1 Sam. 8:4-11, 16-20
4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord.
7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them and operate.”
10 Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. 11 “This is how the king will rule over you and operate,” Samuel said:
“He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot.
16 He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! 18 When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”
“No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles” – so ends our reading for today with it sad and tragic rationale: “so we can be like all the other nations” (v.20).
In Deut.17:14-20 Moses laid down the laws to rule the king when the time came that Israel had such a figure. I like to call this the “God takes all the fun out of being king” text. A faithful king will act nothing that the kings the people lusted after here in Samuel. No riches, harems, armies, or foreign alliances, the king was to read the Torah every day, and enact gentle and wise governance for all his people. The kings the people wanted would do the opposite of all this and reinstate all the perks of kingship and oppress the people for their own interests till finally the people themselves would cry out for relief! But the Lord would not hear them, for they had rejected the Lord as their king in their misguided desire to “be like all the other nations.”
God calls his people to live differently than the world around them. Not to form a whole different culture separate from the larger society (a la the Amish, whom I otherwise deeply respect in many ways) but to live differently within that society as a subversive witness to ways God’s design for humanity calls into question many of the patterns and structures the fallen humanity have made for itself.
The second century letter to Diognetus describes the early church this way:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as
sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.” (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/diognetus.html)
God’s people are to be as different from the world in which they live as Israel’s kings were to be from their royal peers in surrounding countries. Yet, Israel desired a king like all the others because in their hearts they wanted to be a people like all the others. And, all too often, we do too.
Finally, God gave his people a “Deuteronomy 17-type” King, Jesus Messiah. He taught and lived an “in the world but not of the world” way of life that generated communities of faith like those commended to Diognetus. May we embrace the will and way of our true king, Jesus, that he may remake us into a “Diognetus-like” people who can bear both faithful and fruitful witness to him and the true humanity he has established and equipped through his death and resurrection to be his ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor.5:20). Amen.