Samuel: Be Careful What You Wish For

 

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And 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.  As 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. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some 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.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “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.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Samuel marks the transition from the time of the judges to the time of the kings. In the Christian Bible, it is divided into two shorter books. First Samuel begins with stories about Samuel, a priest who could be considered the last of the judges, and ends with the death of Saul, Israel’s first king. Second Samuel covers most of the reign of King David, arguably Israel’s greatest king.What’s interesting about the stories in the book of Samuel is how realistic they are. Saul and David are both portrayed “warts and all”, and they both had plenty of warts.

Although Saul starts out as a charismatic and effective leader, his mental condition deteriorates and he becomes violent and unstable.  David is serving in court as Saul’s armor-bearer and music therapist, as well as being married to Saul’s daughter Michal and best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan.  One minute he’s a pretty nice guy, and the next he is trying to pin David against the wall with his spear. David escapes with the help of Michal and Jonathan, and Saul seems to spend more time and effort chasing David around the country than fighting Israel’s enemies. He also kills people he suspects of helping David, and gives David’s wife to another man.  Finally, in desperation after he has completely lost control of the country, he consults a medium in order to conjure up dead Samuel for advice. That goes predictably badly for him, and he and his sons die in a losing battle with the Philistines soon after. I don’t think Saul was what the people had in mind when they asked God for a king “like all the other nations”.

David, for the most part, is a good king. He’s certainly more effective than Saul in terms of military success; he almost always behaves honestly and honorably; and he is very sincere in his faith in and commitment to God. When he’s wrong, he admits it and strives to make things right with God and others.  Unfortunately, he seems to have the same problem that many men who rise to positions of power today seem to have, and that’s an apparently uncontrollable urge to have multiple sexual partners. This, of course, turns out especially badly for Uriah the Hittite, but it also results in an incredibly dysfunctional royal family and eventually in civil war. The quality of kingly leadership will continue to mostly decline over the next few hundred years, as recorded in the book of Kings.  Ben Myers, who tweeted through the Bible, summarized the centuries from Saul to Zedekiah this way: 1. So you really want a monarchy, huh? Don’t say I didn’t warn you 2. I told you so.

The people of the twelve tribes of Israel were tired of being pushed around by neighboring tribes competing for the same resources. They thought the best way to stop that would be to have a king: a strong leader who could lead them to victorious conquest of all their enemies, and they could then live in peace and plenty “under their own vines and fig trees”. They didn’t think that a king would also appropriate their resources and use them to further his own agenda. They didn’t think that a king might have feet of clay, and make choices that would cause tremendous suffering among ordinary people. As we might say today, they didn’t think of all the dominoes that would fall, and in which directions..So why did God allow them to have a king in the first place?  What is the writer of Samuel trying to tell us?

Things weren’t going so swimmingly without central leadership in the time of the judges, as evidenced by the repeated “In those days, there was no king- every man did as he pleased” after some particularly horrible happening. Perhaps God, like a good teacher, has to “monitor and adjust” in his earthbound classroom. Perhaps even flawed kings are better than “every man for himself” anarchy. Perhaps God was willing to take a chance that at least some of  Israel’s kings might be more focused on serving others than furthering their own interests. I think that God gives us choice, and  it’s up to us to choose wisely. And I hope that’s good news.