Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 10, 2018
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) Commentary
How many times hasn’t each of us thought if not said something like, “But everybody else is doing it!”? How often have you heard children and young adults say something like, “Everyone else’s parents are letting them go!”? After all, we like to think that if “everyone else” is doing something, it can’t be wrong.
That’s essentially how the Israelites think of a monarchy in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Since all the other nations have a king, they essentially tell Samuel, we want one too. After all, if everyone else has a king, it must be right, right?
Samuel, however, has a decidedly different take on a potential Israelite monarchy. God’s perception, while hardly clear-cut, also differs from the Israelites’. Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 8 may want to explore with their hearers its intersection of Israel, Samuel and God’s perceptions. After all, while its story is ancient, its ramifications are modern.
The period of Israel’s judges was a time of great confusion and conflict. God appointed judges by anointing them with God’s Spirit. That Spirit fell on both the great, like Deborah, and the less-than-great, like Samson. Yet virtually each judge enjoyed some success, followed by failure whose solution awaited another divinely appointed judge.
Israel’s last judge was Samuel. In a real sense, however, he was much more than just a judge. After all, Samuel ruled virtually every aspect of Israel’s culture, including its economics and politics, as well as religion. He also largely ruled effectively.
Yet as 1 Samuel 8 opens, the prophet is aging (2). While he’s still in charge, he has appointed his sons to be Israel’s new judges. So as our text unfolds, it’s clear that Samuel wants his sons to rule over Israel. While he still can, he even establishes them as judges in Israel’s far southern deserts.
However, there’s one major hitch in Samuel’s prophetic succession plan. His sons don’t take after him. They only look out for themselves as they accept bribes and pervert justice. Samuel had dedicated his life to providing Israel with godly and stable leadership. However, his heirs quickly become famous for ungodly and unjust leadership.
So virtually everyone recognizes that neither Israel nor God should let Samuel’s sons rule. Certainly, then, wise and godly Samuel will also recognize that Israel needs someone else to rule her, won’t he? After all, he may die at any time, leaving his sons in control.
Perhaps that’s why Israel’s elders approach the aging prophet at his home in Ramah. “You’re an old man whose sons don’t follow in your footsteps,” they remind him in verse 5. “So give us what everybody else has – a king to rule us.”
That at first glance certainly sounds like a logical request. After all, Samuel himself has already begun to replace Israel’s way of establishing leaders through God’s anointing with creating a family dynasty. Since his family isn’t very godly, why shouldn’t he just go ahead and appoint a king, just like the other nations have? Won’t that at least create some political stability as well as keep power out of the morally grubby hands of Samuel’s sons Joel and Abijah?
Samuel, however, can see no wisdom in this plea for a king. He probably recognizes that Israel’s desire to be like “all the other nations” conflicts with her status as God’s special people. Samuel also knows that God longs to form a people in God’s image rather than in the image of everyone else.
Yet when Samuel prays about it, God’s reply isn’t what he hopes and may even assume it will be. “Go ahead and do what Israel is asking,” the Lord says in verses 7-9. “It’s me rather than you that she’s rejecting … Let them have their way. But be sure to warn them to be careful what they ask for. They may, after all, just get it.”
Yet while Israel and Samuel’s wills concerning a king are very clear in our text, God’s will is somewhat less clear. Twice God tells Samuel to listen to the people, implying that the prophet must make the Israelites a king! Yet while this might suggest that it’s God’s will that Israel have a king, 1 Samuel 8 at least suggests the granting of her request for a monarch is more God’s giving in to Israel’s hardheartedness.
Yet no matter what God’s will is, only a most reluctant servant could possibly miss what God tells Samuel: the prophet must appoint a king. Sadly, however, he hears only the end of God’s answer. While Samuel is not eager to appoint a king, he is eager to warn the Israelites about their coming king.
The angry, aging prophet describes a king who will be out of control, a petty tyrant who will “take” virtually everything away from his subjects. Six times he warns that Israel’s king will take everything, from her children to her land to her sources of income. And what will be the result of all this royal taking? In verse 17 Samuel bluntly warns Israel that she will become her kings’ “slaves.”
You might think that would have thoroughly rattled the Israelites. God, after all, had already freed them once from brutal slavery in Egypt. Now Samuel predicts a return to such horrible slavery. It doesn’t much matter, after all, whether the monarch is an Egyptian pharaoh or an Israelite king. Tyrants are only interested in what’s theirs.
Samuel even closes his catalogue of coming royal sins with one last withering blast. In Exodus 2:24 we read that “God heard” the Israelite’s “cry for help” and was “concerned about” her slavery in Egypt. What more, when Samuel cried out to God for help in I Samuel 7:9, “the Lord answered him.” However, Samuel warns that when Israel cries out to God because of her king’s abuses, she’ll no longer be able to rely on God rescuing her.
However, Samuel’s Israel longs more than almost anything else to be just like “all the other nations.” By God’s amazing grace, she’d enjoyed an intimate relationship with God that none of “the other nations” enjoyed. Yet the Israelites remain stubbornly willing to surrender that uniqueness in order to be just like all the other nations, no matter how much it costs them.
Of course, history shows that God and Samuel were right to be so leery about a monarchy. Saul, after all, was a terrible failure as a king. David, while successful as a king, was a failure as a father and husband. What’s more, King Solomon fulfills nearly to the letter all the furious warnings Samuel issued before he ever crowned a king.
As a result, an Israel that becomes enslaved to her monarchy does soon cry out to God for help. However, as Jeremiah 7:15 and 51:1 report, the Lord does not answer. Left to her own meager resources, Israel is reduced to only a shadow of her earlier self.
Samuel and God both desire that God alone be Israel’s king. Their will is that God alone be her master, her ruler, and her “boss.” They know the terrible consequences of an Israelite monarchy. Yet while Samuel warns her of those terrible consequences, Israel’s will is still that she has a human king. Samuel’s will refuses to bend. By contrast, however, God’s will does, in one sense bend. For the Lord’s own reasons, the Lord calls Samuel to give Israel a king, however disastrous the results will be.
Of course, God’s will alone is good. God knew what was best for Israel, just as God’s knows what’s best for all of God’s adopted sons and daughters. God knew that it would be best for Israel if he alone were her king. Yet God told Samuel to give Israel the king she wanted anyway.
Those kings, of course, help lead Israel’s downhill charge toward ungodliness that ends up in her near-obliteration. However, the Lord graciously used even Israel’s deeply flawed and disobedient desire for a monarch to work out the Lord’s own will. After all, who turns out to be not just Israel, but also the whole world’s King? Jesus Christ … a great, great, great grandson of one of Israel’s kings, David.
After all, as the apostle Paul writes in a stunning burst of lovely eloquence in Romans 8:28, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” As a result, in a burst of poetic comfort, Reformed Christians confess, in Answer 29 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “the Lord will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.”
We sometimes think of that “adversity” as things imposed on us from outside. God’s people generally think of the trouble in which God works for our good as things like hunger, cancer, unemployment and terrorism. However, 1 Samuel 8 reminds that God’s adopted sons and daughters also sometimes create our own adversity. Like our text’s Israelites, we too sometimes make disastrous choices.
God may allow us to deal with the consequences of those bad choices, just as Israel had to accept the grim consequences of her demand for a king. Yet even in those bad choices and grim consequences, the Lord always somehow works for our good.
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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