Audio Link (Sermon starts around 19:05)
The King Thing
1 Samuel 8, Remsen Bible Fellowship, 10/25/2020
Open by reading the text.
1 Samuel 8 has a particular place in what you might call my Scriptural imagination. When I first started taking classes through the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission, my first teacher was Jim Hunter. And this chapter was formative for Jim-so much so that he wrote a paper from which I stole this title: the King Thing. He had us read that paper in a class on hermeneutics, which at first seemed off topic. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, we were learning how to study the Bible, whereas this paper was focused on our embrace, as individuals and churches, of a form of thinking that out-sourced responsibility and leadership to figureheads instead of understanding ourselves as personally responsible to God.
But it wasn’t off topic. The longer I’ve thought about the King Thing, the more I’ve realized that how we read and respond to God’s word has very real world consequences. If we don’t respond personally, worshipfully, and obediently to the word of God we are doing ourselves more harm than good. Be doers of the word, James 1:22 urges us, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. There is a clear warning in this chapter of 1 Samuel. We need to sit up and take notice of it. Understand, and obey.
The Real and Present Problem, v1-3
As we enter chapter 8 we are immediately confronted with an issue: Samuel, the man who has been leading Israel for some 40 years, has become old. In view of this reality, he makes what seems to be a logical move. He appoints his sons, Joel and Abijah, to be judges. He sends them to Beersheba while he remains at Ramah, so seemingly they are splitting the duties. He has not stepped down, but he understands the workload is too much for him to carry alone.
However, the issue continues to escalate. Had Joel and Abijah been good judges, wise rulers, men who followed in their Father’s footsteps, then the people could have rejoiced in a smooth transition. But v3 tells us, Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. It’s like we’re reliving Eli’s sons all over again. Remember them from chapter 2? Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord (1 Samuel 2:12). They were characterized by a turning aside after gain, an abuse of the people and the sacrifices, and their sexual perversion. And now we hear echoes of Hophni and Phineas in Samuel’s own family.
It’s worth noting here that in the previous case of the worthless sons, Eli is cast in a negative light. Not so with Samuel. We have no indication that he was complicit with his sons or that he was aware of their actions and refusing to deal with it. Which provides us with a sobering reality-check: it doesn’t matter who your parents are, you must choose to walk with God. It doesn’t happen automatically. Parents can do all the right things, and their kids can still go off the rails. Not to say that parenting is irrelevant or unimportant, far from it! But God is never going to ask you on the judgement day who your earthly parents were. You must do business with him.
But the elders of Israel are still left with this problem: what happens when Samuel dies? Are these jokers, Joel and Abijah, really our best bet?
The Obvious Human Solution, v4-9
The elders of Israel, the wise heads, the gray beards all gather together. The text doesn’t make this explicit, but it seems pretty clear that they come together and discuss how they’ll approach Samuel before they come up to Ramah. Then they come up to him and announce the problem: your time is short and your sons don’t cut it. They also have what we might consider the obvious human solution: give us a king!
Where would the people have gotten the idea for a king if they had never experienced a monarchy? They looked around. The Philistines have kings. The Ammonites have kings. The Egyptians have a Pharaoh, he’s like a king. Let’s quit trying to function as a bunch of loosely connected family clans and tribes, and instead coalesce around a single figurehead. It makes an enormous amount of sense in political and military terms.
Furthermore, the idea of Israel having a king apparently isn’t new, either. Back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God gives instructions for how the king is to behave as he serves God’s people. So in and of itself, their request to have a monarch isn’t exactly rotten.
But we read in v6 that their request displeases Samuel. That might seem obvious at first. After all, he is the last of the judges and so their request for a king must feel like some sort of personal rebuttal or rejection. Can you imagine leading a group of people for four decades and then having the rest of the leadership contriving to have you replaced...but then asking you to do the replacing? Not quite like a retirement party with a nice plaque and some cookies. I had a friend who was working for a small corporation, and he helped them establish a new hardware store, get it up and running, and then when it was established they decided they wanted someone to run it who wouldn’t make so much money. So they told him to hire and train his replacement! That must be how Samuel feels.
But God assures Samuel that this rejection is not personal. Or rather, it is personal, but he’s not the person that matters. It isn’t not Samuel whom Israel has rejected, but God himself. If you remember back a couple of weeks to when we looked at 1 Samuel 7, this is what I think the great theme of that chapter was: it is a good thing to have God as your king. The people flourished when they put away the idols and prayed, rather than searching for their own answers. They didn’t have a human king with all of the real protection that provides, but they didn’t need one, because God himself was their king. And when they lived as if he were, things went well. But now they're panicking. God’s man is on the way out. His sons stink. We have to come up with a solution.
This is the heart of what my teacher Jim called the King Thing. Instead of seeing our problems and turning to God for answers and help, we instead see our problems and seek for human solutions. We rely upon our own strength, wisdom, and cleverness, and resources, rather than relying upon God. We go looking for a human king to rescue us. This is a pattern the people of Israel had constantly lived in (v8-9). Seek after our own way, look for something visible, end up chasing other gods. YHWH is invisible, he tells us to do things we don’t like, we think we’re smarter.
We are prone to the same temptations, even when we think we are serving God. As Dale Ralph Davis says in his commentary, “Our proposals and solutions then can be completely reasonable, clearly logical, obviously plausible—and utterly godless.”
God’s response to this is interesting. Instead of refusing their request, God tells Samuel (v9) to warn the people. This sort of warning implicitly carries with it the opportunity for repentance and turning; like when a kid sees you holding a shiny red pepper. It looks good, appetizing even. Maybe the child loves tomatoes and that pepper is a similar color. Now buddy, you don’t actually want this. You’re going to sweat, your mouth is going to feel like it’s on fire, and your tummy will hurt. Gimmee! I want it! Okay, here you go. Samuel is about to tell the people what sort of indigestion a king will bring.
Samuel’s Solemn Warning, v10-18
What Samuel delivers to the people of Israel isn’t quite what you’d expect. He doesn’t deliver a list of injustices or potentially wicked abuses of power a king might bring. Instead, he delivers a list of what we might call mundane, run of the mill, plain Jane king stuff. He’s going to draft men into military and civil service (v11-12). He’ll need farmers working, not for their own benefit, but to feed his armies, as well as craftsmen who can make weapons of war (v12). Think your daughters are safe? Nope, he’s going to need someone to keep the palace fed and perfumed (v13). As for all of your possessions, as well as the fruit of your labor, well that must be taxed as well (v14-17). Samuel piles up a list of consequence upon consequence-but remember, these aren’t exceptional. You begin to see these things under Saul, you see them under David, and especially under Solomon. Kings have wars to fight, building projects to accomplish, they have to leave their mark of history. And that money and the manpower have to come from somewhere.
There is no doubt that benefits come from central leadership. It made keeping a standing army feasible, which made for more felt security. It enabled massive building projects like the palaces of David and Solomon, as well as the temple, making for more felt power. None of that happens without a central leadership structure. But the people, in clamoring for some sense of peace and security, don’t understand the deal they are making. They don’t understand the freedom and family stability they could lose to a monarch.
Note the drumbeat of v11-17: he will take, he will take, he will take. I count at least six times where that phrase is used in these verses. The king will plunder the people’s possessions for princely profit. He will take. The people won’t enjoy this. You will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, Samuel warns (v18). And then he adds this devastating conclusion to his warning, but the LORD will not answer you in that day. The people will remember, after they have a king, how good it was when God was their only king. But there will be no going back.
Israel’s Stubborn Rebellion, v19-20
As we come to the response of the people, it is perhaps worth noting a shift. In v4, it is the elders who come to Samuel with the request. But Samuel does not go back to the elders in private. No, in v10 he gathered the people as a whole together and says, is this really what you want? And the people as a whole respond in v19-by refusing to respond. Look at how their response is worded: No! But there shall be a king over us, that we may also be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles. This is not simply a case of some stubborn leaders. This is the cry of the people. Give us a king, and do it now! See how they open that response with the word “no”? It’s as if they have their fingers in their ears to Samuel’s, and thus God’s, frankly very reserved warning. He doesn’t even tell them the worst of it, but they don’t even want to hear what he does say. La-la-la-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you!
The people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, says v19. Do you remember back to 3:19-4:1a? Let’s refresh our memories on how Samuel’s words should be taken.
And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
God let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground, because God was revealing himself to Samuel who then spoke on behalf of God to the people. Which is to say, when Samuel is bringing a warning from God, the people are either going to listen to or reject God. By refusing to hear Samuel’s voice, they are plugging their ears to the Almighty. Not a good idea.
What is driving their desire for a king? As we said, it’s not the desire for a king per se which God is displeased with, it is their motives. And so we should ponder those motives for a few minutes. It slices neatly into three pieces. First, they want to be like everyone else. Second, they are looking for a judge to bring justice. Third, they want someone to do their fighting.
The first reason they offer (and the only one brought by the elders in v5), is the desire to be like all the other nations. And it may be the most damning of all. We understand it, of course. Who doesn’t want to be like everyone else? Who doesn’t want to have the same house, the same clothes, the same lifestyle as those around them? What nation wants to be seen as the awkward, kingless, step-child? But what had God called his people to? Leviticus 19:2 says, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. The very essence of what it means to be God’s people is to be different, distinct, set apart from the surrounding world. That’s what the word holy means in that context, of course it carries with it the idea of purity that we usually think of, but what it’s driving at is the difference between the people of the Lord and the rest of the world. They are emphatically not to be like all the other nations. But the people have this sophisticated objection: we wanna be like the nations!
I mean, look what their kings can do! They judge the people! Not like your worthless sons, Samuel. They pervert justice and take bribes! Now, this is legitimate, right? They don’t want injustice. They’re sick of the bribes. But do they have eyes in their heads? What makes them think a king will somehow be more just than these judges? A position with limited power is abusing us, let’s appoint someone with more power to fix it! But as Samuel pointed out to them, even in the best of times, when justice is carried out perfectly, having a king might cost you more than the bribes did. Taxes are no laughing matter.
But what about that third piece, he’ll fight our battles, right? Well, sure. And as stated earlier, having a standing army will make you feel safe. But if you fast forward to the end of this book, what happens to the first king of Israel? He and his sons die-in battle. The thing is, when two nations with kings line up to fight, one of those kings is going to lose. He just might lose his head.
Brothers and sisters, I think we should linger for a while over this temptation. The temptation to embrace Israel’s King Thing and think that if we just have the right person in power everything is going to be okay. The place where our minds immediately go of course is to politics, especially two days before an election which (just like every election I remember) is the most important in the history of ever. If we get the wrong person in, the world will come crashing down around our feet! But if we get the right man in, if we pick the right leader, we’ll be secure and safe. This is precisely the rhetoric you hear whether you turn on MSNBC or Fox News, they just have different definitions of who the right and wrong guy are. As believers, we need to have a different mindset. This mindset of us versus them is a toxic sort of mindset that teaches us to view those with whom we have political differences as somehow the ultimate enemy. But we have brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of the isle. And much of the political coalition of which you are a part, whether donkey or elephant or green, is populated by people who are not friends of the cross.
That’s not to say that Christians are somehow aloof from or above the fray. We participate in this world, we have responsibilities to love our neighbor, part of which means advocating and voting for the best leaders and laws possible. These things are by no means unimportant. But brothers and sisters, we must always remember that this is not our home. We are not looking for an earthly king with botox or an earthly king with a spray tan. We are looking for a heavenly king, who demonstrated his power on a cross. He will come again, bringing perfect righteousness and making war on all his enemies. In the meantime we, the people of God, are called to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44-48). Why does Jesus want us to do that? Matthew 5:45, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. So please, if you haven’t voted yet, go to the courthouse tomorrow or the bank or the library on Tuesday, and do so. But vote knowing that our hope is not in men. Our hope is in God, and he is just as in control regardless of the outcome. Do not let your perspective be shaped by cable news, social media, or the radio. Let your mind be shaped in this by the all encompassing sovereignty of God.
Another area, perhaps less obvious but maybe more dangerous, where the King Thing invades our thinking is right here, in the church. In politics we are co-pted into thinking there is a particular agenda that must be God must be for and thus will save us. In the church we can adopt mindsets toward ministry that even more closely mirror those of the Israelites. Jim described this in the form of surrogates. We want surrogate thinkers. So instead of reading the Bible for yourself and wrestling with what it means, you just count on someone else having all the answers. I can just come to church on Sunday and get what I need, I don’t need to think about that stuff for myself. But of course I don’t have all the answers. And if 30 or 40 minutes on a Sunday is all the word of God you get in your week it will be awful tough to think like a Christian for the other 167 ½ hours.
We can also look to surrogate workers. We pay someone to do the ministry for us, so it’s their responsibility, right? With lives that are so busy, it can be easy to offload responsibility to those whose “job it is”. Let me be clear, that hasn’t been my experience here, I think we have a group of people who are excited to do. To serve the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength. But it’s a temptation to be wary of, especially if there comes a day when I or someone else can be “vocationally” dedicated to this church. It’s easy to look at the person on the payroll and think they need to do everything.
And as a pastor, it’s easy to adopt a surrogate model of ministry. Where I would think of myself as the surrogate, the one getting paid to do ministry. But you know what’s interesting? That’s not God’s model for the church. God doesn’t appoint a single head over individual churches and tell them to run the show. God holds congregations responsible for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5) and for the type of teaching they tolerate (Galatians 1). He gives leaders to the church not to be the ministry, but to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11ff). My main role here is to help you be better equipped for the service God has called you to. Which is also why we need to keep working toward setting structures in place for meaningful membership and praying that God would raise up a plurality of men to be elders and deacons here. It shouldn’t be “Will in charge”, but the elders giving oversight to the flock, with the understanding that all believers are members of a holy priesthood, ministering the grace of God to those around us by displaying love and sharing the gospel.
This might all feel like we’ve wandered off topic. But I don’t think we have. Israel’s fundamental issue is that they sought their safety in conformity to the nations, rather than submission to and trust in God. We are tempted to do that in the way we view our country, in even in the way we view the church. We must constantly fight to have our minds shaped by God’s word. For those at Bible study on Tuesday, this is what we addressed. NCC Q#17, What is idolatry? A: Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the Creator for our hope and happiness, significance and security.
Where should we be looking? Romans 12:1-2, I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
God’s Devastating Response, v21-22
As the chapter closes, Samuel takes these words to the Lord. He obviously had been hoping for a better response. But God is not surprised. His response? Give them what they want. This is the great danger in looking in other places for our answers-God might just let us keep looking. Instead of stopping the people, he simply lets them have their way. The old cliche holds true: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Speaking of the people in the wilderness, Psalm 106:15 says, he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them. We need to come to God not with a list of demands, not with a worldly list of to-dos we want him to accomplish. We come to him as humble servants, loving children, certainly bringing our requests (even boldly bringing our requests, Hebrews 4), but we must do so in an attitude willing to have even our requests corrected. We must be attuned to God’s warnings and careful to heed them. He doesn’t give them to be a kill-joy. He gives them because he is the only King we need.