We are continuing our story this week, getting into the kings of Israel, after taking a brief detour last week to discuss divine violence. So far in our story we have moved through creation and the fall, to the call of Abraham to bring blessing to the nations. Abraham’s family ended up enslaved in Egypt where God liberated them and gave them the law and dwelt with them in the tabernacle. All of this was blessing on Israel, but the goal to bless all remained – God dwelt with them and they would live with God as a light to the nations; God gave them the Law and they would follow it which would draw people to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel and the whole creation. Outsiders, such as Rahab, could be and were welcomed in to God’s family. On the flip side, because God is just and fair, those on the inside, such as Achan, could face punishment when they disobeyed and rebelled.
Through all of this, God was their King. God had defeated the evil king, Pharaoh, who held them in slavery, liberating them and ruling them as a good King. Moses had not been a king, nor had Joshua.
The first half of the book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of the land, with the second half being the division of the land. This is one of those seemingly boring parts of scripture that is actually pretty important. After the excitement of battle after battle, we get nearly 12 chapters of geographical names and land division. What is going on here ties in with the theme of God dwelling with the people. In the beginning, God dwelt in the garden. Sin broke this relationship, but at the end of Exodus the tabernacle was built. God is carving out a small area of creation to live in. Now at the end of Joshua, God carves out a piece of land. Even if reading it feels like a slog, not the theme of God’s dwelling in the midst of the people. God dwells with the people with an eye to the future when God reclaims and restores all of creation.
Joshua is an ending, but to echo one of my favorite fantasy series, it is not “the” ending. After Joshua dies, the twelve tribes of Israel experience a long time of disunity with no one national leader. Further, many other people live in the land, indicating that Israel had not destroyed them all. Remember Deuteronomy 7 said to destroy them all AND not marry them or worship their gods. That seemed odd because if they were destroyed there would be no worry about idolatry and intermarriage. Well, it seems the real point was not the destruction – for this did not happen even if really was supposed to – but the avoidance of worship of false gods. A deeper theme here is that we still must destroy the idolatry in our hearts. These idols seek to become kings in our lives and the goal is to stay obedient to our one king, the God revealed in Jesus. But like the Israelites, our hearts stray to other kings and idols…
These nations remain a thorn in Israel’s side. The book of Judges shows a situation where these other nations basically take turns ruling over the divided people of Israel. At times God raises up a leader, a judge, to save the people. These judges perform fantastic deeds and are the stuff of Sunday school legend. Men like Gideon and Samson, and women such as Deborah, have gone down in history as great saviors of God’s people. Yet they are all deeply flawed and the book of Judges ends with one of the most gruesome stories in all of Scripture (if you don’t believe me, read Judges 19-21). Being ruled by other nations, saved by charismatic judges and wandering leaderless was not an ideal situation for God’s people. We begin to read a common refrain – everyone did as he saw fit because there was no king. Looking at it as a whole, Judges seems to be written as a defense of the idea of God’s people having a king. In other words, Judges was written down when there was a king in Israel and the writer is looking back at the bad times, diagnosing the problem in that past as there being no king.
Right after Judges we get the short story of Ruth, almost like a palette cleanser after the gruesome way Judges ends. Ruth, like Rahab, is an outside to Israel who finds her way into God’s family and actually is an ancestor of both the great king, David, as well as Jesus. But again, we get ahead of ourselves. All I can say now, in a great disservice to Ruth, is its a brilliant story with far-reaching implications.
Next comes the book of Samuel, named after Samuel, the last judge. Samuel lived at a low point and tumultuous time for Israel. When Samuel’s story begins, the biggest threat to Israel now is the Philistines, a sea-faring people who have their centers of power along the coast and who sought to grab land further inland. As Samuel nears the end of his life, the people ask Samuel to ask God to give them a king (1 Samuel 8).
This story is tremendously significant. The people of Israel fear a return to the dysfunction that characterized life under the other judges. They want the peace and safety promised with a powerful King. They see the problem and think a king will save them. Yet, they already have a King: God. God is none too happy with their request for a king:
“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights” (1 Samuel 8:7-9).
As we have discussed, God did not choose Israel because they were good and holy. From the time of Abraham on through the stories in Judges, we have seen they are broken. God notes they have always been in rebellion, ever since leaving Egypt. They think their problems will be solved by having a King like other nations. It will not.
It is interesting to compare the problems diagnosed in Judges and Samuel. While the book of Judges seems to say the problem in Israel was that they had no king, Samuel presents us with a different problem. The problem was not that they had no king; the problem was that they had rejected God as their king. When Moses led them out of Israel it was God who fought for them. Israel was a weak people and God delivered them from Egypt as well as the kings of Sihon and Og; God led them in victory against Jericho and elsewhere. Throughout this story, we have seen them turn away from God, rejecting God as king in their actions. Whenever things went bad – if they were hungry or thirsty or tired – they complained against God. They even wanted to go back to Egypt and live under the old evil king Pharaoh. Now with an uncertain future ahead, they explicitly ask for a king to be like other nations (1 Samuel 8:5, 20-21) and thus reject God as king with their words. Note the language there. The Israelites, going way back to Genesis 12, were to bring blessing to the other nations. Rather than doing this though, they are wanting to be like the other nations. They were to be the ones influencing and they are being influenced.
This is a constant temptation – rather than influencing others in positive ways we go with the flow and allow them to influence us in negative ways. We have all experienced this temptation in our life at some point. With the best intentions we hope to impact people positively, but we allow them to instead influence us. Perhaps we need to not be too hard on the Israelites in asking for the safety a King promises.
God tells Samuel to do what they want and give them a king. God also warns them what a king will do. The king will take their crops as taxes and send their sons to war. The king will force them to work on great building projects. In other words, the King will bring the spirit of Egypt into Israel. Shortly after they left Egypt, they had wanted to go back (Exodus 15) and every time they complained against God, they were choosing the spirit of Egypt that enslaved them over the spirit of God that liberated them. Now they are not going physically back, but they are going back in spirit. In asking for a King, they rejected God as their king (8:7-9). They wanted a king to lead them in battle, something that God had done ever since they left Egypt. The things Samuel warns about happen during the reigns of the first kings (as we will get to soon…stay tuned).
Before we get to those bad kings, it is worth noting that the institution of kings is not wholly bad. It is similar to other ideas that humans have had which God then blesses. For example, the first sacrifice was not commanded by God, but God accepted it and sacrifice became a primary part of religion. God commanded the building of the tabernacle, as we saw, but not the building of the temple in Jerusalem. God did not command a temple, but God accepted and blessed it. God is not happy with Israel asking for a King, but God will provide them with some good kings. As a whole, the Old Testament leaves us with an ambiguous view of the institute of Kingship:
● Good kings point people to worship God (David, Hezekiah, Josiah).
● Bad kings basically re-create Egypt and turn people away from God.
By asking for a king, the story of Israel took a turn that began a long and slow descent towards exile and ruin. By the time we near the end of the Old Testament story, and there are no more kings in Israel, the hope begins to grow for a new king to come along. This king will be better than any other king and will institute a reign of peace that never ends. Isaiah 9 picks up on this hope, especially in verse 6:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
It was passages like this that the early Christians reflected upon as they pondered who Jesus is. Jesus announced the kingdom of God had come in his ministry. Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews. In Jesus, the early Christians realized that God had become King once again. This king Jesus was fully human, born of a woman and descended from King David, and fully God. Perhaps we could say Jesus is the human king we wanted and the God king we needed.
How does this apply to our lives? Well, it does not take much imagination to think of ways we Christians are like the Israelites. We are just as liable to reject God as our King as the ancient Israelites were. We confess God took on human flesh, lived as the God-Man, revealing to us who God is and who humans were made to be. Through Jesus, we say we are restored to relationship with God and called to live as his disciples, demonstrating love and truth to those around us. Yet, rather than emphasizing lifelong discipleship to King Jesus, we often reduce Jesus to just a means to get to heaven with nothing much else to say about this life. As usual, I can only speak from my experience and in my experience as a white evangelical, this is something I have seen among white evangelicals. I am sure other Christians experience it too, but I want to look at my people and where we have exchanged our good King for an idol. With this in mind, I highly recommend Kristin Kobes du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne which traces the history of white evangelicals infatuation with tough looking big talking strongmen.
The title comes from a quip made decades ago about how “Jesus will save your soul and John Wayne will save your ass.” Through the book she talks about how white evangelicals have been obsessed with ideas of manhood and strongmen that have little to do with Jesus. We see this today in the overwhelming white evangelical support of Donald Trump, with signs that say “Jesus died for me and Trump lives for me.” This is not to pick only on white evangelical Christians, though since that is my heritage I do feel more comfortable picking on them. Nor is it to ignore ways other Christians may reject God in favor of human kings. It is just to say that we do it and we do it for the reasons Israel did – fear of the future, desire for safety.
There’s a lot more I could say about that here. I have ideas swirling in my mind about Christian Nationalism and justifying the use of violence and so much more. That’s all probably best left for a discussion for another time. For now, I think it is enough to end with this: let’s just to remember Jesus is our King. The God revealed in Jesus is not just a God for a ticket to heaven, but shows us how to live. God blesses people not so we can cling to the blessing and build walls, but so we can bless others. God’s light fills us not so we can hide it, but so we can spread it to others. Life in god’s kingdom is built on loving enemies and sharing love with all around us. We live in the way of Jesus no matter who the human king is.
Questions and Action Points:
In what ways do we reject God as our king? In what ways do we want to be like everyone else who trust in the things of this world?
What does it look like to understand Jesus as our King? How does this affect how we relate to the kings and presidents in our world?
Make a list of good things about your home country. Praise God for them. Make a list of sins, ways your home country falls short. Ask God forgiveness for them.