In 1 Samuel 8, Israel makes a most wicked demand of Samuel: “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (1Sam 8:5). Two verses later, Yahweh confirms that this is not a rejection of Samuel, but a rejection of God Himself as the King of Israel (1Sam 8:7; cf. 10:19). And though Samuel spends nine verses warning them that they’re replacing the Omnipotent God with a puny human (1Sam 8:10–18), they don’t back off. “No,” they shout, as defiantly as resolutely. “But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1Sam 8:19–20).
In chapter 12, Samuel demonstrates their wickedness to them by praying down a thunderstorm that destroys their wheat harvest (1Sam 12:16–18). Now, a thunderstorm at wheat harvest time in Israel is like getting six inches of snow in L.A. on the Fourth of July. And so Israel gets the picture, and they actually repent. They ask Samuel to intercede for them because they’ve acknowledged that they have “added to all our sins this evil by asking for ourselves a king” (12:19).
Yahweh’s Response: Gracious Forgiveness
Now, there can be no mistake that Israel’s demand for a king was a wicked breach of covenant loyalty to Yahweh. And the apprehension of that wickedness should lead to fearful repentance. But once it had—once Israel acknowledged her sin and called out for intercession—Yahweh’s immediate response is: “Do not fear.”
Let that land on you! He doesn’t dismiss an ounce of what they’ve done. He doesn’t sweep any of their faithlessness under the rug. In fact, He reaffirms it. The Hebrew is emphatic there: “You indeed have committed all this evil. Yes. You’re guilty. But: do not fear.” This is astounding! A king just doesn’t treat treasonous subjects this way. Traitors who have been disloyal to the throne don’t hear, “Do not fear.” They get their heads chopped off! How can God be so gripped with righteous anger one minute, and then abound with merciful forbearance the next? What is the basis of this gracious forgiveness?
The Basis of His Forgiveness
Verse 22: “For Yahweh will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because Yahweh has been pleased to make you a people for Himself.”
The basis of God’s gracious forgiveness is His covenant faithfulness—His unwavering commitment to uphold the honor and glory of His own name. See, because Yahweh has bound Himself in covenant to Israel—because He has made them a people for Himself—for Him to abandon them and break that covenant with them would be to dishonor His own name, to besmirch His own reputation.
And this concept of covenant faithfulness characterizes Yahweh’s dealings with Israel throughout their history. 2 Samuel 7:23 says that God redeemed Israel for Himself as a people, and to make a name for Himself. Psalm 106:7–8 says that He saved Israel at the Red Sea for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known. Jeremiah 13:11 says that God made Israel cling to Him so that “they might be for Me a people, for renown, for praise and for glory.” The Lord had always told them, “The acts of grace which I pour out on you are not designed to make much of you, but to make much of Me. All of this is for My name’s sake.”
Beyond that, at the times in Israel’s history where they had absolutely blown it, their leaders who had remained faithful to Yahweh prayed for grace on the basis of God’s own commitment to Israel in covenant. Moses couldn’t even get down from Mount Sinai before the people had prevailed upon Aaron to make them the golden calf. God sees it and tells Moses, “Leave me alone. I’m going to destroy them, and I’ll start over with you.”
And then Moses prays on the basis of God’s covenant faithfulness. He says, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever’” (Exod 32:11–13). Do you see what Moses does? He says, “You swore, Lord! You swore by Yourself! Don’t break your covenant, and give Egypt a reason to speak evil of Your great name!” And what does God do? On the basis of His love for His own name, He relents (Exod 32:14; cf. also Deut 9:27–29; Josh 7:8–9; Dan 9:15–19).
Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel is grounded in His free, sovereign pleasure to enter into covenant with them and make them a people for Himself. And even though they had sinned in this great way, their righteousness was never the basis for God’s election of that nation. And because of that, their failures would not send him away. One commentator puts it this way: “Israel was inextricably held in the iron grip of God’s love.” And even if they are disobedient and the covenant curses come upon them, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).
And dear friends, I hope you can see how this translates to our situation—how this is enormously relevant for you and me as New Testament believers. Just as God had entered into covenant with Israel, owing to nothing in them but based entirely on His sovereign pleasure, He has united you to His Son Jesus Christ by faith, and has grafted you in to the rich olive tree of New Covenant blessings. And so even when we sin grievously, even when we act like we haven’t been transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:12-13), even if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself (2Tim 2:13). The great assurance for the believer in any age who is covenant-bound to Yahweh is that He pursues our benefit with the same zeal that He has for His own reputation.
Matthew Henry writes, “Had he chosen us for our good merits, we might fear He would cast us off for our bad merits; but, choosing us for His name’s sake, for His name’s sake He will not leave us.”
Our hope rests securely in God’s love for His own name.
Our Response to His Forgiveness
And so if the basis of God’s gracious forgiveness is His covenant faithfulness, what is our response to it? Samuel tells us in vv. 20–21: “…yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.” Don’t fear. Don’t run away. Serve. Pursue Yahweh all the more.
Now, why would sinners need to be told this? Because the flesh’s natural response to being found guilty is to run from God. Our first parents taught us that, didn’t they? Adam ate the fruit, their eyes were opened, they saw they were naked, and they were ashamed so they covered up (Gen 3:7). And when Adam heard God coming, he ran and hid because he was ashamed (Gen 3:10).
And don’t we do the very same thing, friends? When we’ve blown it again, and find ourselves in that familiar place of confession, we wonder, “Why in the world would He ever take me back?” Our natural response is to turn and hide from Him in shame, to continue to wallow in the sorrow of our sin. We even ask ourselves how bad we have to feel before we can go back again! But God commands us to run to Him! And do you know why? Because the basis of your acceptance is not your worth to Him, but His worth to Him! All your hope rests on how much the glory of His name means to Him!
And do you know why else? Because there’s nowhere else to go. Seriously. Where would you go? Who else can forgive your sin? Who else can profit? Who else can deliver? Who else can make you “stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 1:24)? Nobody can. Just as He taught Adam and Eve by replacing their fig leaves with loincloths: Only God can provide covering for sin (cf. Gen 3:21).
Don’t Run From, Run To
And so when you’re in that familiar spot—on your face again, confessing that same sin again, after asking for another king to rule over you again—don’t fear. Don’t wallow in your guilt. Don’t try to make atonement. Yes, you have committed all this evil, but don’t respond to that sinful impulse to hide from Christ. There is no one else who can deliver you from that sin. So don’t turn aside from following Him. Pursue Him all the more. He won’t abandon you, because He’s been pleased to make you a people for Himself. And because He has given His Word, He pursues your benefit with the same allegiance that He has for His own name. Spurgeon says, “I tell you, if He were to shut you out, dear soul, whoever you may be, … [He would] alter His whole character and un-Christ Himself.” Spurgeon says, He wouldn’t be Jesus anymore! But of course our Lord is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
This is God’s covenant faithfulness. His faithfulness to Himself is the basis of His faithfulness to His people. And may that reality delightfully compel your faithfulness to Him as you walk by faith in Christ Jesus.
UPDATE: I’ve since had the opportunity to preach this as part of a sermon on 1 Samuel 12:19-25. You can listen to the whole sermon here.