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“Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, ‘Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.’” (1 Samuel 15:12)
I’ve been preaching through the life of David on Sunday mornings, and as I was talking about King Saul this past Sunday, this verse in particular stood out to me. Saul has just finished leading the armies of Israel against the Amalekites, and as the prophet Samuel goes out to find him, Samuel is told that Saul is busy setting up a monument in his own honor. All throughout the Old Testament are examples of the people of God erecting monuments and markers to God that commemorate places where God does something meaningful, so that future generations would be reminded of what God had done (e.g. Genesis 28:18-19, Joshua 4:2-9). But this is the first time I ever came across a man of God – the King, no less – erecting a monument to himself! Saul’s goal, obviously, was that future generations would be reminded not of what God had done, but what HE had done, and of the great leader HE was.
I find this story to not only be an indictment against Saul for just how unfit he was to be the king over God’s people, but also a great metaphor for what can happen when we are as insecure as Saul was about who God is and who we are in Him. According to the Bible, those who know God and have been saved from their sin are adopted into God’s family, heirs of all of his riches, completely known and loved and forgiven to the core of who we are, chosen by God, His workmanship, created to do good works that he has prepared in advance for us, given the Holy Spirit to guide us, given eternal life, and so much more. During our discipleship, there is a radical security that God begins to instill in the core of our being, so that our identity and self-worth becomes less and less about our performance, our success, the opinion of others, or even our opinion of ourselves, but more about who God says we are. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”
However, when we are not secure in who we are in Christ, we will find ways to “set up monuments in our own honor.” Saul erected the monument to himself so that others would consider him a great man and praise him. In the same way, we find ways to puff ourselves up, to boast, to seek the glory and applause of others, so that the world might see us as a great man or a great woman, and so we might in turn convince ourselves that we really are that great man or great woman. The size of our house, the car we drive, the job we take, the man or woman we date or marry, the clothes we wear, the things we spend our money on, and many other things can be driven by our desire to show the world what a great person we are. Even smaller scale things like our Facebook page can become monuments set up in our own honor, where we choose to display only those things which will cause others to think well of us.
The opposite of Saul, in my opinion, would be John the Baptist. He was a great man, devoted to God and unafraid of popular opinion; even Jesus said in Matthew 11:11, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” But when John’s disciples came to him, complaining that his followers were not beginning to follow Jesus, John replied, “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:28-30)
I love that last line – “He must become greater; I must become less.” To know and love God is to desire to set up monuments in HIS honor with our lives. It is to live our lives in such a way that people see how great He is, even if they completely look past us in the process. He is the only one who is worthy of monuments, for even our best qualities and victories are gifts from God. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
Dismantle the monuments that you have set up in your own honor. He must become greater, and you must become less.
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