Perhaps you just listened to this particular bit of scripture that was read and you are wondering to yourself: “Why in God’s name is Pastor Grant reading to us a scripture about Israel demanding a king?”
A couple of answers may be needed. One: I like following the Revised Common Lectionary, a schedule of scriptures planned out in a 3 year cycle, designed to go through the vast majority of the bible. I like using it for a couple of reasons: it’s nice to have a schedule, it’s a challenge to go through passages that one may not hear all the time, and frankly, lectionaries bring churches together. You could go to literally hundreds of churches in the US, and hear this scripture being read. It becomes a conversation, and I like being part of that conversation, and I like our church to be a part of that conversation. Connection is a big deal to Methodists; anything that we can do to be a part of that connection is a good thing, in my opinion.
That being said, that doesn’t really answer the question, because there are 4 scriptures one can choose from in the lectionary. So why this scripture? Well, this summer, we’re going through the 2 books of Samuel, in a series I’m calling “A Man of God’s Heart,” exploring a pivotal era in Israel’s history.
Which brings us to today’s scripture, of people demanding a king. It’s a topic that, while on the surface seems rather irrelevant to our experience, and dare I say, perhaps boring, once you really dig into what the people are saying, what Samuel is saying, and most importantly, what God is saying, we might come to realize that this is more relevant than we might want to admit.
There are many issues at stake in this passage, all with big ramifications. Chief among them though is this: What is God’s will? And if God doesn’t want something to happen, why is it allowed anyway? What does peer pressure do to followers of God? And who is really in charge?
A Bottom Up Decision for a Top Down Government
The scripture does pretty well at setting itself up. It establishes that Samuel, who last week we saw was a young boy, has become the elder judge of Israel. The sad fact is, he followed his predecessor’s footsteps a little too well. Though nobody questioned Samuel’s leadership, they couldn’t ignore the fact that Samuel’s sons were unfit to rule, for very much the same reasons Eli’s sons were unfit. We see history repeating itself once more. So the people have had enough–let’s change history.
So what is their solution for this problem? Let’s have a monarchy! Enough of this uncertainty, and waiting for a good ruler to show up every time the last one dies. Let’s have a hereditary monarchy, so we have someone to look after us! It’s peace of mind, and plus, other countries might respect us more if we had a king!
To be fair, their reasoning isn’t horrible, given the culture at the time. Monarchy was the government du jour. Representational democracy hadn’t been pioneered by the Greeks and Romans yet, and frankly, this pseudo-democratic judge-ship thing isn’t working. There’s no organization in Israel. Times are bad. Lawlessness is rampant. Perhaps a monarchy might fix these problems?
All of this is somewhat a bit ironic, though, isn’t it? For those in favor of a theocratic government, a system by which religion governs the land, this Israel before a king in theory seems to be the perfect system! But the problem with theories is that sometimes they don’t work out in practice, because they don’t account for human error. In another example of irony, we have a public outcry and a democratic consensus in favor of a system that does away with democracy! In essence, it’s a bottom-up decision for a top-down government.
If that doesn’t make sense, hear this. It all boils down to this inherent truth: humanity has no idea what it’s doing. People, in general, tend to want things that may not be the best thing for them. When we do things our own way, we tend to mess it up. The same is true today as it was then.
A Rejection, and an Allowance
So Samuel hears this complaint, and naturally, he’s kind of saddened by it. What it amounts to is a rejection. A breakup. And baby, breaking up is hard to do.
He goes to God in prayer because he feels that this may be a bad decision–to have a monarchy–and God basically agrees with him. First though, God consoles him. They aren’t breaking up with Samuel. They’re breaking up with God’s rule. That’s the issue here. It’s a rejection of a theocracy that has been in place up until this point in time. Perhaps a justified rejection, but a rejection nonetheless.
This grieves God greatly, but this is not a new feeling. In fact this is a recurring theme in the Bible. Perhaps THE recurring theme, even. God creates humanity; humanity rebels because of our broken and sinful nature, and God then tries to reconcile it. Ultimately, it leads to the person of Jesus Christ, who does the final and complete act of reconciliation. Until then, we see God working with the people.
What we see God doing here is an allowance. God allows something to occur, but without condoning it. It’s things like this that really messes with a lot of people’s heads: if God is in control, why does God allow bad things to happen? Why not forbid it? Why not say no?
Because God is ultimately, not only Creator, but the Father, Mother, Holy Parent of all creation. Like a loving parent, God can do many things to protect us, but ultimately, must allow children to do what they do, and pick up the pieces in the aftermath. A child will do what it wants, but a parent tries to teach, to discipline, and ultimately, to love the child, despite all mistakes. This is why God allows it. God has God’s will, and we have our own; God works with ours, while we try to figure out God’s.
A Final Warning
So God allows Israel to have a King. However, before doing so, God let’s Samuel have the final word on this new kingship.
Samuel tells the people in a final warning about this new deal what a king will mean for them directly:
“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[c] 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.”
You’ve already got your answer, Israel. “God here recounts a very precise and evocative description of what imperial power does. The powerful will take from the weak, the center from the margins, the king from the people. Empires and kings extract the value of your land, sacrifice the lives of your children in warfare, take even your livelihoods for his advantage. Is that what you want? Is that the king you seek? A king who will enslave you and your children, not the God who liberated you from slavery in Egypt?” (C/o Eric Barreto)
This is what Israel is headed for, and this is what humanity is headed for when we do not recognize God as ultimate authority. God is majestic, and holy, and righteous, but God is also love, as no other being is. A king may be just in many ways, but not as God is. A king, by definition, takes. Why? Because he’s human.
However, that’s not impossible for God to work with. In fact, that’s what God does. God works with us, even when we mess up. God can redeem even our worst mistakes. God works with us, and loves us just the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.