The Government of the Lord
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 5, 2003
1 Samuel 8 Israel asks for a king
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.
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 walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead 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 do."
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 do: 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 menservants and maidservants and the best of your young men 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, and the Lord will not answer you on 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."
Then Samuel said to the men of Israel, "Everyone is to go back to his town."
John 18:33-37 Jesus the King
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"
"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
The Heavenly City #322 Authority and law
Authority comes from running the country according to its laws, and giving judgments from a sense of justice. Rulers who consider the law to be above themselves are wise. But those who think they are above the law are not wise. Rulers who consider the law to be above themselves place government in law, and the law rules them. They know that the law is justice, and that all true justice is divine. But rulers who consider themselves above the law think they themselves are the government. They either think that they are the law, or that the law, which is justice, comes from themselves. In this way, they claim for themselves something that is divine, to which they should be subject themselves.
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. (1 Samuel 8:6, 7)
Government as we know it is a human invention.
When God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he didn't create a king or a president to rule over them. When he preserved Noah and his family from the flood and sent them out to repopulate the earth, he didn't issue a Constitution for them to follow. When the Israelites had their great exodus from Egyptian slavery, God had called a single person--Moses--to lead them, with Aaron his brother as his aide. It was the idea of Jethro, Moses' father in law, to set up a hierarchy of judges who would handle all the easier questions, while sending the more difficult ones to Moses (Exodus 18:13-26). A good idea? Probably! But it was a human idea.
Of course, the Lord did set up the priesthood to be ritual and spiritual leaders for the people. But on the political side of the ledger, throughout the entire history of the Israelite people up to our story for today, the most the Lord had done was to call a particular person to lead some or all of the Israelites, for a shorter or longer time. Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, and a number of less familiar names all took their place as leaders in Israel one after another. The last of these leaders called by the Lord--and the first since Joshua to be recognized throughout the entire land of Israel--was Samuel.
Though Samuel grew up in the temple from the time he was weaned, he was not a priest. He had been devoted to the Lord by his mother Hannah in fulfillment of a vow she had made to the Lord when she had prayed for a son. Her prayer was answered, and she fulfilled her vow, and Samuel grew up under the tutelage of the priests at the temple in Shiloh. Especially, he grew up under the guidance of Eli, the chief priest.
In this way, Samuel was prepared by continual instruction in the law of the Lord, and by continual ritual and devotion to the Lord throughout his boyhood. Being a person of good character and high principles, and willing to listen to the Lord's guidance and follow it, Samuel grew to be recognized as the leader of the Israelites. Not king. Not president. Simply a leader who carried God's word and God's guidance to the people.
Unfortunately, Samuel's sons did not follow in his footsteps. They were dishonest and corrupt. When Samuel, probably blinded by a father's devotion, set them up as judges for Israel, the people rebelled against their rule. And they asked for a king.
Later in human history, a theory of the "divine right of kings" was developed. But here in 1 Samuel, it is made crystal clear that the very idea of having a king was not God's but ours. When Samuel, troubled by the people's rejection of him and his sons as leaders, came to the Lord, the Lord's first words sounded supportive of their request. "Listen to all that the people are saying to you," the Lord replied. However, this was not an approval, but a concession. He went on to say to Samuel, "It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king."
Then he told Samuel to warn the people about what a foolish idea this was, and all the ways that their king would progressively use, abuse, and finally enslave them. But the people would not listen. "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."
Up until this time, the Lord himself had been their king. The Lord himself had been their true leader, with the human leader simply being the conduit for God's leadership. But the people wanted to be just like everyone else. (Sound familiar?) They wanted a king like all the other nations, to lead them into battle. They wanted to take orders from a human being, and not from God.
Three kings later, the Lord's warnings through Samuel had already come to fruition. There was the briefly successful kingship of Saul that quickly disintegrated and ended in disaster. There was the militarily brilliant and successful kingship of David. And then David's son Solomon, basking in the glory and wealth that his father had won, let the power go to his head. He laid progressively heavier taxes on the people to support his burgeoning--and increasingly immoral and corrupt--government. (Sound familiar?)
When the fourth king, Solomon's son Rehoboam, promised to make the people's load even heavier and more burdensome than his father had, the northern tribes seceded, and appointed their own king. There was a succession of kings in both the north and the south, and the nation of Israel never recovered.
But their fate had already been sealed many years earlier, in our story from 1 Samuel, when they rejected God as their king, and insisted on being led by human judgment rather than by God's word. The Lord had warned them that having a king was not a good idea. But they insisted. They demanded a king. And though it took a few generations to play itself out, things turned out just as the Lord said they would. (No surprise there!)
The question naturally comes to mind: If God knew what a disaster it would be for the Israelites to have a king, why did he allow them to have one? One answer to this question is that it was clear that the people had already rejected the Lord as their leader, and if he had refused to grant them their demand, they would have gone ahead and chosen a king anyway in explicit violation of God's command, causing an even greater rift between the people and the Lord. And if they had chosen a king themselves, they probably would have gotten an even worse result than they did with God in on the plan. As things unfolded, God did at least have a hand in choosing who would be their king.
However, there is another, and perhaps deeper, reason why the Lord allowed them to have a king even though he knew it was not a good idea. And it applies just as much to us today as it did to the ancient Israelites.
As long as we are willing to humbly and innocently follow the will of the Lord, we are in good hands, and our lives, though sometimes difficult, can proceed on the path that the Lord has laid out for us--and all will flow toward our eternal good. But as soon as we start to think that perhaps we know better than God, then God can no longer lead and guide us the easy way. We have to learn the hard way, through learning from our mistakes.
In the case of the Israelites, since they wouldn't listen when God told them what a bad idea it was to have a king, they had to find that out for themselves. They had to try it their way, and learn by experience what they were not willing to hear from God's own mouth. Since they weren't willing to follow the divine instructions, they had to figure it out by trial and error.
As learning goes, trial and error is a fairly inefficient way to do it. It works much better to follow the instructions. In fact, even with the instructions, it can sometimes be tricky to get it right. I found that out the day after Christmas, when my son Chris asked me to help him build his new working model of an internal combustion engine. He did some parts of it himself, but other parts were more complicated. As it turned out, some parts were even a bit too complicated for me to get it right the first time around, and I ended out taking several sections back apart and reassembling them . . . the right way this time.
Now just imagine what it would have been like if I had opened up the box, taken one look at the instructions, and said, "Why should I bother with these?" (I bet that sounds familiar to some of you!) I don't like to think about how many times I would have had to take it apart and put it back together. And I bet that occasionally I would have been reduced to peeking at the instructions when I got things hopelessly mixed up.
This sounds a bit silly when we are talking about building model kits; but it is just about the way we tend to proceed when it comes to how we govern our affairs.
On the large scale, in the course of human history, hundreds, perhaps thousands of nations, empires, and regimes have risen and fallen. All have had their beginnings and their rise to power, after which followed bloating, excess, and corruption, followed by decline and overthrow. I suspect that the people every one of those nations and empires thought that theirs would be the exception. We probably think that our country will be the exception. But there haven't been any exceptions yet. Given time, all human nations and governments have met their eventual end. And we appear to be following the course of all the rest.
Turning to the individual level, how many of us have "read the instructions" first before we have gone about the business of our lives? How many of us listened to God's way right from the start, rather than trying it our own way first? How many of us have had to realize by hard experience that our way wasn't working? And how many of us have then gone on to try it several other ways, hoping we might eventually get it right? And how many of us then only grudgingly peeked at the Lord's instructions just enough to get ourselves out of the particular mess that we happen to have gotten ourselves into this time around?
As we look at the Bible story, we may shake our heads in disbelief at how often the people of the Bible were given clear instructions by the Lord, only to violate them and discover the hard way that the Lord was right all along. Many have even rejected the Bible as a book of divine instruction because so many of the people in it are so consistently stubborn, false, and wrongheaded. How could the Lord pick people like these to use as examples in the very Word of God? How could he have as his "chosen people" a crowd that so often rejected the government of the Lord in favor of human government?
The answer to that question lies in our own souls. The answer lies in our own lives. The story of the Bible is not the story of a people who lived thousands of years ago. It is the story of the unruly crowd of stubborn, false, and wrongheaded desires and attitudes that dwells within each one of us. It is the story of our own rejection of the Lord as our personal king, and our insistence on following human opinions and human values instead.
In the affairs of our nation, each of us is only one voice. But in our own personal affairs, ours is the one voice that counts. It is our choice whom we will have as our king. Will we insist on being the rulers of our own lives, and take the hard path of trial and error, and learning by painful experience? Or will we listen to the Lord first, do it the Lord's way first, and let the government of our lives rest on the divine shoulders of the only true, eternal king?