Give Us A King
Someone once wrote that freedom has an expiration date, and this may prove true. A little more than 200 years passed between the time Moses delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt to the time the Israelites had to choose between trusting God or returning to slavery by giving up their unique form of government.
Their leader, Samuel, was an old man, and both of his choices for successors were corrupt. His sons had “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice,” and the people were rightfully concerned about leadership once Samuel was gone. They knew they didn’t want his sons, but what was their option? With little thought they demanded a king.
It’s not wrong to desire strong leadership. However, it is short-sighted to insist on what the Israelites wanted. We’ve seen this way of thinking so often in political campaigns: “It’s the economy, stupid” or “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” These slogans were strokes of genius in discerning the single greatest fear or longing of people and focusing on that – no matter the other issues. It’s government by the polls. People have been deluded for generations, and the eventual price they are called on to pay is seen as betrayal by those they trusted to lead.
What’s interesting to me is the Israelites’ concern about the future at a time when things were going well. The economy was good. They were at peace, and their traditional enemies – the Philistines – were quiet. They were secure…but not secure enough. They wanted more. They wanted the guarantee of a risk-free future.
Normally, it is a crisis that generates such a change, but there was no crisis. The only threat was to the status quo, and that was enough to overwhelm them. In a way, Samuel had failed them not only by the corruption of his sons but by failing to prepare them for his own passing. They were dependent on him still. They did not want an election. They did not want another judge. They wanted him to appoint a king.
This is true even today. We want to keep our prosperity but are weary of personal responsibility. We could understand Israel’s demand more easily if it was like many years later when they were taken captive by the Babylonians in the time of Jeremiah. What did they say then? “We will go and live in Egypt, where we will not see war or hear the trumpet or be hungry for bread.” That I could understand…but not this. They were rejecting the principles of governance given by God – not just wanting a king. They were giving up what made them great in the first place.
The governance of a judge is far different from that of a king– which they would soon discover in a man who proves unfit for office and whose reign ends tragically.
Judges depend on decentralized decisions. Kings accumulate bureaucratic centralized control.
Judges receive respect for their office. Kings require personal and absolute fealty.
Judges have direct access to the people. Kings are surrounded by military and political insiders and vested interests.
Judges consider and weigh. Kings rule by fiats and pronouncements.
Samuel tried to tell them these things, but they would not or could not listen.
Look at the language for what they were asking.
“We want a king over us.”
“We want a king to go out for us.”
“We want a king to fight for us.”
They willingly traded their freedom for a false sense of security. There is something in us that desires a king – a leader who will take over personal responsibility and risk. They are not looking for integrity, wisdom or godliness. All they want is someone who will do it for them. They want a winner. In the end, hundreds of years later, their desire to give up their distinctives and be like the rest of the world destroyed them.
What seems expedient but requires surrendering what is most precious ended – and will likely end – in national disaster. But, it’s not inevitable. Alexander Hamilton said, “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country by their conduct and example to decide…whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
John Gardner remarked decades ago that we are capable of so much that is not now asked of us: “The courage and spirit are there, poorly hidden beneath self-interest and self-indulgence, left somnolent by the moral indifference of modern life, waiting to be called forth when the moment comes. Clearly, the moment has come.”