Give them a King

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Tonight we conclude for this session our studies in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel with chapter 8 and our title is “GIVE THEM A KING”.

My headings are, after some words of introduction, first, THE CONTEXT; secondly, THE PROBLEM OF KINGSHIP; thirdly, FOOLISH FAITHLESSNESS; and, fourthly, LESSONS FOR TODAY

So let me begin with two comments about the Old Testament. One, Jesus taught that the Old Testament, supremely, points to himself (Lk 24.27). But in that connection remember that each time you read in the Old Testament the word “LORD” (in capital letters in the NIV pew Bibles and other Bibles), it is referring to Yahweh/Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel, the one true, triune God who (as the New Testament shows), is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. So Jesus Christ, the divine Son, is on almost every page of the Old Testament. When you see LORD (in capitals) remember that is the Lord who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, the second person of the Trinity, the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is not just in passages like Isaiah 53, vital and important as that chapter is as it points to the Cross of Christ. And that second person of the Trinity, the divine Son, after the incarnation and resurrection is identified as King of kings. So the King of kings cannot be divorced from the LORD who, in the unity of the Godhead, addresses Samuel on “kingship”, our subject for tonight, in 1 Samuel 8.

Then, comment number two - Paul’s second letter to Timothy 3.16-17 says:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Paul is referring especially to the Old Testament (as at this time the New Testament was not completed). And in the Old Testament “good works” relate not just to individual and family life. Good works also relate to life in the wider public world of the nation, as we shall see tonight.

So much by way of introduction. And, now…

… first, THE CONTEXT for chapter 8.

Go back to the time the people of God, having escaped from Egypt, entered Canaan and there was the conquest under Joshua. After Joshua’s death, for a period of nearly two hundred years, Israel was ruled by so-called “judges”. But throughout this period there was a sad cycle of drifting from God; then God allowed enemies to attack his people, until deliverance came under one of the Judges. Well, Samuel was the last of these judges.

And as we have seen in our series, Samuel grew up at Shiloh – the main religious centre until the Philistines ascendancy we read about in chapter 4. There Samuel was under the guardianship of Eli, the high priest, and he himself sometimes acted as a priest. But Samuel was also recognized as “a prophet of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3.20). However, we heard last week about Samuel the “judge”. Look back to chapter 7.15-17:

“15Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. 16From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. 17But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an altar there to the LORD.”

That suggests Samuel believed it right only to provide an interim political settlement after the demise of Shiloh. Visiting four places not very far apart suggests he was not yet willing to establish one new centre. Possibly this was because the Ark, the symbol of God and his law (and so rightly also the symbol for the nation’s unity) had been left in someone’s house on a hill in Kiriath Jearim after it had been returned by the Philistines. We read about that in chapter 6. Yes, symbols are important for public life. Think of the Union Jack and the Queen’s Crown in British public life.

Be that as it may, certainly at this point in time, God’s people had forgotten both the symbol and the reality of God. So without God at the centre of public life, Samuel would have known that any new political arrangements would fail to provide the security the people wanted. That, surely, is why Samuel was so unenthusiastic for a new permanent centralized political arrangement – namely “kingship”.

But … look at verse 1 of chapter 8 and following which says, Samuel was getting old:

“1When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. 2The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. 3But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. 4So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ 6But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. 7And 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. 8As 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. 9Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.’

So Samuel then warns the elders and their supporters that in their current faithless condition they will inherit a tyrannical king. But note (before we move on), Samuel is not saying that monarchy (or kingship) as such, is inherently or always tyrannical and wrong. That brings us …

... secondly, to THE PROBLEM OF KINGSHIP

Moses in Deuteronomy makes it clear there would be “kingship” in Israel. The whole drift of the Old Testament is that kingship is important but only truly fulfilled in Jesus Christ – the King of kings (as the New Testament shows). And he, of course, cannot be fulfilling a role that is inherently wrong. Listen to Deuteronomy chapter 17 verses 14-19 reporting Moses as saying:

“14When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ 15be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses … 16The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them … 17He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law… 19It 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.”

It is vital, therefore, that the king appointed is not like the kings “of all the nations around” in Canaan – or in Egypt, or later in Assyria, Babylon or Persia. According to Deuteronomy the king is to be a king under God and his word.

Then moving on in the Old Testament to the book of Judges (that we were studying this time last year), some of you will remember the refrain in 17.6:

“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”

That says kingship does bring order and the lack of kingship may mean social chaos. But sometimes kingship comes at a terrible price. When kings don’t accept God’s law, you sooner or later have tyranny and a great loss of freedom, for all the security they bring. And that is true of all governments whether monarchical, aristocratic or democratic then and now.

Samuel knew that, at this point in time, if the people had a king when they and the king were rejecting God and being idolatrous, they would suffer. And in verse 8 God underlines for Samuel the fact that the people were once again drifting spiritually. The LORD implies (verse 8) they were …

“forsaking [him] and serving other gods.”

They had lost sight of the true and living God. They had lost faith in God to protect them by raising up new judges. So where would they now think to find security when threatened by the Philistines? In their faithlessness the only answer they could give was in “new political arrangements.” That is why they were wanting to copy the political arrangements of the nations around them. These, they thought, would mean secure and stable leadership. Look at verses 19-22:

“19But the people refused to listen to Samuel [after Samuel followed God’s advice and told them in verses 11-18 what a wrong king would look like – a tyrant or dictator who would make huge demands on the people and from whose slavery they would seek to be freed], [But the people refused to listen to Samuel]. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. 20Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’” 21When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. 22The LORD answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’”

Yes! Kings and political leaders with power are good at uniting people against opponents and leading in battles (of all sorts). But once the opponents are defeated what is the king then uniting his people for? Answer – frequently for his own self-aggrandizement.

A king – or any other sort of political arrangement, be it monarchical, aristocratic or democratic – will end up self-seeking if there are no divine transcendent standards and then obedience. Yes, with structured government no longer will it be “everyone doing as he sees fit” as happened under the period of the judges. An established monarchy will bring order. But what sort of order – God’s or a tyrannical king’s order? Colonel Gaddafi can bring order. But clearly many in Libya, and around the world, do not want that sort of order.

However, God, as we read in chapter 8, is allowing his people to appoint a tyrannical king. But as you read on in 1 Samuel, you will discover Saul’s, the first King’s, reign was largely a disaster. It seems God was teaching his people a lesson before the right king was appointed, namely King David – “a man after his own heart” as 1 Samuel 13.14 says. That brings us …

thirdly, to the FOOLISH FAITHLESSNESS of the elders.

Let’s examine what was happening with these elders.

First, the elders of Israel – the people’s leaders – seem to have decided on having a king, come what may. It looks as though they were hunting for a pretext for this decision. And they found it in Samuel’s sons. Verse 1 tells you that Samuel’s sons were judges in Beersheba and had a bad reputation. So the elders said to Samuel, verse 5,

"You are old, and your sons [in Beersheba] do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."

Beersheba, you must realise, was a frontier town whose affairs were in no way of central importance in Israel. It was as if a Prime Minister in London had a couple of sons as Mayor and Town Clerk of Berwick on Tweed. And they were involved in some scandals and dishonesty over planning permissions in a rural Northumberland village from which they benefited. And, yes, you should discipline such offenders. But because of that sort of thing, you would never change the British Constitution, however dysfunctional it might seem, to copy something like Stalinist Russia! For the kings of some of these “other nations” were pretty ruthless.

Secondly, why did these elders so want a king? Presumably because they were frightened of the Philistines. And they thought changing their political system and structure would bring security. But how wrong that argument was and still is.

In any organisation, I never tire of telling people – be it a school, a business, a hospital, a church, a nation or any corporate collective – you need first, an agreed agenda, secondly, competent leadership, thirdly, sound structures and fourthly, client sensitivity. But number one is an agreed agenda, which for God’s people and for all people, has to include God’s moral order. Leadership and structures – such as the leadership and structures of kingship - are necessary and valuable once you have an “agreed agenda”. And for Israel, God’s people, that agenda has to be God’s people living in God’s way. But where there is no agreement as to what you are wanting to do or achieve, leadership and structural changes will get you nowhere. And that is why now was not the right time to establish kingship.

Thirdly, no longer trusting God, you can understand why it seemed right to these elders to seek change. Other people like the Philistines and the many city states of Canaan had kings, and often seemed successful. So why should the people of Israel not “go with the flow”? But beware! The power of the crowd is always very strong. The Bible says,

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov 13.12).

Who tonight knows the truth of that? And who tonight knows that when you drift from God, guidance for difficult situations becomes a problem and you take foolish decisions as these elders were taking.

When you trust God, however, there is the promise in James 1.5:

“If any of you lacks wisdom [practical wisdom], he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

And James goes on to imply you are to pray genuinely open-to-God and not with your mind already made up. It is noticeable how we read in 1 Samuel 8.6 that the first thing Samuel did in his problem situation was to pray. But we don’t read that the elders prayed at all.

Fourthly, the elders were very foolish. Reason would say, “don’t at this point appoint a king as the king will not turn out well.” Look at verses 17-20:

“17He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day’.

But verse 19 says …

“19…the people refused to listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We want a king over us. 20Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles."

The opposite of faith is not reason, as the Dawkins of this world unreasonably say, but sight. So the opposite of reason is not faith but folly, which faithlessness in the true God always is. So…

Fourthly, and finally, LESSONS FOR TODAY

There are lessons in chapter 8 for individuals, churches and the wider community.

The main lesson for individuals is the folly of ignoring God. And now, since Christ and the evidence from his life, death, Resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit, the folly is even greater than in Samuel’s day.

Who needs to learn that lesson tonight?

The main lesson for churches is against thinking problems are solved by organisational and structural change, when what is needed is the biblical gospel of Christ first shaping the agreed agenda.

And the lesson for the wider world is surely this. Systems of national Government will not work when people do not have a shared vision of the good life. It is easy to unite under an Israelite king against the Philistines, or under a US President, a British Prime Minister against someone like Saddam Hussein to achieve freedom and democracy. But what then? You need not only freedom from what is bad, but freedom for a truly good life.

Take Iraq. It is now a democracy with free and fair elections. But freedom to vote does not mean security. Currently around 300 people a month are killed in sectarian violence. On average there are two fatal bombings every day. And it is reported that the firebrand Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, hated by Western Governments but popular with his people in Iraq, has won 39 seats in Parliament while still maintaining his private army.

It may be unpalatable to some but Western style democracy and freedom require Christian values with the acceptance of God and Caesar and not only God or only Caesar.

So the good life needs to be the good life as shaped not by Rupert Murdoch, the BBC, Richard Dawkins, Osama bin Laden or post-modern gurus who deny there is such a thing as the “good life”. Rather, it needs to be shaped in line with the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit through God’s word “thoroughly equips” God’s people “for [their public] good works”.

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