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We Demand a King! Reflections on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-20)

But the people of Beer-Sheba are having none of it; Joel and Abijah, Samuel's sons, are cankers in the city and the citizens wish them removed and replaced by a king. The judgeship of Israel has lasted some two hundred years and has relied on the charismatic choice of one person or another, picked surprisingly by YHWH. Samuel may imagine that his sons will succeed him, but he is quite wrong. "But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, 'Give us a king to govern us.'" And now the joy of a careful reading must commence. Why do you think Samuel is displeased at the request for a king? One could provide a religious reply, saying, as Samuel will say, that only YHWH can be king, and no earthly king need apply. Yet, is that all that is at stake for Samuel? If he makes a king for them, then his sons will be dispensed with, and any hope of a Samuel dynasty in Israel will end. The demand for a king is at the same time the dashing of Samuel's future, the ruin of his children, the disappearance of his name forever.

Hence, when he prays to YHWH, he must have been shocked indeed to hear from his God that he should in fact make them a king (1 Sam. 8:7)! As we will see, YHWH tells Samuel three times in the next few verses to make Israel a king, and no matter how grim Samuel makes kings out to be (vss. 11-18), nevertheless YHWH is relentless with the prophet that he must crown someone king. Even after his anti-kingship tirade, and even after YHWH reiterates that Samuel is to make a king (1 Sam. 8:22), Samuel still refuses to do so! As the people wait anxiously for some sign that the prophet will relent to their demands, instead the aged seer shouts, "Each of you go home" (1 Sam. 8:22)! It is not until YHWH leads the divine choice directly to Samuel's own city of Ramah that the prophet finally anoints Saul (1 Sam. 10:1). Yet, even in this scene, the word "king" is not used. Saul is crowned "prince" over the people; it is as if Samuel cannot allow the word "king" to escape his lips.

What is all this about? Why not tell a simple story of prophet and kings, the former always speaking the word of YHWH, and the latter always ruling in the way of YHWH? Because these wonderful writers know that simple stories can never reflect the rich complexities of the lives of human beings. And we preachers are the heirs of that rich tradition of human ambiguity and inscrutability. Read these stories with your ears cocked and your eyes wide open, for there is much here to tease even the most jaded minds into active and passionate thought. And, in case you have failed to notice, we preachers have more than once been confused in our lives about when our claims to speak the word of God bump against the actual human words of our own devising that we in fact speak. Or am I the only one who has found this to be true?

6/4/2015 4:00:00 AM
John Holbert
About John Holbert
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.