After our celebrations of the mighty acts of God from Advent to Pentecost, the prospect of entering Ordinary Time might seem like a bit of a downer. But the Old Testament readings for the next couple of months plunge us right into the kind of social and political turmoil that characterizes our own time. To that point, our text for today raises questions about profound issues, like the relationship between divine sovereignty and human authority and the tension between cultural accommodation and covenantal faithfulness. All of which leads us to this central question: how we can follow King Jesus in times that are anything but ordinary.
For hundreds of years, Israel had been a theocracy, directly ruled by God who worked through charismatic leaders like Moses and Joshua. When those superstars died off, God raised up temporary lesser leaders in the persons of the Judges. The era of the Judges lasted for 200 chaotic years.
Here that era comes to an end, as the people demand a king. Theocracy is replaced by monarchy, but that shift did not produce the brave new world the people envisioned. Instead, the chaos continues, as the kings did exactly what God told Israel they would do.
Let’s get to the details of this old story, in order to address the larger issues of our time. On a human level, the period of the Judges comes to an end because Samuel, the best of Israel’s Judges, was getting old (probably about 86). And his sons, whom he had appointed to succeed him, were unworthy of the job. They had already failed morally and spiritually, so they are sure to fail politically once Samuel was gone. In a play on words, our text says that the Judges (shapat) were not doing justice (mishpat).
In our day, we might call this a constitutional crisis. Who will govern Israel? It’s a reasonable question and the elders of Israel have a reasonable answer: “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” They’ve been wandering among and doing battle with “the other nations” for hundreds of years now, and they’ve seen how the world works out there. So, even though they have survived and even conquered those nations under God’s leadership, they ask for a king “such as all the other nations have.” That is, at once, a perfectly reasonable and a profoundly foolish demand.
Samuel sees the folly and the insult of their request immediately. He takes his displeasure to God in prayer. We aren’t specifically told why he was displeased or what he said to God, but it isn’t hard to guess, given how God responded to his prayer.
Some of Samuel’s pique is personal. Why didn’t they ask him to be king? He had never asked to be king, but now that they were looking, why not him? And how could they reject his sons so summarily? His fatherly heart was hurt. That’s why God says in effect, “It’s not about you.”
But some of Samuel’s irritation undoubtedly stemmed from the central fact of Israel’s existence; they were not like the other nations. They were God’s covenant nation, chosen from among the nations of the earth to be God’s holy people for the sake of the nations. The elders’ request ignored that special status. Thus, their demand for a human king was, finally, a rejection of God as their King; “they have rejected me as their king.”
That was profoundly foolish, given how God had ruled them for hundreds of years. In the previous chapter we have a graphic example of God’s gracious and powerful rule. The Philistines had stolen the ark of the covenant, thinking in their pagan way that, if they had that central object of Israel’s religion, they would automatically have the power of Israel’s god. But Samuel defeated the Philistines, because “the Lord thundered against the Philistines and they were routed (7:10-11). After the battle, Samuel raised up a stone as a memorial. He called it Ebenezer, which means, “Thus far, the Lord helped us.” Yes, he had, again and again and again. Their King had always helped them and had promised to do that for all the generations to come. Why would they need a human king?
That’s part of what Samuel was thinking when he took his displeasure to God in prayer. Surprisingly, God didn’t seem to be thinking that way. God says, “Listen to the people.” Indeed, he says that 3 times, because Samuel wasn’t inclined to listen to them. But, says God, “Listen to them, and give them what they want.”
Did God speak in anger or is there a tone of resignation in God’s words? Is God speaking the way a weary parent finally gives in to a petulantly persistent toddler? God says, they have been doing to me for centuries now, ever since I took them out of bondage in Egypt and brought them here to the Promised Land. They have been forsaking me for other gods. That’s what this amounts to—replacing me, their divine King, with a merely human king who will function like a god in their lives.
So, “listen to them.” “Give what they want.” Why would God give in like this? Because God was angry or weary, or because God is wise? I think it was the latter. Israel has been tugging in this direction for centuries and God knew they weren’t going to stop. So, he gave them what they wanted in order to show them definitively that what they wanted would ruin them. As Paul put it in Romans 1, God “gave them up to their sin.” This was as much chastisement as punishment, both punitive and corrective.
I think this is an act of wise love, because of the way God warns them of the consequences of their demand for a king. Out of the details of Samuel’s warning emerges a clear message. This king will demand from you what I ask of you—a tenth of everything and your whole life. “You will become his slaves.”
Israel might have protested that they were already slaves of Yahweh, so what was the difference. At least they could see this human king. God shows them the difference between God as King and a human king in a simple verb repeated four times. This human king will “take, take, take, take.” Yahweh gives, gives, gives and gives.
What Yahweh asks back as a sign of love and loyalty he gave in the first place. What the human kings will demand are God’s gifts to Israel. Yahweh liberated Israel and made them rich in every way. Their new king will make them poorer and less free. Ironically, the elders of Israel were seeking the justice Samuel’s sons could not give, but what they will get instead is a royal abuse of power, something their real King would never do.
So, says their divine King, give them what they want, but warn them that it will not make life better. Indeed, the day will come when they realize the folly of their choice. Then they will beg God for relief, but “I will not answer you in that day.” Why will God be so hard-hearted? Because God knows that sometimes the only way to get through to a stiff necked, hard-hearted people is to let them suffer the consequences of their sins. Only that will finally break their hearts so that they repent and come back to God with all their hearts. Is Israel that hard- hearted? Listen to their answer to Samuel’s warning. “No! We want a king over us. Then we will be like the other nations with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
God responds with grace and wisdom and fatherly firmness. “Listen to them and give them a king.” But Samuel, with only human wisdom and a father’s broken heart snaps at the people, “Get away from me. Everyone go back to his town.” Samuel won’t give them what God tells him to give them, because he is only a man, not God.
That’s how one era ended and another began. It was a tectonic shift in Israel’s life, not merely a shift from the judges to the kings, but a shift from a theocracy where God is in charge to a democracy where the people are in charge. That puts our ancient text in modern terms and raises difficult questions for us as followers of Christ the King. I’ll deal with just two of them.
First, Israel’s desire to be “like the nations” raises the question of cultural conformity versus covenantal faithfulness. How much are we shaped by the conventions and customs of the culture in which the church is placed? In Romans 12, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” That’s easy to say, but the power of culture is immense. When everyone around you is living a certain way, how can we resist being swept into that current? How do live by the values of the covenant (love, justice, peace, compassion, and the centrality of God) when the culture has different values (self-interest and self-fulfillment, political and military power, acquisition and consumption)?
Second, Israel’s desire to have an earthly leader when they already had a heavenly leader illustrates the complexity of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human authority. To put it in Christian terms, Jesus is Lord of all nations and we are members of a particular nation. When does trust in human power become a rejection of divine power? When does patriotism become idolatry? How does our recognition of divine authority relate to our recognition of human authority? In a word, how do citizenship and discipleship interact? These are complicated questions to which you may not be able to give simple answers. But raising them in the climate of our culture is important to do. It all comes down to one issue. To what degree have we let our trust in human authority overshadow our trust in God?
Grappling with the whole matter of cultural conformity, especially in political matters, is fraught with tension in the US today. You can barely raise the issue of faith versus culture without being identified as a fan or foe of former President Trump. So, use an example that is so clear and egregious that no one can argue. Ask if anyone can think of a church that so accommodated itself to evil in the name of patriotism that it became a servant/slave of a tyrannical regime. That would be the vast majority of the German church in the days of Nazi Germany. When that church gave in to Hitler’s barbaric policies in the name of nationalism, it became complicit in the evils of Nazism.
The idea that God in his loving wisdom gave Israel what it wanted even though it was bad for them has many everyday parallels. Here’s one from my childhood. At the age of 8 I loved peppermint ice cream. I just couldn’t get enough. In fact, I whined about it all the time. So, one day, my parents gave me a gallon of the stuff, which I promptly devoured. I got so sick that I’ve never eaten it since. What kind of parents would give their child something they knew was bad for him? Parents who were wise and loving enough to give me what I wanted so I would get over my sickening desire once and for all.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 6, 2021
I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) Commentary