1 Samuel 8:4-20
4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord.
7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”
10 Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. 11 “This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said:
“He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. 12 He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! 18 When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”
1 Samuel 11:14-15
14 “Let’s go to Gilgal,” Samuel told the people, “and renew the monarchy there.” 15 So everyone went to Gilgal, and there at Gilgal they made Saul king in the Lord’s presence. They offered well-being sacrifices in the Lord’s presence, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration there.
Thoughts on the passage:
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill
As I reflected up on this passage from Samuel, the words of Churchill came back to me. Often it seems like government involves settling for the better of bad choices. One only has to look at the gridlock in Washington or Saint Paul to get frustrated with democracy. Yet, as frustrated as we are with our democracy, we know it is so much better than the dictatorships masquerading as democracies that we see in places like Russia or the blatant dictatorships of places like North Korea. We see a similar sentiment being expressed by the people in our story from First Samuel. The people are longing for a king to rule them despite the warnings of how bad a king will be for them. Having a king might be the worst thing to happen to them, but it seems better than anything else they have experienced.
Before we get into why the people want a king, I think we need to remind ourselves what they already had. When the people came out of Egypt they were lead first by Moses and then Joshua. From Joshua, rulership of the tribes of Israel was passed to a series of judges. Essentially the people moved through a cycle where first they sinned, then God called forth a judge to call them to repent and then they repented. Of course, this only lasted for a little bit before they fell into sinning again, and a new judge was called forth. Meanwhile, priests descended from Aaron continued to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people and serve as intermediaries between them and God. Eli was one such priest who passed on his mantle, not to his sons who had proven to be corrupt, but instead to Samuel. At the point of our story, Samuel was the spiritual leader, judge, prophet, and priest, of the people who had no single authority because they were ruled not by mortals but by God.
What is so appealing about a king? First there is the answer that the people give: they want a king so that they can be like the other nations. Peer-pressure was real even thousands of years ago. They want a king so that they can command the respect of the other nations. They wanted someone they could point to, listen to, and follow directly. God is not as easy to follow. The lack of a clear leader or central authority to govern all the tribes left them feeling less important than all the other nations with their splendid kings and queens. Not only that, they were struggling to follow God and figured that any king, no matter how capricious or dictatorial would be easier than following God, who wanted their full faith and allegiance, heart and soul.
The philosopher Plato struggled with what would be the perfect sort of government. In his treatise “Republic” he settled on the idea of a philosopher-king. Such a ruler would be able to govern with wisdom, being able to see all sides of issues and coming to decisions that were fair and just. Plato’s understanding of a philosopher was one who was able to grasp the ideas rather than just the particulars. A philosopher would understand beauty in its purest form, rather than simply beauty as represented by an object or a person. Being able to see beyond the biases and limits of our own experiences is especially valuable to rulers who need to see the whole picture. Ultimately, however, what makes the philosopher-king work, or democracy work is the level to which the individuals come closer to being like Christ.
Democracy is a great thing, when we think not just with our own desires in mind, but vote not for our own benefits but those of the group. Just like the philosopher-king is effective because they can get beyond their own biases and desires to see the bigger picture. All of this ends up mirroring the nature of Christ: who lays his life down for others, who should be first but is treated as last, who gives up everything so that others might be saved. In the end, the more we can be like Christ, the more we can follow God, the better our governments will work. The very things that make it hard for us to follow God, our sin and temptation, are the very reasons we should not be trusting someone else to lead us like a king.
The kings of Israel are an expression of the challenge that God faces in allowing us free will. If we are truly free, then we can choose to not follow God. In our story today, the people turn from God and Samuel and look for a new leader to put their trust in. Ironically, they ask God to find this new leader for them, showing their own reluctance to fully turn from God. Samuel finds Saul, and anoints him and later crowns him as the first king of Israel. The people will have their king, and as God predicted, it will not be as good for them as they think.
Socrates would have us believe that to know the good is to do the good. Sadly, at least for myself, I have not found this to be true. I can know I do not need another piece of chocolate cake, but that does not stop me from eating one anyway. I can know that I should love my enemies and pray for those that persecute me, but that does not stop me from feeling hatred towards those who do me wrong. I have found that knowing the good is important, but it is not a guarantee of doing the good.
Following God is hard. It is hard because unlike a king or other mortal leader, we do not have a clear person to listen to and obey. We cannot always see or understand the one we follow. Not only that, God makes difficult demands of us that are hard to follow. We are told by Christ to give up everything and follow him. When we ask we learn that this means giving up our wealth, the things we love. We also learn it means give up our family, the people we love. Following God is about an act of surrender, where we are called to give up our full lives to God and trust entirely in Christ. Yeah, that is hard.
Is it any wonder, that after years of struggling to follow God, the people are looking for an easier way out? Is it any wonder that even when being told what it might mean to have a king, they do not blanche at the cost? After all, losing a son to a war, or a daughter to the king’s harem might seem like less than the cost of discipleship that God demands.
Our story today is not an easy one. It is the story of a group of people, who like us are struggling to do what is good. They know they should be following God. They know the good, but they struggle to do it. In the same way, we struggle in our lives to place God first. What is our first loyalty, God or country? What is our first loyalty, God or security? What is our first loyalty, God or family? Will we give our whole lives to follow Christ?
In the end, the people choose a king over God. In the end the people choose their own comfort and security over the uncertainty of following God. We know they made the wrong choice. God has told us how this will end. Yet, there is good news in this story. Even though the people turn from God, God never turns from the people. Even though they seek the certainty of a king to lead them, God never stops caring for them. They want a king, but it is God who finds the king and anoints the king.
We can give up on God, but God never gives up on us. Just like the people in the story, we fall short of what God wants for us. We sin. We make mistakes. When given a second and third chance, we sin again. Yet through it all, God loves us. Through it all, God forgives us. We can give up on God, but God never gives up on us. Thanks be to God. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What do you need to do to follow God more closely?
When is a time where you have known what is right and yet done something else?
What do you find it easier to trust in instead of God?
Who is someone you know who surrenders their life to God?
God, we give you thanks that you never stop loving us. Even when we turn from you and give our allegiance to kings and rulers on this earth, you remain ready to help us. Forgive us our weakness. Bless us with your wisdom and give us the courage to always follow you. Amen