Like all the Other NationsThe Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 30, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday after Easter. As you may have heard, Easter was the earliest it has been in 95 years and will not be this early again for over a century. This means that the sunrise service was about as late in the morning as it could be. It was a beautiful service. Easter is a time to celebrate birth and life. I want to give a shout out to my Mom who turned 78 over the Easter holidays and to Kirk and Ashley who are now parents. Kirk plays in the band, and you may know that we Moravians have a tradition of sending the band around town to awaken people early on Easter morning. This is not always understood by newcomers to Winston-Salem. One year there was a new pastor in town who believed strongly that Jesus would appear at any moment with a shout and the trumpet of God. When he heard the trumpets and trombones blaring outside his window in the wee hours one Easter he rushed out to greet the Messiah, only to see a group of cold Moravians. Talk about disappointment.
I received very sad news on the day before Easter this year. An old friend and seminary classmate named Merle Alderfer died in Pennsylvania. Merle had suffered for many years and had lost both legs, so his death was in many ways a blessing. The news that he had been called home brought back many memories of Merle. He was a large, robust man with flaming red hair. All of his many children had red hair as well. Before entering seminary, Merle had driven in demolition derbies and nearly died. He was gruff and straightforward but was surprisingly gentle. He told me that he got sent home from school in kindergarten once because of inappropriate use of crayons. He drew a picture of bears and colored them green. The teacher told him that bears are only brown, black, and white. Merle insisted that the bears he was coloring were green, and so he was sent home for disobedience. That was a defining moment in his life. It was his insistence that bears could be green even when the wise and prudent insisted otherwise that led him on the quixotic adventure of ministry. Faith involves seeing the world as it could be and should be rather than simply as it has always been. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be friends with a burly, red-bearded man who drew green bears and offered his life in service to Christ. Merle’s story applies to our lesson for today, which is a warning against faithless conformity.
Rejecting Samuel In our last lesson, we ended with the sad reality that Samuel’s sons did not follow in his ways. They were corrupt, and the people rejected them. The elders of the nation come to Samuel and ask for a completely different political system. They have grown tired of judges, some of whom were effective and others who were not. They were tired of being harassed by the Philistines, Amalekites, and other hostile neighbors. The elders of Israel looked around at their enemies and saw that they were more powerful, sophisticated, and prosperous than the Israelites. In the great competition between nations, Israel seemed to be losing. The elders told Samuel that it was time for Israel to have a king like all the other nations. Samuel went to God for advice.
Read: I Samuel 8:6-18
Of Cabbages and Kings In just a few verses, the author of I Samuel captures beautifully the essence of a long and painful argument within Israel that probably took years to decide. The children of Israel had never had an earthly king. The ancient patriarchs were the leaders of wandering clans who worshiped the LORD God. They needed little government and relied on God to save them from their enemies. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, Pharaoh was their king; therefore, the ancient Israelites associated kings with oppression. Few of their ancestors had seen Pharaoh’s real face, but they knew his image from countless sculptures in Egypt. Moses was the great prophet, priest, judge, and liberator who rescued the people from the hand of Pharaoh, but Moses was not a king. He set up no dynasty or bureaucracy. Instead, Moses established a covenant with the LORD God, who was the true king of Israel.
Theocracy For at least 200 years after the Exodus, the tribes of Israel governed themselves without an earthly king. God was their king, and God spoke through prophets and judges. From time to time, the Israelites were defeated and oppressed by powerful enemies, and then God would send a judge to rescue them. From time to time, the Israelites would renew the covenant with the LORD, and he strengthened them. They were free as long as they were obedient to the Law of God. But the elders of Israel had grown weary of this type of theocracy in the days of Samuel. They were tired of the volatility of theocracy and wanted a more predictable pattern to their political and economic life.
In my Moravian theology class, we’ve been discussing the old Moravian practice of using the Lot to help make important decisions. In those days, Moravians called their form of government a theocracy because Christ as the Chief Elder had veto power over all major decisions. Those Moravians were attempting to recreate the old Israelite theocracy when God governed through selected individuals who judged the nation and guided its decisions. In those days priests and judges used a form of the Lot to help divine God’s will. Over time, the Moravians, like the ancient Israelites lost confidence in theocracy. They wanted a more predictable and “rational” approach to their economic and political life. They hoped that by abolishing the lot, they would make better decisions about building and trade and marriages. Ironically, after the Moravians gave up the theocracy and adopted “rational” decision-making, they were never able to build another community like Salem. In class we’ve been talking about how the Moravians increasingly conformed to American society, which included adopting racist and sexist attitudes that are contrary to the teachings of the Moravian Church and to Scripture.
The Israelites were also tired of being different from the other nations. They were tired of this tribal confederacy that was always threatened by outsiders, and so the elders asked Samuel to appoint a king for them. This upset Samuel, but it is not entirely clear why. Was it because he recognized this change in Israelite society might lead them to abandon God? Was it because he had hoped his sons would succeed him? It was easy for Samuel to see this as a personal rejection. The Israelites wanted a king because the last judge had failed them. So, Samuel prayed to the LORD, pouring out his grief and fear. God assured Samuel that the people were not rejecting Samuel; they were rejecting God as their king.
The Voice of the People God tells Samuel that he needs to listen to the voice of the people even though he disagrees with them. This is something that is easily overlooked in a study of Scripture. God tells the leader to listen to the people. This not modern democracy since the whole story is about establishing a monarchy, but our Founding Fathers and Mothers took this statement from God seriously. Leaders should not lock themselves in a bubble and govern without listening to the people they lead. This applies for kings and presidents; pastors and CEOs. Those affected by your decisions have a right to participate in those decisions. The people may be wrong and the leader may be right, but the leader still needs to pay attention to the voice of the people. You cannot lead if people do not follow. At a minimum, leaders should be willing to explain their decisions to the people they lead. Otherwise you have tyranny which breeds apathy or revolution. According to the OT, even God listens to the people.
Cost of Monarchy So, with God’s urging Samuel agrees to appoint a king for the nation. Before doing so, though, he wants to make sure the people understand what they will get. Yes, they want a king who has the authority to build an army to defend the nation, but that quest for security comes at a high cost. Be aware, Samuel said, that it will be your sons that the king will conscript to fight in his army. It will be your sons who will be taken from the fertile fields and forced to learn how to kill. It will be your sons who will die on the field of battle instead of raising crops to feed your family. Sons who survive the king’s wars will return to you changed. They will carry with them the memories of violence and bloodshed. They will have empty places in their hearts and souls. We today know all too well the effects that war has on the men and women we ask to fight for us. Samuel warns the Israelites that a king’s army does not just defend hearth and home; the king will invade other nations and make other people slaves.
That is not all. The king will conscript others to work for him. The king will be well fed without having to labor in his own fields. He will have the best land and the largest house. He will build up his personal estate to awe and impress you, and you will forget that the land was once yours. If you don’t believe Samuel, go visit Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Samuel was telling people the truth, and he was not exaggerating. He will force parents to give some of their children to be his slaves working his land. He will convince free people that they should be proud to have a wealthy and powerful leader. No longer will the people give their best gifts to God; the king will take his tithe of produce.
Samuel tells the people that the king will bring new technologies to the nation, especially iron. But he will use those technologies to make implements of war. Rather than making better plows and shovels, the king will want more swords, spears, and shields. The military budget is limitless. If necessary, the king will use those weapons to wage war on Israelites who oppose him or resist him. Be aware, Samuel, says. If you want a king who will make the nation strong, you will become his servants. Even your daughters will not be safe. He will take them into his retinue and make them work for him and his household. Wake up, Samuel, says. Look around you at these other nations you are so impressed by. Those larges armies and beautiful palaces, those harems and bureaucracies are filled with slaves forced to do the king’s bidding. You think that a king will save you from oppression by the Philistines, but be aware that you are giving up your freedom voluntary to a king.
Rights of Kings Samuel’s description of the king is very consistent with what we know of the rights of kings in the ancient world. It was not just the great kings, like Pharaoh who did these things. Petty kings acted this way as well. Commentators often say that Samuel is describing the abuses of the king, but it is more accurate to say that he is describing the actions of all kings. This is what goes with the office, Samuel is saying.
A king who cannot conscript soldiers, cooks, and laborers, is not really a king. A king who does not have the right to tax the people is not really a king. Even the best king will do these things, Samuel is saying. Tom Petty says in a song that “its good to be king; to get your own way; to have a feeling of peace; at the end of the day.” Some scholars think that this section of the book was taken from a legal document outlining the rights of the king, but this speech in I Samuel is clearly presented as warning to the people. In setting forth the rights of the monarch, Samuel is warning the people that even a good king will be their master. A good king will exercise his authority with restraint and will listen to the people. A good king will follow the Law of God and restrain himself. But not all kings are good.
Oppressive Governments There will be kings that will exploit the people so mercilessly and exercise their dominion so harshly that the people will cry to the LORD. They will realize that the king has not saved them from oppression and slavery. He is the one who has oppressed and enslaved them. They were afraid that Philistines would conquer them, but is it really better to be enslaved by one of your own leaders instead of a foreigner? Slavery is slavery. Lies are lies. Oppression is oppression, not matter what fancy terms you use to describe it. Like the Ginger Bread man who begged the wolf to save him from his enemies and carry him across the stream, the people will be eaten by their savior. Samuel warns the people that if they voluntarily enslave themselves and their children, the LORD will not listen to their complaints.
This speech in I Samuel 8 is one of the most devastating critiques of kingship in ancient literature, and it had an impact on American history. The Founding Fathers were not all Christian, but they did know their biblical history and they knew the history of Europe. They experienced the tyranny of King George, and they resisted the urge to make George Washington a king. The urge was strong. Many political theorists and pundits of the day argued that a nation must have a king with absolute executive power. Kings must be above the law and everyone in the realm must be subject to the king even when he is doing immoral things. Kings answer only to God, not to the people or to the law, the experts argued. But the authors of the Constitution rejected that view of government. They learned a lesson from Israel and refused to sacrifice freedom for security. American would have no king, and no leader would be above the law.
We often fail to appreciate how important that decision was. The Constitutional Congress took Samuel’s warning seriously. If that is what kings do, then we will have no king. We elect ours president in a free and fair election in which the voice of the people is heard. From the beginning we rejected the notion that the president is not accountable to the law. Even though some presidents refused to acknowledge this, there are clear limits to the executive privilege of the President. We, the people, have set up safeguards to prevent the president from becoming a tyrant who does the things listed in I Samuel.
But do not be deceived. The temptation for Presidents to do these things is very strong, especially in times of conflict. When people are afraid of foreign enemies, like the Israelites were in the days of Samuel, they are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the illusion of security. They will allow rulers to seize power and authority. In such times, we need priests and prophets like Samuel who will stand up and tell the truth about tyranny and oppression. We need priests, prophets, and pastors who will stand up and call the nation to return to God and demand that rulers respect the law.
Conclusion I Samuel is all about national politics, and we will be touching on political issues all year. I will not tell you who to vote for, but I will encourage you to examine American politics from a biblical perspective. I hope you will use this passage in I Samuel as a guide to understanding the use and abuse of power. Do we really want to be like other nations, or can we do things more humanely and justly? Like the Israelites of old, we are tempted to ask for a king to govern us and “go out before us and fight our battles,” but if that is our highest goal we will abandon the quest to build the kingdom of God on earth.
In the end, Samuel agreed to do what the people asked. Then he told them to return to their homes. They went back to their normal lives, wondering what would happen next. Would their hopes and dreams of national security and international respect be realized or would Samuel’s warnings come true? Like their ancestors, they were facing an uncertain future, but this time they had rejected the LORD and his prophet. How would it all turn out? Next week we’ll look at the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel.