“They set up kings, but not
They made princes, but I did
not acknowledge them.
From their silver and gold
They made idols for
That they might be cut off.” (Hosea 8:4 NKJV)
Long Live the Republic
God never wanted his people to have a king. He was their king.
God led his people out of slavery in Egypt. He did miracles they could see with their eyes and feel in their bellies. He led them through the desert and went before them in a pillar of fire. He gave them water from a rock and bread from heaven. Finally, he led them into the Promised Land, and when they got there, they told him, “We want a king.”
The prophet Samuel was angry, but God told him to relax. He said, “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Sam. 8:7 NIV). God was not happy about it, but it was not a big surprise. All along the way, his people had been doubting him, this was just the most recent betrayal in a long line of infidelity: “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” (1Sam. 8:8 NIV).
Asking for a king was not just an innocent request on the part of the people of Israel. It wasn’t just switching over to a new form of government, choosing option b instead of option a. It was a rejection of God’s kingship, a rejection of God himself. It was idolatry.
All kings think they are pretty awesome; it comes with the territory. Even the most humble kings verge on the blasphemous by virtue of sitting on the throne. And kings are not usually very humble. Throughout history, monarchs have given themselves too-big-for-your-britches-esque titles, like the Shadow of God on Earth, or the Sun King. But in the ancient Near East, many kings actually did call themselves gods, or at least demi-gods, and were worshiped as such. God was right to equate monarchy with idolatry – especially since the reason the people of Israel wanted a king was that they wanted to be like the other nations (v. 5).
God was not happy, but he agreed to give his people what they wanted. “Fine,” he said (my paraphrase), “you can have a king. But believe me, having a king is not as cool as you think.” God told Samuel to warn them about kings, and to predict what their kings would do to them. Some of the highlights include:
– He will take your sons and daughters as his servants (vv. 11-13).
– He will take the best of your land for himself (v. 14).
– He will take a tenth of your harvest (v. 15).
– He will take your cattle and donkeys and flocks (v. 16).
And, last but not least,
– You yourselves will be his slaves (v. 17).
God says, “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day” (v. 18). This seems pretty straightforward. God is saying, if you chose to have a king, not only are you rejecting me, but you are choosing slavery for yourselves and your children. But the people of Israel do not listen. They are guided by fear and conformity. Even though they have seen God lead them, deliver them, and go out before them, they are emphatic in their response at this crucial juncture:
“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’” (1 Sam. 8:19-20 NIV).
If this reminds you of the Galactic Republic’s embrace of the Dark Side, it should. People are the same, even in a galaxy far, far away.
So Saul is made king, and God (grudgingly) accepts. But God sets down very specific conditions for the king, which Samuel explains to the people (1 Sam. 10:25). You see, God knew that his people would eventually ask for a king, and he was prepared to give them what they wanted, but on his own terms.
In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God makes it very clear what kind of king is acceptable for Israel. Among other things, the king,
– is not allowed to take a lot of horses (v. 16)
– is not allowed to take a lot of wives (v. 17)
– is not allowed to take a lot of silver and gold (v. 17)
– is not allowed to consider himself better than anyone else (v. 20
– has to submit to the law, just like everyone else (v. 20)
This is an interesting passage, especially given what we know about the kings of Israel that came later. King Solomon alone broke pretty much every single one of these commandments (horses, check; wives, check; silver and gold, check), and he was one of the better ones. Or at least the wisest. Even King David disregarded these laws regularly. I won’t even mention Ahab. In fact, this passage could serve as a checklist for all the things the kings of Israel did do.
The most interesting part of this passage, however, is v. 18-19 (NIV), which states, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees.”
Why did the king have to write out the law with his own hands? Is it because they didn’t have enough copies of it? Probably not. God was making a point here – you may be king, but you are still under my authority. This was a common practice in the ancient Near East. If a king conquered the territory of another king, sometimes the defeated king was allowed to stay on his throne, if he was willing to submit to the victorious king, pay taxes, etc. Sometimes it was easier to keep them in place, provided that they are loyal and promise not to rebel. Often the vassal king was forced to write out a copy of the victorious king’s law. That way he could never claim innocence. He could never say, “But I didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed to build up my own army and rebel against you,” since he had to have read the law at least once. It was also humiliating.
Picture a schoolboy being punished, writing out the rules of the school at the chalkboard. “You might be king,” God says, “but I can still keep you in at recess”:
East of Niamey there is a town called Zinder. In Zinder they still have a Sultan. I was asking somebody about this at the hospital the other day. “How does that work with the government?” I asked. “Does the Sultan rule or does the government rule?” I was told that there are certain things that the Sultan is allowed to decide. He is allowed to resolve small conflicts. He is kind of like Judge Judy. But the real power is still held by the government. The Sultan even receives a salary from the government. He is a fonctionnaire.
That is kind of what God had in mind with his king. A symbolic figure with no real authority. That is the only kind of king God would tolerate. A king who is not a king at all. A high priest defrocked. A chicken feather-plucked. So much for the divine right of kings.
The graves of craving
But the kings of Israel did not follow God’s laws. They took wives and gold and worshipped other gods. They took vineyards and set up high places. They worshipped Baalim that were severe with them, and demanded severe sacrifices. They took new husbands. They passed themselves around and broke Hosea’s heart. They groveled in slavery, and God looked on, angry and jealous. “I told you so.”
God warned his people about taking a king, but they didn’t listen to him. He told them that a king would make them into slaves, and they said, “We don’t care. We prefer slavery.” It was not the first time they chose slavery over freedom. In Numbers 11 the people of Israel were in the desert, eating the manna that God gave them to eat. But they were not happy. They remembered the meat they used to eat in Egypt. They began to wish that they could go back to Egypt, back to slavery, because the food was better. They craved meat, and would not stop thinking about it and talking about it. The fleshpots and fish. They craved slavery and cucumbers and melons, whips, leeks and onions and garlic.
What a contrast with Milton’s rebellious Satan. Expelled from Paradise and fallen with the rest of his demonic forces, he looks around hell and remains unrepentant. “Better to reign in Hell” he says, “than serve in Heaven.” For him, if your mind is free, anywhere can be made into a paradise. “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
But the people of Israel were fixated on food. God heard their grumbling, and said, “Fine,” (my paraphrase), “you want meat? I will give you meat. I will give you meat till it comes out your nose. I will give you meat that you will choke on. You will walk for days and never see an end to the meat I will send you. You will eat meat that will be caught in your maw. I will clog your gullet with meat. You will ask me to remove the meat, and I will ignore you and send more. You will eat meat, and your children will eat meat consecrated to other gods. You will eat that which you crave until you crave death, and then you will die.”
God didn’t want a king. He didn’t need a king. He needed a mouth because his people couldn’t handle his mouth. God spoke through a bush. God spoke through a donkey. He didn’t want a king. He wanted a Moses, a broken mouthpiece that he could fix up and speak through. He wanted a Moses to speak through and say, “Let my people go.” His message is freedom for a people who love slavery. A people who crave meat and royal weddings.
 See 1 Sam. 10:17-19. This is God grumbling. And giving a guilt trip.
 Actually, that might have been part of the reason – see the story of King Josiah, 2 Kings 22; 2 Chron. 34. Not only did the kings of Israel not write out a copy of the law by their own hand, they didn’t even keep any copies around. By the time Josiah became king, even the priests in the Temple didn’t have any copies of the law, and when one was discovered by accident they were all shocked to read it and see how far they had strayed from it.