“We want a king!”
“Because everybody else has a king, so we want one, too!”
There’s just something about that conversation, which is at the heart of this week’s focus scripture in the lectionary, that reminds me of raising my kids. If you’ve been a parent–or had one or even just known one–you’re no doubt familiar with this line of reasoning. Here’s the entire passage from First Samuel:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots….He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” –1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20 NRSV
The Hebrew tribes at this point in their history were still pretty much a loose confederation rather than the “nation” of Israel. They’d been directed (governed is probably too strong a term to use here) by prophets and a series of judges, divinely chosen and commissioned for their wisdom and/or courage.
The Israelite people were an oddity in the ancient near-East for several reasons. All the other nations and tribes had a king, and in virtually every instance those kings were associated with the idea of divinity. If they were not actually worshiped as deity (and many were, even up through the time of the Roman emperors centuries later), they were considered as something like sons of the gods. For the Israelites, however, God (Yahweh) was their king. And so it shouldn’t be surprising at all that the prophet Samuel was reluctant to choose for his people what they were demanding.
He tried to warn them how it would all turn out, how a king–any king, for that matter–would be their ruin: heavy taxes, probably including slavery, and war after war that would lead their sons to their death and the nation itself to annihilation.
But no, the people wouldn’t listen. In the end Samuel had little choice. His own sons were an obvious disappointment in keeping alive either a role as prophet or judge. Later chapters in First Samuel recount the initial success of King Saul and his eventual failures–all for the very reasons Samuel had warned. Even his successors, David and then Solomon, were a mix of good and bad. And the long string of kings after them, for both the divided kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, were a much bigger disaster. Kingly leadership didn’t save them from the crush of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies. In most cases it quickened their eventual fate.
From our perspective some 3,000 years later we can see with perfect hindsight that the Israelites should have listened more closely to Samuel. The only “one” they could truly count on for steadfastness was their true king, Yahweh. Perhaps we human beings simply have to learn our lessons the hard way.
These days we demand a lot of our political leaders, and when immediate results aren’t forthcoming we cry out for their replacement. Where oh where is someone who’ll save us, save the country, save the world? It’s probably true what somebody (I think it was Churchill) once said about democracy: It’s a terrible form of government…but a whole lot better than all the alternatives.
The answer in 21st century North America, or anywhere else I suppose, is not the creation of a theocracy. Our democratic ideals, commitment to a republic and its secular form of government, and our thoroughly pluralistic society rule a theocracy out. But for us as individuals and as part of faith communities, a good starting point is to remember that we love (and serve) God because God first loved us–and continues steadfastly to love us still.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
*From the 2012 ForeWords archive