The Peripatetic Preacher Choosing a Leader

The Peripatetic Preacher Choosing a Leader October 22, 2020

It is election time again, and we in the US are being asked to make a choice between two white men, both septuagenarians. This choice is perhaps peculiar, given the increasing number of “minority” persons in the nation (I live in Los Angeles County where Latino/as are in fact now in the majority, make my white, male, septuagenarian self the new minority), and the fact that the average age of the country is well below 70. Also, one running mate, the vice-presidential candidate, is a white male sexagenarian, while the other running mate is an African-American, East Indian/Latina woman in her 50’s, thus making her closer to the changing faces of our nation. The race has been contentious, to say the least, with barbs and attacks more common than reasoned discussion. Despite the shouting and passionate support for and against each of the candidates, there are sharp differences between the two teams. It is not my intention herein to rehearse those differences, but instead I propose to turn to the Bible, as I regularly do, to assess the choice we have in the light of the Scripture’s insights concerning how leadership of the people should be evaluated. I first turn to Ps.72, a psalm of the celebration of kingship in Israel, and then I will examine a story of a change of leadership recounted in the Bible, a change that had disastrous consequences for that nation.

Ps.72 is certainly a coronation poem. We have no way of knowing when the psalm may have been used at such an event, or even if it was ever used in that way, but enshrined in the poem is a summation of how a king must be evaluated if his rule is to be a successful one in Israel. (I use the male pronoun, because only one queen, Athalia, ever ruled in Israel, and her reign was recorded as relatively brief, ending in her murder. See 2 Kings 11 for details.) Ps.72 wastes no time in announcing what is expected from a king of Israel. “Give the king your justice, God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.” Immediately, a king of Israel is to be evaluated by the twin demands of the Israelite prophets, the necessity of the ruler to be known predominately by justice and righteousness. Kings are not merely to evidence military prowess, nor be uniquely handsome, or cleverly well-spoken, at least not centrally. Justice, that demand to treat all persons with equity, and righteousness, the basic trait that characterizes YHWH’s engagement with the people, are to be the hallmarks of the king. The emphasis on these two prominent traits is made clear as the objects of the king’s interest are named: the “poor,” and in vs.4 the “needy.” The requirements of proper kingship are rounded off with the call for him to “crush the oppressor.” Evidence of a good ruler is named at the beginning of the poem: continued concern for the employment of justice and righteousness in all his dealings, attention to the poor and needy in their employment, and a determined desire to deter those who would oppress any of the people, especially those on the margins of society.

Later in the poem the theme is reiterated. The king will be worthy of renown among all the nations only if “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; precious is their blood in his eyes” (P.72:12-14). This focus on the necessity of the king to aid those among his people who have special need for help is so prominent in the psalm that it surely becomes in this poem the very essence of what it means to be a king, what it means to be a true leader in the land. It is a high bar indeed!

Unfortunately, the kings of Israel seldom, if ever, reached this high bar. The peculiar Saul, however much he looked like a king and acted as a great military leader, never was able to come close to the demands of Ps.72, And his successor, the wily and charismatic David, if anything was worse, having broken four of the ten commandments in one chapter of his tale (2 Samuel 11-12). And David’s son Solomon, born through the adulterous affair with Bathsheba, though often remembered as “wise,” in fact was a poor manager of people, taxing them unmercifully, forcing them to work on his megalomaniac building projects, so that at his death he was deeply unpopular. When his son Reheboam ascended the throne, Israel stood at a precipice of sharp division. The nation surely then needed a wise and able king who might bind the people back together, who might mirror the wonderful demands laid out in Ps.72. What the nation got in the new king was a person who unfortunately was far from the ideal king for Israel. The sad tale is found in 1 Kings 12:1-19.

Like his father Solomon before him, Prince Reheboam had known nothing of the hardships of wilderness or the pains of a life of struggle. He had been “born to the purple,” had grown up in the expanding empire of Solomon, among the increasingly splendid buildings of palace and temple. But in his desire to live as other mighty kings of the period strove to live, in luxury and power, Solomon alienated a significant portion of his people. Just before his death, a building foreman named Jereboam rebelled against the king and was forced to flee to Egypt to save his life (1 Kings 11). When he heard that Solomon had finally died, he returned to Israel to speak with the new king in the attempt to heal the vast rift that had grown over the course of Solomon’s rule.

The coronation of Reheboam was to take place at Shechem, a hallowed ancient site in the history of Israel, and Jereboam joined the crowds assembled for the occasion. Jereboam, as spokesperson for many who were aggrieved by their treatment at the hands of Solomon, said to the new monarch, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now as a result of that, we ask that you lighten the hard service of your father and the heavy yoke he placed on us, and we will serve you.” The request appears more than reasonable. If you wish for us to be your servants, pleads Jereboam, then alter the harsh social and economic policies of your father. Implicit in Jereboam’s plea perhaps is his hope that Reheboam may become something more like the king envisioned by Ps.72, which may have been chanted at his coronation. “Give me three days” to think about it, replies the new king.

Reheboam first consults with his older advisors, those who knew Solomon and his harsh policies. Their advice is clear; accept the words of Jereboam, lighten the harsh load on the people, and they will serve you. Speak “good words” to them, say the elder councilors, and they will serve you forever. Their advice is sound, and they know whereof they speak, because they have seen first hand the dangerous results of the previous policies of the king. But Reheboam sought the advice of his younger friends, those who had grown up with him in the palace, the young bucks of the retinue around the prince. They advised very differently. They want you to lighten the burdens of your father? Nonsense! Say this instead: “My father may have laid on you a heavy yoke, but I will add to it. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:11). The advice is: well, you are king now and you should use the power of the king for yourself to make yourself great and avoid any concern for the people. The result? Jereboam leads a huge group of furious Israelites out of Shechem, heading north, and forms a new kingdom of ten tribes, centered at Bethel and Samaria. For the next two hundred years, the nation is divided north and south with Jereboam the first king of a new nation of Israel, its capital in Samaria, and Reheboam and his successors left only with the truncated nation of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital. The ideal of Ps.72 was forgotten in the rush for power exerted by the rash and foolish Reheboam.

In our own time, we hope for a leader who strives for something like the portrait of Ps.72, a leader who shows deep concern for all the members of the nation, but takes special care of those who are in need of help, the poor, the weak, the sick, the immigrant the homeless. In all these ways, Donald Trump has been a complete failure as president of the US. He has shown concern only for a few, those who show unbending support to him, but for the millions of poor and destitute, those made ill by COVID-19 and those 220,000+ who have died of the disease, those who have lost their jobs, those who cannot pay their rent, those who have looked in vain for help from a government that has turned its back on them, and instead has aided the rich with deep tax cuts and the removal of regulations to protect the environment and to guard the safety of workers, helping the fossil fuel industries but neglecting the many who suffer from the degradation of air, soil, and water, he shows little concern. Trump, like Reheboam, has received poor advice, either from his own limited brain and heart or from the cronies who surround him at the White House. In short, he is hardly worthy of a second term as president, and must be voted out on Nov.3. As you vote this year, you would do well to remember the admonitions of Ps.72 and cast your ballot for that person who comes closest to how it urges any would-be leader to act.

(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013.
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