That probably broke his heart.
Can you imagine being Samuel. Your story begins before you are born. Your mother prays to God and she dedicates you to God. You don’t get a choice in the matter. Then you are raised by Eli, the priest of Shiloh. While you were still a boy, God spoke audibly to you. You have devoted your entire life to working for God. Your entire life’s work has been as a judge of Israel. And what happens at the end?
You sons take bribes. They are corrupt. Despite this you still try to establish them as the next judges, forgetting, of course, that judging Israel is not contingent upon bloodline. Murphy says, “It can be argued that Samuel himself has made his sons judges, obeying the logic of rule by inheritance rather than the logic of rule by charisma, as seen in the heroes of Judges, and his heirs are unworthy of the role.” (60)
Samuel must have been heart broken, after all those years he feels abandoned by those who he has been leading. What type of legacy is he leaving behind?
When Samuel comes to God, however, he is corrected. One the one hand, the elder are not wrong that Samuel’s sons are unfit to be judges, but they still reveal a betrayal. When they approach Samuel to reject his sons, they go a step further saying, “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
Their theological imagination is completely broken. From the time that Israel had been in Egypt, God had consistently led them. God was with them in the cloud and the pillar, at the parting of the sea, at mount Horeb, etc. When they needed to take Canan from the Philistines, God did miraculous things like Jericho. Once they had possessed the Land, God set up judges as they needed. All of these judges were reminded that they relied on God. Samson had to take a Nazarite vow. Gideon had to use a tiny army. God wanted the people to know that God was there king. God would provide and take care of them.
Scott McKnight puts it this way saying, ” From Adam and Abraham to Samuel… God rules the world through his elected people, but God is the one and only King.” (28) He explains that during this epoch, human beings are image bearers, and as such,”they are appointed to rule for God, or under God… there is no human king because a human king is, by definition, a usurper.” (29)
When we come to this passage, however, we realize that the people do not want to rule in place of God. They, like Adam and Eve are not content to be made in the image and likeness of God, they want to be like God. Israel is no longer content to “rule for God in this world but want to be like the world and rule like God.” (30) This is essentially what God tells Samuel: “they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.”
We ought to note, that God’s response to their rejection of God as King is not merely a rejection of rule, it is framed as idolatry. The rejection of God as King is akin to following other gods. God’s words come with a warning about how terrible a king will be for the people, for the king will no longer be one of the people who is raised up for a time. The king will be the ruler over the people. They King will be easily led astray and will do harm to the people.
Murphy has a keen insight into what the Israelites might have thought.
“Monarchies look impressive; the people want a king, ‘like the nations’ because the kings they could observe, like the Philistine lords, can tap immense collective resources. Samuel tries to impress upon the gullible people that it is they who will pay to make their state competitive.” The Israelites had been impressed by the army machines, the wealth and technology of their neighbors, and they wanted it. Forgetting that they are not to covet, they ask for a king so that their economic and national interests can be met. They forget that God had established a nation unlike any other. They alone, the Israelites, were those who wrestled with God. The division of land was contingent upon tribe. The ruling of the land was tribal, and as such, it was all familial. How would the year of Jubilee be possible if they established a King?
Despite God’s warning through Samuel, the people reject God as king. They have lost vision of the Kingdom of God in search for humanly kingdoms. For better or worse, God gave them what they asked for. The united monarchy lasted through three kings. The first two were chosen for their charisma, the third was the establishing of the dynasty, and the fourth led to civil war.
Perhaps we can write this event, like the fall, as a felix culpa. Though Israel rejected a King, it was through their later desire to return to a kingdom that we get the messianic prophesies. If you have been traveling through the lectionary this year, then you have already followed the story of King Jesus. You read what Gabriel said to Mary, that Jesus would sit on David’s throne and that his kingdom would never end. You have read that the men from the East came looking for the King of the Jews. You have read Jesus saying that He is a king. You have read that Pilat placed a sign on the cross which reads, “King of the Judeans.” On ascension you may have even read,
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Through all this we see how it is that Jesus comes to be king, the king who is ruling the world today. The God-man who meets people’s desire for a human king, but corrects them by placing God as King once again.
Having journeyed through the story of Jesus, we are now reminded of when Israel rejected God as king. This should cause us to pause and question, are we repeating the same mistake? Do we properly regard Jesus as King or have we lowered him to a bff or “Buddy Jesus.” Have we forgotten that the ever being slaughtered lamb is the King who demands total fealty and allegiance? Or have we pledged ourselves to some other cause?
The summer is often a time rife with idolatry. Families reject Jesus’ words from Mark about the true family being the church. Their faithfulness to Christ’s body wains. In the middle of the summer Americans are tempted to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler who has taken slaves, conscripted men for the military, committed acts of gruesome genocide all in the name of manifest destiny or American Exceptionalism. During the summer it is easy for people to choose some other god.
If they are persistent enough, then this story teaches us that God will allow them to follow those other Gods. The task for us preachers is to call people back to their king, to encourage them to forsake all others and swear their entire being to the one who has given himself entirely to us. May our loyalties lie only with the one who brings us abundant life.