Pentecost 3

 

1 Samuel 8:4-20

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of 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 orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’

You grow up fast in the lectionary. Last week Samuel was a boy and this week he is already an old man. Samuel restored the “Word of the Lord” to Israel which had been missing in the days of Eli, but Israel had other problems.

The Philistines were Israel’s main problem. The Philistines (the people from whom the name Palestine is drawn) were not indigenous to Israel but seem to have originated somewhere in Greece. They landed on the west coast of Israel almost simultaneously with Joshua’s band crossing the Jordan in the east. Who touched land first has been under review for 3000 years. {And you think sports replay reviews take a long time!)

In terms of the number of forces Israel and the Philistines were fairly evenly matched but the Philistines had one crucial advantage, iron. The Israelite former slaves in Egypt used Bronze Age weapons and the Philistines had iron which was a HUGE advantage. I guess the Israelites didn’t get a chance to improve their tech in the wilderness. With their technological advantage the Philistines posed a serious threat to Israel right as Israel was just beginning to establish themselves in the land.

So the Philistines defeated Israel in several key battles, captured the Ark of the Covenant, killed many Israelites including Eli’s sons which resulted in the death of Eli, and generally become THE existential threat to Israel.

When the going got tough Israel got going, away from God and Samuel. Poor Samuel found himself with two sons just like old Eli’s had been, greedy for personal gain. And the people were not confident God would raise up another prophet/judge like Samuel (certainly his sons were not candidates!) so they decided they wanted to be like other nations and have a king.

This brings us to the Old Testament lesson today. The elders of Israel got together and petitioned Samuel to appoint a king. The problem is that God was supposed to be Israel’s king. God had delivered the people from Egypt, protected them in the wilderness and brought them into the Promised Land. To be sure God lifted up leaders like Moses and Joshua and the Judges but these people were decidedly NOT kings, God was Israel’s king.

Israel did not have a human king by design. The human to exert absolute rule over Israel was Pharaoh. A return to such a system was, in essence, a return to Egypt.  Samuel laid out why Israel should be glad they didn’t have a king, a human king would be all about one thing, himself. A king would take their sons for his army and daughters for his bedroom. Everybody would work for the king, people and animals. But Israel is undeterred. They want a human king.

Samuel takes it hard but God gives him encouragement, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Sam 8:9)

So Israel will get their king, Saul was anointed as Israel’s first king. He is a disaster. He is arrogant, narcissistic and paranoid. Toward the end of his reign his judgment was deeply and disastrously impaired. Saul did everything Samuel warned the people a king would do and more. But the people wanted a “strong” leader like the other nations and in the process, rejected God’s reign over them.

It is amazing to me how “beaten down” God seems to have become by this point. The people blatantly rejected God’s reign over them in favor of an earthly king and God is like, “Whatever!” If God was a developing character in the story you might say God’s expectations were lowered by God’s experience of this people. But since God is eternally changeless this is an unsatisfying explanation. It seems God had always graded Israel on a curve.

The fact is Israel was scared, terrified of the Philistines and when people are afraid they will do some really irrational things. In this instance they rejected God’s leadership through Samuel and anointed a narcissistic, paranoid and incompetent king named Saul. 3000 years later we are still talking about what a disaster Saul was. Some bad choices leave very long lasting scares.

Was this on Jesus’ mind when he felt the sting of rejection? When you study the history of the people of God it is no mystery what will happen to a person like Jesus. This makes God’s persistence nothing short of miraculous. But I suppose this is what makes the gospel such a message of amazing grace.

Let’s chew on that!

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