Sermon for the second Sunday in Pentecost
1 Samuel 8:4-22
Last year at about this time, I was speaking with Lissa Wray Beale about a new biblical commentary she’d just published on 1st and 2nd Kings. Lissa is both a priest of the Anglican Church and an Old Testament professor at Providence Theological Seminary, and I was thinking she might be a good speaker for our ideaExchange series. I said something to the effect of, “Maybe you could make a case for why people in the church should care about the books of Kings,” and with a wry little smile Lissa responded, “Because they’re in the Bible.” Then she paused, and added, “And because we’re longing for a true king.”
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Over these summer months, I’m going to focus much of my preaching on the stories of Israel and its dreams of kingship. Tonight we begin by hearing the cry of the people—“we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations”—and by the end of August we’ll have worked our way through to the death of David, Israel’s greatest yet most complicated king. You might wonder why so much focus on stories set 3000 years ago in a world so very different from our own? Well, because they’re in the Bible. But more, as we meet these characters and catch a sense of their strivings and dreams and vulnerabilities and foibles, you begin to realize that for all that their world was different from ours, they can still tell us a good deal about us. And we’re still longing for a true king.
“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 a king to govern us, like other nations.’” For some two hundred years, Israel had functioned with what the Jewish scholar Martin Buber called a subversive alternative to human kingship. A tribal league, anchored in its identity as the covenant people of God, it had no monarch. Instead Israel had the figures of what were called “judges”; leaders whose authority was recognized as being of God, but who did not sit on a throne in a royal city, and who maintained no standing army. In a real sense, they led from within the tribal league, and in times of crisis would muster a militia to defend against any military or political threat.
Yet now the elders—notice it is not the restless young upstarts, but the elders—have called for a new political system. Samuel—who was recognized as both a prophet and a judge—had grown old, and his sons had “turned aside after gain; taking bribes and perverting justice” (1 Sam 8:3), thus discrediting themselves from following in their father’s stead. “[A]ppoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations;” that’s a warning statement if ever there was one, for to this point Israel’s primary identity was found in being unlike the other nations. But the memory of what life under the Egyptian pharaoh had been like had faded, the other nations—notably the Philistines—seemed increasingly threatening, life under the Judges had not always been exactly idyllic, and the sons of Samuel were clearly a problem. To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a changin’”, and the elders had decided they needed a more adequate political system.
Samuel, though, is unconvinced. He prays, and receives what must have struck him as the most troubling of answers: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you.” Listen to them? As they make the most dangerous political move in their whole story? Yes, but also “Warn them.” “Show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” And Samuel does! Walter Brueggemann calls what follows “the harshest, most extensive criticism of monarchy in the Old Testament… one of the most important pieces in the Old Testament on the abuse of public power.”
So you want a king, do you? Careful what you ask for, because you might just get it. Do you know what you get with kings? You’ll get a standing army, that’s what you’ll get. And your sons will be conscripted to serve in that army, or to labour at producing the weapons of war, or to plough his ground and to reap his harvest. And your daughters? He’ll take them “to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.” You’ll lose your best fields, vineyards, produce, livestock, and servants to him; in fact, you’ll be little more than slaves to a king, because that is what kings do. But you’ve asked, and the Lord has heard your request, and if you’re serious about this, a king will be given you. Just know this: You will get what you asked for.
“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”—there’s that fatal phrase again; “like other nations”—that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And so as the story unfolds, “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them,’” which should alert us to the oftentimes-staggering cost of human freedom. This is what they have chosen for themselves, and so this is the moment that their story will take an abrupt turn. It will take a few chapters in the story before Saul is anointed as the first king of Israel, and then just a few more before the cracks are showing in his reign. All the way through these books of Samuel and Kings—even when it is the great hero David who is under consideration—Samuel’s powerful words echo in the background… careful what you ask for.
Yet I do believe that Lissa Wray Beale was right; we are still longing for a true king. Sure, we’re a democratic nation shaped as a constitutional monarchy. We’ve got an image of the queen on our coins, but we elect our own leaders. For better or for worse, we get what we voted for, and things go lumbering along. For many of us, it’s a pretty good and comfortable deal; one we’d not want to trade away, in fact. For others? Not so much. The child poverty rates in this country are disturbing. For many people in this nation adequate housing and even basic education are sorely wanting, and our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is threatening to cripple the eco-system. The scandal of the misuse of expense accounts in the Canadian Senate continues to grow, which is maybe not quite the same thing as taking our sons into the army and our daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers, but it does stand as a rather powerful reminder of how people in positions of power and privilege can so easily find ways to justify all manner of things. This past week the news media has offered countless stories on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the phrase that comes up again and again is “cultural genocide.” How could our forebears—how could my church—have possibly justified such policies? And from beyond our borders come all of those almost unspeakable stories from Syria and Iraq, from South Sudan and Nigeria.
As a people whose hearts and imaginations have been caught by Jesus, we long for a world marked by peaceableness, deep reconciliation, mercy, loving-kindness; a truthful and equitable reign, in which all are freed to flourish and none goes without. We long for the One whose justice breaks down dividing walls; the One in whom the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up, as Mary’s song in Luke 2 imagines it. We long for the one in whom, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” as Isaiah sings. “[T]he desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Is. 35:1-2) The desert, the wilderness, the most desolate of places, filled with life and song… we long for the One in whom the wounded earth itself can be restored.
Maybe the single most important reason for reading these ancient stories of the politics of kingship is to remind ourselves that of our own we will not be able to restore the brokenness of the world. Not that we should stop living now in full knowledge that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated; not that we should shy away from trying to be a subversive alternative to all the things that break our hearts and make us weep. But in the end, this is not our world to save; it is God’s. So it is that we long for a true King.