Is it ever wrong to pray? The Bible says, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17), so it would seem you could just about say that it’s never wrong to pray. But there are examples in the Bible where men of God were praying and the Lord told them that what they were praying for was not really His best at that time.
And this is really important. We need to not only pray, we need to be in tune with the way God is leading, the way He sees things. One of the greatest examples of this is when the prophet Samuel had been informed by God that King Saul had turned away from God and that He was going to replace Saul with another king.
Saul had started out as a Godly king, specifically chosen by God to be anointed by the high priest Samuel. But eventually it seems it all went to his head. He ceased to obey the commandments and leadings from God which He gave through the prophet and priest, Samuel.
At length God told Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, because he has turned away from following me and has not carried out my commands.” (I Samuel 15:11) And what was Samuel’s reaction to this? The rest of that verse goes on to say, “It grieved Samuel and he cried unto the Lord all night.”
OK, we can understand this, can’t we? Samuel cared a lot about Saul, he was rooting for him, he wanted him to make it and to pull out of the dive he was in. Samuel was doing what he felt was right, really desperately crying out to the Lord for Him to work and to change Saul’s heart. It seems to be the right thing to do.
But, even after this, Saul continued to go from bad to worse. At one point it sounds like he nearly got physical with Samuel when Samuel was telling him that his rebellion against God was “as the sin of witchcraft.” (I Samuel 15:23) And still, even after all that, “Samuel mourned for Saul.” (I Samuel 15:23)
But then, this happened. And the Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and go. I will send you to Jesse of Bethlehem. For I have seen a king for Me among his sons.” (I Samuel 15:23)
Uh-oh. Was that a little reproof from the Lord towards Samuel? Was God moved in this situation by Samuel’s prayers for Saul? Doesn’t sound like it. Basically the Lord was telling Samuel, “Son, it’s time to move on. You need to get up and get over this and go forward with the way I’m leading. The future is moving another direction. I’ve provided a new king among the sons of Jesse.”
Did Samuel stomp his foot and refuse to obey God? No. Thankfully he had enough of the wisdom and grace of God to take this admonition from God and to get moving in the new direction God was leading. And you could say, “But didn’t God respect Samuel’s prayer and his broken heart for Saul? Doesn’t ‘the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much?’” (James 5:16)
In this case (and probably in a number of other cases) God just sees that to continue to “mourn for Saul” is a dead-end street. Saul had hardened his heart towards God and had really turned away so much from following the Lord that it was a waste of time for Samuel to keep trying to revive and bring to repentance a man who’d just really turned away, as Saul had.
What if Samuel had gotten bitter, angry and felt that what God was doing was wrong and that he wasn’t going to go along with it? Does that ever happen to any of us? Are any of us, “mourning for Saul” instead of “filing our horns with oil and going”? Sadly, I think this is a real temptation for many people. Some never stop “mourning for Saul”, some loved one, some situation, some wonderful time or place in their lives that’s just no longer there. God has called them to move on, to go forward, leaving the sad disappointments behind as they go towards the new thing the Lord is leading them into.
It’s a real heart wrenching experience, as it probably was for Samuel. I’ve been through it a few times and maybe you have too. But if we don’t stop mourning for things that will never be the same again and instead “fill our horn with oil”, that is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to be filled with the wisdom, freshness and current leading of the Lord, then we’ll be doomed to stay stuck back in the past. We’ll be holding on to our Sauls, to people, places and things that no longer are God’s highest and best.
To me, this verse has always been a sober warning. Things change. People change and not always for the best. If we’re to truly follow God, we may have experiences like Samuel. The Lord may ask us how long we’re going to hold on to something that’s turned to rebellion against God and His will.
It’s a difficult experience. But if Samuel had not obeyed, God could not have used him to move on to anoint King David, Israel’s best loved and most remembered monarch. May God help us all to leave our Sauls behind if that’s what God is calling us to do and to follow Him into the future He knows is best.