joined David at Hebron, but only 200 men (“chiefs”) from the tribe of Issachar were identified. They might have had all their kinsmen at their command, but only 200 sons of Issachar actually joined David.
The number of men identified from the other tribes were far greater in number, including 120,0000 men from Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 50,000 men from Zebulun, 40,000 from Asher, 1000 “captains” and 37,000 men “with shield and spear” from Naphtali, and 28,600 from Dan.
So, what’s the big deal about only 200 men from Issachar? Why does Scripture say of them (and not of anyone else) that they were men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do?
One answer that occurs to me is that the rest of the “sons of Issachar” were not men who understood the times and did not know what Israel should do. Maybe only the chiefs understood the times, though they could assume men under their command would follow them. Maybe only 200 of the entire tribe of Issachar were men of understanding.
Were the 200 chiefs of the sons of Issachar the only people from all the tribes who understood the times? We don’t know. Why did God only identify the 200, not all the men under their command, as was done with the other tribes? I don’t know, but it seems significant that God was specific to identify 200 sons of Issachar in contrast to the far greater numbers identified from all the other tribes.
Of all the tribes of Israel, the men of the tribe of Issachar who came to David’s rescue were the least in number. Does that mean that they were least in tune with God’s plan and purposes?
God often works through the least, the smallest, the most unlikely.
The backstory to all of this is that Saul was chosen (by God) as king, but God only chose a king for the people because they wanted “a king like the other nations”. In demanding a king, the people were actually rejecting God. They were putting their trust in a king, rather than trusting God to be all they needed. (1 Samuel 8:6-9)
So how does that inform me and other Christians today?
People have used that phrase (men who understood the times) for the proposition that people who understand the times support Donald Trump. It’s possible that God is speaking to us today through this statement uniquely applied to 200 chiefs of the sons of Issachar many thousands of years ago. It’s possible.
It’s not like they were unique in coming to David, though. They were just 200 from among many thousands, and hundreds of thousands, from all the tribes of Israel who gathered with David. They weren’t even first or among the first.
The larger story of the biblical text is that the people wanted a king, and God gave them one (Saul), despite the fact that asking for an earthly king meant they were turning from their trust in God. In Saul’s fall from the grace, he was opening the door for God to give them David.
David, of course, was the seed of Jesse from whom the Messiah was to come. God gave the people a king they shouldn’t have asked for, but God worked through the disobedience and lack of faith His people displayed to fulfill His purposes anyway.
People who support the idea that the sons of Issachar are an example for us today to support Donald Trump find no support in Scripture, other than the bare assertion of it. That the people claiming these things are considered prophets by themselves and many who follow them is why people believe it.
Can God work through prophets? Of course. Does He still work through prophets? Why not? He is God!
We are exhorted: “Do not despise prophecies….” (1 Thess. 5:20) We dare not be so cavalier as to dismiss them out of hand.
But there is a second half to that admonition: “test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) This is a warning to be prudent, circumspect and cautious with prophecy. Many are the false prophets, both in days gone by, and no doubt now.
We have Scripture to guide us. No prophetic word today should be contrary to what God has already said. No prophetic word should be contrary to the principles God has given us. No prophetic word should be contrary to the spirit and heart of God that has been revealed to us.
The reference to the sons of Issachar knowing the times could be applied to justify just about anything. It isn’t a proof text, though it does highlight the importance of being fully informed and fully in tune with what is going on around us and in tune with the Holy Spirit and with God’s heart and character.
While “knowing the times” has some general application to us, I see another aspect of this story with more poignant and clearer application today.
This is how I am seeing things right now. I have long been thinking that the evangelical support for Donald Trump was like the nation of Israel asking for a king. (See Is Donald Trump the King We Wanted?) I have been skeptical that the presidency of Trump means that God has blessed us. (See Donald Trump, the Zealot; Trump, Evangelicals and the Road Ahead; and Donald Trump, Fruit and Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.)
I would very much like to be wrong in my skepticism, and I am deeply concerned that I might not understand the times like the sons of Issachar. There are evangelicals I have trusted, like my very good friend who prompted the meditation behind this piece, who stand strongly in favor of Donald Trump, believing sincerely that God has placed him in authority for the blessing of believers.
I don’t discount the statement that God placed Trump in authority at all. Indeed, “there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Romans 13:1) We must say the same thing, though, about Barack Obama if we are going to say it about Donald Trump. Indeed, we must say it about King Saul as we must say it about King David – even though in giving the people King Saul, God was giving them a king they wanted in place of God.
I am not saying that Joe Biden is King David to Donald Trump as King Saul. All analogies and comparisons break down at some point. I don’t suggest for a minute that we should take this one that far. Joe Biden is no King David!
For that matter, too, the United States is not the nation of Israel. We are not God’s chosen people. God does not have a plan to sprout a new Messiah from the root of George Washington (or any other “founding father” of this country). To suggest something along those lines, I believe, is a grievous error that crosses over into idolatry at some point.
These were the thoughts in my head as I did a little more digging into Issachar and the sons of Issachar in the Bible, looking for more clues as to what this might mean for me, for us. This is what I found.
Issachar was Jacob’s 9th son, born of Leah. Jacob preferred Rachel, but Rachel was childless and couldn’t conceive. Rachel made a deal with Leah for some “roots that would aid her fertility”, and Leah obtained the blessing from Rachel to sleep with Jacob in exchange. Jewish tradition says that Leah “hired” Jacob for the night, renting him from Rachel. (See Tribe of Issachar: History, Symbol & Facts at study.com) The name, Issachar, means “man for hire”.
In Genesis 30:18, Leah said, “‘God hath given me my hire [Heb. sekhari]… and she called his name Issachar.'” One commentator suggests that Issachar was conceived as a matter of hire and was, therefore, destined to a life of labor.
Before Jacob died, he blessed each of his sons. The individual blessings defined the characteristics and fortunes of each son and his descendants. This was Jacob’s blessing of Issachar (Gen. 49:14-15):
Issachar is a strong donkey, Lying down between two burdens; He saw that the rest was good, And that the land was pleasant; He bowed his shoulder to bear a burden, And became a band of slaves.
Interestingly, the land allotted to the tribe (the sons) of Issachar was and is the richest portion of the land inhabited by the twelve tribes of Israel.
(See Issachar at biblestudytools.com)
“Issachar’s personality translated into the fate of his tribe. As the blessing implies, Issachar’s tribe found a pleasant land to settle in once the region of Canaan was conquered and divided between the twelve tribes. It was a fertile land, somewhere in the central spans of the region, and the Issachar people eventually became prosperous from their manual labor working the land. Due to this, they also became the third most populous of the tribes (according to biblical censuses), which could be reflected in Jacob’s reference to them as a ‘strong’ donkey.” (See Tribe of Issachar: History, Symbol & Facts at study.com)
The description of Issachar as a strong donkey is somewhat characteristic, perhaps, of Americans. Donkeys are viewed as wild and crass. We certainly have that kind of reputation in the world. We are rugged, individualistic, strong-willed and opinionated. We are hard-working, and we live in a land that is rich in resources that we have turned into one of the wealthiest of lands in the world.
The description of Issachar as a strong, hard worker with something of a wild side living prosperously in a land of plenty could be an apt description of the United States as a nation. Proud and stubborn seems to fit with the rest of the description.
I do not doubt that God choose to have Donald Trump elected the President of the United States. I even voted for him, given the choices at the time, but his presidency should be an uneasy one for citizens of heaven. The quick and unquestioning defense of Donald’s Trump’s every move and comment by many Evangelicals (glossing over and sweeping under the rug some of the crazy and ungodly things he says and does), is deeply troubling.
Donald Trump does cater to Evangelicals in a way that no President in memory has done, and in many ways he has become our king. But, is he merely the king we wanted? Have we rejected God in demanding a king?
I am not saying we have a King David out there to rally behind, but we seem to have rested our faith in Trump to save us from declining political influence and loss of place in our present society and culture, which is, surely, leaning away from God.
Do we trust in a king to wrest the kingdom of the United States of American from the spirit of the day? Or do we trust God to work all things together for the good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purposes?
Samuel, the prophet who orchestrated the choosing of Saul as king, knew the score. He wasn’t pleased to have a king appointed as the people requested (1 Samuel 8:6), but his sons, who he had appointed as leaders “did not follow his ways[; t]hey turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Samuel 8:3) In some ways, Samuel was confronted with an impossible choice – much like the choices we have had in the last two elections.
When Samuel prayed about it, this is how God answered him:
“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. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly….” (1 Samuel 8:7-9)
I hear the warning in my spirit in this present time. We may have gotten what we wanted with Donald Trump, but I sense it comes with a solemn warning. We haven’t yet seen all that this warning entails. I believe that we have embraced the king we wanted, the king God gave us, but we embrace him to our detriment.
The saving grace is that God’s plans and purposes are being surely accomplished in the earth, throughout history, and even in our own day. Though the people were rejecting God in requesting a king, the kingship of Saul led to the kingship of David, the lineage into which God became incarnate in the form of Jesus.
At the same time, we have to recognize that God could have done it other ways. He could have raised David up apart from Saul, but God chose to work through the messiness and sin of His people. Though they rejected him in favor of a king, God did not reject them, and His purposes are still being accomplished despite the foibles and sin of Hs people.
I have continued to think, pray and ask God for clarity and for understanding in relation to these things. I have now written a postscript to this piece: Postscript to the Sons of Issachar Who Understood the Times.