we want a king like them

1 Samuel 8:1-20; 11:15

I’ve always been fascinated by our text for today.
In particular, I’ve always been intrigued
by Samuel’s detailed and, as it turns out, accurate warning
of what having a king would actually mean to the people who said they wanted one.
“If you want a government,” he says,
“and it just really doesn’t matter if you say you want small or limited government
or a big government—if you want government,
here’s how it will infringe on your living—
because that’s what government—any kind of government does.”

Reading this as Baptists, it’s worth noting, in passing,
that what we find here is no kind of biblical justification or background
for our principle of the separation of church and state.
But neither do we find here any kind of support for some revisionist history’s claim
of a particular church—a particular faith unseparated from state—
co-defined with state.
What we actually have here, is the addition of a state to church.
And we note this in passing because it reminds us we don’t look to biblical Israel
as political model to be emulated. More on that to come.

So I’ve always been drawn to the heart of our passage.
But today’s lectionary text actually begins with 1 Samuel, chapter eight, verse four:
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together
and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him,
‘You are old (they’re not being polite here),
and your sons do not follow in your ways (they’re not being tactful here);
appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’”

And that’s what struck me this time:
“We want a king, like other nations.”
And that struck me, you see, because
I read back through all of 1 Samuel up to our text,
and there’s no mention of kings—kings of other nations—
none. Not one. Zip. Nada. Zilch.
There’s certainly an external threat in the chapters preceding ours—
the Philistines. They didn’t have a king though.
Generally referred to just as the Philistines—
philistines that they are,
the lords of the Philistines,
or the five lords of the Philistines, are sometimes mentioned, but no kings.

So in the unfolding of our story, we have to go outside our story—
outside 1 Samuel—
into what would have been the oral tradition
when 1 Samuel was being written.
Because, obviously, there was no written collection at that time
called the Old Testament—
just the stories of heritage and tradition told in family and worship settings.
And surely prominent among the stories told there
were the stories of the Exodus.

Now there—within the stories of escaping Pharaoh, king of Egypt—
(which is how he’s often named),
and within the stories of encountering kings in the wilderness wanderings
and then the stories of encountering kings in the entering
and conquering and settling of the promised land,
there’s virtually a royal rhythm to the narrative—
a kingly refrain as it were—
referencing kings of cities and kings of nations and kings of regions—
kings named and kings unnamed:

the king of Edom (Numbers 20:14),
the king of Arad (Numbers 21:1),
King Sihon of the Amorites (Numbers 21:21; Deuteronomy 2:24),
King Og of Bashan (Numbers 21:33; Deuteronomy 3:1),
King Balak of Moab (Numbers 22:4),
the five kings of Midian (Numbers 31:8),
the king of Jericho (Joshua 2:2),
the kings of the Canaanites (Joshua 5:1),
the king of Ai (Joshua 8:1),
the kings beyond the Jordan in the hill country
and the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon,
the kings of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites,
the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites (Joshua 9:1),
the parasites and the termites (just seeing if you were still awake!),
King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (Joshua 10:1),
King Hoham of Hebron, King Piram of Jarmuth,
King Japhia of Lachish, King Debir of Eglon (Joshua 10:3),
the king of Makkedah (Joshua 10:28),
the king of Libnah (Joshua 10:29),
King Horam of Gezer (Joshua 10:33),
King Jabin of Hazor, King Jobab of Madon,
he king of Shimron, the king of Achshaph (Joshua 11:1),
the kings in the northern hill country
and the Arabah south of Chinneroth and in the lowland
and in Naphoth-dor on the west (Joshua 11:2).

It’s a great rhythm—with a refrain in which just the names change,
and the story always remains the same.
As the children of Israel, time and time again,
faced mightier forces than they, and yet prevailed.
As the children of Israel beat the odds, time and time again—
beat the odds and beat the kings—
as the children of Israel faced even coalitions of kings—
five kings, and yet prevailed.
There is, in fact, a whole chapter in the book of Joshua, chapter 12
that’s just a list of kings conquered by Moses and Joshua—
33 kings in all.

So, throughout this entire story, the driving beat of that rhythm—
that royal refrain is the children of Israel’s experience of kings
as one massive, consistent failure—
their experience of kings as those who stood in the way
of God’s will and God’s work and God’s people—
as those who resisted God and obstructed God’s desires
and always—always unsuccessfully.

So what is it we’re to hear, when the writer of 1 Samuel
has the elders say, “We want a king, like the other nations?”
We want to be like those who opposed us whom we defeated?
“Every single king mentioned in the Bible from Pharaoh to the promised land,
sought to defeat us and we beat them, but we want one?”
“We want to be like our enemies?” Really?
“We want spectacular failure to be our legacy too?”
“We want to stand in opposition to you, our God—your will, your work?”
I mean, what’s going on here?
What’s this story telling us?
Is it really that hard to be different?

Well, yes. Yes, it is.
Now I don’t think that’s what the elders were explicitly saying,
“We would rather number among those ultimately defeated by You, O God,
than to stand out as so different—so other—so foreign.
We’d rather be like everyone else and go down in flames
than to be so different and yet prevail.”
I don’t think that’s what they were explicitly saying.
But it is hard to be the ones who are different—
to be the ones, regardless of political persuasion—
regardless of political philosophy who acknowledge
our responsibility to the poor as our calling from God—
to be the ones called to speak up and out
for those who can’t speak for themselves—
the afraid, the uncool, the rejected, the despised, the poor, the feared,
the aliens, immigrants, the widows and orphans—
to be the ones called to commit ourselves to initiatives of grace and love.

We’d rather hang out with the kings in the cafeteria,
and be picked to play on their teams,
and to be acknowledged by them at the dance,
and at the game, and in the halls.
And if you think that’s only high school, look again!

And it is hard to trust God when kings so obviously don’t—
when they trust their treasuries and their influence,
trust their defense budgets and military might,
trust in appearances they can control
and the skills they’ve developed—
trust in manipulation and intimidation.

Now, again, I don’t think that’s the explicit statement here
(“we don’t want to be as different as being Yours would make us”)—
I don’t think that’s the explicit statement here,
but I think it’s indubitably an implicit one.
It’s our first response to the text today.
It’s honest,
and it’s true.
Ours is a hard calling—
to shine in the darkness.
Let’s be honest about that.

So then we go back and read the first three verses of the chapter—
the ones that the lectionary, in all its vast wisdom, leaves out.
And in our text, we read:
“When Samuel became old (Scripture’s not polite either),
he made his sons judges over Israel….
Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain;
they took bribes and perverted justice” (Scripture’s not tactful either).

And if we earlier heard the refrain of kings—
in that rhythm of failure,
we’re invited now to hear another rhythm—
another refrain—
of sons who don’t follow in the steps of their fathers.
Because we read that Samuel’s sons went the way of Eli’s sons.
You remember? Eli was the good priest when Samuel was born,
but Eli’s sons, priests, “were scoundrels; they had no regard
for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people” (1 Samuel 2:12).
So now with Samuel and his sons, we have same story, second verse.
And, of course, we hear all this as those called children of God, right?

Now the powerful rhythm drives the refrain of an even bigger song
in which the names change
but the story always remains the same.
As Samuel’s sons disappoint Samuel—
as Eli’s sons disappointed Eli—
as Jacob’s sons disappointed Jacob—
as Isaac’s sons disappointed Isaac—
as Noah’s sons disappointed Noah—
as Adam’s sons disappointed Adam.

Now consider, Eli was priest as were his sons.
Samuel was prophet,
and he appointed his sons judges
(which does have to make you question his prophetic skills—
whether that’s not seeing the truth of his own children
or whether that’s assuming the authority to appoint people as judges
when judges were traditionally called by God).
So what we have represented here
is the leadership of Israel: priests, prophet, judges.
And at this point of the story, the driving beat of the rhythm—
has brought us to a refrain lamenting the failure of Israel’s leadership.

So it was corrupt leadership—and failed leadership, not an external threat,
that most immediately led to the request of the people for a king.
And we begin to get the idea this was less a matter of what they did want (a king)
as it was a matter of what they didn’t want—
we don’t want things to be the way they are.
There’s the explicit statement of the elders of Israel.

We don’t want more corruption.
We don’t want more priests lining their own pockets with our offerings—
taking advantage of the people—and the women in particular—
acting all superior to those they’ve been called to serve—
more interested in protecting their own prerogatives
than taking care of the people they’re called to take care of.
We don’t want judges undermining confidence in the whole judicial system—
paying more attention to money than to us.
And maybe we’re not so confident in another prophet either—
not if the one we’ve got, in spite of the good he’s done,
not if he also saddled us with so many of our problems.

And given their disappointment—their legitimate, understandable
disappointment at the oh so human failings of their leaders,
what did they do? What did they ask for?
The establishment of another human institution of leadership.
We want a king.

Now the assumption, in Israel’s request for a king—
the assumption is that we can find
a human means of getting beyond the human proclivity to sin.
We’re worried. We’re worried about the economy.
We worried about jobs and international threats.
We’re worried about the corruption of those in positions of power and influence.
We’re worried about our future.
We’re worried about the future of our children, but most of all,
we want things to be different than they are right now.
So obviously what we need is another leader—another kind of leader.
That will solve all our problems.

This is our second response to the text today.
It’s honest,
and it’s true.
In response to sin—to human sin
that makes of the present something we do not want,
we still think we can make things right.
We can legislate and regulate or deregulate,
and fix it all. That’s what we think.
Let’s be honest about that.

Now having looked carefully at the first four verses—
the introduction to our text—
what have we got? Eighteen verses to go!
There’s then the exchange between Samuel and God,
“I can’t believe they’re asking for a king!”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s not you they’re rejecting. It’s me.”
The exchange between Samuel and the people,
“Here’s what having a king would actually mean.”
“We want a king anyway.”
And the final exchange between Samuel and God,
“Give them what they want.”
And they get it.
Boy do they get it.

So God’s response to the idea that all it takes is a different leader—
a different kind of leader—
to the idea that there is a human answer to sin and sin’s problems
is “Good luck with that.
If the problem is corruption—selfishness …
if the problem is evil …
if the problem is sin,
what do you think I’ve been doing through the whole story up to now?
Is that not what I’ve been dealing with?”

The refrain we can hear as the persistent failure of kings
can resound as the consistent success of God.
And the refrain we can hear (and to which we contribute)
of disappointment and failure and sin
can resound as the committed work of God through time.

But they asked for a king—
rather than looking back to God’s faithfulness through their history.
For looking back—if they had looked back, they would have seen.
They would have seen that God worked through all those disappointing sons—
at times working through all their poor choices and evil deeds,
redeeming their sins in commitment to relationship through time,
at times choosing, unexpectedly, others
through whom to continue the work of God’s will,
but always working—
working through the murderous son of Adam,
working through the unfortunate sons of Noah,
working through the lying, cheating son of Isaac,
working through the selfish, immature sons of Jacob,
working through the corrupt sons of Eli,
working through the perverted sons of Samuel,
the story goes ever on.
And as Joseph said, “What they intended for evil,
God intended for good” (Genesis 50:20).
And the affirmation of the story in time—
is that God is always present.
God is always involved.
God is always working to transform and redeem.
And justice will prevail.

It’s a powerful rhythm with a refrain in which the names change
but the story always remains the same.
As God remains with us.
As God allows us our foolishness, our poor choices, our sin—
as God works for the best possibilities within that foolishness—
within those choices—within that sin.

But we want a king.
We don’t look back to remember.
We don’t look ahead to believe.
All we know is that we don’t want what is.

So what we have here,
do you hear it?
We have the whole story—in its complex depths.
The entire song—the verses we’ve heard,
and all the verses yet to come.
The story of the God who is with us always—
who walks with us and not just at the time of the evening breeze—
who sustains us and transforms and redeems us—
the story of the God who loves God’s creation
and loves God’s children.

We also have, in this story,
the rejection of that truth—that reality—that God
in favor of another—
one more like everyone else’s—
so much less than what we have had and known,
but somehow still more attractive in the moment.
And throughout the story, we have the freedom to make that choice.

It’s our third response to the text today.
It’s honest,
and it’s most true.
Because within the truth that
as the children of God we are called to be different,
but we don’t want to be—
because within the truth of amidst all that is so wrong,
that we, even as children of God, can’t fix,
God is with us still—
still working—
so that amidst all that is not as it should be
we can keep trying to be different—
we can keep trying to walk as children of the light—
children of God.

We don’t want a king.
Not really.
We just sometimes think we do.
The problem is God takes us so very seriously:
“Give them what they say they want.”

So may we help each other be different.
Support and encourage each other to live God
at work and at play and at school and amongst each other.
May we remind each other whose we are.
We are the children of God.
And while that doesn’t mean we can fix it all,
it does mean we work at it.
So may we remember always God’s faithfulness,
and believe always in God’s future.
May it be so.

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