Saturday, June 8, 2024

If You Know What's Good for You...

If You Know What’s Good For You…


1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,

8:5 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."

8:6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD,

8:7 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.

8:8 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.

8:9 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."

8:10 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.

8:11 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;

8:12 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.

8:13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.

8:14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.

8:15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.

8:16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.

8:17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

8:18 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."

8:19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said "No! but we are determined to have a king over us,

8:20 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."

11:14 Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship."

11:15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the LORD, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.



What might Israel have looked like without a king, except their allegiance to the Lord their God? I guess we’ll never know, because due to their stubbornness, they got their king. How might it have gone, though?


God’s plan seemed to be that God would give the people a few rules to guide their behavior and keep them from infringing too much on the lives and properties of their neighbors. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to know we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, the “laws” God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. Later, as another ministerial colleague of mine recently detailed in her sermon, God gave Israel the “Schema” as a simplified reminder of the intent of these ten rules: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” A text in Leviticus says that Israel was to “love their neighbors as themselves,” which Jesus later attached to the Shema prayer in his teaching. These simple commandments summarize the decalogue—“Love God” is the subject of the first four; “Love neighbor” the remaining six. Had the people of Israel chosen to live by these rules, God would have “reigned” as a kind of loving, “King from on high,” they would have prospered as a people, and the “love your neighbor as yourself” part might have led them to make peace with other peoples, instead of fighting them as enemies. These simple rules could have been the basis for a harmonious society, complete with mutual respect, and brought together by a common love and devotion for a benevolent God. But that wasn’t enough. 


The first thing the people of Israel did was turn around the direction of the commandments. The ones meant to keep them focusing on a common, caring Creator, which was key to sustaining a unified community, metamorphized into warnings that God would judge and punish them if they “disobeyed the rules.” The commandments meant to be rules guarding the rights and property of others—the “neighbor”—were turned around to be protections and rights of Israel, “shielding” them from the dangerous stranger—the “neighbor.” Then, the religious leaders began to add to these simple rules, “discerning” lists of hundreds of laws they believed would “bless God” and keep the people in line. The resulting society, which couldn’t possibly keep all of these complicated rules, grew more and more selfish and lawless. A “strong-arm” leader was needed, they felt, to restore order—a king. Samuel tried to warn them it was a bad idea. We could summarize his counsel to them with the contemporary phrase, “If you know what’s good for you…”


Why a king? Because other peoples had a king. Israel’s wanting a king may well have been more a case of “keeping up with the Joneses” than a desire to have a tough leader and a policing government. Samuel tried to warn them, even telling them what he “heard from God” as a result of the prayer he said on their behalf. Even God knew they were a stubborn people, and ultimately told Samuel to listen to the cries of the people. This is an interesting element—rather than getting “angry” with Israel because they were rejecting God’s reign by wanting an earthly king, God seems more concerned that Samuel not ruin the rapport he had with the people by going postal on them over the king thing. Talk about a pastoral heart!


God told Samuel to warn the people of the problem with kings—they are high maintenance. They will demand compensation that makes a modern CEO look like a panhandler, and will even enslave your friends and family—if not you—to add to their entourage. The crown they will adorn themselves with is just the cherry on the top of the decadent “Sundae” they will have you whip up for them. AND, on  top of all of this narcissism, they may ruin your people with their incompetence. Their ego may even cause them to threaten neighboring people—if not ordering your army to attack them outright—and get you into all kinds of trouble. Why in the WORLD would they want a leader like that?


I dunno. Ask Americans after November of 2016. Saul had nothing over the guy Americans elected, and may be on the verge of electing again. Was Samuel not right, in each case? The warnings of this passage and the words of God through Samuel were WAY understatement of the travesties that resulted from desiring an authoritarian leader. Governments ARE important, as they guard the rights of the citizenry, and they pass laws to protect the poor, innocent, and vulnerable from both the psychological narcissists AND the “wealthy” who have let capitalism and money-grubbing drive their ambition. However, authoritarians usually have a “nice” blend of both of these major flaws, and wind up persecuting the very people they are to serve. Of course, in the history of Israel, there was King David, who is heralded as a “great king” in their history. Was he?


We all know the “David and Goliath” story that catapulted David into the “king succession.” Saul was a disaster; David might be their salvation. But as we also know, David was no prize. Defeating Goliath was good, but having Uriah sent to the front so “the King” could steal his wife, whom he had lusted after (of course this kind of sordid thing NEVER happens to modern “kings,” does it?). My wife, who is actually a much better student of the Bible than I, reminds me that what made David special was that he was a “man after God’s own heart.” But what does this mean? In reality, it means that David had a grain of integrity in that he never fully bought into his own press. He KNEW he had many flaws and weaknesses, and when things came raining down on him, he SOUGHT God and God’s forgiveness. He also loved his out-of-control son, Absalom, so much so, that even though Absalom tried to kill his father, David fell into deep, deep grief when Absalom met his demise. If being a person “after God’s own heart” means realizing that without forgiveness and honest repentance we are truly LOST, then I can buy it. And we believe in not only a God of forgiveness, but second and third and fourth chances, when we genuinely lay our sins before God. If this “normal” human admission of failure and seeking God’s redemption makes a good national leader, than more power to you, but needing much more than this, as a people, is probably one reason why God told Samuel that a “king” was a bad idea.


Let me make something clear: people need governing authorities to maintain the wider peace, and to protect the vulnerable. Good governments are empowered BY the people, respected by the people, and are REMOVED by the people when they fail to live up to their constitutional job description. When this system fails, and the “kings and narcissists” are put in authority, bad things happen. It was usually bad for Israel, and we are learning, unfortunately, that it is still bad for us in the 21st century. Of course, if we were smart, we’d learn a lesson from the wider scope of human history—incompetent, narcissistic, and authoritarian leaders have both failed and victimized civilizations for centuries. 


DO we know what’s “good for us”? Can we reclaim our true faith in a loving God who visited us in Jesus Christ, who was literally willing to “put it all on the line” on the cross of Calvary to display just how much God loved us? Can we put enough trust in the Almighty that we “risk” voting in competent leaders who have the interests of ALL citizens in mind, not just the greedy and well-healed ones? Can we trust enough in the “Prince of Peace” that we resist electing warmongers and advocates of the military/industrial crowd as “kings” of the realm? And what would happen if we elected and empowered leaders at all levels of society who took the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, or the benevolent teachings of the Koran seriously and formed policies around their ethical standards? We might just live happily ever after…if we know what’s good for us. Amen.


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