I’ve been teaching through First Samuel recently, and two of the main themes running through the book are (1) that God is providentially providing righteous leadership to his covenant people, and (2) that, as God puts it in 1st Samuel 2:30, the Lord will honor those who honor Him. That second focus is what I’d like to talk about briefly in this post: the Lord will honor those who honor Him. That can be a rather jarring claim. So here are four important points that need to be understood about this principle—which comes up several times throughout Scripture.
First, this is different from the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not biblical. God helps those who recognize that they cannot help themselves, and so turn to God for strength and aid. “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible. “God honors those who honor Him” is all over Scripture, and that’s an entirely different claim. But that leads to the second point to keep in mind.
Second, we need to define the term honor. In our day, if the term honor is used at all, it’s often in jest or in mocking. But it also generally means nothing more than personal integrity. Honor is a synonym for integrity or character, right? But that’s not what the word meant until very recently. When you hear the word honor in the Bible, you should be thinking “respect, praise, accolades, status.” It’s in the context of a community, and it has to do with one’s recognition and reputation within a community. Now, there’s too much to say about the concept of honor—far more than we have time for just in a short introduction.
There are overlapping contexts of honor, different kinds of honor, different standards for honor, and on and on. But for our purposes, I just want to explain two kinds of honor, because it’s important for God’s statement in chapter two of 1st Samuel—that he honors those who honor Him.
First, there is what anthropologists sometimes call “horizontal honor.” Horizontal honor is defined as “the right to have respect among a society of equals.” Think about a gang: there’s a code of honor; and as long as you abide by it, you have the respect of the other members. To fail to live up to the honor code results in shame—your reputation in the community is soiled.
But there’s also what is called “vertical honor.” Vertical honor isn’t primarily about mutual respect within a community. Vertical honor has to with praise, esteem, admiration, and accolades. And there are three varieties of this. First, a society of equals can give a member of the group vertical honor. In other words, someone is not only living up to the code of conduct, they excel at it, and so they receive special recognition from the group.
Another variety of vertical honor would be from a subordinate to a superior. This would be the kind of honor paid to patrons by their clients in a patronage relationship. When someone agreed to be someone’s patron, the client owed their patron their loyalty and praise—they were to retell the stories of their patron’s courage, grace, wisdom, etc. to spread and better their patron’s reputation.
The third kind of vertical honor is that given by a superior to a subordinate. This can be done by association—as in the client-patron relationship. The client is honored by his association with an honorable patron. That’s also the case with slaves. So, for example, to be a slave in the household of Caesar was far more reputable than to be the slave in a small lower-class household. That’s why the apostles claim with pride the title “slave of Christ.” To be a slave in the house of the King of kings and Lord of lords is the highest honor. So we have honor by association. But honor can also be bestowed on a subordinate by a superior. A superior can give recognition and praise to someone, and that then raises their status of honor, esteem, and reputation.
Now, the only reason I go through all of this is because understanding something of the culture and concept of honor as a “reputation worthy of respect and admiration,” and how that’s gained, is important to understanding how Scripture uses certain words in relation to both God and man. For example, we know that God blesses us in many ways by His grace. But we are also told to bless God. How can that be? Well, it means something different based on whether the superior is giving or receiving the blessing. When we bless God, that means to give him praise, to recount his mighty works, to worship him together. When God blesses us, it refers to him giving us gifts out of his grace and love. We see something similar with the word “glory,” which is closely related to honor. We give God glory by praising him, speaking of him or representing Him in a way that causes other’s to raise their opinions of him. But God is also said to give us glory. And Paul speaks of pursuing immortality and glory. The same is true with the word “honor.” When God says in 1st Samuel that he will honor those who honor him, it’s not mutual respect between peers that we’re talking about. It means that God will give recognition, esteem, accolades, and a good name to those who give God praise, loyalty, reverence, and obedience.
But that leads to the third point to remember, which is that, in the church age, we don’t have any warrant to expect God to bless us materially or to give us a status of honor in the world in this life as compensation for our devotion to Him. We do still have, in the New Testament, passages like John 12:26, where Jesus says, “if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him,” so the principle still stands, but the context of our honor and reward is the bema seat and the kingdom, not the here and now. Now, there are times when God will give honor to believers in this life, whether just amongst believers, or, at times, in the world. But, generally, the honor and blessings we look forward to, as the New Testament authors make clear, will not be received until the judgment seat of Christ, as we enter the kingdom—where God will dispense rewards and honor based on how we as believers live out the Christian life, and how we’ve stewarded the resources he’s given us for our walk.
And that leads to the final clarification to remember. We need to remember that the context of this reciprocal vertical honor is covenantal, not salvific. In other words, in salvation, God gives us honor and status by our association with Christ through no merit of our own, but only by His grace, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. But, within the context of the Christian life, how we live has great bearing on the rewards and honor we receive at Christ’s return. This is different than saying God saves those who live lives of faithful obedience. It’s a separate conversation from how you are justified—how you receive forgiveness for sins. Our works, our personal merits, how we live… none of that earns salvation. The only thing that determines whether you will enjoy the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life in the presence and fellowship of Jesus Christ, is faith in the sufficiency of His death on the cross in our place. The only relevant question for your salvation is what are you trusting for that salvation. The only way to receive eternal life is by placing your trust for salvation in Jesus Christ alone. But, now that we have been justified, now that we have received eternal life and been reconciled to God, given a new nature, and called to walk after Christ—we need to start walking! And we can do that well, or not so well. And as we seek to live out the Christian life, growing in our knowledge of, love for, and obedience to Christ, we look forward to the day when we stand before him and are given rewards, of which honor is one of the most important aspects; and we ought to live our lives now in light of the fact that we can receive rewards and honor, or lose that honor for failing to live as Christ has called us to live. And sometimes that’s not fun to think about because we all know that we fail every day. But Scripture teaches that we ought to live lives of faithfulness to God, trusting that one day he will bestow rewards and honor on us in measure. And again, this doesn’t speak to our security—to our salvation—the issue is one of reward and honor, not eternal destiny.
And as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, some will be saved, and yet will suffer the loss of rewards and honor—they will be saved, but as through fire. They will suffer loss. So Paul encourages us to keep in mind the fact that we will receive rewards and honor as we seek to live lives of service to Christ worthy of our calling. Paul says in 2Corinthians 5:9–10, “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or bad.”
So although it plays out differently in our time (the mechanics are different under the New Covenant than under the Old, and we have to wait longer), the principle is still the same that God will honor those who honor Him. In the larger canonical context of the Former Prophets (which is where Samuel falls in the Hebrew Bible), this account of the rise of Samuel, and later of David, challenges the readers to honor the Lord so that they too may experience a renewed relationship with their king, culminating in the restoration of the nation under the authority of an ideal king—and we know that that promised king is Jesus Christ.
I hope this was helpful, but to explore further the themes of honor, shame, patronage, and how they affect the biblical world, I would recommend reading Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, by David deSilva.
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