“Give us a king”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
One of the most tragic developments in the history of the Israelite nation in the Old Testament is found is 1 Samuel 8. It’s far from the saddest—there are times of great rebellion and great retribution that lay a much stronger claim to that title. The Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32, the grotesque moral and societal decay seen in the final five chapters of Judges, the horror story of two starving women descending into remorseless cannibalism of their own children in 2 Kings 6, Athaliah’s slaughter of her children and grandchildren in order to seize power in 2 Kings 11, and still others, easily surpass what amount to a political misstep in 1 Samuel 8; however, this story is more tragic. This is because the main characters are—unknowingly and with seemingly good intentions—bringing about their own downfall, despite protests from a prophet.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Samuel 8.4-5)
The elders have a point—Samuel’s sons are terrible judges, failing to uphold God’s law, or even any sense of justice at all. The people are right to chafe at this situation. On top of that, the Law of Moses explicitly allows them to appoint a king with God’s permission: “you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose” (De 17.15). But Samuel can see that appointing a king will make matters worse for the average joe, in the long run. At God’s direction, he warns the people,
“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. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the 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.” (2 Samuel 8.11-18)
Note that God and Samuel both permit the people to do this. Nowhere do they call it sinful, wrong, a transgression, unlawful, or any such thing. There are also benefits to be had from a king: a judge whose decisions are final and binding, a single authority responsible for the defense of the realm, and also a sense of fitting in—although that last one is a benefit only in the people’s shortsighted estimation. But they were giving up much of their own freedom, by handing over some of their responsibilities to someone else.
Throughout the course of history, practically every major power has been ruled by a monarch, even when called by a different name. Technically Nero was the “Princeps,” the first among equals in the Roman senate, and that title carried no constitutional authority. Yet, when Peter wrote “honor the emperor” (Greek βασιλεύς-basileus-“king”) in 1 Peter 2.17, everyone knew he meant Nero, or whoever would come to occupy his office in the future. Even representative governments over time move increasingly toward rule by a few or even one person, because people are so willing to give up responsibility for themselves, in exchange for a feeling of security and order.
What does all of this mean? There are political lessons to learn from it, but the spiritual lessons are more important. Sometimes we pursue something that’s not sinful in and of itself, but leads us down a dangerous and perhaps painful path. We often can’t see the end of that path as we walk along, and we may ignore warnings from wise people who care about us. It’s often said that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” and like most tired platitudes, there’s a lot of truth in it. The Bible tells us the same thing: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pr 14.12 & 16.25—a proverb important enough to be included twice!).
Instead, we must walk by the narrow way illuminated by Christ and his apostles, and accept him as our king. He’s in charge whether we admit it or not, but it’s far better to be his friend, than his enemy. Back in 1 Samuel 8, the most tragic aspect of the story is easily seen in the following two verses: God says, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (v7), and Samuel warns them, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you” (v18). It’s all their own fault. They pushed God away, saying he wasn’t good enough a protector and judge to them, and that trusting him didn’t allow them to fit in with their neighbors. They’ll all complain about their kings for as long as they have kings—and even when foreign kings like Nebuchadnezzar or Nero rule over them, for that matter—but they’ve brought it on themselves. Don’t make their mistake. Don’t reject God as your king. Don’t make your own path harder.