If you saw any of the 2011 news reviews, you’ll have been reminded it was the year of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ – when leaders like Mubarak and Gaddafi fell, followed by great talk of freedom and democracy. But some kind of rule will always replace the old one. And the question is: what kind? And will it be good for all the people? Because, like the White Witch in C.S.Lewis’s Narnia, it could end up making it not spring, but ‘always winter and never Christmas’.
What kind of rule do you want to live under?
I’m sure that will get asked during the Queen’s diamond jubilee, with people saying: ‘Do we really want a monarchy any more, with a constitution that privileges the Bible’s worldview as the main influence on our society? Isn’t it time we became a republic with a secular constitution?’ But who would write that constitution? And if we don’t privilege the Bible’s worldview, which worldview will get privileged as the main influence on our society (because some worldview or other will inevitably get privileged)?
What kind of rule do you want to live under? And that’s not just a political question. It’s a personal one, as well. And many people would answer it by saying, ‘I want to be under my own rule – I want to do what I want.’ But I wonder how many of them stop to think, ‘Is that really good for me?’ – or is it the personal equivalent of living under a dictator, becoming a slave to your desires? That’s certainly how Oscar Wilde saw it looking back on his life. He wrote:
I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action… makes or unmakes character… I ceased to be lord over myself… and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me and ended in horrible disgrace.
What kind of rule do you want to live under? That was the question facing God’s Old Testament (OT) people, back in the time of the prophet Samuel – which we’re learning from in this series on 1 Samuel. So would you turn in the Bible to 1 Samuel chapter 11. Last week we saw how Saul was made the first king of Israel. And this week he faces his first crisis – look down to 1 Samuel chapter 11, v1:
Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead. And all the men of Jabesh said to him, ‘Make a treaty with us, and we will be subject to you.’ But Nahash the Ammonite replied, ‘I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.’(vv1-2)
The point being that men who’ve lost an eye can’t fight and therefore can’t rebel against you. So Nahash is clever and cruel. Read on, v3:
The elders of Jabesh said to him, ‘Give us seven days so that we can send messengers throughout Israel; if no-one comes to rescue us, we will surrender to you.’
When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul and reported these terms to the people, they all wept aloud. Just then Saul was returning from the fields, behind his oxen, and he asked, ‘What is wrong with the people? Why are they weeping?’ Then they repeated to him what the men of Jabesh had said. (vv3-5)
And that kind of scenario was precisely why the Israelites had asked Samuel to give them a king. Just turn on to chapter 12 and v11 to see that: Samuel is speaking to the people about why they’d asked for a king. And he’s out to show them that their motivation had been all wrong. So he reviews how the LORD had protected Israel – look at chapter 12, v11:
‘Then the LORD sent Jerub-Baal, Barak, Jephthah and Samuel, and he delivered you from the hands of your enemies on every side, so that you lived securely.’
And then he goes on:
‘But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’— even though the LORD your God was your king.’ (12.11-12)
So their motivation for asking for a human king was that they’d given up trusting their divine King. They felt they’d be more secure if they had a king ‘such as all the other nations have,’ to quote them in chapter 8 – ie, a king with tanks and warplanes and infantry – something less airy-fairy than trusting God to look after you. So their request for a king was sinfully motivated. But God granted it – because it had been his plan all along to make Israel a kingdom, as a kind of model of the kingdom Jesus would ultimately bring. It’s like when a car manufacturer plans a new car. A friend of mine worked on the original Ford Focus, making 1-in-3 scale models, so they could get an idea of what the real thing would ultimately look like. And in God’s unfolding plan, the kingdom of Israel was a very imperfect scale model of the kingdom Jesus would ultimately bring. So when we’re reading about kings like Saul and David and Solomon we need to remember that:
• At their best they foreshadowed the kind of king Jesus would be.
• But at their worst, they remind us why Jesus had to come – because they exhibit the sinfulness that’s the problem in all of us.
Now by chapter 15, we’ll see Saul at his worst and how God sacked him as king. But here in chapter 11, we see Saul for the one and only time (‘for one night only’ as they say in theatre) at his best and giving us a glimpse of what the ideal king of God’s people looks like – ie, a glimpse of Jesus.
I’ve got two headings,
Firstly, GOD’S KING ACTS FOR GOD’S PEOPLE (vv1-13)
Look down to chapter 11 and v6. News has just come from Jabesh Gilead and, v6:
When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger. (v6)
Which might leave you thinking, ‘Hold on. I thought you said this gives us a glimpse of the ideal king. But surely he blows that by anger, doesn’t he?’ Well, no: I take it that he’s feeling about the situation what God feels about it. And God feels angry that his people are being threatened by such evil. And rightly so – because in the face of evil, it’s indifference and apathy that’s wrong, not righteous anger and action against the evil. Read on, v7:
[Saul] took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, ‘This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.’ Then the terror of the LORD fell on the people, and they turned out as one man. When Saul mustered them at Bezek, the men of Israel numbered three hundred thousand and the men of Judah thirty thousand [the word translated ‘thousand’ literally means ‘military unit’ – like a platoon – so I think this translation the numbers].
They told the messengers who had come, ‘Say to the men of Jabesh Gilead, ‘By the time the sun is hot tomorrow, you will be delivered.’’ When the messengers went and reported this to the men of Jabesh, they were elated. They said to the Ammonites, ‘Tomorrow we will surrender to you, and you can do to us whatever seems good to you.’
The next day Saul separated his men into three divisions; during the last watch of the night they broke into the camp of the Ammonites and slaughtered them until the heat of the day. Those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together. (vv7-11)
And if the fate of the Ammonites offends you, you need to remember: it was ultimately God’s doing. Look back to v6:
When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power… (v6)
Ie, God moved Saul to action. And then, end of v7:
the terror [or fear] of the LORD fell on the people, and they turned out as one man. (v7)
Ie, God moved all of them to action.
So the fate of the Ammonites was ultimately God’s doing and it was what their inhumanity deserved. And if v11 offends us, we need to realise that it’s actually God’s judgment that offends us. And we need to realise that God is not just waiting until the final day of judgement to bring judgement on evil; he’s actively judging evil every day. And he can bring judgement on whole nations for disregarding him. In 1 Samuel, that came in the form of a nation’s army being decimated. But Romans 1 says God’s judgement also comes in the form of things like sexual disorder in society and greed and family breakdown. So just look around you and you are seeing the judgement of God.
But back to 1 Samuel. Saul leads Israel to victory. And v12:
The people then said to Samuel, ‘Who was it that asked, ‘Shall Saul reign over us?’ Bring these men to us and we will put them to death.’ (v12)
Now look back to chapter 10, v27. Just after Saul was made king:
Saul also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God had touched. But some troublemakers said, ‘How can this fellow save us?’ They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent. (10v26-27)
And the advice in chapter 11, v12 is: ‘Look, Saul, you need to put those dissenters to death. You’ve got to seize power and make yourself secure.’ And that’s the way the world thinks, isn’t it – ‘Power is for me – for me to seize, for me to secure, for me to use for my own benefit. ‘But,’ v13:
Saul said, ‘No-one shall be put to death today, for this day the LORD has rescued Israel.’ (v13)
Ie, ‘The point here is not me and what being king can bring for me. The point is that the LORD has rescued his people; the point is: the good of his people.’ Which is why I gave this bit the heading, ‘God’s king acts for God’s people’ – ie, acts for their good, uses his position for their sake. And in that attitude, Saul fleetingly foreshadowed the Lord Jesus, who when two of his disciples asked to have the most important position in his kingdom said this:
‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man [ie, Jesus himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10v42-45)
I hope it never stops astounding you that your rightful God and King stooped as low as the cross for you as we remember in this communion service; that the Judge of this universe stepped in under his own judgement to save you from it and see you forgiven; that the person to whom you owe total service came and served you. And that’s the answer when our culture says, ‘Why on earth would you give over the ruling of your life to someone else? Why would you accept Jesus as Lord rather than be free to live as you please?’ And the answer is that on the cross he’s shown such commitment to our good that we trust him with the running of our lives far more than we trust ourselves. And if in some area you’re struggling to trust that his moral will is good for you, then ask yourself, ‘Would he really die for me on the cross, and then ask of me something that was not best for me?’
So the main lesson here is about Jesus’ kingship. But there is a secondary lesson about any leadership role we have in life – in family (like being a husband or parent), in church, or elsewhere. And it’s that in God’s kingdom, any leadership role is not for my sake but for others’ sake. It’s not an opportunity to have others doing things for me – working for me, noticing me, praising me – but for me to be doing things for others – supporting them well, organising and leading them well, whatever it is. The world tends to say the opposite – witness the story of the council gardener who was transferred to the city cemetery, and was heard to say, ‘At last I’ve got a job with plenty of people under me.’ But God’s kingdom turns that kind of thinking on its head, because God’s King acts for God’s people.
Second, GOD’S KING RULES UNDER GOD (vv14-15)
Look down to v14:
Then Samuel said to the people, Come, let us go to Gilgal and there reaffirm the kingship. (v14)
Actually, ‘reaffirm’ is a bad translation. Literally it says, ‘renew’ – ‘Let’s go to Gilgal and renew the kingship.’ And Gilgal was a hugely symbolic place, a bit like, for us, the Normandy beaches are hugely symbolic – of the beginning of the end for Hitler. Because Gilgal was where Israel first set foot in the promised land. And before they went any further, Joshua had them all circumcised. Because circumcision was the outward sign, back then, that you accepted the LORD as your God and King. And the previous generation hadn’t circumcised their children – which was a symptom of their unbelief. And those children, now grown up and entering the promised land, needed to be circumcised – as a way of renewing their acceptance of the LORD as King. And Samuel takes Israel to exactly the same place to do exactly the same thing – to renew their acceptance of the LORD as King. Because that’s what their request for a human king had denied. They’d basically asked for a human king instead of their divine King. And now God has given them one, they need to renew their idea of kingship. They need to realise that Saul isn’t to be king instead of God, but king under God. Which is what Samuel would have spelt out back in chapter 10 and v25. Look back to chapter 10, v25:
Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. (10v25)
And I guess he repeated what the law had already said, about when Israel would have kings, in Deuteronomy 17:
When [the king] takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law… It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees. (Deuteronomy 17v8-19)
So the king is only king under God and God’s law. And his main task is to lead his people in obedience to God. And the ideal is that there’s no gap at all between the direction the king’s going in, and God’s will, revealed in his Word. But the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings is the story of how big that gap was even in the best of kings like David – let alone the worst. Which reminds us how imperfect they were as models of Jesus. Because only in Jesus do we have a King in whom there’s absolutely no gap between his will and his Father’s will – whose teaching, distilled in the New Testament, is 100% the Word of God and whose life is 100% the model of perfection – because, as we say in the creed, he is ‘of one being with the Father.’ And that’s why living for Jesus as king and living for God are one and the same thing.
By contrast, the various cults around demand that you live for a merely human leader – a cult leader. But as the kings of Israel show, in any merely human leader, the gap between their will and God’s will soon opens up – and if you’ve put yourself under them lock, stock and barrel you’re ultimately going to be misled, harmed and disillusioned. But even in churches, we fall into the trap of giving leaders a wrong kind of guru status. And we forget that what they say and what God says in the Bible may be very different things, and that everything merely human leaders say must be weighed against the Bible. Which is why you should believe nothing and act on nothing that you’re not convinced is a right understanding and application of the Bible. Because Jesus, and no-one else, is your King; and he rules through his Word, the Bible.
A secondary application of this point is that in any spiritual leadership we have (in the home, in church), we need to work at making the gap between our teaching and the Bible’s teaching, and between our lives and God’s will, as small as possible – as 1 Timothy 4 puts it:
Watch your life and doctrine closely. (1 Timothy 4v6)
But a final application is to go back to where we began – the upheavals of national leaders last year; and, by contrast, the remarkable reign of our own Queen. And David Cameron was right, in his speech before Christmas to say:
The Bible runs through our political history in a way that is often not properly recognised. The history and existence of a constitutional monarchy owes much to a Bible in which kings were anointed and sanctified with the authority of God… And yet at the same time, the... Bible also provides the foundations for protest and… the evolution of our freedom and democracy.
(David Cameron, Speech, 16 December 2011)
What he’s saying is that we’re privileged to live in a country governed along lines lifted straight from what we’ve looked at tonight. Because the Queen is both Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Which is meant to symbolise that Parliament sits under a Christian head. It symbolises the ideal of government done under the primary influence of the Bible’s worldview. Because democracy in itself doesn’t guarantee government that’s good for all. All democracy in itself guarantees is government that the majority voted for. But as one Christian writer recently said:
Contrary to… popular orthodoxy… the moral legitimacy of government comes primarily from its faithfulness to the given principles of justice, and not from its reflection of popular will — as the fate of Germany in the early 1930s should have taught us. (Nigel Biggar, ‘What is the good of establishment?’ article in Standpoint magazine, April 2011)
And where better to find what he calls ‘the given principles of justice’ than in the Bible? So, in this diamond jubilee year, far from being apologetic about our constitution, Christians should be arguing that it’s by privileging the Bible’s worldview in public life that government stands the best chance of being good for all and of providing maximum freedoms for all. Which is why you don’t hear objections to the present set-up from minority faith groups – because they enjoy freedoms here that they wouldn’t in other places.
So, ‘What kind of rule do you want to be under?’ is the question the Bible has asked us tonight. And I’d say: Jesus’ personally – and something as influenced by Jesus as possible, nationally.