1 Samuel 8:4-20
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.”
10Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12Some 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. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 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. ”
19But 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.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”
How, indeed, does one get to be king? My parents, like many parents, used to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, if I just put my mind to it. So when I was about ten years old, I told them I wanted to be the King of Belgium. We were living in Belgium at the time, thanks to the military, and I had been studying the Belgian royal family in school. Needless to say, my parents had to revise their statement just a bit. One does not simply become the King of Belgium by putting one’s mind to it.
For the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at one of the most famous Kings in the biblical narrative: King David, who is described by the Bible as a man after God’s own heart. According to the books of Samuel and Chronicles, David united the people of Israel and Judah, defeated all of Israel’s enemies, and reigned for 40 years, ushering in an era of great prosperity and peace.
These days, many biblical scholars and most archaeologists doubt that all the amazing feats ascribed to David in the Bible could have actually happened exactly as written. In many ways, David is to Israel what King Arthur is to Great Britain–a figure whose historical origins are shrouded in mystery, but whose legend and influence grew with each retelling. One thing, however is a certain historical fact: The story and image of King David eventually became the standard by which all kings, priests, and leaders of Israel were measured (and usually found wanting).
In this sermon series we’re not actually going to focus on David as King–we’re going to look at everything in his story that leads up to that point, the “rise” of King David from shepherd boy to court musician, to legendary giant-slayer, to outlaw and mercenary, to undisputed leader of both Israel and Judah. If you take the David story as historical fact, then these are the events in his life that forged him into a great leader. And even if you don’t, these stories at least form a record of what the people of ancient Israel thought “should” go into the making of a leader.
We begin several years before David arrives on the scene, perhaps before he’s even born. Though David is not part of today’s scripture, it’s still an important part of his story, because it lays the foundation for how there came to be a king in Israel. In 1 Samuel 8, the elders of Israel are gathered at Ramah to make a demand of the prophet Samuel: Give us a King.
I’m especially intrigued by their arguments, because I think there’s a lot we can identify with, even today. We parted company with the monarchy two hundred years ago, but we still long for leadership–in our government, in our businesses, our churches, our social circles, and our families.
1. Stability: We read in the first half of verse five that the elders say to Samuel, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways.” Up to this point, leadership in Israel consists of an ad hoc combination of Judges and Prophets who rise up to rally the tribes when there is an extreme need or a threat. This is the age of great heroes like Gideon, Deborah, and Samson. But after the crisis is averted, the leader goes home. And in those in-between times, chaos prevails, while the enemies of Israel get stronger. Samuel is the last of the prophets, and he’s getting old. His sons don’t show much promise. The Israelites are tired of playing this game, of wondering where and when the next leader will emerge. So they make a classic bargain (one we should recognize): They decide to sacrifice some of their freedom in exchange for security and stability.
2. Parity: In the second half of verse five, we get the next reason: “Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” This is basically the familiar argument that “everybody else is doing it” and we want to keep up with our neighbors; we want to be competitive. What the scriptures don’t tell us (but archaeological studies of 10th Century BCE Israel do) is that all of those other nations with kings are a lot larger, a lot more established, and a lot wealthier than the tiny tribes of Israel. Much of Samuel’s argument is an economic one–you can’t afford a king. Ironically, the Hebrew word for King is מֶ֫לֶךְ (Melek). It comes from the same root as Molok, name of an ancient Ammonite Deity to whom children were sacrificed. Samuel makes the argument that they will indeed sacrifice their sons and daughters to the court and the army of the Melek/Molok.
3. Apathy. After Samuel finishes warning them of the high cost of a king, they persist, saying, “No! 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.” This is where the truth really comes out. It’s too hard; we want someone to do the heavy lifting for us, to go out before us and fight our battles for us. You stick your neck out so we don’t have to. It is true that in warfare, politics, and business, the king (the leader) makes a great target, a great scapegoat. It is true that we often choose leaders to do the very things we don’t want to do ourselves.
Samuel, and God, eventually relent and give the people exactly what they want. The first king he gives them is named Saul. That works for a little while, but Saul ultimately proves to be a disappointment, inconsistent on the battlefield, afflicted with paranoia and debilitating madness.
If Saul is the King of the people’s choosing, the next king (David) is a king of God’s choosing. And we’ll begin his story next week. For this week, suffice it to say that he does much better than Saul (though even David has his flaws and shortcomings).
Today I want to end with the story of another king. The video I’m about to show you is based on a parable written years ago by the Danish philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard. The parable is called “The King and the Maiden.”
By now you may have already figured out that in this parable, the king represents God in Jesus Christ, and the maiden represents humanity. Kierkegaard, in turn, was inspired by the words of Paul in Philippians 2, who wrote that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Give us a King: If we’re honest, Jesus is not the king we were asking for. He is not the king we wanted.
We want stability and security, but Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him. In the stormy waters, Jesus asks us to get out of the boat.
We want to be like everyone else, but Jesus tells us “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
We desperately want someone else to fight our battles, but Jesus calls us to fight on behalf of of the poor and the helpless: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” “If you love me, Peter, feed my sheep.”
Give us a King: Not the king we asked for, not the king we wanted, but the king we needed.