Today we encounter one of the most pivotal moments in our faith history. The story from First Samuel may not seem that momentous. Surely the Flood, or the crossing of the Red Sea, or the arrival at the Promised Land, or, I don’t know, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are more pivotal. But this short piece of scripture contains something quite theologically significant in the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people. Samuel has been a righteous prophet and judge for the people, but much like his predecessor Eli who we heard about last week, his sons have become corrupt leaders and the people are unhappy. And so, the people suggest a solution: a king. In their minds this is a great solution. A king could solve their problems, and most certainly would help protect them from enemies. A king would dispense justice and mercy to foster right relationships among the people, would hold fast to the covenantal law, and would be appointed by God. And they would still have prophets to act as their system of checks and balances.[i] Besides, all the other nations have kings, why shouldn’t they?
The request sounds innocent enough. As twenty-first century Americans, having no governing leader is inconceivable. For us, the idea of a theocracy is so foreign, we almost have a hard time imagining the concept. A king, or at least a president, sounds perfectly reasonable. But for the people of God, a theocracy is all they have ever known. “Since the time when Israel first became a nation, Israel had been a theocracy, a community guided and protected by YHWH. They were set apart, distinctive from other nations, and they had no king as others nations did. Israel was led by various judges whom God raised up in times of need. These leaders included, among others, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Deborah, Samson, Gideon, and Samuel, who served not as kings or queens but as mouthpieces for God as they arbitrated disputes, saw that justice was done, or led the people to victory over a threatening enemy.”[ii] So this request for a king is a huge shift. As Walter Brueggemann explains, “Their request is nothing less than a change in Israel’s foundational commitments….This request for a king is one more step in [a] continuing performance of mistrust.”[iii] In other words, the people of God do not trust God, and out of their mistrust, they are willing to change the entire basis of their relationship with God.
Now if you were to ask me about my greatest spiritual struggle, I would likely say worry. I have told countless people how much the Matthean text about worry has been a spiritual guide for me, “Consider the lilies of the field…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”[iv] My whole life I have thought my greatest struggle was worry. But in reflecting this week, I am not sure my greatest issue is worry. My greatest issue might be trust. I worry because I do not trust – I do not trust God to make a way, so I strive and fail and strive again to make my own way. I suspect I am not alone. We all fail to trust God from time to time. And any logical person would quietly support your lack of trust in God. Because to trust in God seems naïve, lacks self-responsibility, and discredits our agency in the world. Most of us read today’s Old Testament lesson, and secretly we agree with the Israelites. Sure, there is no perfect form of government, but you have to have something! We may jokingly or even figuratively ask Jesus to take the wheel, but we all know that we still need to drive the car.
But when we step away from a theocracy, when we change the foundational covenantal commitment between us and God, we must face the same fate as the Israelites. Samuel tells them what having a king will mean. Having a king will mean giving up their sons for service in battle and for the tending of the king’s fields, giving up their daughters as cooks and sexual servants, giving up their best land, livestock, and produce. And worst of all – worst of all – they will be the king’s slaves. Now for a people who have been enslaved before, this should be the ultimate warning. All they need to do was think back to those days with Pharaoh – no rights, no power, brutal labor, no hope. But then, God says something even worse. When the Israelites finally see God is right and that the new king they wanted is a mess (and spoiler alert: the new kings will be a mess – the kings do all that Samuel predicts and even more horrible things); when the Israelites cry out, God will not answer them. This critical part of their relationship with God will be over.
These are the words that have haunted me this week, “…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.” Are there things I could do that would make God not answer me? Is there a chance that on the two millionth time I refuse to trust God, our relationship could finally break? Is there a chance we could have a government so broken by ego and lack of compassion and compromise that God would refuse to exert God’s power to redeem us? A couple of years ago, we talked to our pediatrician about discipline and our frustration with our children’s constant pushing of boundaries. The pediatrician recommended the “Three Rule.” Instead of threatening punishments and consequences, instead of engaging in lengthy explanations about why behaviors were unacceptable and what the consequence would be, we should follow the “Three Rule.” When a child does something unacceptable, the parent says, “one.” No words are exchanged, no threats are made. Just the number one. If, or I guess I should say when, the behavior continues, the parent simply says, “two.” Finally, when the behavior still continues, the parent says, “three,” and the child immediately goes to their room for a period of time commiserate with their age. But, and here’s the kicker, when their time is up, there is no discussion, no scolding, just a return to normal.
Now I get a little wary of comparing God with a parent, since parents are just as flawed as kings, but here is what I appreciate about God in this text today. God strikes me as a person who calmly works through the Three Rule. So, although Samuel breaks the rule by going on an on about the consequences of a king, God does something extraordinary with the people of God’s request. God says “okay.” In a wonderful combination of “grace and judgment, the Lord commands Samuel to ‘listen’ to the people but also to ‘warn them and show them the ways of the king.’” God does not smite the people or abandon the people. God, as God always does, respects their free-will and allows the people of God to choose their fate – even if their choice is a fundamental altering of the very basis of their relationship with God. There is something reassuring to me about a God who allows us full agency in our relationship – whose love is not tied to us making good decisions – and who can remain calm even when we are catastrophically proposing a fundamental change in our relationship with God.
But even more than God’s reaction, I am not convinced the judgment of God is as final as Samuel predicts. We know God is a God who judges. Lord knows the Israelites do indeed suffer the consequences of taking on a human king – their sons, daughters, and property are decimated, and eventually the kingdom is divided and ultimately destroyed, with the peoples scattered all over the world. But we know a few things more about God. We know that God’s mind can be changed. We saw this reality firsthand when Moses advocated for mercy with the sinful people, or when Nineveh repented of their sins, or when some of those earthly kings changed their ways. But mostly we know that God sends a Messiah – God’s only Son to redeem us. Though judgment is a part of our relationship with God, so is redemption, forgiveness, and grace. I am not sure I will ever master trusting God fully. Perhaps I am just too human. But our invitation this week is to keep trying. Our invitation is to pause in those moments of mistrust and recount the wonderful deeds of our God. Maybe you start with a scriptural mantra, “Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Hannah, Jonah, Ruth, Peter, Paul.” But perhaps more importantly you start your own mantra, “That time when I walked away from God, that time when I blamed God, that time when I…” We have seen God’s faithfulness, even through the sacrifice of God’s only Son. But we have also seen God’s faithfulness every day of our earthly life. Our invitation is to listen, as God listens to God’s people everyday. Amen.
[i] Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 3.
[ii] Marianne Blickenstaff, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays for Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 1.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preach, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 62.
[iv] Matthew 6.28, 34