1 Samuel 8:1-20 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 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.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 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; 12 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 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.”
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 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.”
This is a story about fear. I know it seems like this is a story about how the Israelites get themselves a king, but they feel like they need a king because they are afraid. Their leader, Samuel, is getting older and his sons aren’t fit to lead. They’ve been through that already with their last leader, Eli and his sons, and it did not go well. So they go to Samuel and ask him to appoint them a king so “that they’ll be like the other nations.” After Samuel tells them how awful it will be to have a king, they say to him again, “Appoint us a king like the other nations, someone who will go out before us and fight our battles.”
Ah. Someone who will fight our battles. There it is. The chapters right before this story describe a war the Israelites fought with the Philistines. Eli’s sons had carried the ark of the covenant into battle so that God could fight on their behalf…but that day God didn’t. The Philistines beat them and captured the ark. The Israelites were ashamed; the Philistines had just taken the symbol of God’s presence with them. And the LORD, who was supposed to be their true king, had not fought for them. That’s the background for this story. After what they’ve been through, the people are making a pragmatic, political decision: we need a strong leader. We live in a world where people fight battles and we need someone who can do that. We can’t count on Samuel’s sons. And perhaps no one spoke it out loud, but apparently they couldn’t count on God to keep them safe either. Faith is important but there’s a lot of bad people in the world so you have to be practical. We need a king.
The people ask for a king because they are afraid, afraid of losing their land, of losing their most important symbols, of losing their very identity as a people.
And in their fear, they remake themselves into a very different kind of community. Samuel describes what that community will look like: the king will draft their sons to fight in his wars, the king will keep whatever of their wages he wants, he will exploit their land and their food and the people themselves for whatever purposes the king sees fit. They might still be offering sacrifices in the tabernacles, but they’re also making sacrifices to the king. Whether the king is good or not doesn’t really matter: the people will be in service to him, and that changes the kind of community that they are. God had called them to be a whole kingdom of priests in service to God alone, but now they become a nation subject to a ruler. They give themselves over, all because they are afraid of their neighbors.
God tells Samuel what all of this really means: by giving into fear, the people are walking down the path of idolatry. “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.” In this moment, the Israelites seemed to think of God as a weapon, like a nuke who would lay waste to their enemies. But when God doesn’t do that, they start looking for something that will, someone who will keep them safe. They turn to a king instead of God but they’ll eventually find out that kings can lose battles, too. So it’s not long before the kings of Israel begin worshipping other gods like Baal, gods of thunder and strength, not an invisible, unpredictable god like the LORD. With their idolatry, the very kings they wanted to keep them safe, whom they wanted to protect their most sacred symbols, lead the people into civil war and ultimately exile.
What we see happening here is that in their fear, the people worship their own safety instead of the LORD and that desire takes concrete form in their politics. They build institutions that will make them feel safe.
Now, it probably wasn’t clear to them at the time that this is what they were doing. That’s not how fear works. They probably thought they were being faithful. They were afraid that they would lose the ark again, which was God’s throne. They thought they were protecting their ability to worship. That doesn’t make their actions any less sinful. It means that as we seek to root out those sins from our own hearts and institutions, we have to be wary of our noble desires just as much if not more than our hateful ones.
I remember in 2003, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq, my youth group held a prayer service. We hardly ever talked about political issues, but that day it seemed like the most normal thing in the world. Americans get very pious about war, and everyone was still scared after 9/11. Now, no one was really clear what the connection was between 9/11 and Iraq but it felt like a “war on terror” was a proactive way to keep us safe. And then there was our president quoting Bible verses about fighting against evil and my pastor reading to us in worship about how there’s a time for all things, including a time for war. No one asked if or why this was that time. We just knew.
We just knew. We know that there are forces of pure evil out there in the world, and we know we are good because we fight them. Over and over in those years I heard people say that we could rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan because that’s what we’d done in Germany and Japan. We destroyed the axis of evil and rebuilt goodness in their place. That’s who we are. We’re the good guys, a city on a hill, hemmed in on all sides by a darkness that we have to beat if we want to be safe, if we want to keep being who we know we are. We pray, “God, give the world a king and let him be robed in red, white, and blue.”
And we’ve been willing to reshape our own society and really the whole world around that prayer. It seems like there’s nothing we won’t sacrifice in the name of our safety. Billions of dollars (no one ever asks “How are we going to pay for that?” when it comes to military spending); almost 5,000 American soldiers; 22 veterans a day who die by suicide; countless others who suffer from PTSD; 200,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians. And the darkness is so pervasive we know it seeps into our own space, too, so we’ll sacrifice our privacy and we’ll allow ICE to detain people without trial, to separate children from their families and put them in kennels. Your king will take your money and your land and your neighbors and eventually you too and you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourself.
And all the while, many churches have become chaplains for our kings. We put up flags in our sanctuaries and it says to anyone who walks in, “Yep, we approve everything that’s going on here.” Maybe some of you are thinking “Oh I wish he’d stop talking about politics” but there is always a theology at work in our politics, and many in this country reveal through their politics that they worship the god of militarism instead of the God who takes on flesh in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter if you call yourself a “Christian” or your nation “Israel,” if you need a piece of metal—a crown, a statue, a fence, or a bullet, to keep you safe—you worship Moloch, not the LORD. This is about politics but its also about idolatry. It’s about every community, every individual, every generation that has to decide “Am I going to let fear organize my life, or am I going to work to build something different?”
That was God’s hope for the Israelites all along, that they would offer another kind of life in a world of growing empires. The moments when God fights battles are aberrations, not the pattern. God’s desire throughout the Hebrew Bible is that the people will make God known through the beauty of their worship, the generosity of their communities, the grace of the jubilee year, the care they show for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, the tenderness with which they treat the land that is always the LORD’s. The great legacy this people leaves behind is not their military might or monuments of victory but the Psalms, songs of praise and lamentation to their God who’s with them through it all.
And ultimately the God they wanted to fight for them took on flesh and died for them instead; and rose again to show that the only way to keep your life is to lose it and all those who try to keep their lives by appointing mighty kings will lose them. And then Jesus breathes out the Spirit upon us, the Spirit who is not a Spirit of fear, the Spirit who welcomes their enemies into fellowship, too. And if that Spirit is in us we will worship the living God and repent the idolatry in our society and in our hearts. When the engines of war start turning again, and the pundits (liberal and conservative) begin crowing about the evils of North Korea or Iran, we can say to our leaders and to other Christians, “No! We’re not falling for this again!” When your buddy starts whining because someone spoke another language in line at the store, you can say “Hey, let me share with you the good news of Pentecost.” We can support churches who are providing sanctuary for aliens and orphans and widows in our midst. We don’t have to be afraid.
God’s people asked for a king and ultimately God gives us a king whose throne is a cross. God’s reign looks like none the world has ever seen and God calls us to join that kingdom. It will require us to turn away from the kings of this world, but Christ invites us into a life without fear, without fear of neighbors near or far, without fear for what will happen to us in the future, without fear that we will lose our identity. Jesus is love incarnate and perfect love casts out fear, so that neighbors might become friends, so that the future might be as full of opportunity as darkness, so that we can know who we are by dying and rising into his body. And this is not just a matter of changing our individual hearts, but of building communities and institutions around the assumption of Christ's love, not our fear.
If fear can reshape our societies and our souls, love can, too. Not the love of ourselves over and against our enemies, not the love of the nation above all, but the love that pours itself out in imitation of Christ; the love that welcomes the stranger with open arms, that invites others to see and touch our wounds rather than covering them with armor; the love that gives bread and a cup to the hungry, saying “This is my body broken for you.” If God’s Spirit is in us, we can show that love, we can be such a people, we can help remake our communities and in the Spirit all creation, too. Amen.
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