What Is It That Makes Us Want a King?
1 Samuel 8:4-20, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 10, 2018
On some Sundays, the story of ancient Israel’s demand for a king (which pops up as a lectionary selection this week) might seem irrelevant. But this week’s events prompted a good deal of reflection on kingship. In light of the claim that the chief executive cannot be prosecuted for anything, comedian Trevor Noah said, “We all remember when the founders were like, ‘You know what America needs? A king!’” The question posed by our scripture text is not the simple one of “Why would a man try to become a king?” The answer to that is, as Lord Acton said in the 19th century, “Everyone likes to get as much power as circumstances allow.” No, the deeper question that First Samuel asks is “Why do people want a king? Why do people accustomed to a ruler with limited power want a despot?”
The Bible is of two minds about kings. On the one hand, God is King; the king is put in place by God; God protects the king. The idea of king is a metaphor for God’s rule over the earth, and in theory the human king is the viceroy carrying out God’s justice.
On the other hand, there is an anti-monarchical school of writers in the Hebrew scriptures who think that kings usurp the rule of Yahweh over his people. They say that kings are warmongers and rob the people they are supposed to care for. This story comes from that latter viewpoint. If you place this story before the stories of Saul and David and all their successors, you are putting a big question mark over everything else that is said about kings. If you are writing in a time when a king is ruling the nation, this story is deeply subversive.
Were kings God’s idea? That is certainly the tradition in the ancient Near East—in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Assyria. Pictures on the Code of Hammurabi show the god Marduk sitting on the throne and handing the law code to the human king. There is a long history in Europe of the idea of “the divine right of kings,” based on the assumption that God instituted the monarchy as God’s divine will and that God chose who sits on the throne.
But here in First Samuel we have an account written by someone who is deeply cynical about kings. We call this reformer “the Deuteronomistic historian.” He was allied with the prophets rather than with the Temple sycophants who only said what the king wanted. Some of the writers of scripture, especially in the psalms, worked for the king. Like those who work in the White House, they always said that the ruler is great. Of course they did.
But there are other writers who doubt that the power of the king is really God’s will. We can’t be sure, but some biblical scholars think the anti-monarchical parts of the history were written after the exile, after the monarchy had collapsed. I tend to think that whenever this story was written, it is historical at its core in that it reveals the ever-present tension between obeying Yahweh and obeying a human ruler who claims his authority.
Was God’s original plan for Israel to have a king? Most of us know very little about Jewish history. We skip from Moses to David, but the book of Judges describes a situation they had for centuries: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his eyes” (Judges 21:21). I’ve heard sermons saying that situation was awful—relativism, and anarchy. But the Talmud calls the book of Judges “the Book of the Straight.” It was a good thing that the people were dedicated to following the Torah and didn’t need someone to tell them what to do. They didn’t need a king. When they needed guidance, they went to a judge. A judge was a combination of prophet and warrior, if the need arose. The problems the people had in those days were not with their leaders but with their enemies, including the peoples that had never been fully conquered in Joshua’s time.
How long did this period last? I used to think of the time of the judges as an interim period, like the time the U.S. operated by the Articles of Confederation, which had to be replaced by the Constitution. In my mind, you had this disorganized period of judges followed by the final form of government—the monarchy. But the fact is that the period of the judges lasted for centuries—at least 365 years—some say as many as 480 years. Israel under the judges kept that form of government far longer than we have kept constitutional representative democracy in this country.
There were 17 judges during that period—one of them female—and they were not hereditary. These leaders were raised up by God’s Spirit at the right time. Some were great, and some not so great. Jewish tradition says that each generation got the leadership it deserved.
But after 365 years (or more), the people began to demand a king. We Americans are so used to the narrative of the people demanding to be free of the king that this is hard to comprehend. But recent history has shown that there is no irreversible march of history toward freedom and democracy. Nations that were once democratic have turned to strongmen who function like kings—and in some cases they are literal, hereditary kings. Why would people do this, in ancient times or today? Apparently, there is something in human nature that wants a king. I find four reasons in First Samuel why the people want a king.
First, the people imagine that a king will be less corrupt than the alternative. The first verses of chapter 8 set up the story by saying that the judge Samuel gave a small territory in the far south of the country to his two sons to rule, and they “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” This is a problem addressed many times in the Bible, and in the laws of neighboring countries as well. Judges taking bribes was something God hated, but apparently it was a constant temptation. Think of all the members of the Cabinet today who have been accused of using their offices for personal gain—to take fancy trips, to buy expensive furniture, to get a job for your wife. Many countries have corrupt officials. Russia is often called a kleptocracy—rule by thieves. China is constantly trying to crack down on corruption in the provinces. Many African countries are notorious, and everyone knows you have to hand out bribes to get anything done.
Just like today, some people in Israel thought that if you gave one person great power as a king, he would have enough power to end corruption. A strongman would be able to “drain the swamp.” They did not understand the familiar proverb first written by Lord Acton in a letter to an Anglican bishop: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He also wrote, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” You would think we would have learned that. The only way to reduce corruption is to reduce the power of single individuals and establish a system of checks and balances, inspectors general, ethics committees, and special prosecutors. You have to begin from the assumption that most people will cheat if they can get away with it. Israel learned this soon enough. They had some good kings, but even the good kings often operated for their own gain and to satisfy their own appetites. When I was working at Columbia University, a famous historian of the US Presidency said in a talk that in his lifetime he had only known three Presidents or presidential candidates who did not cheat on their wives: Harry Truman, George Romney, and Jimmy Carter. I pointed out to him that he had named two Baptists and a Mormon. But the truth is that most politicians—and maybe most men—will do the selfish things they think they can get away with.
The second reason the people want a king is that they want to substitute human authority for God’s authority. Samuel hates the people’s request for a king instead of a judge, but the Lord says to him, “Don’t take it personally. They are not rejecting you; they are rejecting me. This is what I’ve been putting up with since the day I brought them out of Egypt. I was always supposed to be their King, but they go looking for a better deal from some other god or some other ruler.”
It’s not that the people are secular humanists, who don’t want God involved in their government. What they want is what other countries have—a king who uses God to carry out their national agenda instead of waiting for God to act and make his purposes clear. They want religion put to work for political purposes rather than just being wasted on worship and ethics.
In the time of the judges, the people had to wait for God to raise up a judge-prophet, and then wait for God to speak through him or her. The nation was conceived more like we conceive the church—as a community to whom God speaks. But instead of community, the people of Israel—or at least the elders who held most power already—preferred hierarchy. Let’s maintain social inequity and classes and ranks rather than a sense of being “the people of God” as one community. I suspect that there is a close link between this desire for hierarchy and power relationships and the importance given to patriarchy. Men tend to prefer command to community, and they prefer even the family to be a hierarchy. The king becomes a model for the husband, who is “king of his own castle,” as even Americans used to say.
The third reason the people want a king is that they think they are in a competition with other nations. In the beginning, Israel knew that it was not just one more nation. The term they used for Gentiles was “the nations.” They understood themselves to be something different, a covenant people created by the miraculous act of God in setting them free. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” not to be like them. But now the people come to Samuel demanding twice that they get a king, so they can be like the other nations. If Samuel was like my mother, he would have asked, “If the other nations jump off a cliff, are you going to jump off a cliff?” Why do you want to be like them rather than being distinctive, being true to your own values?
But there is this sick idea to which both Israel and the United States have succumbed: that history is a contest of nations, that the world is a zero-sum game, that the only way it can be is “us against them.” If they have nukes, we have to have nukes. If they have dictators, we need a dictator. Some historians have argued that during World War II our government’s power grew tremendously because there was a sense that to defeat the Fascists we had to become Fascist.
Is this the only way to think of the world? We’ve been locked into that worldview since 1941, but it was not always so. And there are so many nations that feel no need to claim they are the greatest nation on earth, no need to put troops in a hundred other countries to maintain an empire. They are content to carry out their own special mission given to them by God or by their culture’s traditions. I spent my childhood in another country that had once built an empire and claimed greatness only to be humbled in the most disastrous way. But who would claim that Japan is not a better country without an army and without grand ambitions?
The fourth reason the people want a king becomes clear at the end of the story, in verse 20: “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.” They want a king because they put their trust in military might rather than in the Lord. You get the feeling that this is what the demand for a king is all about: some people with money want a standing army to defend their wealth or take new territory. Israel never had a standing army, just as the United States did not in the time of the Constitution. The people who made ploughshares could also make swords if needed—like militia—but they did not pay for an army with generals; they had no investment in chariots and horses (the latest technology) like their neighboring countries. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Samuel warns the people what a king will do if they get one. The first thing is that he will draft your sons into a standing army with chariots and horses. He will take other sons to run his farms. He will take your daughters to cook and bake and make perfume. He will take your property. He will tax your grain, wine, and livestock. He will take your best slaves and cattle and donkeys. The end result of all this, Samuel says, is that “You yourselves will become his slaves.” You will undo what God did in setting you free from Pharaoh and making you a people. You will be trading freedom and justice for security. Is there any truth to the motto “In God we trust?” Or should we say, “In nukes we trust, in the President we trust, in the military-industrial complex we trust”? As one commentator on First Samuel puts it, we “grasp for security when the need is for justice.”
When Jesus came, what did he proclaim? “The kingdom of God,” we say, but it is not heaven or a place or a political takeover. Jesus proclaimed “the kingship of God”—the old truth that the true king of the world is God, and that we are to live under his authority. With God as our king—rather than any human authority—we live out God’s commands of justice and mercy and love of neighbor, turning the other cheek, giving freely, guarding the rights of aliens, doing the things that make for peace. This was the good news he announced: that God is both the true King and our heavenly Father who can always be trusted. This is the message we proclaim in Advent but not all year: “Let earth receive her King!...Joy to the world! The Savior reigns!...He rules the world with truth and grace.” Let us make the choice to live in that world, under that authority.