"Dead Man, Walking"#89-07
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 17, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Samuel 3:18
Dead man walking. Dead man walking.
Tom was 12 years old the first time he saw a convicted criminal hung by the neck until dead. And his father was the executioner. Being a hang man wasn't his original calling, it was just part of the duty that came with being sheriff of Travis County, Texas, in the year of our Lord, 1894. Tom's father had been a cattle rancher. Tom's mother died when he was six, and Aunt Lena moved in to help take care of the children.
Two years later, the citizens of Travis County elected Tom's father to be their sheriff. Another duty that came with being sheriff of Travis County was to be the warden of the county jail. So the sheriff and the children and Aunt Lena moved into the house adjoining the jail. The prison at that time housed nearly 300 prisoners, hardened, condemned criminals, some of them seemingly beyond all rehabilitation.
Tom said, "I was raised practically in the jail. I could look down from my bedroom window and see the doors of some of the cells." Now, Tom knew his father. He knew he was a good man, a kind man, and fair, but sometimes he wondered. Watching his father carry out the duties of his office, how he had rushed in with his six-shooter into a bloodstained prison to quell a riot, or on another occasion how he so quickly, forcefully, disarmed a man who held a pistol to his head, or how he had jabbed his thumb into the eye of another, popped it out of its socket after the man had stabbed him in the back with a knife. Tom wondered about his father, especially when it came to this duty of dealing out death. Since Travis County had no professional executioner, and since Tom's father never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself, he took on that responsibility as well.
Authors Verdon Adams and David Grann have both written accounts of Tom's father, Sheriff Emmett White, who consequently went on to serve as the mayor of Austin and then as a county judge. I've been thinking a lot about Tom and his father because I've been listening to the books of 1 and 2 Samuel from the Old Testament of the Bible. If you've never read the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, or if it's been a while, you got to go back and check it out. It's one story broken into two parts. It'll take about four hours to read the whole thing or to listen to it on audio Bible. It's the story of the startling rise and shocking fall of David, ancient Israel's most famous king, second only to Jesus of Nazareth.
Now the book of Samuel has no heartwarming bedtime story, but it does contain some of the most colorful characters in all of Scriptures, and sometimes these characters show themselves to be a bunch of hardened, condemned criminals, seemingly beyond all rehabilitation. And you and I aren't as different from them as we might like to think, and that's why we need to listen to the books of Samuel.
Now, when I say characters in the book, I don't mean fictional. I understand that some people believe that the book of Samuel is a work of fiction, but that's not how I see it. See, I listen to 1 and 2 Samuel, because I'm a follower of that other King. I follow Him because I believe that even though Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to die and executed on a cross. Three days later, God raised Him from the dead. And what's more, God made Him King, King of this world, King of the universe. And one day Jesus will return to be King and to be Judge, your Judge and mine.
Because I believe this about Jesus, I also believe that the narrator of 1 and 2 Samuel, along with the rest of the Bible, is telling us the truth. And in the first place, it's truth about Jesus. The whole story is about Jesus. And 1 and 2 Samuel are an important part of that truth because right in the middle of this two-part story, there's a promise about Jesus, a promise God made a thousand years before His birth in Bethlehem, the City of David.
God, who could already see the tragic downfall of King David made David a promise. He said that one of David's sons, David's Descendant, would be King forever, and that this King would be called—not just the Son of David—but the Son of God. That's why we call Jesus the Son of God, not only because He truly is the eternal Son of God, who exists forever even before His birth in Bethlehem. He is that, but there is more to this story. The Bible calls Jesus the Son of God because He's the answer to the promise God made to David, and this God makes promises to you, too.
He's your Creator. And in Jesus, He wants to be your Father. We need Jesus in order to understand our Father's work revealed in the books of Samuel, because in these books, as in life, you'll see a side of God that will make you wonder, wonder about His work, how He rushes in to quell the riot of human sin, how He disarms the wicked and jabs the defiant and executes the guilty with the mercy of a hangman.
Listening to the books of Samuel, you and I might just become like Tom and his siblings, who wonder at their father, even as they cling to his loving heart. And Eli will make you wonder, because Eli's a dead man walking. Eli's one of the first characters that we meet in the book of 1 Samuel. Eli's supposed to be the leader of God's people, Israel. He's supposed to be their spiritual visionary, but he's so willfully blind in his duties that he lets his sons abuse the power of their office. They're using the office of priest for their own personal gain. They're abusing God's people and they're dishonoring God. And so God tells us Eli, their father, that He's going to put him and all the men in his household to death. And He's going to raise up another leader in Israel. And it turns out this new leader is just a child, the boy, Samuel, whose mother, Hannah, had given him up to serve in the house of the Lord all the days of his life.
Listen to how the Lord calls Samuel, as recorded in 1 Samuel 3, and listen for Eli. Listen, how he responds when he hears that God has become his executioner.
The boy Samuel was ministering before the Lord, under the supervision of Eli. Now in those days, the Word of the Lord was rare. There were not many visions. And it happened in that day, Eli was lying down in his own place, and Eli's eyes had become so dim that he was not able to see, but the lamp of God had not yet gone out. And Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord where the Ark of God was, and the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered. "Here I am." He ran to Eli, and said to him, "Here I am. You called me." Eli said, "I did not call you. Go back and lie down." So he went and lay down. Again, the Lord called Samuel. Samuel got up and ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me." Eli said, "I did not call you, my son. Go back and lie down." Now, Samuel did not yet know the Lord. The Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him, and the Lord called Samuel a third time. Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me." Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy, and he said to Samuel, "Go back and lie down, and if he calls you, say 'Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and laid down in his own place.
Then the Lord came and stood there again, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" Samuel said, "Speak, Your servant is listening." And the Lord said to Samuel, "Look, I'm about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. In that day, I will carry out against Eli everything that I spoke against his family, from beginning to end. For I told Eli that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about. His sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them. So I swore to the house of Eli, the guilt of Eli's house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or by offering." And Samuel lay down until morning. And in the morning, he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him. "Samuel, my son." and Samuel said, "Here I am." Eli said to him, "What was it He told you? Don't hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything that He told you." So Samuel told them everything, hiding nothing from him. And Eli said, "He is the Lord. Let Him do what is good in His eyes."
Now the Lord was with Samuel as he grew, and he let none of his words to the ground, and all Israel from Dan to Beersheba, from the north to the south, recognized that Samuel was established as prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed himself to Samuel through His Word.
I'm grateful for the books of Samuel, because they train me to come to terms with the truth: that I also am a dead man walking because of my sin. And I'm grateful for the books of Samuel because they train me to fix my eyes on Jesus. See, God never calls anyone to anything that He doesn't do Himself. God Himself came in the Person of Jesus His Son, not just to be a King, but to be a fellow prisoner. Jesus paid our debt. Jesus served our time. Jesus took our death penalty on to Himself, and three days later, He walked out of death for good.
And now He lives, and He calls you on this same circuitous path through death, not just physical death, but rehabilitative death, death to your old self, death to your sin. When you are baptized into Jesus, you're baptized into His death so that you might walk with Him in new life, now in His Spirit, and one day fully, in your resurrected body. Eli accepted his death sentence from God, and by grace, you and I can accept ours, because dying, we live, and the doors of our Father's house are always open.
Tom, the son of the executioner that I mentioned earlier, grew up to be a Texas ranger, an FBI investigator, and a warden for two prisons. For 51 years, he served in law enforcement, following in the footsteps of his father. Both father and son were strict when it came to enforcing the law, but they also believed that every human being, no matter who they were or what they'd done, everyone, ought to be treated with dignity and love.
Tom remembers how his father would never ask anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself, and he lived this principle, not just as the executioner. In the late 1890s, the Travis County jail had no proper facilities for caring for juvenile prisoners, and the sheriff would not abide sending a youngster into the prison proper. So whenever a young person was convicted of a crime and sent to serve time, the sheriff would find alternate housing arrangements. And since not many townspeople were eager to welcome some unknown juvenile delinquent into their homes, the sheriff and his family, in Christian hospitality, made sure the doors of their house were always open.
Tom remembers a 15-year-old girl who was sent to serve time in the prison. The children didn't know the details about the crime that she had committed, and their father never spoke a word of it. They got along with her, and she got along with them. Most importantly, she got along with Aunt Lena, and that was enough. She stayed with them so long she became part of the family.
Would you pray with me?
Dear Father, I am guilty as sin, but You brought me into Your family. I don't understand Your ways, and sometimes You make me wonder, but You have shown me Your heart in Jesus. So help me cling to Him in faith, because He lives and He is King, with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for October 17, 2021
Title: Dead Man, Walking
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I'm getting to visit with Dr. Tim Saleska. He's a professor at Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis. He teaches about life with God as God revealed Himself in Jesus through the Old Testament. So, Dr. Saleska, we have been listening to the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. Today, I'd like for us to focus on the character of Samuel, and how even though there are three main characters in these books, Samuel, Saul, and David, why is it appropriate that the books are titled Samuel?
Tim Saleska: I think one of the reasons is because, think about this, before Samuel, Moses was sometimes called a prophet, right? He called himself a prophet in Deuteronomy 18 and promised that there would always be a prophet that would speak to the people from God. Samuel is really the first major character that is called a prophet, and so he's the beginning of that role.
Mike Zeigler: And the role of the prophet is to speak for God to the people.
Tim Saleska: Correct. Moses—that's a very interesting passage in Deuteronomy 18—promised that "God would raise up a prophet like me, and unto him you should listen." So you see him beginning to fulfill that in all of the prophets that came after him. They would bring the Word of God and you can see the role, the powerful role, that Samuel plays in regard to kings, but also a prophet such as Nathan, and later when you go to 1 and 2 Kings, Elijah, Elisha, and other prophets as well. So yes, they actually brought the Word of God to people, and we sometimes underestimate what that actually meant in Israel.
Mike Zeigler: I hear a couple of things that in terms of helping be a good reader, is first thing to remember, we're starting in the middle of a longer story. There's the whole account beginning with Moses, in some sense, from the exodus from Egypt, then there's Joshua and Judges. Then, only then we get to Samuel. So Samuel's in the middle of this story, and it continues long after the book, 2 Samuel ends. But maybe a theme is that God wants to speak to His people, and He's always going to have someone who can do that.
Tim Saleska: Right. I mean, it's very important to remember that Israel always had a prophet and that's really important for their history, for keeping them in the faith, and for reminding them of what God had promised them.
Mike Zeigler: So Samuel is a spokesman for God, but he's not flawless. What are some ways that the narrator shows us Samuel's own human limitations?
Tim Saleska: Remember, you see the people wanting a king in spite of the leadership that Samuel had given them for so many years. The Lord had that judgment against Saul, and Samuel grieves over that. Samuel has his limitations in that he can see a lot, but he can't see as God sees. So you see in Samuel, and as you said, in all the other characters, the flaws, the very humanness and even brokenness that you see in all of us.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. You mentioned how Samuel, even though he's a prophet, and it's interesting that that point is made in 1 Samuel, that the prophet used to be called a "seer," but now they're called "prophets." Maybe it's a little jab at the prophets, is that they're really not seers. That is they don't have this clairvoyance where they know things. They just have to be told in their ears, and then they repeat what they hear.
Tim Saleska: Yes. So the nations around had these roles, but remember already in the Torah, Israel's prophets were very distinct in that they didn't use divination, or magic, or incantation. They didn't try to manipulate things
Mike Zeigler: Like reading the tea leaves kind of thing, yeah.
Tim Saleska: ... or something like that. They seem to stand in God's counsel. I mean, the account of God's call of Samuel is actually quite riveting, right? Because of the way that the Word of God and the Lord functions in that chapter 3. So it always has made me wonder what exactly the experience of the prophet is. I mean, sometimes they seem to get visions. Sometimes it just says, "And the Lord said to them." Well, what does that look like? There's a lot that we don't know, that we wonder about as we read the stories, which makes them interesting, I think.
Mike Zeigler: Probably the clearest example of Samuel not being able to see like God sees is when after the first king who's tall and head and shoulders above everybody else fails, the very next moment when he goes to pick a new king for God, he goes straight for the tall guy. He thinks that David's older brother is the right guy, and the Lord says, "No, not him." The takeaway is that you look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. So Samuel still, like he says, he can't see like God sees. What does that say about him? What does that say about us?
Tim Saleska: Okay, so I think that's a really interesting question when you think about approaching the books of Samuel, because so much of the book is about God's election, God's choice. Part of what we see is the brokenness of everyone, as we talked about, and yet God chooses this person and not that person. So one thing that we see and that everyone should look at as they're reading the books of Samuel is the mystery of God's grace. Grace, in a certain sense, becomes incomprehensible from a human standpoint. Why the youngest? You see God keeps his reasons for Himself. Why this debacle with Saul, for example? Why this, not that? So you see God exercising His choice throughout the former prophets. You also see the terror of His judgment. You have to let God be God in those situations. But there is a certain terror and incomprehensibility when you see God rejecting someone or hiding His face, or why extend grace to this one and not that one? So there doesn't have to be this gap always between us and those books because they're written in such a different time and place in such different culture and all those kinds of things. But the theological questions about God, for example, that it raises, are still very relevant for us. We still wrestle and have trouble with it and try to understand it and work our way through it in our individual lives as Christians.
Mike Zeigler: You talk about the incomprehensibility of God's choices, and this really does fit with what we know as Christians. That God would choose a crucified King in mockery to be the chosen, to be the One, and that Christians would follow this cruciform, crucified way of life. It's in some sense, terrifying, yet comforting. So reading these books, 1 and 2 Samuel, help us in that walk, help us struggle through it.
Tim Saleska: Notice that so often, when you think of not only Saul but David and even Samuel, Israel and these individual characters needed a word from God. They did not want God to remain silent. We live in a world in which God seems just as silent. What the heck is going on, both on the economic level, on the social level, political level, military level? When you look at the news in the world, it's incredibly depressing. We have to remember that what we desperately need is a word from God, and the Word we get is what He has spoken to us in His Son, Jesus. That's why He actually calls Jesus, the "Word made flesh," right? He says, "In these last days, God has Spoken to us by His Son." So His Son is the prophet because He's the Word incarnate, you see? He's the One that we listen to and cling to when we need a word from God in the midst of the silence in which we all live. Again, our situation is parallel to Israel and these books of Samuel. Again, that's one of the ways to begin reading Samuel, not as so distant from us, but as situated, waiting to hear a word of God, waiting for God to deliver on His promises, just like we are on the other side of the resurrection of Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: That's really helpful. It makes me want to go back and listen to it again, read it again. So thank you. We'll have more conversations about this.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Hope of the World, Thou Christ of Great Compassion" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)