Sunday, August 14, 2016

No king in Israel

"In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." -- Judges 17:6
"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."  -- 1 Samuel 8:7
One of the central tensions throughout the Bible is a lingering question: should Israel have a king? Deuteronomy law permits Israel to have a king and provides some guidelines for how a king should behave. When David finally does become king, he is considered a man after God's own heart, and a consistent theme in the prophets is that Israel's future hope will be found in his royal line. Judges 17:6, which is repeated in 21:25 (the very last verse), becomes a haunting theme framing the latter section of the book, which recounts one of the most disturbing stories I've read anywhere. So that seems like pretty strong evidence that Israel needs a king; it is dysfunctional without one, but under good king David, life is good.

On the other hand, we have the famous passage in 1 Samuel 8, where the people ask Samuel to give them a king, much to his disliking. In response, God explains that the people have not rejected Samuel, but rather God: "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." Indeed, the whole story of the exodus is not merely a story about God saving his people, but about him coming to be king. (This explains why the whole second half of Exodus gives instructions, not only concerning God's moral code, but also on how to prepare the tabernacle for his dwelling place. The Sunday school version of Exodus most often fails to get this point across very well!) It is not hard to imagine that, especially in ancient times, when a strong warrior came and liberated a people, they were inclined to make him king. In the story of the Exodus, that warrior was God. The fact that the God of the universe was not a good enough king for the people of Israel, according to Scripture, says something rather unflattering about them.

This tension is resolved in Jesus Christ. The Son of David does show up to be king and liberate Israel from its oppressors. But who is he really? The answer is that he is the God of Israel. The one who led them out of Egypt has now returned to finish the job--now he will lead them out from the bondage of sins.

And what kind of king does he intend to be? "And [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves." (Luke 22:25-27) This is a unique kind of king. On the other hand, it is important not to miss the continuity between Jesus in the gospels and God in the book of Exodus. Jesus gives the law and expects his people to follow it: "Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

All of this seems essential for thinking like a Christian about the concept of liberty. The point of freedom is to be free from human kings. But the divine king does not use force. He comes to us as a servant. He expects us to obey his commandments because his words have power, not because he has weapons to enforce them.

I've noticed that a lot of Christians talking about politics try to propose the question, "What would Jesus do?" This question seems to betray a lack of faith. The proper question would seem to be, "What does Jesus do?" Do we believe him to be alive or not?

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is the most libertarian king who ever existed. I have never known him to come down and enforce his will by physical threats or punishments. And yet he is seated on high, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Or does he rule us by his words? Just as he commanded the wind and waves, perhaps he also punishes us by merely speaking.

Yet I have never known the world to abide by a simple view of justice. Jesus himself did not deserve to suffer, yet he suffered a most gruesome death. Not only that, but he called us to follow him in suffering.

I am not saying Jesus Christ is a libertarian, certainly not with all the connotations that word carries in modern American politics. But what I would guess is that he is not very impressed with all of our political reflections and ideas to make government better. Maybe, just maybe, we should start taking him seriously as our true king.

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