We Need A King (October 20, 2019)
1 Samuel 8: 10-22; 2 Samuel 5:1-5
We Need A King
In 1859, a man named Joseph Norton in San Francisco declared himself the Emperor of the United States: Emperor Norton the First. He sent a letter at some point to Congress telling them to cease-and-desist with making laws, that he would take care of that from now on. The people of San Francisco really loved this. They would play along. They would follow him around. He would issue decree, and they would would go along with them; as much as it didn’t inconvenience them at least. They treated him like a king. And they profited off of it: quite a few shops selling touristy things of the “Emperor of the United States.” In 1880 he collapsed on a street corner and died before medical attention could be given. They held a funeral for the Emperor of the United States, and 10,000 people at least lined the streets of San Francisco to pay honor to this man. There is still a bridge that is named after Emperor Norton the First in San Francisco today.
Emperor Norton sat on the throne of the United States. He had told Congress that the people didn’t want Congress, they wanted an emperor. And the people of San Francisco, at least theory, go along for the ride. But who held the real power? Did that act actually change anything? Of course not. Emperor Norton could issue a decree, but he couldn’t really enforce it. Congress, however, could still enact their are laws and enforce them. The California government could still enact their laws and uphold them. The real power remained with them, in the same place it always been; even though this one man said “we need a king.”
Scripturally, we see something similar happening here. The people demand a king, and God agrees to give them a king, but the real power remains with God. God still has prophets to tell the king as well as the people what God wants them to do. And God still has some actions that God regularly takes for or against the people, Scripturally speaking. Nothing really changes. But what happens here in the story tells us a lot about the people of Israel at this time: the respect they had for God, and the ways in which they were acting and following God‘s commands. Or more to the point, not following God‘s commands.
This story comes at the very, very end of the period of the judges. The judges were those people that led, following in the line of Moses and Joshua. They were the people that God told what to do, and had appointed to lead the people in this regard. And they would gather together the people of Israel, and force out the oppressors of the people. And then they would rule the way that God told them to rule. And the people were supposed to follow them, the people were supposed to listen to the judges; whether to answer the summons, and to follow what they prescribed God as saying.
And that worked well in the beginning when you have judges like Deborah. But by the end of the book of Judges the people aren’t listening very much anymore. And that goes for not only the people, but also the judges: they’re not really listening that much anymore to God. Power is beginning to get to their heads, and they’re beginning to get corrupt. We see the end of book of Judges a corrupt priesthood unable to handle their children, and we see here Samuel the judge unable to curtail his children as well. Everything is becoming corrupt, and fewer and fewer tribes are even answering the call of the judges. Things are not going well; the people are not listening.
Samuel is not even using the title judge anymore. He really is the judge of Israel, that is he’s filling that same function, and he’s looked upon as the voice of God in the same way that those judges were. But he’s using a new term, he’s using the word “prophet.” Perhaps this is a way of recognizing that he doesn’t have the power that the judges once had. Still, he’s supposed to be the one with authority, he still supposed to be the one that the people are going to in order to get the direction from the king, which is God. These people don’t have a king on the throne. They have the Ark of the Covenant, which serves as a throne of their real king God, who instruct them through the use of these judges and prophets. Which is why when Samuel tells God that he regretfully can’t convince them not to have an earthly king, God says they have rejected me, not the judge; they rejected God, their real king, in favor of another king.
The people in this story come to Samuel and say “we need a king. We need a king like the other nations around us. Those nations have been beating us from time to time throughout these last several hundred years, they have a king, therefore that must be what does it. We need an actual human sitting on an actual throne here. Samuel, get us one.” And Samuel tries to say it’s not going to go the way they think, that this is not going to be good for them. This King is going to take their sons and daughters and put them to work outside of the family. He would make them soldiers, and make them workers. He’s going to tax them, and he’s going to oppress them, just like the other kings. The grass is not greener on the other side of the border.
Because that’s really what they’re doing: really they are in being envious, they are coveting what their neighbor has. And that breaks a commandment. Really, they are putting a king over God. This is a form of idolatry, breaking the first commandment. This is where the people have come: the Commandments were given by God so that it would go well for them in the land, they’ve not followed the Commandments, and it’s not going well for them in the land, and they’re blaming God for it. That seems relatable to a lot of our story. And the prophet is calling them back, trying to get them to realize what they’re doing and bring them back into the fold; to bring them home and get them listening again. But it’s not working. No matter how much Samuel tells them of all the bad things that king is going to do, how much he tells them that they’re going to cry out from their oppression from their own king asking for relief from God; it doesn’t change their mind. They are sure that they want what their neighbor has, and nothing will convince them otherwise.
It may sound to us like an exaggeration what Samuel is saying about these kings. And it should be. But just three kings from now, Solomon will enact almost all of what Samuel says, and everything that Samuel says will happen with at least one of the kings that come from this line. But it doesn’t matter where the real authority is, and how much power a human king would really have, or where that power would come from and be used; the people want to crown an emperor, a king. And ultimately Samuel relents and agrees to look for a king before sending them home.
A few months after that, God sends Samuel a man named Saul. And God tells Samuel to anoint him the king over Israel. In the beginning, Saul is good and honorable. But eventually success and power and authority go to Saul’s head, and he begins to revel in that power. And then he begins to be afraid that the power is going to be taken away. Saul turns away from God. And just as the people have rejected God in trying to put Saul on the throne, he eventually rejects God as well. And God recognizes this. So one of the last things that God has Samuel do before Samuel dies is to go to a young shepherd named Jesse and to anoint one of his sons King, a successor to Saul for God had rejected Saul.
And Samuel does it: he anoints David king over Israel. And a few months after that is the story of Goliath threatening the army of Saul. And Saul is afraid. And here comes this young shepherd boy named David. And David slays Goliath. And what begins to happen is the people begin to say “Saul has won his battles, but look at what David has done.” David is brought into the royal household and given command of armies. And he has more military successes. So Saul begins to be paranoid that the people are going to reject him like they rejected God; that there’s going to be some sort of coop. And he begins to try and kill David. You can see how far Saul has fallen.
Eventually Saul is killed in battle. And the tribe of Judah places their chosen son David on the throne of Judah while the other 11 Tribes place one of Saul’s sons on the throne. Until there is a coop, and that son is assassinated. And then the people of the other 11 tribes have little choice but to go to David. And they submit to David, and David becomes king of all of Israel. David will eventually conquer Jerusalem, and the monarchy is set up for the next few centuries.
During this time, the people still give lip service to the idea that God is in control. They still haul around the Ark of the Covenant. David still brings it up to Jerusalem and in places it in the Temple. They still parade it out for certain events. They give lip service to the idea that God still has a throne in Jerusalem. They have prophets that are supposed to have access to the king and give the king advice. The king rarely follows it, but the prophets are still there. They give lip service to the concept that God is still in control; but in reality they wanted themselves to be in control. They wanted one of their own to be on the throne of Jerusalem.
It was telling me that Samuel tells them all these horrible things that King is going to do, and then the first king they have does half of them at least, and when that King dies they don’t turn back to God and say, “we made a mistake, take us back.” Because they ultimately got what they wanted: they got someone in power that they could see and understand. It didn’t matter who really had power. Even Saul goes to God recognizing God is the one who has victory. They wanted a king, they wanted their Emperor Norton. And in Saul they got it.
It would ultimately take the exile to bring the people back to the real sense that God was in power, that God was in control, that God was the real king. And even that didn’t necessarily last. They still place the Maccabees on the throne. And they’re still looking for that descendent of David even when Jesus shows up. You remember the story where Jesus says “this is what the Messiah is going to have to do,” and Peter immediately said, “no, Jesus, this is what the Messiah is going to do.” And Jesus says, “get behind me Satan!” What Peter is saying is that the Messiah was supposed to be the “son of David;” the Messiah was supposed to come and re-establish the kingdom. The people even in that time we’re still looking for the next David, the next human king to put over the people. And not just Peter. It’s when the people recognize that that’s not what Jesus wants to do that they turn on him, and ultimately will crucify him. They wanted a king that they could see, something that would give them a semblance of there being a control in the world in spite of wherever the power might actually be.
Who is on the throne of our hearts and lives? We know what the church says: it’s supposed to be that God is on the throne of our hearts; the Spirit of God is on the throne of our hearts. But who really sits there? Have you crowned the spirit? Or have you crowned an Emperor Michael the first, or emperor Joseph the first, or or emperor “insert your name” the first. That is a real, striking question that I think we all really need to deal with. And none of us enjoy it. Who is on the throne? Who are we trying to say has power? I think we all want to say the Spirit is on the throne, because we know that that’s what we’re supposed to say; but are we listening to the Spirit the way were supposed to? Or are we listening to the Spirit the way the people listened to Samuel? It’s great when Samuel tells them what they want to hear, but when they don’t want to hear they just say, “no, we know better than you.” And what will it take to get us back? Will it take something like the exile?
This week, see who’s on the throne in your life. See where the Spirit is talking. Place the Spirit on the throne, and listen to all it has to say. If we do that; that’s where the grass is actually greener. That’s where it goes well for us. Amen.