1 Samuel # 5. Kingship, Freedom and Responsibility
GOD IS KING OF HIS PEOPLE
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Please read 1 Samuel 8:1-22
The battle recorded in 1 Samuel chapter seven ended when Samuel when was in his twenties. Verses 13-17 summarize most of the rest of his life. He led Israel, listening to the Lord, and telling them what the Lord had to say, helping them to understand what it means to follow him, and encouraging them to actually do it. And the people seemed to respond to his leadership. After those first tumultuous twenty years or so, things went well for that generation. The Philistine threat was greatly reduced. There was peace and people seemed listen to the Lord. What began with a simple woman wanting to become a mother, had brought peace, joy and goodness to thousands and thousands of people.
As he aged, Samuel tried to groom his two sons to lead Israel as he had. But it looked like they were headed down the same path as Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli, who had been in charge when Samuel was very young. History seemed poised to repeat itself. Samuel’s sons were dishonest – they took bribes to settle disputes, instead of judging fairly.
People Samuel’s age and older probably remembered what it was like back in the days of Eli, and were afraid of going back to those dark times. So the people gathered and told Samuel they wanted him to find them a king. I love Samuel’s response. The same little boy that was ready to hear God, still wanted to hear him as an old man.
One bible version says, “the request displeased Samuel.” The Hebrew word for “displeased” actually means to “ruin or spoil.” So it could mean that Samuel was upset about it – it ruined his heart. Or maybe he thought that the Israelites were going to spoil a very good thing. I think that is the best way to translate it, considering what followed.
So the first part of Samuel’s response is that he thinks it is a bad idea. He has good reasons for thinking that, and history basically proved him right. But, while that is what he thinks, he doesn’t just come right back with that. Instead, the second part of his response is to pray about what the people have said. In other words, Samuel was a humble God-follower. He was old and wise. He was a proven and popular leader. But he did not assume that his own opinion was right. Instead, he asked God about it.
Samuel’s attitude is definitely one worth learning from. When we have to make decisions about something, or deal with others, too often I know I’m right, and when I know I’m right, I think I don’t have to ask the Lord about it. Now, I’m not talking about things that the bible is very clear about – like who Jesus is, or whether it is wrong to lie. But there are many situations where God hasn’t given us a set of rules or a manual, and instead, we are supposed to rely on him to reveal his will in various situations. Should you take the new job or not? Does the Lord think it’s a good idea for you to go that party? Should your let your kids go on the overnight trip? Does the Lord want you to talk to your co-worker about what the bible says in this situation?
What God said to Samuel is surprising, puzzling and (I think) extremely interesting. He said,
The LORD said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. (1 Sam 8:7)
So, let’s get this straight. He is saying, “Samuel, you have it right. When they ask for a king, they are rejecting me as king. This is a bad idea. So go ahead and help them get a king.”
I think there are several things going on here. First, Samuel may have felt that he had personally failed as a leader. After he led them for a lifetime as a prophet, the people of Israel said, “we don’t want a prophet anymore. We want a king.” So Samuel may have felt that he somehow failed to teach them or encourage them in their relationship with God. He may also have felt bad about the choices his sons had made. The Lord was saying first of all “No Samuel, it isn’t you. You haven’t failed. They aren’t rejecting you, they are rejecting me.”
Sometimes this is a word we need to hear from the Lord. Maybe you have a family member you’ve been praying with or for. Maybe there’s a friend who has sought your advice. And yet the relative or the friend has ultimately decided to ignore what you have shared with them. Your prayers don’t seem effective. That person is going her own way, and that way is to move farther away from the Lord. Perhaps the Lord wants to say to you right now, “My beloved child, that person has not rejected you. She is rejecting my will for her life. Don’t take it personally. Don’t feel that you are a failure. This is about Me, not you.”
I want to talk for a minute about what the Lord meant when he said the Israelites were rejecting Him as their king. Since the time of Abraham, the people of Israel were not ruled by kings. For four hundred years in Egypt, and another four-hundred after they came to the promised land, the people were supposed to live free, with God as their only king. They were supposed to answer to Him – above any earthly authority.
The problem is, it didn’t work very well. Most people didn’t want to live that way. I am fascinated by how similar this is to the basic political philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her life growing up on the American Frontier during the late 1800s. In Little Town on the Prairie she makes some observations that are surprisingly relevant to our text today. One year, the new town she was living in celebrated the fourth of July. As part of the celebration, they read aloud the Declaration of Independence. After that, the crowd sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” ending with this verse:
Long may our land be bright; With Freedom’s holy light. Protect us by Thy might; Great God our King.
The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.
She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought) when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.
Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God’s, author of Liberty — ” The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you the right to be free. (Little Town on the Prairie, page 76)
This is what God meant when he said to Samuel that the Israelites were not rejecting Samuel, but God himself. They were saying, “It is too hard to have to listen to what God says for ourselves. It is too much responsibility for us to do what is right. Give us a king to lead us. He can tell us what to do. He can listen to God and be responsible for what happens.”
There is a deeper truth here. Whenever we reject the Lord, we are actually rejecting freedom. We tend to think of it the other way around. We think God gives us rules to follow and that is the opposite of being free. I want the teenagers reading this to pay careful attention, because you are at an age where you crave freedom. True freedom only exists with true responsibility. What that means is, you can’t really be free unless you are also really responsible.
Think about it like this. Suppose you are sixteen years old, and you want the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want to. In other words, you want the freedom to drive your own car. In order to get that freedom, you must take on the responsibility of learning how to drive, and you must take on the responsibility of learning the traffic laws, and abiding by them, and maintaining your license, and maintaining your car and paying for gas. You get the idea? You can be free, but in order to be free, you must also be responsible. If you don’t want to be responsible enough to do these things, you won’t be free to drive either.
Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, we human beings want to be free without being responsible. It never works. The two things simply go together. What the Israelites finally admitted is that they would rather not be free, if it meant they actually had to be responsible for their own relationships with God. They were saying, “we don’t want to grow up spiritually. It’s too hard. We would rather give up our freedom, so that we don’t have to be responsible for ourselves.”
In verses 9-18, the Lord through Samuel, told the people that this was exactly the choice they were making. But they said that they still wanted a king.
I think we do the same thing when we rely too much on Christian leaders or religious rules that aren’t really in the Bible. I don’t want anyone to feel bad, but sometimes people in my church come to me and say, “pastor what should I do in this situation?”
My answer is usually something like this: “Get to know the Lord through reading the bible, prayer, sermons, worship and fellowship. Learn to hear for yourself what he has to say to you. Talk to him about it yourself.” That’s not to say that I never have any God-given insight for anyone. Hearing God through other believers is a valuable thing, a gift that the Lord sometimes gives us. But the truth is, we are all supposed to connect with the Lord on our own also.
These things require effort and personal responsibility. It’s easier just to have someone tell you what to do. Some people find it easier to have an extensive list of rules that can apply to every situation. That way you don’t have to actually deepen your relationship with God, to learn to hear him, to put in the time required to get close to him.
God’s response to the people is fascinating. What they want is a bad idea. They will ruin his plan for them to be free as they follow him. And yet, he says to Samuel, “Let them go ahead with it. In fact, help them pick a king.” Basically he said, “I’ll give you what you want, but it will frustrate you in the end. In the end it will just bring you back to the same place.”
This is one of those places in the Bible where we see clearly two things that seem contradictory, and yet they are both true. God gives everyone free will. He let the Israelites choose something that was not what he wanted for them. They truly had a choice, and they used it to choose against God’s plan. But then, once they made their free choice, God began to work his will in and through the circumstances that their choice created. They got to have their free choice. And yet God’s will was not ultimately thwarted, and he began to work. It is a reflection of Romans 8:28
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.
All things – even our own bad choices. God let the Israelites ruin his plan for a nation that lived free from tyranny and served only God. In fact, before he ever made the universe, he knew this would happen. He didn’t stop them. But he didn’t give up on them either. He continued to work with them.
Sometimes we are like the Israelites. We want what we want, even when someone (perhaps even the Lord) has warned us it is a bad idea. The Israelites experienced a lot of pain and heartache from their bad choices, but it did not separate them from the love of God. We may experience pain and heartache. But if we continue in faith, if we continue on in Jesus, God will work it out some way to our good.