1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20
In the Netflix hit show The Crown there is a wonderful scene in an early episode of season 1. In it, King George VI is preparing for his coronation ceremony with his young daughter, Princess Elizabeth. They’re doing a little informal rehearsal of the elaborate service and they’re interrupted by an aide before they can complete the ritual. George VI insists that they complete the practice ceremony. He turns to his daughter and says:
“You have to anoint me, otherwise, I can’t be King. Do you understand? When the holy oil touches me I am transformed. Brought into direct contact with the divine. Forever changed. Bound to God. It’s the most important part of the entire ceremony. So we had better practice it, hadn’t we, archbishop?”
That scene brought clarity into my American brain of what I had failed to recognize. In a coronation service, with the anointing of holy oil, there is the claim that this person is being set apart by God, chosen by God. The institution of monarchy was created by God so that God’s will could be executed on earth by human rulers. The system is top down, beginning with God.
This is a fairly prevalent idea concerning royalty and the people they serve. It’s a divine appointment. Even King Hammurabi of Babylon, who ruled eight centuries before King Saul and King David, has a relief carving on the famous Hammurabi Code where the king is standing before the god Marduk, who is seated on a throne, handing Hammurabi the royal scepter of power. In the Ancient Near East, and even in the current remnants of monarchy, the crown was created by God and given, descending, to humankind.
That may be how the rest of the world governed themselves, but God had other plans for the Israelites. From the time of Abraham, God has been guiding the people through elders, prophets, and tribal leaders. God used people like Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Samuel. There were judges like Deborah and Samson. God worked through these leaders to shape the people. And while it could be messy and disorganized at times without an absolute ruler on earth, God would forever by the monarch.
But, for some unknown reason, during the early Iron Age, the people of Israel wanted to be like everyone else. The peer pressure must have simply been too great. They clamored for a king, an earthly king in flesh and blood. They wanted to keep up with the Joneses, to be like everyone else. What we have here is kingship not instituted from above, from God, but demanded by the people from below. This isn’t a divine mandate; this is the will of the people.
Towards the end of Samuel’s life, when it was clear that his leadership was at an end, the elders of Israel said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways (they were corrupt); appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
The request makes Samuel angry. He starts talking to God, ranting about these whinny, ungrateful people. God, however, doesn’t lord divine kingship over the people and instead gives the people of Israel a choice. Let’s play Let’s Make a Deal.
In your hands right now you have the Almighty God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. This is the God who remained faithful in every single covenant, who has never abandoned you. This is the God who freed the people from Pharoah, who defeated the Egyptian army, led the people through the Red Sea and the wilderness, who gave you the Promised Land and helped carve out a home through countless battles.
That’s what you currently have, do you want to make a deal? Yes? Let’s see what’s behind the curtain.
Here we have an earthly king, who will reign over the people, take your sons for warfare and for the harvest, who will take your daughters to feed the war machine, who will take your choicest land and animals and crops and property for himself. You shall be his slaves. Congratulations and thank you for playing Let’s Make a Deal.
Imagine God’s disappointment and heartbreak over this decision. The people of God just cannot get out of their own way. Instead, they want their own way, even if it will be detrimental to their wellbeing. And God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love will make room for the people to live with their poor decisions. God let’s them make and live with their choices.
“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so 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 people refuse to listen, they demand a king, and they end up with Saul.
I’m in awe that God allows these things to happen. I’m in awe that God stands by us even after we make folly after folly. Generation after generation we are determined to make the same foolish choice…we’re no better than the people Samuel faces. And yet, God not only stands by as we poorly exercise our freedom to choose, but God will work with us, or perhaps even in spite of us.
It’s almost like God is a chef on the show Chopped and we are the people assembling the mystery bags of ingredients, and we’re really, really cruel. In the first bag, the Appetizer, we include the Forbidden Fruit from the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve took a few bites. For the main course there will be some rotten monarchy. And for the Desert Bag there will be the hard wood of the cross, where once again we will choose a human king over the divine. We have no king but Caesar.
For each course, with each mystery ingredient of our choosing, God manages to assemble a phenomenal plate for the judges with poise and grace. God takes every poor decision, every slight, every sin, and transforms them into a superb and life-giving dish.
We have the freedom of choice. We also have the obligation to endure the consequences of our actions. And while God may not save us from the repercussions of our actions, God will stand by with us until good can eventually come out of it.
Yes, the people of Israel choose a monarch, and at times the monarchy will be a complete and utter disaster—Samuel’s words will come true. But we also know that God acted during the 400 years of kingly activity. We know that God shows the power of grace, even guiding our bad decisions to produce good fruit. After all, this monarchy, even as it starts from the misguided will of the people, will be redeemed by God, centuries later, through the coming of Jesus Christ our King. AMEN