The people want a king. That’s how we find them in 1 Samuel, chapter 8 – first the elders, then all of the people together, crying out for a king.
We continue this week, as we will through half of the summer, reading one of the very best stories in all of the Bible – in all of ancient literature, in fact. It’s the saga of the rise and fall of kings that follows Samuel, Saul and David. An epic story, it gives us some of the most vivid portrayals of human characters in the ancient world, with all the drama of people caught up in the quest for power, and the threat of corruption, and the cruel limitations of our humanity. And yet, it’s a story of how through it all God is present, bringing about a plan of redemption in spite of so much human resistance.
The story teaches us a lot about God. But it teaches us a lot about us, too. To what will we give our lives? In what will we put our confidence? What, ultimately, will cause us to bow?
Since the Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel have striven to put their trust in the Lord their God – Yahweh, who brought them out of bondage, through the waters, and away from the unequivocal power of a Pharaoh. But they find that many of their problems follow them onto dry land. No amount of milk and honey can mask the enduring bitterness of bondage – the way it has limited their imaginations and broken their spirits – so even in freedom they continue to struggle to follow God.
The book of Judges, preceding Samuel, is a story of this struggle. A series of charismatic leaders are raised up with mixed results but an overarching theme: the people can’t seem to serve the Lord. The book details some of the resulting horrors and atrocities. Violence and bondage still characterize their lives. One of those Judges, Samuel, hears the call of the Lord in a story our graduating seniors read and preached for us last week. “Speak Lord,” he says, seeking to follow the ways of the Lord. But as we see at the start of chapter 8, Samuel is now old, and his sons – the logical successors – have perverted justice and strayed from the ways of the Lord. So Israel comes together and demands a new way. They want a king.
They think a king will solve their problems: a centralized ruler, a strong and forceful leader, an answer man in the midst of their enduring questions. “Give us a king” the people say, and Samuel can’t help but feel it’s a rejection of him. He turns to God in prayer, but then the Lord says in v. 7, “Samuel, this is not about you. This is a rejection of me.” Don’t forget, this is the God who defeated Pharaoh; the one who gave the first commandment, “Have no other Gods before me.” This is the God who says, “You don’t need to have any other Lord but the Lord your God who frees you.” But they don’t want freedom; they want something else. So God instructs Samuel to give them over to this desire.
But before Samuel gives the people what they want, the Lord tells him to give them a warning. Old Testament scholar, Cameron Howard, has said that this portion of 1 Samuel is a precise and evocative description of just what imperial power does. (1)
“So you want a king?” Samuel says, “Don’t you know that kings and empires put into place systems in which the powerful take from the weak and those in the center exploit those on the edges of power?”
“So you want a king? Okay, but just understand that a king will extract the value of the land, sacrifice your children in warfare, acquire your livelihoods for his own advantage.”
“You want a king? Well understand that he will take.” Samuel uses this phrase repeatedly in the passage. “He will take your sons to fight and build… He will take your daughters to cook and serve his desires… He will take one tenth of harvest, one tenth of flocks, the very best of your land, livestock… He will take your slaves and you will become slaves yourself…” This king will undo the liberation brought about by God.
In other words, “You want a king? Just realize that what you are asking for is a Pharaoh.”
“That’s what we want,” say the people, who down through the years are always showing the tendency to choose the things that limit, that compromise the future, that undo the goodness of God.
It’s nothing new. The whole early history of Israel and the Old Testament is a story about how humanity has a choice, and we choose poorly, and then we suffer because of it.
It’s nothing new. The book of Deuteronomy spells it out: “I have set before you life and death. Choose life…” and you can almost hear the voice of God breaking as it speaks, knowing how we will choose death again and again.
It’s nothing new. Joshua 24 communicates perhaps the theme of the early history of Israel: “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua says, “And as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” implicitly acknowledging that so many other people and other houses will choose otherwise.
It’s nothing new. The book of Judges shows how people failed to follow God and the results were cruel and horrific.
It’s nothing new. But it’s nothing old, either.
What in us demands a king? Which is to ask, what in us would release the promises of God for the systems of this world?
Part of the absolute power of this story is how it speaks to our human condition. This is not about Israel. It’s about humanity. If we’re introspective enough, we see in the people of Israel much that we see in ourselves. What in us demands a king, if not the same things we see in them?
First, it’s our quest for power and our trust in our human ability to wield it. In verse 4 of our text we hear it: “Appoint for us a king to govern us… put a king over us…” They can imagine no other way of existing in this world than to have someone over them; someone who will match the powers that encroach on them. And so often we accept this power differential and the systems of power in this world as the way things must be.
Some of you have seen the beautiful film, The Mission. The film is set in the 1750s and involves the Jesuit Reductions, a program in which the Catholic Church sought to Christianise and, in their words, “civilize” the indigenous native populations of South America.
Jesuit priest Father Gabriel enters a remote jungle to build a mission and convert a Guarani community to Christianity. The Missions were safe – protected by Spanish law – but a Treaty is signed between Spain and Portugal, giving over control of the land to the Portugese, who intend to enslave the Guarani. The Cardinal is forced to choose the lesser of two evils. If he rules in favor of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved. If he rules in favor of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the European Catholic Church could fracture. He makes his choice.
At the end, a Portugese official laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable because “we must work in the world; the world is thus.” The Cardinal replies, “No, Senhor, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”
This world is not the garden God created. So don’t mistake the world as it is for the world as God created it. Remember, such power was first wielded when a serpent slipped into our idyllic lives and whispered in our ears, “God wants you to have power, and to do whatever you want with your power, and to believe that whatever you’re doing with your power is right and good.”
What is it in us that demands a king?
A second answer is the preoccupation with security that we share with the people of Israel, who shout out in verse 20, “We need a king to go out before us and fight our battles.”
John Brite, in his book History of Israel, reminds that this is a time when the people are loosely organized and easily defeated, feeling threats from the Phillistines on one end, the Moabites on the other. They feel they need someone who will stop the other nations from threatening them. Insecurity, anxiety, fear prevail and prompt their cries for a new leader. But such security has a price.
It was Ben Franklin who once said, “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” The people are willing to sacrifice their relationship with the Lord their God for one mediated through a king. They had once had the ark of the covenant out before them, as they had literally followed the promises of God. But now they say they want a king to go out in front of them. And how often do our anxieties over decline, our worries about the future, our perceived insecurities prompt us to cry the same; to exchange the promises of God for some human constructed security?
What is it in us that demands a king?
There’s at least one more answer – a third bit of ourselves that we see in Israel. It’s their desire for conformity and their limited imaginations that keep them from seeing any other way, so that they say in v. 20, “We are determined to have a king so that we may be like other nations.”
Walter Brueggemann has said that one of the definitive features of right relationship with God is that it makes us peculiar. Strange. We’re bound to stand out from everyone else, as was God’s call to Israel. (2)
It reminds me of some of the best fatherly advice I ever received, which I try to impart: “You make your own cool.” No one should do it for you.
It’s why church should always be a little weird, a little strange, a little different. I think of the first time my then four-year-old daughter witnessed a baptism, and she grabbed her mother by the shoulders with eyes wide and mouth agape, saying, “WHAT is he DOING to her?!”
It’s strange, this place where water signals the death of the old and the beginning of something new, and we act like we actually believe that. It’s strange to carry babies around and promise to give ourselves to keeping them safe in a world that renders them so vulnerable. It’s strange to share in the mystery of communion. It’s strange to believe the call of Jesus that to find your life is to give it away. It is strange to worship one unseen who yet says to us, “Have no other lords, kings, systems before me.” It’s bound to seem peculiar.
Yet there’s something in us that pulls against this to become just like everyone else. “We want a king.” But we must remember that the Lord our God has called us to be different.
We can recognize that there are aspects of our human condition that have led us to call for kings; to forsake the covenant with our God; to be people of conformity, preoccupied with security, or trusting in our power. So we must remember any human system is fraught with brokenness and imperfection, and always subject to the ultimate standard of our God – whether an ancient kingdom or our own governmental systems.
We must measure our leaders, our systems, ourselves, against what we know of the promises of God. We are obligated, then, to ask whether what we consider legal is what God would consider just. We are called to advocate, and work, and strive for a world that remembers the promises of God before the anxieties at work in humanity since the Garden. It is in fact the height of faithfulness to question our leaders – whatever their office, whatever their party – based on our ultimate allegiance to God.
People across the spectrum of Christian faith, and all faiths, have been doing just that in these weeks that we have observed the ongoing crisis at the United States border with Mexico. We talk a lot about the many ways to be Baptist, but even across that range within Baptist life a number of groups – American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Alliance of Baptists – have in their own ways called for an end to the unimaginable practice of family separation, and especially it’s zero tolerance enforcement.
This is a crisis of our own making. “Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.” Our immigration crisis has spanned multiple administrations, involving a shared failure of imagination, and an ongoing conformity to the patterns of this world. Still, finger-pointing aside, unless we believe that this is the world as God created it, it is critical for us to use all peaceable means we know to call for our government to reflect the compassion and benevolence reflected in the promises of God. And based on our passage today and what it accentuates about the brokenness and limitations of human government, it is absolutely faithful to do so.
James Madison, President and person of faith, once said, “The duty owed to one’s Creator is ‘precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.’” (3) Our Attorney General himself quoted these words in October 2017, but this week he was quoting something else, citing Romans 13 as a basis for unequivocal, unchecked allegiance to government.
But we read Samuel and recall that there is a difference between the ways of this world, its governments and systems, and the promises of God. Unquestioned obedience is owed to God alone. There is a difference, then, between deeming something lawful and determining it is moral and faithful. Our decisions and those of our leaders are always subject to the standards of the love and justice of God. The promises of God should lead us still, and against them the limits of humanity and our governmental systems will present occasions for civil disobedience, to register complaints, to challenge the powers-that-be and to recognize in our rulers what we recognize in ourselves: limitation, failed imagination, fixation and preoccupation with qualities other than the promises of God. After all, bias, prejudice, fear, anger, conformity to the patterns of this world, confidence in power, preoccupation with the safety of our nation alone… these things are normal. We are called to be peculiar.
Ultimately Israel didn’t want this. I guess, ultimately, we rarely want it. So God gives them over to a compromised future. Reading ahead, a king is identified among them: Saul. He’s handsome and he’s strong, he’s powerful, he’s taller than the other men of Israel, and by every human measure he is exactly what they ask for, he is the fulfillment of everything they hoped for, he is beyond their imaginations of what a king could be. And it fails.
But God does not leave them to their failures. God never leaves us to the worst of our humanity. God makes a way through the waters. God makes a path in the wilderness. God sets before us another way, in this case, a King of Kings. One who became flesh, and moved in among us as a vulnerable child. He didn’t just love the poor but became poor himself. He worked as a carpenter – a laborer – walking the streets of Nazareth.
And for those seeking power, he modeled strength in weakness and greatness in service. “Let the children come to me,” he said, reminding that his kingdom is composed of those that are definitively vulnerable.
And for those preoccupied with security, he said “To find your life you have to open yourself up and give it away.”
For those always seeking to conform, he said “Follow me and you will become something you never imagined; something unrecognizable in this world.”
And he taught, and he healed, and he disrupted things as they were, all while descending the place of power at the right hand of God. Paul recounts the story in Philippians – how he never grasped his power, but made himself nothing, humbling himself even unto death. But God did not leave him there. “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
And if you believe that, then don’t bow down to anything else.
- Referenced by Eric Barreto in “ON Scripture: Scandalous Leaders Scandalous Power”
- In Interpretation: First and Second Samuel, p. 66.
- Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments