Each year since I started this blog in 2012, I have reviewed the most read blog posts of the year. Certain posts on timeless themes, like “It is Well with my Soul: The Story” (from 2014), are perennial contenders. Not this year, though. That article doesn’t even make the top ten.
While some timeless “favorites” (recognizing this is a relative term here) tend to make the list each year, 2021 is marked by the emergence of relatively new writings and a new theme. We might call that theme the signs of the times. At least, we might say that writings which reflect the current times have emerged on top.
This article was written in September of 2020. At that time we were careening toward a contentious presidential election. Though it was written with only three months to the end of the year, it became the most read article of 2020 (beating out It is Well with My Soul), and it is the most read article in 2021 by far.
In fact, the Sons of Issachar article has quickly become the most read article of my blog, ever, beating out the 2014 article (It is Well with My Soul) three times over. That it grew out of my own angst leading up to the presidential election is certainly a sign of the times. We have had much angst in the last two years!
I have never highlighted a single article in my past annual summaries. This year is different. I will get to the summary, but first I will tell the back story and reflect on the significance of the Sons of Issachar article, which seems to have hit home with people.
I continue to process the events of the last year, and my reading through Scripture will sometimes call those things to mind. One of those ongoing events involved former President Trump and all the evangelical support he received regardless of whatever he said or did.
There were evangelicals who defended every word and action. Their support was unwavering, and prophets even prophesied that he would be reelected.
Obviously, they were wrong.
Let me say that again. They were wrong. If God spoke to them and said Trump would be re-elected, he would have won, regardless of any voter fraud.
Regardless of the circumstances in the world. God is sovereign. He knows those things. If God actually moved in those prophets to foretell the future, it would have come to pass. They were wrong! God didn’t prompt those prophecies.
More importantly, I want to focus on the evangelical support of Donald Trump. The unwavering support and relentless defense of Donald Trump troubled me greatly from before he was elected in 2016. I wrote often about it. The prophecies that he would be reelected troubled me even more.
They didn’t trouble me because of the thought that Trump might be reelected. Whatever God will do, He will do. If God wanted Donald Trump to be President for another four years, so be it. God establishes authorities. (Rom. 13:1)
The prophecies troubled me because Paul says we should not despise prophecy. (1 Thessalonians 5:20) We should, therefore, not take prophecy lightly. In that vein, I was troubled that I could be dead wrong about my assessment of Donald Trump and of what God is/was doing in our time.
I wrote about the Sons of Issachar who “understood the times” in an attempt to think, pray and write through it. The people who were saying that Donald Trump would be elected were claiming to be like the Sons of Issachar. They claimed to know what God was doing in our times, and they were one hundred percent behind Donald Trump who they claimed was God’s man for this time.
I was personally concerned that I had it all wrong. I am not a prophet, and I don’t claim to be one, though I feel sometimes that I have a prophetic bent in me (whatever that really means). I would not, however, and do not call myself a prophet.
I don’t predict things.
Not that predicting things is all the prophetic gift is about. I don’t think it is. I think the prophetic gift is about speaking the mind of God. It may include speaking the mind of God in a particular moment, to a particular person or people, or not. It may include speaking God’s mind and heart generally.
I believe people who preach can be prophetic in their preaching. There are teachers, and then there prophetic preachers.
Prophecy may (at times) be predictive, but I think it is more about speaking God’s mind and heart than the ability to predict things. For whatever reason, though, people are really interested in predicting things and knowing the future. In fact, we seem to be obsessed with it.
This isn’t anything new. The disciples asked Jesus many times about when the end would come. Jesus said it wasn’t for them to know the day or time. Still, they pressed him.
Throughout history are examples of people claiming to know the end times. Though, many people have predicted days and times, they have all been wrong.
Of course, someone someday might be right, so people continue to try….
Not that I think we should. Jesus said we wouldn’t know. I take him at his word.
We see this same kind of preoccupation with wanting to know the future in the Old Testament. I recently read the story of Israel’s King Ahab and Judah’s King Jehoshaphat coming together to attack the City of Ramoth Gilead that once belonged to Israel. This story has something to say to us today on the subject of prophecy, and it’s the backdrop for what I have on my mind today.
I wrote recently about King Saul and the question, which became a proverb, “Is Saul among the Prophets?” The oddity of Saul prophesying is implied in the question, and was apparently a significant enough point that it comes up not once, but twice in the narrative of Saul’s life. (See 1 Samuel 19:23-24)
Prophesying was out of character for Saul. He wasn’t known as a spiritual man, and he didn’t even make a great king. Yet, he was God’s chosen man to be Israel’s first king.
Saul wasn’t king for very long before God made it clear to Samuel, the prophet, that we rejecting Saul as king and would be replacing him with another man – a man after God’s heart. (1 Samuel 13:14) From this (and the narrative of Saul’s life itself), we know that Saul was not a man after God’s heart.
So why did God make him king?
Perhaps, it was an object listen in what happens when we reject God. Remember that the people demanded a king like the other nations around them. They were rejecting God in demanding a king, but God told Samuel to give them what they wanted anyway. Perhaps, God chose a king for them who was like them – not after God’s heart.
Perhaps, God wanted to demonstrate for the people that their desire for a king was a bad idea, so he gave them a bad king. Maybe. But then he gave them “good” kings (David and Solomon). They also had many worse kings!
I continue to mull over the uncharacteristic event of Saul prophesying (twice!) and the apparent fact that it was so out of character for him. It wasn’t what he said (we don’t know what he said), but the fact that he prophesied at all that was noteworthy.
Further, it seems that Saul wasn’t a willing mouthpiece either time he prophesied. The second time, he went looking in Ramah for David to kill him. David was hiding there from Saul. When Saul got there, though, he was overcome by the Spirit of God and began prophesying with the prophets there – “day and night” Saul lay naked and prostrate on the ground.
God stopped Saul from killing David by overcoming him with prophecy. Strange! Is it not?
In the previous article on the subject of Saul prophesying, I drew the conclusion that the prophecies are not the story here: the story here is the heart of the man (whether it be Saul or David).
Samuel prophesied that Saul would be made king, but Saul didn’t embrace or internalize the prophecies told by Samuel. Saul’s life would have been different, perhaps, if he had stepped up to the kingly anointing he received. Instead, he deviated from God at every turn.
Samuel’s prophecies did come true, but the end result was less than one might expect. Saul did become king, but he was a lousy king, and he certainly was not a man after God’s heart.
Saul wasn’t even king for long when God told Samuel He was taking the kingdom away because of Saul’s bad decisions. Samuel was led by God to David, who was merely a shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep, and anointed him to become king long before Saul ceased to be king. (1 Samuel 16:12-13) This happened even before David rose to fame by killing Goliath. (1 Samuel 17)
We might imagine that something as momentous as this anointing should be followed immediately by the act of making David king, but it wasn’t so. David simply went back to tending his father’s sheep!
David wasn’t even part of the army that was mustered to face the threat of the gathering Philistine horde. He was still tending his father’s sheep and running errands from his father to his brothers as they prepared for battle.
The Philistines faced off with Saul’s army for 40 days. All this time, David went back and forth between tending his father’s sheep and taking supplies to his brothers. (1 Samuel 17:14-18) David wasn’t supposed to be there the day he faced off with Goliath, except that he was delivering supplies.
Remember that Saul responded reluctantly to the anointing Samuel gave him and hid when Samuel came to announce the kingship publicly. David’s response to the anointing by Samuel seems to be even less robust than Saul’s response! David simply went back to tending sheep.
We know David didn’t lack the faith to rise to the kingly anointing, though, because of what happens next. David was bringing supplies to his brothers when he hears the taunts of the giant, Goliath. When David saw that no one was willing to stand up to the Philistine, David rose to the occasion.
David’s faith in God led him to stand up to the giant, Goliath, in the face of the huge army of the Philistines! Thus, we are right to conclude that David wasn’t shrinking back from the anointing, as Saul did, when he went back to tend his father’s sheep.
It’s also worth noting the curious focus on Saul prophesying in this narrative, while we read nothing at all about David prophesying. This is curious, first of all because Saul was an unlikely prophet. More importantly, we know from the Psalms that David was prophetic! Jesus quoted David’s words that prophetically anticipated the coming of Jesus, the Messiah! (See, for instance, Psalm 110)
So, what does this have to do with prophecy or with having a heart for God? I will get to that, but first there is more to the story….
The question – “is Saul among the prophets?” – was a question that was a matter of public discussion in Israel in the 11th Century BCE, which is when King Saul lived according to the biblical timeline. The incident that gave rise to the question was such a big deal that the question became known as a “proverb”. (1 Samuel 10:12)
What is it with this question? How and why did it become a “proverb”? What is the back story?
Twice Saul prophesied with the prophets. These incidents were considered so remarkable that the Israelites were abuzz about it. The attention they receive, however, was probably not a compliment. the people found it remarkable because Saul was an unlikely prophet. He also was an unlikely king. In fact, he was pretty much a failure as king.
Saul, of course, was the first king of Israel, but he wasn’t known for his leadership or his spirituality. He was just the kind of person God often chooses – an unlikely candidate – but Saul didn’t rise to the challenge.
Saul’s story begins while he is searching for his father’s lost sheep. His path leads him to the prophet, Samuel. Before they meet, God tells Samuel He is choosing Saul as Israel’s king. Samuel orchestrates a big dinner and anoints Saul to be the future king among a small group of people. (You can read a good summary of the details here.)
Saul was just looking for some lost donkeys, so the turn of events was wholly unexpected by him, and it seems he was likely a bit unsettled by it. Saul wasn’t ready to be a king. Even after Samuel predicts three signs meant to convince Saul of the authenticity of the kingly anointing, Saul seems less than willing to embrace God’s anointing.
Two of the signs Samuel gave him come true, but Saul doesn’t grasp what he is supposed to do. The third sign comes true when Saul encounters some prophets, and this encounter gives rise to the proverbial question: “[T]he Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them”. (1 Samuel 10:11)
Saul continues to seem clueless, though, even after the fulfillment of three unlikely predictions. When he gets back home, he doesn’t tell his uncle that Samuel said he would be king or about the anointing. He doesn’t talk about the signs, all of which came true on his way home.
Given Saul’s less than hardy reaction to the declaration that he would be king, we know that Saul wasn’t “playing along” or faking it when he prophesied. At best, he was a reluctant participant. He might have even been an unwilling vessel!
Thus, the question: Is Saul among the prophets? Saul was not known to bea prophet. Saul wasn’t a particularly spiritual man. This wasn’t the only time, though, that Saul prophesied with the prophets. The second time was even more “out of character”.
I have been puzzling on these things in light of more current events – the prophesies about Donald Trump and a certain emphasis on prophecy in a segment of the church today. The tie in to more recent events prompts me to dig deeper into the story of Saul.
I wrote a piece on the Sons of Issachar recently. They are referenced in 1 Chronicles 12:32. The Sons of Issachar were 200 chiefs of the descendents of Issachar who joined David with a multitude from the other tribes of Israel when David was hiding from Saul who sought to kill David.
Saul was Israel’s first king. He was the king the people demanded, and God gave them, despite the fact that they were rejecting God as their king in the process. Saul got caught up in his own power and position. Saul was beginning to lose touch with reality, developing jealousy toward David. Saul suspected David was out to get him. Thus, he sought to kill David.
God, in turn, was about to reject Saul as king because he ceased to listen and follow God’s instruction given through the prophet, Samuel. God had already chosen David to succeed Saul, because he was a man after God’s own heart.
David, for his part, loved and honored Saul because God had made him king. David had multiple opportunities to kill Saul, but he refused to do it, leaving Saul’s fate (and his own fate) completely in God’s hands.
Still, men from every tribe of Israel began to gather where David was hiding, including men from Saul’s own tribe (Benjamin). They were some of the first men to join David. The 200 chiefs of the Sons of Issachar also joined David. Scripture says of them, specifically, that they were men “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do”.
That phrase has been invoked by people who style themselves modern prophets who support the presidency of Donald Trump. They claim, of course, that they are men who understand the times. They claim to know what the United States should do, particularly in regard to Donald Trump.
I don’t dismiss what they say out of hand. God has spoken at various times through people considered to be prophets. One of the hallmarks of “the last days” is prophecy, visions and dreams. Peter announced the last days were starting when he stood up on the Day of Pentecost and quoted the prophet, Joel:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-32)
Though some people believe that these displays of God’s power and authority were only for a dispensation in time, long enough for the Holy Spirit to lead the disciples into the truth and preserve it in what we now call the New Testament, I don’t see evidence of that in the New Testament itself. I think we should expect God to work through people today through prophecy, visions and dreams, and I believe He does!
We, in the west, are not very open to God working that way. We have staked out our position on the embankment of reason, logic, and “sound doctrine”. We are quite uncomfortable with the “messiness” of experiential phenomena like prophecy, visions and dreams.
Yet, outside our western sanctuaries and cloistered halls of learning, these phenomena are regular experiences of Christian life. People who have done short-term or long-term missions often encounter these phenomena in places where people are not presumptively skeptical of what God can do.
Visions and dreams are ubiquitous in the stories of Muslims coming to faith in Christ. I once spoke with a Muslim woman who described for me a vision of Jesus coming to her in the midst of a near death experience she lived through. She described a subsequent “waking vision” of Jesus gaining her attention in the nick of time to save her son from being hit by a bus. She became a believer in Jesus because of these visions, though no one preached a word to her.
Her supernatural visions, though, didn’t lead her to a place of sound understanding of God and His word. They caused her to believe in God and Jesus, but she gravitated toward extremes in biblical understanding. This is just an anecdote, but I think there is a lesson to take away from it.
It would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the prophecies, visions and dreams that people claim to have today, but we also need to be careful. Paul admonished the Thessalonians, “Do not despise prophecies…!” (1 Thess. 5:20) But he added an important qualifier: