Who Were the Sons of Issachar? And What Might They Mean for Us Today?

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, and so I am following up to dig a little deeper.

What does it mean? What does it mean for me? What does it mean in these times?

Obviously, these were men who were in tune with God’s purposes in the times they were experiencing. Thew context in which this description was when David was in hiding from King Saul. 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 banishment, men began coming over to him. In the beginning those men 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) Others, like the 200 sons of Issachar, joined David at Hebron, later.

By this time, 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.

We know the rest of the story, but they surely didn’t. They just believed that it was time for a change. Saul’s reign had run its course. Saul was out touch with God. His head had gotten to big. Pride had taken over, and he was no longer favored. He was losing his grip on reality and the kingdom.

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. There were 200 chiefs from the tribe of Issachar. And, then I noticed something else.

Men from all twelve tribes of Israel joined David at Hebron, but only 200 men came from the tribe of Issachar. The number of men who came from the other tribes were far greater, including 120,0000 men from Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 50,000 men from Zebulun, 40,000 from Asher, 37,000 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. They were men who continued to support Saul, the king God was rejecting. Only 200 of the entire tribe of Issachar were men of understanding – by far the least number of any of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Of all the tribes of Israel, the men of the tribe of Issachar were the least in tune with God’s plan and purposes! So much so that, while hundreds of thousands of men from the other tribes joined David, only 200 from the tribe of Issachar did so. Most of the sons of Issachar did not understand the times and did not know what Israel should do!

The backstory to all of this is that Saul was chosen (by God) as king, but only because the people 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 their king. (1 Samuel 8:6-9)

So how does that inform me and other Christians today?

I am not absolutely sure, but 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. (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 could be like a majority of the sons of Issachar – lacking understanding of the times and not knowing what should be done. There are evangelicals I have trusted, like my very good friend who prompted by meditation behind this piece, who stand strongly in favor of Donald Trump, believing sincerely that God has placed him in authority.

I don’t discount the last statement 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 the wanted in place of God.

I am not saying that Joe Biden is King David to Donald Trump as 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 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), and 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 all 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 gave her night to sleep with Jacob to Leah 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”, suggesting he was destined to a life of labor.

In Genesis 30:18, we read, “‘God hath given me,’ said Leah, ‘my hire [Heb. Sekhari]… and she called his name Issachar.'” Before Jacob died, he blessed each of his sons. The blessing 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.

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. I am not sure, though, whether it is all that helpful to draw such a comparison. The United States is not the new Israel, and I don’t believe we are the new Issachar (or sons of Issachar) ether.

Still, I find some instruction in all of this. 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 has never sat well for me. 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), has deeply troubled me.

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, are we on the ride of that equation? I don’t know.

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 hard 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 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) When Samuel prayed about it, 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 got 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.

(Still, God’s plans and purposes are being accomplished in the earth, in history, even in our own day.)

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