Looking for Donkeys

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1 Samuel 9:1-24 (God sends Saul to Samuel)

INTRODUCTION: We are beginning a new series today called “The Rise and Fall of Saul.” This is a follow up to an earlier series we did on “The Life of Samuel.” We ended that series in chapter 8 with Israel asking God for a king just like all the other nations. God was not pleased with their request, but he chose to answer their prayer anyways. One of the lessons we learned from that was “Be careful what you ask; God just might answer!”

Have you ever watched a TV series where they leave you at a cliffhanger and you have to wait months until the next episode? Well that’s sort of what we’ve done here with this series. (TV announcer voice-) “When we last left the book of 1 Samuel, the people of Israel were asking God for a king. God was not pleased.” Well, now we finally find out what happens next. (Read 1 Samuel 9:1-5 and pray.)

Today’s passage is all about God’s providence. God’s providence simply means the amazing way God supervises all things to provide for his people. And here in 1 Samuel chapter 9 we find a wonderful incident of God’s providence.

We can look at this incident on two different levels. On the big picture level, God is preparing the way for the coming of Christ through the kingship in Israel. God is preparing a whole line of kings through whom Christ, the King of kings, will eventually be born. On a smaller level, God is also working in Saul’s life in a special way. And even though Saul is ultimately not God’s man, God will give him every chance and opportunity to shine as Israel’s first king.

As we look at God working in Saul’s life, we learn some very important truths about how God works in each of our lives as well. Sometimes we think God only works in the big and spectacular moments of life. But this incident in 1 Samuel 9 is a wonderful demonstration that God is at work even in the ordinary details of your life. So let’s dive into our passage.

I. God’s guiding hand (1-14) – see also Acts 17:24-28

Verses 1-14 set the scene for us, and at first glance we see a very ordinary, even frustrating, day for Saul and his servant. Some donkeys have gone missing and Saul’s dad sends him out to go looking for them. In fact when you first read these verses you might wonder, why would God include such an ordinary, trivial event in his word? What’s so important about looking for donkeys? And yet what we really see in these verses are an example of God’s guiding hand, and how God is at work even in the most ordinary details of your life.

   A. God is at work in your family background (1-2)

First of all, God is at work in your family background. Each of you have a history and a family background that have brought you to where you are today. You may or may not like your family background, but let me assure that it is no accident. We read in Acts 17:26: “From one man God made every nation of men …and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” (Acts 17:26) God placed you in your family for a reason, and he is using your circumstances to bring about his purposes for your life.

In the same way, Saul in our passage doesn’t appear out of nowhere. He has a family background, too. God gives it to us in verses 1-2:

There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. 2 He had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – a head taller than any of the others. (1 Samuel 9:1-2)

Saul’s father, Kish, was a man of standing in the community. It becomes clear from the passage that Saul’s family was wealthy – they owned donkeys and servants – and that Saul’s father was an important person in the community. Saul came from the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the smallest of the tribes. It bordered Judah and was strategically located right between the northern and southern tribes.

Saul’s family background also contributed to his physical appearance. Apparently he had tall genes. He not only came from an impressive family, but he had an impressive appearance. Saul was a big guy, a head taller than any of the others. He would have easily made the basketball team in his day. R.P. Gordon comments: “If a king is to be distinguished by his physical appearance then Saul is every inch a king.” Saul is everything Israel would want in a king, but as we shall see, he is not what God wanted for them, which is why this is not going to work out in the end. Hence, the title of our series: “The Rise and Fall of Saul.”

   B. God is at work in interruptions and setbacks (3-4)

God is not only at work in your family background. God is also at work in interruptions and setbacks in your life. Look at verses 3-4:

Now the donkeys belonging to Saul’s father Kish were lost, and Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the servants with you and go and look for the donkeys.” 4 So he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and through the area around Shalisha, but they did not find them. They went on into the district of Shaalim, but the donkeys were not there. Then he passed through the territory of Benjamin, but they did not find them. (1 Samuel 9:3-4)

Poor Saul. He is sent off on a fruitless mission looking for lost donkeys in the hill country of Ephraim. He and his servant travel up and down and all around but can’t find them anywhere. Do you ever face interruptions and setbacks in your life? Would it help you to know that God is at work in those interruptions and setbacks? It should. Saul thought he was just looking for donkeys, but God’s guiding hand was at work in his life.

   C. God is at work in the people he has placed around you (5-10)

God is also at work in the people he has placed around you. In this particular case God used the servant that went along with Saul. Look at verses 5-10:

When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Come, let’s go back, or my father will stop thinking about the donkeys and start worrying about us.” 6 But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.” 7 Saul said to his servant, “If we go, what can we give the man? The food in our sacks is gone. We have no gift to take to the man of God. What do we have?” 8 The servant answered him again. “Look,” he said, “I have a quarter of a shekel of silver. I will give it to the man of God so that he will tell us what way to take.” 9 (Formerly in Israel, if a man went to inquire of God, he would say, “Come, let us go to the seer,” because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.) 10 “Good,” Saul said to his servant. “Come, let’s go.” So they set out for the town where the man of God was. (1 Samuel 9:5-10)

Saul was discouraged with the search and ready to turn back, but then the servant suggests that they go visit the seer who lives in the town nearby. The word “seer” was simply an older word for “prophet.” When Saul objects that they don’t have anything to give to the seer, once again the servant comes through. He has some money stashed away they can use for payment. The servant makes the right suggestion and has the necessary resources for the journey to continue, just as God had planned. You might wonder about some of the people God has placed in your life, but rest assured, God is at work in the people he has placed around you.

   D. God is at work in the timing of events (11-14)

And then finally, God is also at work in the timing of events. Look at verses 11-14:

As they were going up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and they asked them, “Is the seer here?” 12 “He is,” they answered. “He’s ahead of you. Hurry now; he has just come to our town today, for the people have a sacrifice at the high place. 13 As soon as you enter the town, you will find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people will not begin eating until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward, those who are invited will eat. Go up now; you should find him about this time.” 14 They went up to the town, and as they were entering it, there was Samuel, coming toward them on his way up to the high place. (1 Samuel 9:11-14)

So as they are going up the hill to the town, they just happen to meet some girls who are coming out to draw water at that exact time. They ask the girls about the seer, and the girls are able to give them exact instructions about how to find him. It also turns out the seer only just arrived back in town today. Saul and his servant have been out looking for donkeys for three days. And yet the timing is perfect. If they had arrived one day earlier, it would have been too soon. If they had arrived one day later, it may have been too late. As it is they are right on time to meet the seer, who just happens to be Samuel, and who just happens to walk up to them at the exact time they enter the city. Not only that but they are right on time for a special feast that they knew nothing about.

Sometimes the timing seems off in your life. Everything seems amiss, you feel like you are waiting forever for things to come together, but know that God is at work even in the timing of events in your life. Your timing may be off, but God’s timing is always perfect.

God is at work in your family background. God is at work in the interruptions and setbacks in your life. God is at work in the people he has placed around you. And God is at work in the timing of events. So much of life seems ordinary and down-to-earth and it is. But that’s okay, because God is at work even in the ordinary details of your life. Just like Saul looking for donkeys, we may not always see it, but God’s guiding hand is there all the way.

II. A peek behind the scenes (15-17) – Proverbs 16:9, 20:24

Verses 1-14 in our passage give us an example of God’s guiding hand in our lives, and then verses 15-17 give us a peek behind the scenes. We are talking about God’s providence and plan this morning, and this peek behind the scenes tells us three very important things about God’s plan for your life.

   A. God’s plan precedes your present circumstances (15)

First of all, God’s plan precedes your present circumstances. In other words, you never get into a jam, and then God has to come up with a plan. God’s plan precedes your present circumstances. Look at verse 15:

Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel. (1 Samuel 9:15)

Saul and his servant thought they were just looking for donkeys, but before they ever got to town, God had already revealed his will to Samuel. You might wonder what you are doing in the present moment, how did I get here, and where do I go next. Take heart. God’s plan precedes your present circumstances, and you can trust him to lead you to the next step.

   B. God’s plan is bigger than you (16)

Secondly, God’s plan is bigger than you. Look at verse 16 where we learn what God had revealed to Samuel the day before:

“About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him leader over my people Israel; he will deliver my people from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked upon my people, for their cry has reached me.” (1 Samuel 9:16)

God told Samuel he was sending him a man to anoint as king over Israel. Saul thought he was just out looking for donkeys, but God had bigger plans. Saul’s servant thought he was just along for the ride, but God had bigger plans. The servant girls thought they were just drawing water at the well, but God had bigger plans. You see, God’s plan is bigger than you or me. In Saul’s case God was preparing a king for Israel in answer to their national prayer. Three times in verse 16 God emphasizes “my people.” God’s plan included the whole nation of Israel and their deliverance from the Philistines. Neither Saul nor his servant nor the girls at the well knew anything about this. Saul thought he was just looking for donkeys, but God was building a kingdom. God’s plan is bigger than you.

   C. God will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it (17)

And then thirdly, God will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. Look at verse 17:

When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.” (1 Samuel 9:17)

When Samuel saw Saul, God told him this is the man. God told him what he needed to know when he needed to know it. God will do the same for you. We always want all the information up front, but God doesn’t usually work that way. However, you can take comfort in knowing that God will tell you what you need to know when you need to know it.

It’s important to note in this story that Samuel didn’t choose Saul as king – God did. Samuel is just the intermediary. In chapter 8 the people came to Samuel asking God for a king. In chapter 9 God answered their prayer by bringing Saul to Samuel. God sends Saul to Samuel, and God prepares Samuel for Saul’s arrival in advance. Samuel didn’t choose Saul as king; God did.

Now Saul’s case is a special one. He will be the first king of Israel. But God’s providence is not just for kings, but for all of us. Proverbs 16:9 tells us: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) God’s providence extends to you, too, and God is working out his plan for your life.

Sometimes we don’t understand God’s plan. That’s okay. In fact, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Proverbs 20:24 says: “A man’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand his own way?” (Proverbs 20:24) In other words, how are you supposed to understand? You don’t have the foresight God does. God sees the whole picture; we only see a part. Of course we’re not going to understand God’s plan.

This whole section here in verses 15-17 forms an aside. You could actually jump right over this section and read from verse 14 to verse 18 without any interruption in the story. These three verses are not necessary to follow the details of the story, but they are essential for understanding the meaning of it. We don’t always get to peek behind the scenes in our own story, so we don’t always know what God is doing. But God is there, and he is working out his plan, and one day we will see how it all works together. This peek behind the scenes in verses 15-17 teaches us that God is in control of all things, and he is working out his purposes in our lives.

III. A divine appointment (18-24) – Jeremiah 29:11

Finally we come to the last section in this passage which is a divine appointment that God had set for Samuel and Saul. And there are two things we can especially learn from these verses.

   A. God’s plan is often different from yours (18-21)

First of all, God’s plan is often different from yours. Look at verses 18-20:

Saul approached Samuel in the gateway and asked, “Would you please tell me where the seer’s house is?” 19 “I am the seer,” Samuel replied. “Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart. 20 As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found. (1 Samuel 9:18-20a)

Saul comes to Samuel to ask him about the donkeys. But before Saul can even say a word, Samuel tells him the donkeys are already found and sends him off to a feast instead. In other words, it’s not about the donkeys. It never was. God’s plan was different from Saul’s. (That would make a great t-shirt by the way: “It’s not about the donkeys.”)

Samuel tells Saul: “In the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart.” Although we’re never told what was in Saul’s heart, God knew it and God confirmed that he knew it through Samuel. God knows your plans, too. He knows what is in your heart. Some of it is good and lines up with his plans. Some of it is not so good and needs to be laid aside. But isn’t it encouraging to know that God knows your heart, even if his plans may ultimately be different from yours?

Samuel goes on to tell Saul:

And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and all your father’s family?” 21 Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?” (1 Samuel 9:20b-21)

Samuel says all the desire of Israel is turned to Saul and his family. This is king language. Israel desired a king, and now Samuel reveals that this desire will be fulfilled in Saul.

Saul is not quite ready for this, so he protests: “But I’m from Benjamin! We’re a tiny tribe! And my tribe is the smallest in Benjamin!” Saul pulls the Benjamin card twice in these verses, not knowing that God told Samuel he was sending him someone from Benjamin. Saul was protesting God’s plan, and yet ironically enough, Saul’s protest was actually confirmation that God’s plan was right all the time. That’s the first thing we learn from these verses. God’s plan is often different from yours.

   B. God’s plan is always better than yours (22-24)

But here’s the second thing: God’s plan is always better than yours. Look at verses 22-24:

Then Samuel brought Saul and his servant into the hall and seated them at the head of those who were invited—about thirty in number. 23 Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the piece of meat I gave you, the one I told you to lay aside.” 24 So the cook took up the leg with what was on it and set it in front of Saul. Samuel said, “Here is what has been kept for you. Eat, because it was set aside for you for this occasion, from the time I said, ‘I have invited guests.’ ” And Saul dined with Samuel that day. (1 Samuel 9:22-24)

Saul is given the seat of honor and a special portion of food that was set aside especially for him. As it turns out, this whole feast was actually called in his honor. The special portion for Saul was set aside from the time Samuel said, “I have invited guests.”

I don’t know what God’s plan is for you. You may not always get the seat of honor or the best portion of food. You may not get a lot of the things that the world values most. But I do know this – that God’s plan is for your best.

God says in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) These words were originally written for Israel, but I believe they are applicable to all believers. If you are in Christ, God is at work in your life for your good and his glory. So yes, God’s plan is often different from yours. But God’s plan is always better than yours.

CONCLUSION: So much of our lives are just ordinary, day-to-day events that don’t seem to hold any special meaning. Sometimes we get discouraged by the interruptions, the distractions, the frustrations and setbacks. Sometimes you feel like you’re walking in circles getting nowhere. In other words, a lot of life is just like looking for donkeys.

Saul thought he was just out looking for donkeys, but he was part of something much bigger. He was looking for donkeys, and God was building a kingdom. Sometimes it feels like we’re just looking for donkeys, too. But we are also part of something much bigger. We too are part of the kingdom God is building.

So don’t get discouraged by life. Don’t get frustrated by the interruptions and setbacks. Don’t get discouraged by the daily grind. Christ died for you to make you his very own. You may feel like you’re out looking for donkeys, but God is building a kingdom, and you never know how God is using your life and actions for his glory. God is at work in the ordinary details of your life, so make it your goal to serve and glorify God where he has placed you.

© Ray Fowler

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