1 Samuel 8
A lot has happened in the Bible since we were last together. God has brought the ancient Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. They have wandered for 40 years in the desert of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They have crossed the Jordan River and resettled themselves in the land where their ancestors lived hundreds of years before. This is the land that they believe God had promised to their ancestors and that God will allow them to stay in that land if they stay true to their covenant with God. This covenant is a relationship of loyalty in which they experience the reality of having been blessed to be a blessing and they demonstrate that by living differently than the people around them. But they don’t really manage to do that. They are not a unified people but a group of tribes, clashing and meshing with one another and with the non-Hebrew tribes who live in the land. Like all of us, they go through cycles of following God and drifting away. When strong leadership is needed God raises up men and women to serve as judges. These were tribal chiefs who acted as arbitrators, battle leaders, and prophets. The book of Judges ends with the statement: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Which sounds like the set-up for failure. We pick up the story at the end of the life of the judge Samuel. Although the tribes aren’t really unified, they have all recognized his wise leadership and he has led them through some difficult times and helped them renew their covenant with God. But Samuel is not going to live forever, and the tribes are nervous about who will be their next leaders.
“So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: 1 Samuel 8
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s judges. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Next weekend Hayes High School is performing the play The Crucible, and our own Rachel has one of the roles. The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials, but it wasn’t written in 1692. It was written 260 years later in 1953. And if we think about what was happening in America in 1953, it’s easy to see that this isn’t just a play about the Salem witch trials. It’s a play about Joe McCarthy and Communism and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities.
Did anyone see the 2017 movie Detroit? It’s “based on a true story” about the racial violence in Detroit in 1967. Which means that this is likely not a perfect retelling of the stories of the individuals in the movie. But it’s not hard to understand why movies about racial violence are compelling for us in our current era. We use the stories of our past to help us understand our present. We use the stories of the past to help us narrate the present.
In many ways the Old Testament does the same thing. Most scholars recognize that each of the books in this library was edited into its final form over many years. Probably most of them started as oral tradition, as stories told verbally from one generation to the next. Along the way, the different versions of the stories were compiled together. Sometimes we can even see really different perspectives right close together in the same books. Because everyone who tells a story has a perspective, and an agenda. We know even today that the most supposedly neutral of news reporters always have to choose what to include and what not to include, because it would be impossible to include everything. The same is true with the Bible. And if we want to understand what it may be saying to us now, it’s really helpful to start by trying to understand what it was saying to them then.
So as we begin to ask what this story is saying to us now, here’s a little perspective on what it may have been saying to them then. As always, smart people who love God disagree about how to interpret, but I’m going to give you the information that is most compelling to me. Because I also have an agenda.
Many years after this story, the ancient Hebrew people were invaded by a more powerful country. After some really brutal battles, the upper classes were carried away into exile and the common people were left behind in a devastated and occupied territory. This was a defining event for them as a people, and is the background for much of the Old Testament. Most of what we have written down now, we believe was written down during this time. And like we still do when something terrible happens, as a people they began to ask themselves, “How could this happen to us? How did we get here?” Part of the answer to that question is their memory of the story we read this morning. At a crucial moment in their history, they stopped relying on God and tried to take the easy way out.
Which is something that we all understand, because we’ve all done that haven’t we? We’ve all felt tired. We’ve all felt overwhelmed by our circumstances. And we’ve all come up with a “really great idea” to solve our problem. We’ve gotten tired of doing things the right way and tried to do things the easy way instead. That’s what happens here. The people say, “Give us someone to take care of things for us. Someone to fight our battles for us.” And here’s the key thing: “We want to be like the nations around us.”
The cost and joy of being followers of Jesus is the call to not be like everyone else. From the beginning, from God’s first promise to Abraham and Sarah, that they would be blessed to be a blessing, we have been called to live differently in the world. Living differently, not relying on the things that the rest of the culture relies on, that takes a great deal of trust in God.
And this is where the ancient Hebrews make a mistake that we can learn from. When things got hard, they chose to be like everyone else. And they did it even though God warned them what would happen. God tells Samuel to warn them that if they get themselves a king, if they want to be like everyone else, then they will be like everyone else. Their society will be restructured to look like other societies, with people being forced into jobs to support the establishment, with men being conscripted into the military, with the best of their crops and livestock being taken to feed the elites. And they will become slaves, just like they were in Egypt. They are warned, and they still say, “Nope. This is what we want.” Now the Bible doesn’t tell us whether they didn’t believe Samuel or they just didn’t care, but I suspect that they didn’t believe him. Because I know when I’ve decided what I want to do, I usually just don’t believe the wise people who tell me how it might not go so well as I’m hoping.
Like a good parent, after God has warned the people what will happen, and they are bound and determined to have a king anyway, God gives them what they want. This is what it means for God to respect our freedom. God doesn’t punish the people for wanting a king. God just allows them to have what they want and experience the natural consequences of it. The warning here for us is that when we try to take the easy way out, we become slaves to the thing we thought would save us. We think we’ll be OK when we just get that next thing: more money, a nicer house, a newer car, a more prestigious job, a relationship, lose the weight. These are often the things that we put our trust in, for our happiness and our security. These are things that we think will save us. But they can also enslave us. If they aren’t part of God’s design for us to do more justice, to love more, to be more humble, then at best they will distract us and at worst we will be their slaves.
This is one of those stories in the Bible that is about what we shouldn’t do. It’s a cautionary tale for us, a chance to see our own situations through another lens. But I’m not going to leave you without a little good news. Even after this warning, and a lot of it comes true, God still blesses the people. Each one of our choices changes our path, but none of our choices are irredeemable. God never gives up on us. God never stops offering us opportunities to make things better, to make a different better choice. Next week we’re going to talk about King David, and his reign is remembered as the golden age of ancient Israel. He’s an ancestor of Jesus.
God can and does work for good in any situation, especially when we invite God into it. But when we deliberately ignore the wise counsel in our lives, when we make choices that we know are the easy thing and not the right thing, when in fact we pretty much ignore God, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a lot harder for us to recognize and feel God at work. God wants to help us make wise choices. God surrounds us with people to help us make wise choices. God gives us a wonderful and weird book full of stories to help us learn how to make wise choices.
The book of Second Peter in the New Testament was written to Christians who were struggling to live differently than the cultures around them. It was really obvious that they were making different choices from their neighbors. So to these followers of Jesus who are tempted to take the easy way out, Peter opens with these words of encouragement: “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through our knowledge of Christ who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through this glory and goodness God has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in God’s divine nature, escaping the world’s passionate desire for decay.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your trust goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”
Through God’s own power we are empowered to participate in the divine nature, to be like Christ. God woos us, invites us to grow in our trust in a way that leads to self-control, to enduring difficult circumstances without taking the easy way out, and ultimately to make choices that are totally in line with God’s love for the world. We can absolutely do it. Amen.