“If You Give a People a King”
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
21 October 2012
If you give a mouse a cookie, as the story goes, your whole day will be ruined.
If you give a mouse a cookie, you’ll have to give him milk, and a bed, and paper and pen for a drawing, you’ll have to find nail trimmers so the mouse can cut his hair. He’ll make a mess trying to clean your house. And at the end of the day, you’ll be exhausted and have fed a mouse two cookies and two glasses of milk.
This treasured childhood book is a classic example of the worst case scenario game.
Do you know this game?
I know this game well. By rules of rhetoric, it is a game alternatively known as slippery slope thinking.
If I wake up in the morning with a slight tickle in the back of my throat. Still lying in bed, upon consulting WebMD on my phone, I spin out the scenario that I have strep throat, which will turn into some rare and barely-treatable infection, which means I will lose my ability to speak altogether and I will be dead by dinner.
When I was in school, every semester had many of these moments. The papers would pile up, exams would fall on the same day, feeding mine and my fellow students’ conspiracy theories, and there would be my job to go to. It was never going to get done, I would be convinced. I would not be able to finish all these assignments. I would get bad grades on the assignments. I would fail my classes for the semester. I would have to drop out of school. I would have to move back home with my parents, but what if they kicked me out? My sense of insurmountable circumstances left me with the inevitable fate of being hungry, cold and homeless.
We’ve been following along the story of Israel as it parallels the story of the Last Great Prophet-Leader, Samuel. To recap: Samuel grew up in the temple and heard God’s voice calling him distinctly as he lay in bed. He grew up to lead an increasingly-restless Israel. They came to him, unsatisfied with their own situation and jealous of the other nations. They did not ask, they demanded a King. Samuel’s response – and God’s response through Samuel – is not exactly what the people had hoped to hear. It seems that we have come to a point in our story where all the associated characters are, in many ways, playing out the worst-case scenario game.
The Israelites are insisting on a King. “If we don’t have a King,” they claim, “then we will be a sub-par nation. Other nations will be victorious over us. It will be the end of Israel.”
Meanwhile Samuel, consulting with God, warns them of all the awful, horrible things that will happen if they turn their backs on the Judges and Prophets God has ordained in order to follow a King. If they have a King, then the King will take the Israelites’ possessions, he will take their sons to battle, he will take their land and their harvest; their daughters and their wives. A king will take everything they have and the Israelites will be sorry.
As we all know the people didn’t listen. They countered with a resounding No, and a reinforced insistence that Samuel and God grant them a King. In the chapters between last week’s reading and this week’s, we learn that Saul has been chosen as Israel’s first King. By many accounts, Saul is the one that God chooses to be the King over God’s own people. So while we begin the story with slippery-slope, worst case scenario reports of impending doom all centered on the if’s-and-then’s of having a King, Samuel’s speech seems to indicate that maybe no one was exactly dead-on in their cataclysmic assessment.
Samuel’s farewell address is significant as it marks a distinct transition in the life of Israel. The people have been granted a King, and Samuel acknowledges his retirement with a speech in five movements.
First, he seeks exoneration. Samuel exerts his lack of corruption, reminding God’s people that he has done what they asked him to do. He reminds the Israelites that his leadership has played little-to-no direct role in their request for a King. He has not taken advantage of them. He has not taken anyone’s ox or donkey. He hasn’t defrauded or oppressed anyone. He has refused to accept bribes. He has been a good guy. Samuel asks the assembly gathered to correct him if his assertions are false. They do not disagree with him. They acknowledge that he has not defrauded or oppressed or robbed them of anything.
Second, Samuel reminds the people of God’s faithfulness and their own wandering loyalties by recounting the story of God delivering the people. Samuel reminds the assembly that God is a God of Exodus – throughout their own story the people have cried out and God heard their cries and delivered them. This time, though, Israel has changed the pattern. Instead of crying out and waiting for God’s deliverance, for God’s own timing, they upended the order of things by demanding what they have determined as the correct course of action – they demand that their deliverance ought to look like other nations: they need to be governed like other tribes, other peoples. They need a King.
Samuel continues to frame Israel’s story by God’s’ own faithfulness: God could have rejected them. God could have responded to the people’s rejection of God’s lordship by rejecting the people. But God doesn’t. Rather, God acknowledges their request and grants them a King. In this new future, though, to be sure, God will remain God. The people will remain in covenant with Yahweh. They will now be a covenantal monarchy. Samuel re-members the people into their own covenantal relationship with God by offering a litany of conditionals. “If,” he says, “you will fear The Lord and serve God and obey God’s voice, and not rebel against the commandment of The Lord…” “If,” he continues, “both you and the king who reigns over you will follow The Lord your God…” If they do all these things, THEN “all will be well.”
The conditionals continue with familiar covenantal warnings: “If,” Samuel warns, “you will not obey the voice of The Lord, but rebel against God’s own commandment, THEN,” Samuel asserts, “the hand of The Lord will be against you and your King.”
It is likely that the Israelites are quite familiar with these conditions of the covenant. What is notable is the inclusion of the King. This is God’s way of reminding the people that, okay, fine, they can have their King, since conformity in this way seems so important to them. But lest they think they are getting away with something, God remains LORD over all of them. The King must also obey the word of God, or else he will cause the nation of Israel to fall into God’s judgment. But if the King is faithful and obedient, then Israel will be well in God’s eyes.
The third movement of Samuel’s speech is a sign to the people. He asks, “Is it not wheat harvest today?” My guess is the people answered affirmatively but also fearfully of what might be coming next. Samuel offers a sign to them that serves as a sign of both God’s Lordship, but also the people’s sinfulness. The sign Israel observes is a thunderstorm amidst the wheat harvest.
Now, I am certainly no farmer, but my guess is that while rain is a welcome thing to help nourish crops, I do know that thunderstorms can be destructive and wheat can be a delicate crop, so while rain would be good, a strong thunderstorm might be a tipping point. This sign-giving, particularly at the hands of Samuel, the old prophet, and in his farewell address certainly seems to demonstrate with flair the ultimate sham that is Israel’s request of a King.
Walter Brueggemann explains it this way: “The relentless rhetoric of [Samuel’s speech] has rendered the king genuinely irrelevant to the life of Israel.” Samuel’s show of power through the thunderstorm substantiates the earlier theological claims regarding the covenant. “The king can matter in the life of Israel only by being obedient. The king has no other special role.” Ultimate authority remains with God, the covenant and the Torah established generations ago.
The fourth movement indicates the Israelites’ response to Samuel’s reminder, the covenantal conditionals, and the sign. The assembly gathered confess their sin before The Lord and request Intercession from Samuel: “Pray for your servants to The Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins by asking for a king.”
The final movement of his speech concludes with a pastoral tone, and reassurance from both Samuel and God. Samuel reassures the people that God is still in particular covenantal relationship with them. God will remain faithful to that covenant. Nothing they can do will cause God to turn and reject God’s own people – calling to mind the original promise in Genesis 9: God sets the rainbow in the sky as a reminder to God’s own self: “I establish my covenant with you…I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” It is a reminder of the covenant that gets made and renewed and remembered throughout Israel’s story.
Secondly, Samuel assures Israel that he will be faithful to Israel – because he cares for the nation and because he is one of them. He promises to remain faithful to them in prayer. His final words call Israel back into fidelity to God. They have their king now, but that is no excuse to forget to whom their utmost loyalties belong. They are God’s and God is theirs. God will not forget. Forbid it not that Israel will forget.
At the end of the speech, and at the end of the day, it seems what is done is done. Is having a King preferable to the “Old-Way”? It seems a qualified no. While at first it is clear that the choice initially is about rejecting the way God has been leading the Israelites, we know from what happens later, that even some of Israel’s kings were Godly men, who spoke with, followed and loved God from the core of who they were. Though were also some of the most disappointing leaders Israel had known.
Here Samuel is getting the last word in. And his final words in his last words are the most encouraging. This speech – this farewell address – is not so much about getting vengeance on the people, or even asserting who was right and who was wrong. Rather it is a grand reminder of identity – he reminds the people of who God is. Samuel reminds the Israelites who they are, and Samuel finally assures them that he has not forgotten his own identity as their prophet, leader and intercessor.
The story we have of Samuel’s leadership, the people’s rejection, and his faithfulness both to God and to the people, is ultimately a story of the painfulness of transitions. Here the people have chosen an alternate reality. And though it is not God’s way of doing things, God allows them their new way. The Israelite people got caught up in the possibility of change and conformity – but were distracted. Samuel himself felt personally caught up in this change because he interpreted the monarchical wish as a rejection of his leadership.
Though I may err on the side of turning this story into a fairy-tale, perhaps the moral of this story of transition is that an affirmation of old values can embrace new forms and realities. God’s insistence on remaining steadfast in his faithfulness and deliverance of the people illustrates that our moral reality can endure despite our changing institutions and social structures.
The story of Israel, as paralleled by the story of Samuel is that all futures belong to God.
The story of Israel’s demand for a King, and God’s own faithfulness through that is a call to us to remember our covenantal relationship with God. God’s faithfulness continues to be the point of the entire biblical story. Even as Paul assures the church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”
Israel was fearful. They were caught up in a game of worst-case scenarios and slippery-slope logic as they looked to a future. While they assumed that a new form of government – the most modern form of governance – would be an easy fix-it, Samuel’s words, remind the people that fear is a poor motivator and comparison is the thief of joy and faithfulness.
These days, I’m falling prey to the temptation of cynicism, and to the easy narratives of the Worst-Case Scenario. And it’s fairly understandable – campaign ads, presidential and vice presidential debates spin out the unseemly and frightening future if the other guy wins. If you believe both sides, no matter who wins, we are all going to wind up without any kind of retirement; we’ll be working for pennies, speaking another language. None of our marriages or family relationships will survive the next presidency. Crime rates, teenage pregnancy rates and gun violence rates will skyrocket. This is our impending and inevitable future, yes?
The reality is, when we are able to hear the chatter for what it is, we know it’s just chatter. But it’s so easy to believe that our eternal hope is wrapped up in our current political realities. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly believe that political conversation, structures and systems are important things to understand, to participate in, and to discuss. But none of them represents the totality of God’s kingdom.
In the midst of our own temptation to play into the worst-case-scenario, we likely also need to review and renew our own loyalties. Are we looking at our own situations through lenses of fear, personal interest or comparison? Or do we seek faithfulness and loyalty to the covenantal identity to which God has called us first?
The warning and reminder of Samuel are as real and relevant now as they were at the onset of Israel’s monarchy: “Those in our own time who are troubled by changes that threaten valued faith perspectives are right to call for care, lest we reject the reign of God for the sake of our own constructions of reality. But equal care must be exercised that we do not fail to discern what God is doing new in our midst and mindlessly hold on to the old and familiar.” We can choose to focus on the temporal future that shifts with every political term, or we can embrace the reality of God’s faithfulness, remembering that all futures are God’s futures. God has been present in steadfast love behind, and is already present with and ahead of us. May we walk alongside in faithfulness.
 First and Second Samuel: Interpretation Commentary, 95