Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2015
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) Commentary
Growing up, Samuel had watched the old priest Eli behave like Milquetoast vis-à-vis his wretched offspring, Hophni and Phineas. Probably even as a young boy that sad spectacle was enough to make Samuel shake his head in disbelief and disgust. Eli was such a nice guy—how in the world had he raised two boys so singularly self-absorbed and corrupt?
Well . . . that was then. Fast forward a few decades and Samuel could hardly bring himself to consider his own boys, Abijah and Joel. They’d taken over the family business as prophets over Israel but the problem was: they had actually made it into a business. These two young men configured themselves into For-Profit Prophets. Sure, they’d adjudicate a case for you but don’t expect any pro bono work like happened with dear old Dad—a prophet’s gotta eat after all and so nominal fees will be charged. And surely God doesn’t need all of the various sacrifices you bring before him—he owns the cattle on a thousand hills, after all, and so won’t even notice if we keep the tenderloin section of your sacrificial cow.
It didn’t take long before the people got sick of the shakedowns and the fees and the invoices Joel and Abijah kept mailing out to their more deadbeat customers. But the people still loved and revered Samuel and so could not quite bring themselves to telling him the full skinny on his boys, saying instead the more generic, “Well, Samuel, your boys . . . they’re not like you. We really got used to you and your ways and don’t care for the new ways of the boys. All things considered, we think we’ll be better off with a king. You know, like the other nations. They all get to have kings to take care of the nation so why not us? Why should Yahweh’s own people—of all people—be the odd ones out in not having a sovereign?”
Well it upset Samuel a lot, probably because he knew deep down the real reasons for the request and it just hurt. If as a father he had done a better job in avoiding the Eli Syndrome, none of this would have happened, after all. So he tells God, “My whole legacy is shot. The people want a king because I failed.”
“Not a bit of it,” God replies. “It’s not you, it’s me they are rejecting.”
It was a kind and gracious thing for God to say, especially since in a proximate sense the fact of the matter was that it was Samuel and his heirs that were being rejected at the moment. So God spared Samuel a bit of the pain by taking it upon himself. Of course, in a broader sense, God was right, too. He had called Abram, had made parents out of childless senior citizens, had worked through dim-witted Esau and crafty Jacob to set things on course to establish the mighty nation God had promised. Even while the people were in Egypt suffering a cruel enslavement, God was nurturing a nation, a people, whom he eventually led out of that wretched place with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm. He gave them his Law, a gift really—the Owner’s Manual for the cosmos. It was meant to make them flourish, be safe, happy, well. It was a guidebook for shalom.
But now, after all that, the people say that while the idea of God as their true King was nice, they wanted somebody whose image they could actually engrave on a coin without breaking some commandment or another. You know, like the other nations.
Alas, the “thing” was, Israel was never supposed to be like the other nations. They were supposed to be distinct, set apart, holy. They were supposed to be unlike all other kingdoms because they were the beachhead for cosmic salvation. It was the “other nations” that needed saving, after all. But Israel would not do any of those peoples any good if all they managed to do was become a chip off of their fractured blocks.
So God has Samuel try to instill the fear of politics and conscription and taxes into the people, but to no avail. Their minds were made up and, amazingly, God shrugs the divine shoulders and as much as says, “Fine. Whatever. But be careful what you wish for . . .”
Israel would have centuries of time to live with the consequences of this request. They’d suffer plenty under the ministrations of corrupt kings until finally the got carried off into captivity by other nations’ kings who did what the people wanted: viz., treated Israel like any other nation.
God being God, however, he knew how to make lemonade out of lemons and so eventually found a way to wrap up even his promises for the Messiah inside the notion of Israel’s having a king. Jesus would come as the ultimate King in the line of David (Saul won’t work out worth a toot, after all) and under the aegis of His particular reign and rule all the bad stuff associated with kings would disappear in favor of someone who would truly rule for shalom. Centuries later a follower of that particular man would hail him as “King of kings and Lord of lords” even as one of Israel’s own prophets would predict that “of the increase of his government there will be no end.” And that will be a good thing, not a bad one.
As preaching texts go, this story of Israel’s hankering for a king may not seem particularly inspiring. It seems like no more than kind of a sad little story: Samuel lives to see the downfall of his own house, the people reject both Samuel’s heirs and the holy God who had led them out of the land of Egypt and settled them in the land flowing with milk and honey. But maybe there is a bit of grace and hope here even so. Yes, a lot of the bad things God warned the people about would happen. But in the longest possible run something else would happen: a new King would come. He’d arrive in no less than Jerusalem one day, humble and riding on a donkey, on the colt of a donkey. And he’ll be anointed King not in some elaborate ceremony on a red carpet and wearing some deep purple robe but naked and impaled on a spit of wood. It would be a thorny crown that made him King but from that sacrifice, a whole new kingdom would arise and one day in that kingdom, all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Thanks be to God.
From Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, Harper & Row, 1988, pp.70-71:
“’Who is this King of glory? The LORD, the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!’ proclaims the Psalmist (Ps. 24:10). This rich metaphor is used again and again in Scripture. Yahweh alone was King over Israel, the prophets thundered: to be feared, to be loved, above all else to be obeyed. When the people decided they wanted a king of flesh and blood like all the other nations, Samuel warned them that the consequences would prove tragic, and history proved him correct in every particular. In the long run Israel as king and kingdom vanished from history altogether.
“When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, it was as King and Son of David that his followers hailed him. If it was a king like David the conquering hero that they were looking for, they were of course bitterly disappointed. What they got was a king like David the father, who, when he heard of his treacherous son’s death, went up to his chamber and wept. ‘Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ he cried out. They were the most kingly words he ever uttered and an uncanny foreshadowing of events some thousand years off.”
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