‘Give us a king’. That’s the request of the elders of Israel as they gather around the aging prophet Samuel at Ramah.
Up until this point, Israel had been no more than a collection of family clans or tribes united by a shared ancestry traced back to Abraham as their father along with a shared story of enslavement in Egypt followed by exodus, wilderness wandering and an uneasy settlement in the promised land. The story so far had been overshadowed by God, Yarweh, the Lord, who, through Moses has led them to this land. Through Joshua and some strange leaders called Judges, God had courted a relationship with them. He called them to a distinctive morality set out in the ten commandments. Very clearly, God had made clear to them that he wanted their whole loyalty. He did not want to share with idols.
However, all around the tribes of Israel, the elders could see kings of one kind and another, powerful leaders who could draw men together and organise them in battle. They had often been on the receiving end of these nations, the Hittites, the Amorites, Canaanites and most recently the Philistines. They felt the time had come to gather the tribes of Israel together under one king allowing them to become a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Samuel was not comfortable with the request. Since the time of the judges, he had been the de facto leader of Israel. Was he not good enough? He prays to the Lord. The answer is a clear and an interesting one. ‘They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.’ (1 Samuel 8.7) Israel was meant to be distinct from the other nations because its king was God, The Lord himself. In seeking a king like every other nation, they were taking a step away from that ideal. They were rejecting ‘theocracy’, rule by God for ‘monarchy’, rule by a king.
Samuel sets out all the reasons why they should not have a king. He will be oppressive, he will make arbitrary appointments, he will take your wealth away in taxes. The people insist so the Lord gives leave to Samuel to appoint a king.
Now, if you read on in the first book of Samuel, you will find more positive views of kingship emerging alongside the negative one we have here. This may well be a result of differing sources edited together in the book we have today. It often appears that the biblical writers are happier to present differing perspectives side by side rather blending views together. Certainly, there was more than one view of the best way forward for Israel back in the 11th century BC and that is no less true today. Democracy rather than theocracy or monarchy has become our preferred way of government and has often been held up as the answer to the world’s ills. That’s very much a western perspective. While Russia, China and their satellite states have dallied with democracy, its never really found much traction in practice. Their powerful leaders can command huge allegiance to a one-party state effectively stifling off all opposition.
Is democracy better when it’s the first one past the post, the one with most votes or is some form of proportional representation better where people’s 2nd and 3rd choices are taken into account as was the case in the recent Welsh Government election. Ironically, the modern state of Israel is a good example of democracy breaking down. Up to 8 different parties, some left some right, some Jewish, some Arab are seeking to form a coalition in the Knesset to keep out the serving prime minister since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu. They’ve had five elections to reach this state of affairs. Clearly, the elders of Israel have the same kind of dilemma after nearly 3 millennia. Who should rule over them?
Hertzburg, a commentator on the books of Smauel in the 1960’s wrote: ‘Here one of the basic features of world history emerges: the struggle of man(kind) against God – already beginning in Genesis 3 – a struggle which according to the general outline in presented in the bible, has its roots in the special position given to man in Genesis 1. Samuel experiences what Moses, the prophets, and even Jesus experienced: ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ (Luke 19.14) (Hertzburg, 1964) In short, from the time of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, human beings reject the rule of God in their lives. We always think we know better, that if we do it my way it will work out for the best. The story of Israel in the Old Testament is one of blessing and peace on the rare occasions Israel listens to God’s promptings through his prophets, priests, and anointed leaders, but disaster when they fail to heed the voice of the Lord.
So, what of us? When we accept Jesus as our saviour, asking for his love and forgiveness, we also accept him as Lord, our Lord and Saviour. Jesus becomes our king. It is his who must reign from the throne of our hearts.
What does that look like in practice? Does it have any thing to say to the world of national and international politics? Paul affirms that all authorities exist because God allows them. (Romans13.1) It is only as they acknowledge that kingly rule from above that they will be truly fruitful. When Elizabeth was crowned Queen, she was presented with an orb as a sign of earthly power with these words:
Receive this Orb set under the Cross,
and remember that the whole world
is subject to the Power and Empire
of Christ our Redeemer.
It is the just and gentle rule of Christ for which we should unceasingly pray in our leaders.
And in our church, we need to constantly seek the Lord’s will. He is Lord of the church whether we are an episcopal church led by bishops or a congregational one. It should not be a quick perfunctory prayer before we all have a go at each other in a committee meeting but taking time to wait on God. Last month, a group of praying people have been especially praying and seeking God’s vision for our town and its churches. It is in such prophetic action, tested against scripture that we are ruled by our king.
For ourselves, our homes, our families. Many will know of the old words often written up in a prominent place: “Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest of every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” May those words be really true for us. We cannot always make a big difference in our world, but we can all start with the way we order our own back yards. Where all the household acknowledge Jesus as Lord, grace should be said at meals, music and language of worship heard and prayers uttered. If all are not believers, then pray daily for others to come to faith in Christ, that his kingdom may rule in your home as in heaven and make what space you can for Jesus to rule.
‘Give us a king’ the Jewish elders begged Samuel. When Pilate asked them ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ they shouted: ‘We have no King but Ceaser’ John 19.15 What do you say? Is Jesus your king?
Trinity 1 06.06.2021