The Donkeys and the King
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The Donkeys and the King

1 Samuel 9:1-27  (ID: 3371)

Change was on the horizon for Israel as the nation anticipated its new king. This time of transition was not marked by God’s absence, though. Instead, it highlighted His providential care for His people. Walking us through the events that led the future king, Saul, to meet Samuel, the prophet of God, Alistair Begg helps us see that God uses even the ordinary, mundane details of our lives to bring about His purposes.


Sermon Transcript:

I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and chapter 9 and follow along as I read this chapter. First Samuel 9 and from verse 1:

“There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.

“Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to Saul his son, ‘Take one of the young men with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys.’ And he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then they passed through the land of Benjamin, but did not find them.

“When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, ‘Come, let us go back, lest my father cease to care about the donkeys and become anxious about us.’ But he said to him, ‘Behold, there is a man of God in this city, and he is a man who is held in honor; all that he says comes true. So now let us go there. Perhaps he can tell us the way we should go.’ Then Saul said to his servant, ‘But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What do we have?’ The servant answered Saul again, ‘Here, I have with me a quarter of a shekel of silver, and I will give it to the man of God to tell us our way.’ (Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ for today’s ‘prophet’ was formerly called a seer.) And Saul said to his servant, ‘Well said; come, let us go.’ So they went to the city where the man of God was.

“As they went up the hill to the city, they met young women coming out to draw water and said to them, ‘Is the seer here?’ They answered, ‘He is; behold, he is just ahead of you. Hurry. He has come just now to the city, because the people have a sacrifice today on the high place. As soon as you enter the city you will find him, before he goes up to the high place to eat. For the people will not eat till he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those who are invited will eat. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.’ So they went up to the city. As they were entering the city, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the high place.

“Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: ‘Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.’ When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, ‘Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.’ Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, ‘Tell me where is the house of the seer?’ Samuel answered Saul, ‘I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house?’ Saul answered, ‘Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?’

“Then Samuel took Saul and his young man and brought them into the hall and gave them a place at the head of those who had been invited, who were about thirty persons. And Samuel said to the cook, ‘Bring the portion I gave you, of which I said to you, “Put it aside.”’ So the cook took up the leg and what was on it and set them before Saul. And Samuel said, ‘See, what was kept is set before you. Eat, because it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.’

“So Saul ate with Samuel that day. And when they came down from the high place into the city, a bed was spread for Saul on the roof, and he lay down to sleep. Then at the break of dawn Samuel called to Saul on the roof, ‘Up, that I may send you on your way.’ So Saul arose, and both he and Samuel went out into the street.

“As they were going down to the outskirts of the city, Samuel said to Saul, ‘Tell the servant to pass on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.’”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

With our Bibles open before us, gracious God, we acknowledge that the Word of God does the work of God by the Spirit of God in the people of God. So we look away from ourselves, and we look into your Word. Speak, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, times of transition can be occasions of excitement, perhaps of fear, usually of uncertainty. And the way in which individuals or families or nations handle those transitional times reveals quite a bit about what they believe, and their behavior reveals it. At a very personal level, moving from adolescence to adulthood is a significant move, from school to college, from work to retirement, from marriage to widowhood, from fitness to frailty—they’re all moments of transition. And here in chapter 9, we have a huge transition in the nation of Israel. We have gone from Eli the priest to Samuel the judge and prophet, and now the people of Israel are about to have their first king. And this is a huge move. You’ll remember at the end of chapter 8, God has said to Samuel, “Go ahead, then, and obey their voice”—that is, obey the voice of the people—“and make them a king.”[1] And, of course, chapter 9 now provides the record of how this took place.

Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were at least half a dozen people who began to immediately say, “What possible relevance can this have for us?” After all, many of you are digital natives. In other words, you haven’t had the privilege of knowing a time when it wasn’t like this. You just don’t know. It’s been like this ever since you were born. You just live in a world, you’ve been embraced by a world, that is full of Facebook and Instagram and Twitters and everything else. And people like me, Neanderthals, digital immigrants, are up here with a Bible explaining to you that 1 Samuel chapter 9 is actually of vital importance.

Well, underpinning all of our study of Samuel—and indeed, all of our study of the Old Testament—is a verse to which we keep returning. And I do so purposefully, that it would finally settle in our minds. You remember when Paul, after making a quote from the Psalms, says to the church in Rome—this is Romans 15:4—“Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”[2] In other words, the Bible, and our study of the Old Testament in particular, as we’re there now, it is comprehensive: everything that was written in the past, including 1 Samuel 9. It is at the same time contemporary, insofar as it was written to teach us. Paul was writing in the first century to the church at Rome; we’re living in the twenty-first century as part of the church in Cleveland. And the contemporary relevance of the Old Testament is assured for us. And insofar as Paul in that instance was quoting from the Psalms, which is a direct reference in that third verse to Jesus himself, it is a reminder to us of the fact that our study of the Old Testament is ultimately christological, insofar as it is bringing us again and again to a discovery of who Jesus is and why he came.

God works in and through the apparently random details of life.

In other words, our study is not theoretical; it is practical. And it is practical insofar as in Scripture, God continues to speak through what he has spoken. He continues to speak through what he has spoken. If you’re driving around in the community, every so often you will see a large sign that simply says, “God is still speaking.” And, of course, he is. The real question is, how is he speaking? And the answer is, he is speaking as he has always spoken: through his Word. And he does not speak to contradict his Word or to change his Word or even to clarify his Word, for it is in need of none of the above.

So when you read the Old Testament, when you read 1 Samuel 9, this is not simply a source of information for people with kind of antiquarian interests—people who like to go to museums and stuff like that. But what you actually have is a divinely revealed commentary on human life. And therefore, it provides each of us with guidance in the conduct of our own lives.

Now, what we’re going to discover and what our plan is, is to find encouragement together by seeing how God works in and through the apparently random details of life. All right? You say, “Well, what is this address about?” It’s about seeking the encouragement of God’s Word by understanding how God works through the mundane and apparently random details of our lives. Now, when you consider that the story here is so far removed from us, it is important that we actually believe this. God is the one who upholds the universe. God is the one who directs all things to its appointed end.

And so this is a very different perspective from the notion, for example, that runs through a lot of the lyrical material of my favorite lyricist of the twentieth century. You’re bored hearing about him, but I think he has encapsulated for us the spirit of the age as well as anyone. When I was thirteen and he was twenty-four, he wrote a song called “Patterns.” That’s 1965. Goes like this:

From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death
There are patterns I must follow,
Just as I must breathe each breath.
Like a rat in a maze,
The path before me lies,
And the pattern never alters
Until the rat dies.[3]

Now, it’s hard to follow that by saying, “Have a good day!” But as you drive tomorrow morning on the same road, to the same office, to the same task, surrounded by the same people, realize this: that without God and without an understanding of the providence of God, while men and women may not be prepared to put it as graphically and as tragically as that, nevertheless, the lives of men and women move through their days, unclear about the very things that become clear in 1 Samuel 9.

The Proverbs give it to us perfectly in Proverbs 16:9: “A man’s heart”—a woman’s heart too—“devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”[4] And the great mystery of this is how it is that God accomplishes his fixed purpose while we think and act freely. How does God accomplish his fixed purpose while we think and act freely? You see, because man without a free will is a machine, and God without his unchangeable purpose ceases to be God. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of [God] that will stand.”[5] Our liberty does not interfere with God’s secret purpose. And although he is the first cause of all things, he routinely uses secondary causes and various means, as we’re about to see—to which you say, “Yes, hurry up”—which he chooses to use in order to bring his purpose from all of eternity about.

Now, it is that background which I give to you in order to set 1 Samuel 9 solidly, if you like, within the foundation of the doctrine of providence. For that is what this is: that we are not bobbing around on the sea of chance; we are not held in the grip of blind and deterministic forces; we are being schooled in the school of God’s providence. And the good, the bad, the ugly, the foolish, the disastrous, the wise, the encouraging, the difficult, and the uncertain are all brought underneath the sovereign control of a God who does all things well. For he who is the judge of all the earth—who will, as we sang in the psalm, judge his people in righteousness[6]—“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”[7] That is our ultimate security.

Now, let’s to the chapter, and I’ll go swiftly, thereby leaving plenty for you to enjoy later on, on your own. Chapter 9 and verse 1: “There was a man of Benjamin.” Well, that’s a good start, isn’t it? It ought to tell you something. You ought to say, “I think we had that before.” Yes, we did. That’s how the book began. First Samuel 1:1: “There was a certain man.” And what the storyteller is doing here is essentially pointing, in this simple way, to the fact that the storyline is about to advance once again. At the end of chapter 8, the readers, ourselves included, have been wondering how it is that God is going to actually anoint and secure this king. He’s given the charge to Samuel. Samuel hasn’t immediately set about the task. In fact, at the end of chapter 8, we saw that he sent everybody home; he said, “Go every man to his city,”[8] and Samuel presumably had gone to his as well. There, of course, we know, at the end of 7, he had built an altar. There he would have these sacrifices and meals, and he would go out on his circuit year by year and then eventually come back again.[9] I think probably that’s where he’s been as we meet him again now.

The transition is about to take place, and the storyline unfolds: “There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish,” and he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. That’s not a lot of material. The genealogy is there for us. Incidentally, of course, you do know that there was another Saul who was from the tribe of Benjamin. When he gave his credentials in Philippians chapter 3, as “a Hebrew of [the] Hebrews” and so on about his background, he mentioned that he was himself a Benjaminite.[10] But this man, we’re told, was wealthy—or, if you have the Authorized Version, that he was “a mighty man of power.” But his significance is not found in Mr. Kish. The significance of his mention is there in verse 2: because of the son that he had.

Now, those of us who have been reading this story will be putting the pieces together if we are thoughtful. We say, “Okay, here we go again. We’ve got another father-son story. The first two that we’ve had haven’t been particularly good. Eli and the boys, not a good finish. Samuel and the boys, not a good finish. Now this Mr. Kish, he has a son. I wonder how that’s going to be?”

If you’re reading this with your grandchildren, you read it slowly, you read it properly. Bring them along with you: “There was a man. His name was Mr. Kish. He had a boy.”

“What was his boy like?”

“Well, he was really handsome.”

“How handsome?”

“He was the most handsome boy in the whole of Israel. Nobody was more handsome than him.”

“Wow! That is handsome. How tall was he?”

“He was really tall.”

“How tall?”

“Well, if you stood next to him, you wouldn’t even have a chance, ’cause he was head and shoulders above everybody that ever showed up.”

Now, you’re the reader. You’re going, “Now, wait a minute. They asked for a king. They asked for a king who would be able to go out and lead them in battle—maybe like a big, handsome king, huh?” So we don’t know. We’re reading.

In chapter 8 we had that little piece about the best of men and their donkeys. You can just find that on your own. And now here we are: we go into chapter 9, and we find the best man and the story about his dad’s donkeys. Incidentally, Saul’s name means “asked for.” “Asked for.” And in chapter 8, the people of Israel asked for a king. And now they are about to get “Asked For,” which is, of course, what they asked for. You should be able to remember that. Mr. Saul. They asked for him. Well, he’s “Asked For.” That’s the start, verses 1 and 2.

Now verse 3: “Now the donkeys of Kish…” You can feel it building already, can’t you? The sense of expectation that is created in the first two verses, and we come to verse 3, and the opening line, it’s virtually anticlimactic, isn’t it? Immediately saying to ourself, “Why are we starting on donkeys? We were off to a good start there.” Little did father or son know what the donkey search was going to lead to. What we’re going to discover, of course, by the time we get to verse 18—and we will get to verse 18—by the time we get there, we discover that while Kish was sending Saul to look for donkeys, God was sending Saul to Samuel by means of secondary causes.

How were Saul and Samuel going to meet? As a result of a big banner in the sky? As a result of a thunderclap? Some divine invasion? No! That’s the significance of the story. If we had met them on one occasion and said, “So how did the two of you meet?” the opening line from Saul would have been, “Well, my father’s donkeys ran away.” We’re like, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re asking how you met.” “I’m telling you how we met.” You mean the king of Israel met the prophet of God as a result of some donkeys running away? Are you telling me that God Almighty achieves his purposes in and through the apparently random, mundane bits and pieces of life? Well, you’re sensible people. Look at the text.

So off they go to look. And the way in which it’s described creates that sense of expectation and anticipation: “Take one of the young men …, look for the donkeys.” And they “passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were[n’t] there.”

This is like… This is almost like, you know, “The Three Pigs.” It’s the same kind of thing, you see, when you tell a story like that. You say, “‘I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down’—but it didn’t get blown down. And then they tried another one. And it didn’t get blown down either.” This is what’s happening here, you see. They could have just said, “And they went to look for the donkeys, but nobody could find them.” But that wouldn’t be a good story. And this is a story. It’s a true story! But it’s a story.

God Almighty achieves his purposes in and through the apparently random, mundane bits and pieces of life.

Incidentally, if you find me or my colleagues able to preach the same sermon no matter what the genre of the text is, you know that we quit studying a long time ago. Because it is the genre—the genre of the text—that must determine how you present the text. I could give you six points that I invented that I stuck on the top of this. You would be quite impressed. But if you thought about it, you say, “Where did he get that from?” So I’m only giving you what is said here, so that you can follow the storyline.

The donkeys. “Go and search for the donkeys.” They can’t find them. And so the big handsome fellow says, “I think we should chuck it.” That’s verse 5: “When they came to the land of Zuph…” Now, I don’t want to divert all the time, but Zuph should ring a bell for at least three people. Because the way the book starts: “There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim”—remember how excited we were when we started there?—“whose name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, [the] son of Elihu, [the] son of Tohu, [the] son of Zuph, an Ephrathite.”[11] So we say, “Wait a minute. That means that the big fellow and his servant, after roaming around the hill country of Ephraim, now find themself in the land of Samuel himself.” Because Zuph was Samuel’s great-great-great-grandfather!

Now, the son cares about his dad, says, “Probably we should go back. He’ll be more worried about us than he was worried about the donkeys.” Verse 6, and the servant says, “I don’t think so”: “But he said to him, ‘Behold, there is a man of God in this city, and he is a man who is held in honor; [and] all that he says comes true.’” That’s so that we as the readers are beginning to say, “Maybe this is Samuel.” Because we know that Samuel, when he was appointed by God, it was told of him that his words were such that none of them fell to the ground.[12] He told the truth all the time, even if it cost. He was a good preacher. And so the servant says, “There is a man here.”

Now, isn’t this at least of interest in passing? Wouldn’t you think that the man who is about to be set apart to be the king would be the one who would be saying this? That it would be the servant who might be saying, “I think we should go back and give this up,” and the king is saying, “Oh no, no! We must go forward.” But it is the potential king who says, “I think we oughta just go back,” and it is the servant who has the insight. How wonderful is this! How wonderful is this! Who’s the servant? Don’t know. What’s his name? Don’t know. How significant is he? Hugely significant! It’s a reminder to us, isn’t it? It’s not the names. It’s not the profile. It’s the task assigned to us.

You can read this through your whole Bible. You remember: “Now the Syrians on one of their raids … carried off a little girl.” They were trafficking in children, and they “carried off a little girl from the land of Israel.”[13] And who is it that is used and is instrumental in the life of Naaman, given his leprosy? Her! “Would that my master would go and see the prophet.”[14] Hey, servants of the living God, don’t underestimate what a word spoken in season from any of our lips might ever be or do in the unfolding of God’s purposes.

Now, Saul would have every reason to say, “I wonder where you came up with that idea.” So would the servant. And then when he says, “Yeah, but we don’t have anything to give to the man if we go there,” the servant says, “Aha! Wait a minute. I have a quarter of a shekel of silver, and I will give it to the man of God to tell us our way.” You get the impression, don’t you, that this servant has some kind of spiritual insight, that he’s a little more sensitized to things than even Saul is himself; that he’s beginning to recognize that this search for these donkeys is probably about something far more significant. Verse 9 is essentially a footnote, telling us that a seer and a prophet is the same thing. And so, now Saul has got on board, and in verse 10 he said to his servant, “Well then, that’s good; let us go.” “So they went to the city where the man of God was.”

And “as they went up the hill to the city, they met young women.” Now, again, if you know your Bible, this is wonderful in the unfolding of the story. Because if you know your Bible, you say, “There seem to be a lot of occasions in the Bible where in transition, in significant moments, we are introduced to ladies drawing water—an apparently routine, mundane, insignificant activity. And yet, you remember the story of Isaac?[15] You remember the story of Jacob?[16] You remember the story of Moses?[17] You remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well?[18] This is not in here for padding. This actually took place.

And the young women… Can you imagine these young women? They’re going, “Wow! Who is that? He must be the most handsome man in all of Israel! I’m not gonna talk to him. You talk to him. No! He’s coming over. Oh no! No!”

And so they said, “Is the seer here?” I like that. I’ve just been saying it to myself all week: “Is the seer here?” And they said, “Behold, he is. He’s just ahead of you. Hurry! He has come now to the city, because there’s going to be a sacrifice on the high place.” If you remember, he went back to Ramah, and there he built his altar.[19] “And as soon as you enter the city, you’ll find him, because he goes up to the high place to eat, and nobody’ll start without him, because he always says the grace.” And “so they went up to the city.” And “as they were entering the city, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the high place.”

Okay, we pause there now, and we’re taken back the day before in verses 15, 16, and 17, which is a key to actually understanding the passage. Because now we discover that on the previous day, God had revealed to his servant Samuel what was about to take place. In other words, Samuel’s activities were not on the basis of speculation, nor even on the basis of observation or investigation; they were on the basis of revelation: that God, who had raised up Samuel—who had begun his life, remember, saying, “Speak, [Lord,] for your servant is listening”[20]—is still listening. And God now speaks his word to him in order that he might be able to proceed in relationship to his word. Timing, of course, is absolutely everything. Samuel may have been out on one of these circuits. He’s now returned: “He has come just now.” So, what a picture it is, again, of the fact that a man’s heart devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps.

He’s going to be given the responsibility of anointing him as a priest and as a prince, as a leader, as one who will be able to deal with the Philistines. Because, God says to his servant, “I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” You notice again how we get emphasis by repetition, not by underlining or changing the font? You’ll notice there: he will be a “prince over my people,” “he shall save my people,” “for I have seen my people.” Here is a covenant God with his focus on the people of his choice. And if you read what it says there, you will probably be saying to yourself, “But wasn’t it said in [8:]18 that when a king was appointed, there would be the occasion when ‘my people will cry to me, and I will not answer them’?”[21] You can find that again in [8]:18.

So, that day has not yet come. Because he still sees, and he listens to their cry. “I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.” Are you a part of the people of God, by grace, through faith in Jesus? Are you numbered among his sheep? Then do you realize that even in the worst of your days, even in the darkest of your days, he sees you, he hears your cry, he cares? Of course, if you want to go with Paul Simon, you can just conclude that you’re “a rat in a maze.”

Now, in 18–25—and we need to come to a close here, so I pick up the speed—“Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, ‘Can you tell me where the seer lives?’” Saul doesn’t come out real good in this, as far as I’m concerned. This is giving us an indication of what’s to follow. The servant seems to have more spiritual insight than Saul. Saul is handsome and tall; he doesn’t seem that bright, actually. And so he goes up to Samuel in the gate and says, “Can you tell me where the seer lives?” So we’ve got this “Is the seer here?” “Where is the house of the seer?” And then verse 19: “I am the seer.” Can you imagine him saying, “Oh yes, of course you are. Yes, yes.” No.

And then it follows, he says, “And you should be ready for the fact that we’re going to have a meal together. Don’t worry about your donkeys anymore. They’ve been lost for three days, but they have been found. The real thing that ought to be on your mind, Saul, is to answer the question ‘And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel?’” Can you imagine him saying, “Goodness, I couldn’t even recognize you. How am I going to answer that question?” Well, what was all that was desirable in Israel? That they would have a king. What was the answer? Saul was the answer. The fulfillment of it was wrapped up in him: “Is it not for you and for all your father’s house?”

Do you realize that even in the worst of your days, even in the darkest of your days, God sees you, he hears your cry, he cares?

Saul then responds as Gideon responded when he was confronted. Remember? “I am the lowest; I am the least; I am the smallest.”[22] Saul knew he was big, he was handsome, and he was good looking, but he came from a small-fry tribe. He couldn’t understand why Samuel would speak to him in this way.

And what he must have made of it when Samuel took him and his servant and “brought them into the hall” and didn’t just pull in a few chairs, as it were, because it was already a planned meeting, and there were some thirty people there, and maybe he would have said, “Excuse me, could you get something for our two visitors here? Maybe just something back there against the wall?” No, no, no, no. Samuel brings him and puts him in the position of honor. And he says to the cook, he says, “Bring the portion that has been kept for him.” “And Samuel said, ‘See, what [is] kept is set before you. Eat, because it was kept for you until the hour appointed, that you might eat with the guests.’”

And Saul eats and goes to his bed. And as his bed is spread on the roof and he lies down to sleep, you can only imagine that he’s saying to himself, “What in the world was that about? ‘Eat, because it was kept for you until the appointed hour’? But I… There’s… I just went looking for my dad’s donkeys! And this guy says that this was planned, and there was an appointed hour, and I’m here.” Try getting to sleep after that.

And then the morning dawns.

The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think.[23]

(That’s Housman, the poet.) He wakes up. It’s gonna be a morning like no other. Samuel’s up, calls for him: “Up”—“Okay!”—“that I may send you on your way. Up, so you can go.” So they went. “Samuel went out into the street.”

And so the servant is sent to pass on before us. Presumably, he’s walking behind. So he says to Saul, “Tell your servant to go ahead of us.” “Hey, servant, ‘quarter of a shekel’? Go ahead, please. Thank you.” “And when he goes past, you just stand still here, because I want to say something to you. Stop here for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.” That was his role. Not one word of his fell to the ground.

This is the role of the prophet of God. This is the role of the preacher: “Stop here for a while.” You say, “This has been quite a long while.” “Stop here … for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.” Because it is on the strength of God’s revelation that all that is now purposed for the nation of Israel is about to unfold. God’s word to Samuel: “Make them a king.”[24] Revealing himself to Samuel: “This one who will be king is going to appear tomorrow, the man of whom I spoke to you.” The word of God at work in and through the apparently random, mundane bits and pieces of life. The God whose word was about to be made known to Saul was sovereign over every one of these details.

Let me finish in this way. The doctrine of providence—for this is what it is; it’s a graphic illustration of it—the doctrine of providence is not like the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, which ultimately we take by faith. You cannot plumb the depths of the doctrine of the Trinity. You can’t look at it and say, “Look, this is the doctrine.” But that is not the case with providence. Because all of us, if we have any sense of perception at all, will be able to look back on our lives and will be able to say, “You know, that was apparently random when it happened. But I can see now through the rearview mirror that while my heart devised my way, the Lord direct my steps.”

It’s the story of the whole journey of the people of Israel. What possessed Moses’s mom to defy the pharaoh and put him in a basket in the bullrushes? And how would she ever know that the daughter, the princess, would be out to bathe in the river? But not just in the river! At the part of the river where she would see the basket![25] And the unfolding drama involving Moses unfolds on the basis of an apparently random and inconsequential moment.

What about when Esther’s mom and dad looked on the beauty of their daughter, and then saw her grow, and said, “You know, this girl is gorgeous. She is exceptionally lovely. I wonder what this will mean for her.” Little could they know that it would be her exceptional beauty that would be the occasion that would give rise to her coming “to the kingdom for such a time as this.”[26]

“Hey, David, would you go see your brothers? They’re fighting a war somewhere. Take ’em some bread, and take ’em some cheese.” “Okay, Dad, will do.”[27] Neither father nor son could ever have imagined that the sandwiches would lead to the defeat of the Philistines. But if he hadn’t taken the sandwiches…

The other side of the equation: “Hey, Joseph? We hate you. And we hate your dreams, and we don’t like it when you come down here at breakfast and start this stuff about us bowing down to you. And you know what? We’re gonna get rid of you one of these days.”[28] So the contrived death of one individual leads to the salvation of a nation.

You don’t have to be too clever to jump forward to the story of Jesus.

Do you believe this, I wonder? Can you rest in this? The doctrine of providence has to cover it all, you see. Some of us have dealt in the last twelve months with deep sadness.

God holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad;
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he [offered] it to me
I [would] be sad.[29]

’Cause although my heart devises my way, the Lord directs my steps. And we know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[30]

Father, out of an abundance of words may we hear your voice. Speak to us, Lord, in the areas of our lives where you know this word is most apropos, and not only individually but in terms of our extended families and our relationships, and not least of all our relationships in our church family here. Help us to know that all our ways are known to you. For Christ’s sake we ask it. Amen.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:22 (paraphrased).

[2] Romans 15:4 (paraphrased).

[3] Paul Simon, “Patterns” (1965).

[4] Proverbs 16:9 (paraphrased).

[5] Proverbs 19:21 (ESV).

[6] See Psalm 9:8; 98:9.

[7] Genesis 18:25 (KJV).

[8] 1 Samuel 8:22 (ESV).

[9] See 1 Samuel 7:16–17.

[10] Philippians 3:5 (ESV).

[11] 1 Samuel 1:1 (ESV).

[12] See 1 Samuel 3:19.

[13] 2 Kings 5:2 (ESV).

[14] 2 Kings 5:3 (paraphrased).

[15] See Genesis 24:15–28.

[16] See Genesis 29:1–12.

[17] See Exodus 2:15–22.

[18] See John 4:1–42.

[19] See 1 Samuel 7:17.

[20] 1 Samuel 3:10 (NIV).

[21] 1 Samuel 8:18 (paraphrased).

[22] Judges 6:15 (paraphrased).

[23] A. E. Housman, “Yonder See the Morning.”

[24] 1 Samuel 8:22 (ESV).

[25] See Exodus 2:3–10.

[26] Esther 4:14 (ESV).

[27] See 1 Samuel 17:17–18.

[28] See Genesis 37:1–36.

[29] Joseph Parker, “God Holds the Key” (1887).

[30] Romans 8:28 (NIV).

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.