Picking up where we left off last time (in verse 9 of I Samuel 8), the prophet Samuel’s sons have given God’s system of judges a black eye with their corrupt behavior. Not wishing to be upstaged in the “Let’s Disappoint God” department, the people of Israel decide they want to up-the-sin-ante by rejecting God’s order and demanding a monarchy.
It’s now time for Samuel to share with the people what is in store for them should they refuse to course-correct.
In verse 9, at the behest of God himself, Samuel offers a “solemn” warning to his people. I note this at the start because I am of the opinion that it is always a worthwhile endeavor to give someone headed off of a cliff a fair warning. Even if you know they won’t listen, it’s always worth a shot. God knew the people had turned their hearts from Him, and He knew they would reject the council of His appointed mediator, but He told that mediator to warn them anyway.
Samuel’s task was to walk rightly with his God and obediently speak truth to his countrymen. The rest was in Yahweh’s hands.
Verses 10-18 are a compilation of “the ways of the king” – the king’s “Best/Worst Of” list, if you will. The intent is to talk some sense into the twelve tribes of Israel. Many of these things on that list are simply the average, “normal” tasks that a king would perform as the leader of a nation.
Wherever power resides, so do responsibilities and duties. The collection of taxes in order to pay for protection (i.e. the military) comes to mind. But there is no doubt about God’s (via Samuel’s) intent here: He wants the people to know how thoroughly a king will dominate their lives, livelihoods, and day-to-day activities.
Corruption and the potential to sin are within all of us, but increased power over others accelerates the chances for injustice, abuse, and gross mismanagement/misallocation of resources. There was corruption among the judges, but God is warning the people how much worse it can (and will) get.
So what are these warnings, exactly? Let’s take a brief look at a few of them.
Verse 11 – “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots.”
Chariot-runners were nothing more than a status symbol. The king is going to take children from their homes, make them run ahead of his chariots (which would be moving fairly quickly) for long stretches, and all so that his prestige would increase among other kings and military leaders. Sounds like a summer job or two that I had in high school.
Verses 12 and 13 – “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. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.”
Instead of a volunteer army, recruited from among the individual tribes, the king – out of necessity – will begin conscripting those he wishes to serve. He will need young men for his army, and he will need young women to feed his army (as well as his court). This won’t be suggested, but demanded.
Verses 14 and 15 – “He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.”
The phrase “best of your fields” is unequivocally alluding to the above-and-beyond annexation of the people’s goods and services their king will be guilty of. Leaders, and especially those overseeing monarchies and oligarchies, don’t tend to be thrifty people. They’re going to “get theirs” and since they are busy being in charge, they won’t have any time to actually produce anything themselves.
They live at the expense of others. So do those lucky enough to be in the king’s “inner circle.”
During the communists’ rule in Russia from 1917 to 1991, the people worked jobs their leaders told them to work, accepted the shortages in food and basic goods they were forced to accept, and meanwhile the top-brass of the USSR lived like, well, kings. This isn’t about entrepreneurial people making a good living and having nice things. This is about an elitist, ruling class that lives solely off of the fruits of other folks’ labors.
Verses 17 and 18 – “He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 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.”
Every aspect of one’s life has now been covered in Samuel’s list of warnings. Ultimately he flat-out states that the people will be “slaves.” And when that day arrives the people will wail and moan and wonder how they gave their liberty willingly away. But God will not answer at that time because He has answered now.
Christians and students of the Old Testament know how this tale ends. Israel tells Samuel and Yahweh to stuff their warnings in a sack. Saul becomes king, does a horrendous job, David takes over, falls into major sin, and the rest of Israel’s schizophrenic history is one bad king following a good king (following a bad king).
It’s a mess. We’re a mess.
The one true King comes, dies, rises from the grave, ascends into heaven and promises that He will be back to establish the only monarchy and kingdom that ever had a chance of working properly.
But that is to come, and for now we are interested in what happened then and what we ought to be doing now. It’s clear that a nation gets the leaders it deserves. The fantasy of a toil-free existence, of an end to sin, suffering, and poverty in this life, is a pipe dream (and a dangerous one at that). The idea that just the right combination of ideology and leadership will fix humanity is a lie. It has plagued mankind since Babel, and it will come to a final, wicked culmination in the one-world government of the antichrist (Babylon).
There is no substitute for personal responsibility, the exercise of civic duty (at a community/church level), and an ever-increasing reliance upon God. Governments aren’t bad things. Romans 13 is clear about our duty to respect those in power. But “we the people” in the United States of America are the government.
We have the ability to choose whether we will head in the direction of top-down collectivism or a representative republic comprised of individual families, churches, communities, cities, and states.
If you’re looking to Scripture for a theocratic blueprint that will detail how Christ wants us to run our nation, you won’t find it. But to fail to glean wisdom from such glaring examples of the inherent flaws to centralized power would be a foolish mistake.