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Extenuating Circumstances

When we want to sin, we will find reasons.  We will convince ourselves that the reasons are valid and that we simply had extenuating circumstances that people must understand.  More times than not, however, there are no extenuating circumstances, there are merely excuses we like to call extenuating circumstances.  To extenuate something means to weaken or lessen, thus an extenuating circumstances lessens or weakens the offense that was committed.  We have our reasons that sound good in our head, but when spoken they tend to fall flat, or even worse, they simply make everyone cringe, like when Aaron told Moses that he was at a loss since Moses was gone for so long the people gave him gold, he threw it in the fire and out popped a golden calf.  That’s cringe-worthy.  Or as I was reading today, King Saul’s excuses masquerading as extenuating circumstances.


A massive Philistine army is about to make war with the Israelites.  Saul’s army is vastly outnumbered, and they are confident that they will lose.  Fear is spreading throughout the Israelite camp and people are beginning to abandon Saul and head home.  Apparently at some point, Samuel, the prophet-priest, told Saul to wait for him.  He would be there within seven days and make a burnt offering unto God.  Seven days came and there was no Samuel.  The troops were abandoning him, Samuel seemed to have abandoned him, would God abandon him too?

The Law

Saul decided he would make the burnt offering.  “So Saul said, ‘Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.’  Then he offered the burnt offering,” (1 Samuel 13:9, HCSB).  Besides just being impatient, Saul actually broke the law.  Leviticus 1 designates the practice of the burnt offering.  The burnt offering was considered the most important offering (outside the Day of Atonement). It was to make atonement for sin.  Sometimes it would be used in thanksgiving and sometimes it would be used in crises such as this.  But it was to be done by a priest, not a king.  So in reality, Saul is sacrificing this burnt offering that is to atone for sin but is giving it sinfully.

The Consequences

Samuel showed up immediately after the sacrifice was done and asked “What have you done,” (1 Samuel 13:11, HCSB).  Saul gave his excuse–extenuating circumstances?–“Saul answered, ‘When I saw that the troops were deserting me and you didn’t come within the appointed days and the Philistines were gathering at Michmash, I thought: The Philistines will now descend on me at Gilgal, and I haven’t sought the LORD’s favor.  So I forced myself to offer the burn offering,” (1 Samuel 13:11-12, HCSB).

Saul, according to his excuse (and I’m sure it sounded good in his head) wanted to seek God’s favor and so he disobeyed God!  He forced himself to sin.  I shake my head at the whole idea, but I wonder how often I have done such a thing.  I gave in to my own fears, my own anger, my own doubts, my own passions or lusts, my own “extenuating circumstances,” and thus forced myself to sin.

Saul lost his position as king.  God would have given him a throne that his son and grandson and great-grandson, would sit on, but it was lost because of “extenuating circumstances.”  Saul lost the kingdom.  He also lost his power.  He lost the blessings that God would have given him if he had simply remained faithful.

Having read this, I immediately had to look at my heart and seek to confess my pitiful excuses for disobedience.  Is any sin worth losing out on a blessing from the Most High?  Truly there is not one.   So, “finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable–if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise–dwell on these things,” (Philippians 4:8, HCSB).

“Follow Your Heart” is Bad Advice

I have been doing my study/meditation this week in the book of Judges.  This morning, I was nearing the end when I get to the story of Micah, the Levites, the Danites, and then a different Levite and the Benjaminites.  As I read, I found myself going from bewildered to disgusted to angry.  What’s wrong with these people!?  I was praying about this text and seeking God’s purpose in giving these accounts.  I am not blind to the fact that there are places that say, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever they wanted,” (Judges 17:6, HCSB [and elsewhere]), but it never hit me until I just sat and thought over these accounts how much those words (everyone did whatever they wanted) accounted for the evil that occurred.

If you haven’t read Judges 17-21 before, or it has been a while, here’s a recap.  It starts in the middle of Micah’s story.  His mom apparently has lost a lot of money and cursed whoever stole it.  Turns out it was Micah who fessed up, and his mom then blessed him, consecrating to the LORD the silver by making and idol!  Micah sets up an entire shrine and hires his own son to be a priest, but later finds and hires a Levite instead.

People from the tribe of Dan are wanting some land so they’re going to scout out some places to siege, and find a peaceful community of Sidonians.  They had come into contact with Micah’s Levite and so when they came back to take the land from the Sidonians with their army, they stole Micah’s gods and convinced the Levite to join their tribe.  When Micah pursued them, I found a comical exchange between the two parties.  Dan asked “What’s the matter with you?”  Micah responded, “You took the gods I had made and the priest, and went away.  What do I have left?  How can you say to me, ‘What’s the matter with you,” (Judges 19:24, HCSB)?  Dan threatens to kill Micah and his family if he doesn’t leave.  So he leaves.  Dan proceeds to slaughter the peaceful town because they wanted more land.  Then they set up their gods and worshipped them.

That’s where the other Levite comes in.  He had a concubine, and four months after she left him, he went to get her.  They were heading back home when they stopped for the night in Gibeah (of Benjamin).  The men wanted to “know” him (in the biblical sense of course), but instead he gave them his concubine, and they gang-raped her all night long.  When he left in the morning, she was dead.  He cut her up into twelve pieces and spread her body, a piece in every Israelite tribe.  The people came together, warred against Benjamin since they would not hand over Gibeah, and Benjamin nearly became extinct.

In these few chapters, you pretty much have everyone “following their hearts.”  Without thinking the mother cursed, but when it was her son, she blessed.  She consecrated the silver to God by making an idol.  Micah hires his son, then a Levite.  Dan wants land and slaughters a peaceful people.  They steal Micah’s gods and priest, and threaten the lives of Micah and his family.  The Levite takes a concubine (not a wife).  The men want sex with him, but instead rape a woman.  The Levite gave her to them to do this!  Rather than burying her and mourning, he cut her up and sent her to the tribes.  What is wrong with these people!?  They’re following their hearts, their passions, their desires.

They have been given the law of God.  The author of Judges wrote that these things happened while Phinehas, Eleazar’s son,  was the high priest (20:28).  That’s Aaron’s grandson!  These things happened within just a few years of entering into the promised land.  But when you follow your heart, it will quickly lead to abominable places.  Things escalate quickly.  This is why Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable–who can understand it,” (17:9, HCSB).  This is why the psalmist wrote, “I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You,” (119.11, HCSB).  The heart leads us astray without God’s Word being treasured and hidden.

The problem that we have is one of treasure.  We treasure the heart, not the Word.  We treasure the passions, not the Scriptures.  The Scripture is there, “inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim 3:16-17, HCSB).  God gave it to us to curb our natural inclinations away from sin and to good works.

Following the heart is nothing new.  You’d think that after millenia of mess ups and failures and pains that we’d learn that the heart cannot be trusted, and yet we keep telling our children and friends, “follow your heart; pursue your dreams; do what makes you happy; you can be whatever you want to be.”  That’s a set up for failure, sin, and heartache that doesn’t simply affect the person following the heart/passion, but as we saw with the book of Judges (or David, Bathsheba, and Uriah, Cain and Abel, Judas, Simon Magus, etc), people who are around him/her will be broken as well.  Instead, let’s call people to follow God’s Word, treasuring it in their heart more than their passions/dreams.

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable–if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise–dwell on these things,” (Phil 4:8, HCSB).