1 Samuel 8:4-20 – Choosing a king to be like other nations
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
This reading also addresses the verses from 1 Samuel 11:14-15:
All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but 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. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of 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 orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.
This is one of two optional Old Testament reading selections from the Episcopal Lectionary for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B 2018. In the numbering system that lists each Sunday in an ordinal fashion, this Sunday is referred to as Proper 5. If chosen, this selection will next be read aloud in church by a reader on Sunday, June 10, 2018. It is important as it places focus on the human reluctance to connect to God directly, preferring to look to others to make that connection as their surrogates.
When we read, “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations,”’ two important aspects of priesthood are shown. Those two are not strengths of devotion, but weaknesses that had long been the reflection of the Israelites’ commitment to their agreement with the Lord. This then leads to a third recognition of priestly flaws, which caused the elders to demand a king.
First, by understanding that God chose the Israelites to become His priests, where each had sworn an oath to God (the Covenant), this transformation was not an “overnight success.” The symbolism of “all the elders” being gathered is a statement of length of service being the standard merit given to leaders of clans, or the twelve tribes of Israel. Because each tribe sent its oldest as those who spoke for the whole tribe, the element of individual responsibility was negated. The elders were not necessarily the most devoted to God, as His subservient priests, thereby becoming a potential weakest link.
When Samuel anointed young David to be the second King of Israel, it was after his seven older brothers had been taken before Samuel. Jesse, as well as Samuel, must have thought God sought the most handsome and most physically developed presented before an important prophet. David was not summoned to appear by his father, Jesse, as he was the youngest and was left to tend the sheep. That omission shows how youth was typically seen as a drawback to leadership, rather than an asset. However, God choosing David showed how purity is more important than looks and strength.
Second, when the elders made the claim, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways,” this is a statement that holy men did not pass on righteousness to their offspring. This was a statement made when Adam gave rise to Cain and Abel, where Cain did not share his father’s devotion to the Father. Adam, as the progenitor of the holy line of priests that are identified in the Holy Bible, began the true vine that led to Jesus and his Apostles. In between were many, many dead branches.
The commonality shared by the main characters found in the Biblical books is their spirits represented individuals who connect to God, not their immediate parents or direct heritage. Samuel was trained by Eli, who also had two sons who did not follow in Eli’s ways, although both professed to be priests to Yahweh. The same being said of Samuel would then be repeated in the sons of David and Solomon, whose offspring were unable to lead a nation of priests properly. This can then be seen as a need for each individual to have God as his or her King, with only a teacher that leads one to that connection being the outer influence. A teacher leads one to independence from the whole (groupthink), to help the whole; whereas a king commands obedient subservience, with no individuality recognized (beyond the royal family), as all are insignificant parts of the whole.
This is then the unclear third flaw being stated, where Samuel was the teacher of all of Israel. It was to him (not God) that all Israelites bowed down in reverence. The whole of Israel would trust in Samuel’s commands, just as the Israelites under Moses trusted his commandments. Whereas Moses would leave the tent of meeting with his face aglow, having faced God’s presence, Samuel did not have that physical attribute of God on his face, as he was not a seer.
Those teachers were most holy, but the Israelites saw them as like kings, who led them by speaking to God. Therefore, when the elders demanded of Samuel, “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations,” they wanted a ruler like Samuel and Moses (teachers of God’s guidance). However, in their minds they sought an upgrade, as one who spoke to God but was all-powerful (like Pharaoh in Egypt).
Their naivety, even as elders of the people, was in thinking they knew what other nations had. As priests of YAHWEH, God was their King; and each Israelite must be subservient to His Will, with the elders teaching that need. Because Samuel was old, his time was limited. Because Samuel’s sons were flawed, they were like the elders in the sense they were all disconnected from God. When the leaders are disconnected, then the individual Israelites were too. They all suffered from a lack of commitment to their Covenant to their true King – I Am. The Book of Judges tells how they were human backsliders, until their misery and lamentations led them to realize their mistakes, repent and call upon God for salvation.
When we read that Samuel was displeased at hearing this request from the elders, it was not his displeasure from being told his sons were not good enough to guide Israel. Samuel knew his sons were a reflection of all the Israelites, where most people followed their individual material lusts, rather than seeking to know God personally. Samuel was displeased because the people were rejecting God by that request for a human king. This is why, “Samuel prayed to the Lord” for guidance; something the Israelite elders (and those of their tribes) had failed to do.
We then read the response of the Lord, who said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” By “listening to the voice of the people” Samuel could know their hearts and minds. Their words then exposed the truth about their motivations. While the elders had rejected Samuel’s sons as inheritors of his position as high priest and prophet, they adored Samuel and his works. Because the people were requesting that Samuel give them a king, to be like other nations, they were going to their surrogate “king.” Making this demand of Samuel meant the Israelite elders totally rejecting the concept of God, not once thinking Samuel was led by God. Had they believed that, then they would have listened to what Samuel said in reply.
The elders asked Samuel to “appoint,” as if he had the power to name a successor. The Hebrew word written her is “shaphat” (לְשָׁפְטֵ֑נוּ – “lə·šā·p̄ə·ṭê·nū”), which actually asked Samuel to decree as a judge (meaning “to judge, govern”). While judges had done okay for forty years here and forty years there, in between was always forty years of threats from other non-Israelite tribes and forty years of being forced to suffer. Like a king names his successor ahead of time, the Israelite elders wanted Samuel to do the same, as a judge of Israel.
The big brain powers of reason figured that a king would bring the stability of an all-powerful ruler, who would train his sons to replace him when he died. Again, this was the Egyptian model, not the model Moses taught the first Israelites; and it was breaking the first Commandment, not to place anyone higher in their minds than God. When God told Samuel, “They have rejected me from being king over them,” God saw them placing a human above God. That was a sign that the Israelites were memorizing words but not putting those memorized words into practice.
God then told Samuel, “Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” The word “hā·‘êḏ tā·‘îḏ” (“הָעֵ֤ד תָּעִיד֙” – from “uwd uwd”), where “solemnly warn” or “admonish solemnly” says to make sure the Israelites know exactly what they are asking for. The people of other nations do not worship the One God, Yahweh, because the people of other nations were promised nothing to them, through their patriarchs. The relationship of being God’s chosen children was requested to be severed, with the Covenant made null and void. God told Samuel that this must be made clear the Israelites, as the expectations that come from being like the people of other nations had to be known.
After Samuel prayed to God, he went to the Israelite leaders and said as God had told him. Samuel said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of 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 orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
At no time did Samuel say, “The Lord said,” as if Samuel was speaking as a messenger that did not believe the words he spoke. Samuel did not end that series of statements of truth by saying, “His words, not mine.” By not saying God told him this to tell the Israelites, he fully believed it; and his old age meant Samuel had encountered the reality of everything he said, from meeting others of other nations, who followed lesser gods. Samuel knew full well that God does not speak favorably of those who are “like other nations.”
The sour and bitter flavor of Samuel’s promise is that a king demands slavery. Every subject to a king is expected to do as the king says, whether that benefits the subject or not. The same conditions of a hard life cannot be avoided by having a human king or by remaining loyal to Yahweh as King. The earth is a place where the common people will always suffer. However, when God is one’s King there is a greater reward awaiting after this life; with a human king the only reward is reincarnation, coming back into a world of hurt.
The Israelite people thought their Covenant with God meant the reward of physical land, rather than a Spiritual Kingdom (Heaven). They had already received that reward and were suffering in the Promised Land of Canaan. Even though Samuel was their judge, who called upon God to save the people from the oppression of their neighbors, the Israelites could not feel free to take more and feel guilty less.
The Israelites, due to their Covenant with “I Am,” were not allowed to be fearful of their neighbors or their enemies, as would be under a human king. Humans are advised by fear, thus more prone to plan defenses and attacks. Human thought focuses on military strength, with the building of armies and storage of weaponry,. Once levels of strength are met, those mind begin plotting preemptive strikes as acts that project fear into those nearby – something God frowns on. The error of reason is violent strikes out only begin a reciprocal cycle of retaliation and retribution (violent strikes in), so the fear never ceases.
With God as one’s King, the enemy will fear the Lord of Israel, who destroys foreign kings and their armies, citizens, and livestock, as punishment for having acted out of fear of prosperous, peaceful people. The prophets of the One God expose the stupidity of the priests of dead gods. Unfortunately, the Israelites always had a hard time being good priests to the God they said they served. The Israelites feared losing the prosperity they had gained under Samuel, more than the hard work that earned it. So, they sought a human king that would protect them before loss, rather than afterwards.
That is why the elders heard the words of Samuel and replied, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
The leaders of the tribes knew they (personally, as leaders) would be called upon by a human king, one approved by their will, less than would the common members of the tribes they led. The leaders had wealth and power in their possession and did not want to risk losing it because of an unseen God and a aged holy man judge, who had no holy heir. The history of Israel was predicting a coming period of loss and lament, which the wealthy sought to prevent.
This is one of many examples of the Big Brain Syndrome, where thought, philosophy, and cunning (all based on fears) override faith, trust, and beliefs. It is the basis of the principle that says, “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.” It is a reflection of the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
The jump in this story is then found in 1 Samuel 11, where the elders go with Samuel to Gilgal. There, Saul would be made King of Israel, and “all the Israelites greatly rejoiced.” That story did not turn out very well for Saul or his sons, as the Israelites were plagued by the Philistines and a giant named Goliath. Saul begged Samuel to bail him out of the messes he caused, but God would not listen to the prayers of people led by a human king.
As a reading selected (optional) for the third Sunday after Pentecost, when one’s personal ministry for God, as the rebirth of Jesus Christ within oneself, the message becomes clear. It forces one to question self. Am I a totally committed servant, like Samuel? Or, Am I a fearful human being who seeks a leader that will help protect my wealth, power, and influence, at the expense of others?
The message of this reading is a perfect match for the American lifestyles found today, where the political divisions in this nation call out to human beings that will promise the world, while delivering nothing. Every four years Gilgal becomes Washington, a city in the District of Columbia. The crowning of Saul becomes whatever human is sworn in as President of the United States of America. The celebration of the Israelites turns into the galas that the winning elite attend, rejoicing in their candidate’s victory. It does not matter who wins, as the same empty promises will always be the end result.
Just as Saul was killed and Israel eventually became a divided house that collapsed, so too with the United States of America fall into ruin and captivity. The model is the same for all who choose to be led like nations, rather than as individual servants living together, who all devoutly serve Yahweh. The lamentations of the people forced by kings into abject servitude and slavery are not limited to those sent into exile in Babylon. The question now, where the U.S.A. is divided between the Red states and the Blue states, the Democrats and the Republicans, the Clintons and the Trumps, is whether or not one’s faith has been handed over to kings that are liars and cheats, or given completely to the Lord, through Christ.
God is telling Americans the same lessons of service to kings that Samuel told the Israelites. It can be summed up simply as: “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”
For the lazy that expect the government to provide everything to them, a bed and rest might seem like a good freebie to look forward to. Unfortunately, this is symbolic of the “bed of rest” that is a grave to be buried in. By choosing not to serve God (look at the courts that strike down all laws from a Judeo-Christian foundation), Americans (as well as all nations with kings like ours) Americans have chosen death and reincarnation back into the same world of hurt that humans command. Nothing will get better and no changes will come, no matter how hard the church-goers pray aloud:
“For our President, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.”
God is not listening when one chooses to serve a leader, to be like other nations, when “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.”
In the same vein of thought, the accompanying Gospel selection for this Sunday has Jesus with his disciples inside a house, eating a meal and escaping a maddened crowd. People are shouting insults at Jesus, saying he is insane and possessed by Beelzebub. Worried, the mother of Jesus and his brothers come, calling for Jesus to come out. Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
We are who we choose to follow. We choose the crowd or we choose God. It is a decision that each individual must make, because when each one reaches the end of this life on earth, then no other soul but our own will be judged. There will be no safety in numbers when that day comes.