The truth is: you can kind of see where the elders of Israel are coming from, when they ask Samuel for a king. Things are kind of...complicated. For generations the women and men called the Judges, folks raised up by God for a particular time and a particular issue, to help guide the people in faithfulness--like Deborah, Gideon, now Samuel--had been sufficient to keep things more or less steady for God's chosen people. In the past, some pressure that threatened the people would come (generally an attacking neighbor), the people would cry out, and God would provide the leader who could rally the troops, and fend off the threat. At this point in history, the twelve tribes of Israel were just that: twelve distinct tribes, living side by side, calling on each other when needed, maintaining their relationship with each other by their commitment to live with and for, in the will and way and worship, of their God: YHWH who'd brought them out of slavery in Egypt and claimed them at Mt. Sinai.
All this had been fine, but now it's 1000 BCE, and there are some who are concerned that it's time to get with the times. To start with, because of a stretch of relative peace, there were folks who'd done pretty well for themselves. When there are no marauding armies threatening your existence and your land, it's easier to tend to business. It seems to have occurred to some that a more reliable way of protecting their newfound wealth might not be a bad idea. This ad hoc strategy was not inspiring for investors.
That points to another problem, which is that as the wealth increases, the marauding armies who've stayed away for a while suddenly notice that there's something they might like to have. Which is exactly what was happening. The Philistines, a group of tribes who lived along the shores of the Mediterranean, had started their most recent attempt to move inland and had been causing all manner of grief and carnage among the northern tribes of Israel. So, it's not out of the realm of possibility that some of the folks who gathered together and came to Samuel recognized that it would be better all the way around if it was clear who was in control--who would be tasked with responding when things went sideways; it would be better if there was someone with a standing army and ultimate authority to fight for and protect Israel's best interests.
On top of all that, Samuel's sons, whom he'd appointed as the next generation of judges, turned out to be crooked good-for-nothings. So it wasn't perfectly clear that the system that had served Israel since forever was going to work moving forward. Of course YHWH had been faithful to provide at every step, faithful to hear Israel's cries and to provide the leaders needed in order to preserve this peculiar people. But now, the elders point out, it doesn't seem, well, practical. Maybe, they say, now is the time to give up that odd arrangement and become a real nation, like the nations around us.
Let's pray: Holy Spirit, come. Open us up to hear your word today. Challenge us where we need to be challenged. Comfort us where we need to be comforted. Strengthen us to walk in faith, hope, and love, as sisters and brothers of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen!
That's what makes this passage so devastating, isn't it? It's not simply the request for a change in governance structure that's the problem. What stuns a biblical imagination is the elders' desire to "be like other nations." That's what's at stake here; the line is repeated twice. That's the argument for a king. This is not just a vote for change. This is a complete undermining of Israel's vocation, of who Israel is meant to be. No wonder Samuel was displeased! "Like other nations" is exactly what they're not supposed to be! Israel wasn't supposed to copy what their neighbors were doing; they weren't made for that. As Walter Bruggemann puts it, "Israel was to order its life in the odd and demanding ways of torah and to rely on the inexplicable love and remarkable promises of Yahweh."
Odd and demanding. Inexplicable love and remarkable promises. These are the things that are to define this peculiar people, who will be not like other nations, but a light to the nations, shiningly different--a sign in their living of who and how God is, in and for the world. The problem isn't so much political as theological. It's not you they are abandoning, it's me, says the LORD. This people, divinely brought out of Egyptian slavery (out from under the kind of king that other nations have!), is meant to bear witness to the truth that God's ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts, and that to be in league with this God is to order life in another way: the way of covenant, not kingship.
Covenant is an act of mutual self-giving. There's vulnerability in covenant. In covenant, two parties choose to bind their identities to one another. I will be your God and you will be my people. "The covenant community operates by the gift of relationship to God, from which loyalty and obedience flow" (Bruggemann). God gives Godself to the people, the band of former slaves at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and the only appropriate response to such a gift is free reciprocal love and devotion. Covenant is rooted in, dependent upon, self-giving, extravagant generosity, passionate vulnerability.
But did you hear the verb that defines kingship, the order of "other nations"? It's not give; it's take. He will take your sons; he will take your daughters; he will take your land; he will take your resources; he will take your slaves; he will take your livestock. The kind of power that a king requires demands grasping not giving. The point of kingship inevitably becomes expansion; the goal is increase and self-protection; the interests of the nation, defined by the crown, become ultimate. The vulnerability that makes covenant work, makes it strong and beautiful, can only be a failure, a weakness, where kings are concerned.
Scholars disagree on when exactly 1 Samuel was put together in its final form, but what is certain is that it was sometime well after God allowed Israel to reorder its life, sometime after the Project King had begun. So, Samuel's speech, which is a foretelling of what's coming, also rings with a truth already experienced. The storyteller tells these things as facts, not possibilities. There's a stinging reality to what he says. And the most devastating part of the whole thing comes at the end, when Samuel warns that it's not just their stuff that the king will take, but their selves. He'll take and take and take: and you will be slaves. It would be hard to overstate the significance of that line. Something fundamental to the story of God with God's people is undone. The covenant freedom that God saved them for and called them into--the odd, demanding, inexplicable, and remarkable freedom, freedom born in love and promise--is being traded for something altogether different.
All this seems to me remarkably relevant, in spite of the 3000 years between us and Samuel. The politics and social orders are not the same, obviously. But there is something about the conditions that Samuel describes that hits a little close to home. I'm not going to take a turn directly towards anarchy. I don't want what I'm about to say to be heard as comment explicitly about any one current political situation, party, or leader. But I do want us to recognize, pay attention to the fact that the current order of things is not so far removed from what Samuel describes. Culturally, we're living in "another nation," so to speak.
I don't think that it's unfair to say that culturally our tendency is towards taking, rather than giving. We may individually work at being generous, maybe even self-giving. Our governments may even have the best of intentions. But there are countless ways in which we are inextricably caught up in the ways and means of kings. And we may not be at the top of the ladder, but we're certainly not at the bottom. So, we are expected, again and again, to play along according to the rules of an order that requires taking, that requires or at least expects self-preservation, and whenever possible, expansion.
We don't, as a rule, sign up for seminars on downward mobility. "How to get Poor in a Heartbeat" is not a book that's going to sell well. No politician will ever get elected with the promise to help the economy slow down, or to put the interests of another nation ahead of our own. I don't think it takes a great deal of imagination to make all sorts of connections between what Samuel warns, and the world we know. And I know, certainly as a straight, white, middle-class, educated, man, that it is entirely possible to remain blissfully unaware of just how bound up I am in the culture of kings. It's working out for me. Part of me wants to ride this out.
And yet, Samuel's warning rings true. And it lands on the truth that under the current order of things, perfect freedom is impossible--no matter what the politicians and advertisers say about it. Bound up in the ways and means of taking, in the ways and means of grasping power and manic self-preservation and self-concern, we aren't free. We may have a lot of stuff, and we may be comfortable enough not to give it much of a though from one day to the next, but in the end "comfortably bound" seems like small consolation. We're made for more.
It's true that what follows Samuel's sermon in the scriptures is somewhat ambiguous. Project King never goes perfectly right, though some times are less disastrous than others. But God never abandons Israel. In fact, there are, all along, those who call and whom God hears. The prophets are raised up to bring God's word into the order of kings, to pray and warn, to remind the people who is truly deserving of their love and allegiance. Indeed, like God making clothes for Adam and Eve on the edge of Eden, God continues to work and bless, to call and guide, even in the midst of the peoples' unfaithfulness, even as they try to make the world in their image. King David will be called "the king after God's own heart," the king God raises up for himself, in spite of David's remarkable capacity to mess things up. We still pray his prayers, Jesus is happy to be called "Son of David" which is, I think, is a reminder of God's relentless faithfulness.
It's important to know that this is the background when Jesus bursts onto the scene, when he's Holy Spirit-launched out of the wilderness, to preach his first and most basic sermon (Mark 1:15): Repent and believe: the kingdom of heaven is at hand! When he preaches that, the failure of Project King is breathtakingly clear. Not only have the kings not protected Israel, not only have Samuel's words come true, but now they are under the thumb of a foreign, pagan king, who calls himself a god. The ways and means of Rome make Samuel's warning look a little understated. So, it's little wonder that folks are both curious and terrified about what Jesus is on about, when he declares a new kind of kingdom. Repent and believe: the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
It's good to remember that repentance is not just feeling badly for having done something wrong and promising not to do it again. Repentance is a call to go the opposite direction; it's a call to pledge allegiance to a completely other way. And, biblically speaking, belief is just agreement--it's radical trust. When Jesus preaches Repent and believe: the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he's not just calling them to account (though he is certainly doing that); he's calling them to remember who they are, to remember their vocation, to remember the relentless love of God that pursues all the days of our lives. He's calling them out of the ways and means of kings--the life-stifling, fear mongering ways of taking and taking and taking--and into the ways and means of God, and God's wild self-giving. He's calling them to be part of a kingdom coming to life in the shell of the failed Project King, to be a people unflinchingly committed to the love and justice and righteousness of heaven, no matter what Rome has to say about it--because God is God.
This new world order that he calls them into won't be a kingdom marked by boundaries and borders; it will be a kingdom that knows that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it. This won't be a kingdom of kings and slaves; it will be a kingdom of brothers and sisters. This won't be a kingdom marked by manic self-protection and desperate power grabbing; it will be a kingdom alive with the mind of its one, true king--who though he was equal with God didn't see that power as something to be grasped but emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-11).
This won't be a kingdom lorded over by violence and fear, a kingdom where peace comes at the end of a sword or the barrel of a gun; it will be a kingdom conquered by love that drives out all fear (1 John 4:18), its slain-lamb of a king praying forgiveness from his cross-shaped throne (Luke 23:34), gathering all things in heaven and earth to himself (Colossians 1:3). It won't be a kingdom of stunted imaginations and comfortable chains; it will be a kingdom lit up by the Spirit who brings creation out of chaos (Genesis 1), brings life out of death, power unbound what we've been told is possible. It will be a kingdom marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22); a kingdom built with living stones (1 Peter 2): women and men, young and old, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, all people who do the will of God, free to respond to God's love with a reckless love of our own.
This is the new world order that we, by grace, have been called into: the kingdom of God, coming to life, in and among us, for the sake of this broken and beloved world. Jesus calls us (each of us, and all of us together), empowers us by his Spirit, to order our lives in a different way. It's a way that will make the world wonder just what it is we're up to, a way that will make some think we've taken complete leave of our senses--an odd and demanding way, a way rooted in nothing less than the inexplicable love and remarkable promises of God.
Let's pray: Holy Spirit, come. Jesus, we pray here and now, that you would set us free from anything that keeps us bound to the broken ways of taking: fear, selfishness, greed, disinterest, vanity. You know the needs of our hearts, you know our worries and fears. Bring them to mind; show us the things that bind us, and let us lay them at your feet. Remind us that you've made us for freedom, that your desire for us is life and life abundant, that if you ask us to give something up, or take something on, you do so out of that promise. Kindle in us a desire to know you more and more fully, that we might make you more fully known. Amen.