I’ve been in I Samuel in my personal devotional Bible reading lately. It’s been a while since I read it, and I’m finding that just like the book of Judges, there are parts of it that bother me.
The whole book of Judges is laced with stuff that ought to challenge your preconceived notions, from Ehud’s apparently Divinely-inspired assassination of King Eglon of Moab (God’s ok with assassinations?) to Jephthah’s rash vow, to that whole business with the Levite and his concubine, but I’d sort of remembered I Samuel as pretty straightforward. Hannah’s prayer for a son, Samuel’s dedication to God, his judgeship, the anointing of Saul, Saul going bad, the anointing of David, and the whole “Saul hunting David” thing.
But the other day I was reading in the earlier chapters of the book about the run-up to the anointing of Saul, and I’m becoming perturbed. Specifically, the whole “asking for a king” thing is bothersome.
The way it’s written, we’re invited to believe that asking for a king was a grievous sin on the order of the golden calf or Dathan’s rebellion against Moses. We’re invited to believe that God was inherently opposed to the monarchical form of government.
And yet, King David.
More, the tragic testimony of Judges that “in those days there was no king. Everyone did as he saw fit” points to how bad things were before the monarchy was established and how much better it was now that there was a king.
In this passage (I Samuel 8, and also chapter 12) the whole tone is that the people would be better off under the existing system of Divinely-appointed judges, but the book of Judges says the opposite. Its whole tone is “look at how bad it was without a king!”
Reconciling this chapter with the rest of the Bible is challenging. Is God intrinsically opposed to the monarchy or not?
I’m sure Tom Paine and the rest of the American Founding Fathers must have loved this chapter. Here’s the Bible itself telling you what a lousy and sinful idea monarchy is. And I have to confess that this may be part of my problem with it. In my heart and imagination, I’m a loyal Queen’s Man and I approve wholeheartedly of the stability and order that a properly-constituted monarchy engenders. And here the Bible appears to be telling me I’m dead wrong on all counts, and worse, that my approval of monarchy may be actually sinful.
But then, what do you do with the book of Judges? Here’s the Bible itself telling you what a lousy and sinful idea not having a king is.
One possibility for how we reconcile these divergent passages is that this reflects the differing perspectives of the different human authors God worked through to write the Bible. The human writer of I Samuel was obviously some sort of Bronze Age republican who had a dim view of monarchy, while the writer of Judges was a staunch monarchist with a strong opposition to the anarchy of the Judicial period. It’s as if Tom Paine wrote I Samuel and King Charles II wrote Judges.
It’s possible. But even in the I Samuel account we get the impression that Samuel’s a lot more upset about it than God is.
Samuel is evidently grievously offended that the people have asked for a king. He feels personally rejected. You can see his mind going: “Yeah, I’m not as young as I was, but I’m not falling apart yet! I can still do this! And I know I’m not going to live forever, but I still have hope that my sons will turn their lives around and become the judges I’ve always hoped they would be!”
We might see God’s words to Samuel as His comfort to an old man being forced into what he sees as premature retirement. “It’s not just you they’ve rejected, Samuel; they’ve rejected Me as their King” sounds on one level like God kind of humouring Samuel’s offendedness.
But God does not lie or change His mind. He doesn’t act deceptively and say one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. It doesn’t fit with God’s demonstrated nature and character to have Him fibbing to an old man that He also thinks the kingship is a bad idea.
But is that really what’s going on?
God may just be pointing out to Samuel that the nation continually rejected His authority over them right back to the days of wandering in the wilderness, so Samuel shouldn’t be shocked that they are rejecting him too. Samuel is God’s appointed Judge; if they rejected Moses and they rejected Aaron and they rejected God Himself, why would they show loyalty to Samuel? And God does even now (8:9 and 8:21) tell Samuel to listen to them and give them a king.
Warn them first, God says. This is a major political change far more sweeping than the election of a different party. This is a change on the order of Cromwell’s dissolution of the English crown and establishment of the Commonwealth, or the French Revolution (though it’s far less bloody), or the fall of the Soviet Union. This is what George W. Bush meant by “regime change” – a change of the entire basis of governance.
But if the monarchy is beneficial (God does tell the offended Samuel to grant their request), or at least something God can work with, why do they need to be warned?
They need to be warned because every political system has downsides. It’s not going to be like it was when we had judges. You’ll get an end to the anarchy. You’ll get the stability of knowing who the next ruler will be rather than having to wait around for God to raise up the next deliverer. But you’ll also get armies and taxes and royal prerogatives and aristocracy. Don’t expect that it’ll be just like you’ve always known it.
Even modern representative democracy has downsides compared to the monarchy that preceded it. Representative democracy is worlds better than monarchical absolutism, but no fairytale begins “once upon a time there was a President and a First Lady…”. The imagination remains monarchical. Don’t expect all the glamour and pageantry of a monarchy; your President is one of you, no more exalted than your least-favourite neighbour. It’s not going to look like it always did.
The “sin of asking for a king” (I Sam 12:17-19) may be not that getting a king was inherently wicked, but that the people put their hope in political change to solve all of their problems.
Having a king isn’t going to save you. Having a revolution isn’t going to save you. Getting a Labour government isn’t going to save you. Getting a Republican President and a Republican Congress at the same time isn’t going to save you. Passing any number of righteous laws is not going to make people obey them if their hearts are committed to doing something else.
If the hearts of the nation and their rulers are to follow YHWH, then any political system or party will work. If the hearts of the nation and its authorities are not right towards God, no political system or party can fix it.
Don’t put your trust in political solutions for answers to a problem with a spiritual root. People are sinful. We’re proud, arrogant, greedy and selfish. We’re untruthful and untrustworthy; we lie and obfuscate and doubletalk. We lust and covet, we’re stingy and violent.
The only One who can fix that is the One who died to put an end to it all and who rose from the grave to demonstrate that it was, in fact, finished.