The Cost of a King (1 Sam 8:1-22)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached October 2nd, 2022*

Queen Elizabeth II, began her reign at the tender age of 26 on February 6th, 1952 and concluded her reign September 8, 2022 with her death. The Queen had reigned for over 70 years—nearly one-third of American history—the second longest reigning monarch in history. Yet, the role of the Queen feels, in some sense, like an anachronism. Aren’t kings and queens something of a relic of a bygone age? No one today is advocating that countries should transition towards dynastic monarchies as a stable form of just government. Investing absolute power into a singular individual, or family, is a terribly dangerous thing. And, of course, the only way it has lasted this long in the UK is that the Queen’s role became largely ceremonial.

And yet, we are fascinated with the monarchy. The Queen’s funeral was attended by over 500 emperors, kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents, and other heads of state. 4.1 billion people around the world tuned in to watch her funeral—half of the population of the earth—making it the most watched event in history, second only behind the funeral of Princess Diana, which garnered 2.5 billion viewers. We are fascinated with the idea of a monarch, to the degree that if a member of the royal family coughs, there are thirty American journalists writing about it. We literally fought a way with Britain to be free from the crown, yet the imagination of America, and apparently much of the world, is very much enthralled by the idea of the crown. All of this, despite so much of history showing us that when power is centralized in a person, it nearly always goes wrong. 

C.S. Lewis, discussing the importance of the role of the monarchy, wrote: “Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II, “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer.” And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Leaders who use the power, position, privilege to lovingly serve are rare indeed, while leaders who use and abuse are sadly common.

In our text today we see the ever present temptations facing the people of God to turn to a singular charismatic leader in the form of a king, and yet we will also see the terrible cost the king brings.

1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey 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. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 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. 12 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 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.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

–       1 Sam 8:1-22

Be Careful What You Long For 

1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. – 1 Sam 8:1-3

Samuel has grown old; the shock and awe of Samuel’s ministry described back in 1 Samuel 7 where Samuel dramatically intercedes on behalf of Israel, have now receded into the distant past. Samuel is an old man with two sons that he has set up as judges but, “his sons did not walk in his ways.” They follow the all too well-trodden footpath between the house of authority and the house of corruption. They take bribes and pervert justice. Now, does an elderly leader with two corrupt sons sound familiar at all? This reminds us of Eli, the priest that Samuel apprenticed under, and his two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas. 

Now, we can’t be certain because the text doesn’t tell us much, but the whole story of the book seems to tell us that Samuel possesses a much superior character than Eli. God pinpoints the sin of Eli in failing to rebuke his sons, but does nothing of the sort to Samuel. So I think it is safe to assume that Samuel didn’t follow the same path that Eli did in abdicating his role as a father. Yet, his sons still wind up in wickedness. Which is a sobering lesson to parents: sometimes you can do everything you are supposed to do as a parent, and your child still goes astray. We are not the Holy Spirit, we cannot change hearts. Our job is to be faithful to heap as much kindling around the hearts of our children as possible, but it is only the Lord who can strike the blaze. And children and students in this room: this is a sobering reminder to you. You do not inherit your faith from your parents the way you inherit your genes. You cannot rely on the fact that your parents are Christians, but you must come to faith yourself. 

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. – 1 Sam 8:4-6

The elders here obviously do not refer to the office of an “elder” or “pastor” in a church, but they refer to the tribal leaders of Israel. They gather together and inform Samuel of a couple of things: 1) you’re old and 2) your sons are wicked. Now, if we have paid attention to our story we should remember that the last time the elders were on the scene things didn’t go well. In 1 Sam 4:3 it was the elders of Israel who suggest that they bring the ark out into battle without praying to God at all, and the outcome of that was disastrous. So, what do they suggest here? “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 

Before we reflect on that request it might be helpful to think some about the distinction between a judge and a king. Moses and his successor Joshua were obviously endowed by God with a unique role of leadership over Israel, but they were not kings. Their leadership was aimed at installing Israel in the land God had promised. But after Joshua dies we come into the period of the Judges. Judges were individuals chosen by God seemingly at random to deliver Israel from their oppressors and to administer justice, deciding between cases (much like a judge does today). They were a blend of a military leader, prophet, and what we think of today as a judge. But they were chosen by God for a specific purpose, they did not set up dynasties, and they did not have nation-wide authority. The one place where one judge is asked to become a king, Gideon responds: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you,” (Judges 8:23). Gideon knows that his role as judge is very different than that of a king.

Now, here Israel is asking Samuel not just to address the issue with his wicked sons, nor do they suggest looking for judges elsewhere: they request a political revolution, a new form of government. And Samuel immediately is displeased by this. But that leaves us asking: why? Israel was not only permitted to have a king in the Law, but Israel was promised a king. Starting all the way back with Abraham, God promised him: “kings shall come from you,” (Gen 17:6), and Jacob promises his son Judah that a descendant of his shall possess the scepter of a king (Gen 49:10; cf. Num 24:17). So, why is Samuel displeased? Well, the common interpretation goes, the problem was that they wanted to be like the nations. Israel is supposed to be set apart from all the nations, but here she has allowed herself to be influenced by the world. And, this is a little complicated, because I think that basic interpretation is right, but there is a problem with it.

Look at Deuteronomy 17, “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose,” (Deut 17:14-15a). Moses goes on to lay specific restrictions regarding who the king must be (an Israelite), what he must do (study the Torah daily), and what he is forbidden to do (gather lots of horses, wives, and money). But did you notice what verse 14 said? When you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” that’s okay! Just follow the rules. Now, what are the elders of Israel asking: “Set over us a king to judge us like the nations.” It’s almost the exact same thing. The sentences in Hebrew are even almost the same:

אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם (Deut 17:14)

שִֽׂימָה־לָּ֥נוּ מֶ֛לֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵ֖נוּ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִֽם (1 Sam 8:5)

The verbs and nouns are all the same, the word order is the same. The only major difference is that the elders of Israel request a king “to judge”, something that kings would do. Perhaps it is included here as a more effective sales pitch to Samuel: don’t look to your wicked sons to judge us, let’s have a king judge us. The phrases are so similar that one has to wonder whether or not they are attempting to quote Moses to Samuel. So why then is Samuel displeased? It is made clear in the following verses:

7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey 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. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.” – 1 Sam 8:7-8

Perhaps Samuel’s displeasure here is that he is taking it personally. And God tells him, don’t, they aren’t rejecting you, they are rejecting me from being king over them. But then in verse 8 He tells Samuel that he is being rejected, just like God has been rejected from the time of the Exodus till now. Samuel is the spokesman of God, he is the one to call the nation to repentance, to teach them, to lead them—he has become a visible image of God to the people. So, when the people want to run away from God, they need to get rid of the visible reminder: Samuel. They desire to reject God and Samuel is so suffused with God that they oppose him as well. When someone wants to run away from God, they tend to also run away from or push away people who remind them of God. They stop coming to church, they stop returning your calls, they start coming up with reasons to inappropriately shift blame.

God lasers in onto the heart of Israel that lies behind their request: they do not want God as king. That is the way they wrongly want to be like the nations around them. The other nations don’t bow the knee to Christ. They make up their own rules, they follow their own desires. That’s what they want. But they have cloaked that Satanic desire behind the clothes of a Bible verse. Having a king is a good thing! Human beings were made to be kings and queens who ruled and reigned on God’s behalf, as image bearers. But the only way you can rule as a righteous and just king or queen is if you do so under the greater kingship of the Lord. But like a car trying to drive without an engine, here their desire for a king comes at the expense of the most indispensable element possible: the True King. 

But that’s an instructive word for us: you can what a good thing for the wrong reasons and it be a bad thing. You can point to Bible verses that talk about the blessings of a spouse, or family, or career, or a good night of sleep; you can point to the right desire for friends, for good health, for obedient children; you can even have a desire to live a life that feels significant and meaningful for God. But if that desire for good things comes at the expense of the Lordship of Christ, comes at the expense of God being King, it doesn’t matter.

Be Careful What You Ask For

9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them. 10 So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. – 1 Sam 8:9-10

There is an ironic play on words in this and the following section. The word used for “ways” here (“…show them the ways of the king…”) is not the normal word for “ways.” When the elders of Israel told Samuel that his sons do not walk in his “ways” there they use the typical word (derek). Here, the word for “ways” is mishpat, the word we usually translate as “justice”–the same word used earlier when we were told that Samuel’s sons “pervert justice.” The pretext for the elders asking a king is that the sons of Samuel are “perverting justice.” It is as if God is saying: You want a king to judge you like the nations? Okay, here is what his justice will look like.

Now, God knows that they won’t listen to Samuel. So why send him? Because Samuel is an ambassador of the true King, who is there to warn and to point towards the final Kingdom of God. The role of a prophet isn’t to limit their language to what only will accomplish favorable ends, but is to publicly declare God’s truth.

11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons …He will take your daughtersHe will take the best of your fieldsHe will take the tenth of your grainHe will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys…He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 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.” – 1 Sam 8:11-18 (abbreviated)

He will take…take…take. A good picture of what is typical of human leaders. So often when people get into positions of power, they become a vacuum to absorb in the money, reputation, and privileges of others around them. When George Washington came to the end of his term, many wondered whether or not he really would resign, or if he would continue to rule, perhaps even turning himself into a king over America. When King George III was informed that Washington intended to step down as president, he said, “If he does that, then he will be the greatest man alive.” Why? Because leaders typically hold onto power and exploit others with it. Leaders of loving service are so very rare. If only we would have a leader, a king, who would give…give…give.

That is precisely what we have in Jesus Christ, who said:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45

Jesus not only demonstrated this servant leadership through his death on the cross but calls all of us similarly to it. The great warning of 1 Samuel 8 is that having a king is going to cost the people dearly, but the gospel shows us that having a king is precisely what God’s people need, even though it will cost the King dearly.

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.” – 1 Sam 8:19-22

How do you discern whether or not something has become an idol? How do you respond when it is denied you. The Israelites are crazy here! Like toddlers stamping their feet, No! 

Another panel on the window to their heart opens: Not: appoint a king over us like the nations, but, we want to be like the nations. And: we want a king to go and fight for us. The Israelites don’t want to have to live a life of exercising faith, they want a champion that their eyes can see.

The judgment of being heard. Could you imagine being one of the elders there? You are trying to convince Samuel why you need a king, and eventually you resort to just stamping your feet and saying “No!” and Samuel responds with: “Okay, have a king.” Really? That’s it? We can have what we want?

One of the ways that God can discipline his people is by simply letting them have what their sinful hearts want. Sometimes, God granting our requests is no sign of His pleasure, but His discipline. This is what church discipline formally displays: a member of the church living in a manner that tells others that they no longer wish to be a Christian, so the church responds by saying: Okay, you don’t want to follow Christ, we will stop regarding you as a Christian. So Paul informs the Corinthian church what they are to do to the man walking in unrepentant sexual sin:

you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. – 1 Cor 5:5

He doesn’t want God as His teacher anymore, so the church is called to hand him over to Satan. He is to be cut loose from the community of faith and go fill his belly with sin: have what you want, just don’t do it with Jesus’ name attached to you.

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