Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 9, 2024

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) Commentary

Getting Political

This week’s lectionary reading fronts a larger section of text that tells us what happens when God’s people “get political.”  From the start, God’s people have been shaped and sustained through covenants.  Of course, there have always been leaders mediating this covenant — folks like Moses and Joshua feature prominently in that list.  But, even under there leadership, not to mention that of the judges, all was not well for the people of God.  The work is, according to Walter Brueggemann, “to relate royal ideology (and power) to the claims of covenantal faith and covenantal ethics. The institution of monarchy does not easily accommodate itself to covenantal power arrangements…chapters 8-15 are an interpretive reflection on this difficult and crucial relation between new forms of social relations and an old, honored, well-established theological tradition.”

Just as politics is heating up in the US context, it may be helpful to remind God’s people that the claims of a King have never rested peaceably alongside the claims of God to be our King. And this is the case even when God has a demonstrable hand in choosing the man.  In fact, this sense of tension should be normative to those of us who seek to follow God in the context of earthly governments, authorities and rulers. An easy alignment with earthly parties and political candidates is what should be seen as outside the norm since, after all, “The issue taken up in the literature is the dispute between the old tradition of tribal reliance on Yahweh and the new ideology of monarchy. This is for Israel and hard-fought dispute that will have no easy settlement.”

Power Plays

When following the lectionary, our last encounter with Samuel happened when he was a boy in the temple.  Now he is old as Eli and in a similar predicament.  Eli’s sons defiled worship practice in the temple and now Samuel’s sons took bribes and undermined the justice of Israel.

This is an important context for what is coming next because, although the power plays are moving into the political realm, it is already well established that, when granted positions of power, God’s people rarely live up to them.  In fact, “The question of this chapter is how to order public power and how to guard public well-being in a community where the leadership tends to pervert that power and well-being.”

King Envy

Israel requests a king, not because it makes geo-political sense or because they are in need of a tie-breaking vote to break a legislative deadlock.  Their reason is far more simple and, for that reason, frightening to Samuel.  The Israelites — God’s chosen and set apart people — would like to be like everyone else. This is a huge slap in the face of their own character as those who establish “life in the odd and demanding way of torah and to rely onto inexplicable love and remarkable promises of Yahweh.”  We are tipped off my Samuel’s response that this goes against God’s plan for the people and should be an affront.  So we might find it surprising that God is willing to accede the people’s request — not because it is what is best for them and, in fact God even commands Samuel to warn the people of the consequences of their choices. “There is indignation and pathos int he voice of Yahweh, who knows better but s exhausted with his people which insists on its own way.”  After all, says Brueggemann, “The whole history of Israel is one of ‘forsaking’ and going after other gods. This request for a king is one more step int hat continuing performance of mistrust.”

Here again we can read this text against the politics of our own day — our hopes in what a king — any earthly leader — can do. Our loyalty to a party easily slips over to become our most important identity-marker. A politician’s agenda can become our hope.  The implications of this text are not far from our own weakness and misjudgments today.  What we place our loyalty in demands our sacrifice. Where we place our hope can quickly become the source of our deepest disappointments.  The only safe place for human loyalty and hope is in God and this book, not to mention the Bible as a whole bears that out.

Not Just Kings

The philosopher Charles Taylor asserts that modernity has landed us deep in the immanence of the world.  What is real is material, concrete, visible and, often, right in front of us.  A King is an immanent ruler.  Taylor says that, as a result, our society (even the Christian church) has a hard time centering the transcendent.  We want our theology to solve the mystery of God. We want our worship to make sense. We want to not be weird.  Brueggemann writes that, at this juncture in Israel’s history, “The monarchy substitutes human power for the availability of Yahweh.” This seems to me a wonderful restatement of the trade that we have made, yet again, in this modern/post-modern culture.  Human power — for all that it is material, concrete and visible — seems, to us, controllable.  And control is often of greater value to us than the greatness, the incomprehensibility of God.  It isn’t just monarchy that helps us achieve this sense of control.  Education, accumulation of wealth, predictable menus at chain restaurants, whatever we want in the produce section of the grocery store regardless of season, predictability.

Of course, as we keep reading Israel’s history with Saul, it turns out that what we think we can control is not so predictable in the end.


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