Sunday Note: On Kings & Tyrants


1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “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.”

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

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.”



My daughter turned three two weeks ago. A few relevant things about her: She's curious. She loves to ask lots and lots of questions. She loves books. She's very into baby Jesus. This final trait developed around Christmas this year, and her love of baby Jesus has not faded through Ordinary Time, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and back into Ordinary Time. The baby Jesus persists.

For her birthday her curiosity, love of questions and books, and loyalty to the baby Jesus converged in one gift--a book called, Bible Stories for Children: The Birth of Jesus. We have read it over and over and over since she received it. (If the givers are reading this-- THANK YOU-- seriously, it's an awesome book) The book is in English and Arabic, and I believe from an Egyptian publisher, and it ends with a brief description of Jesus' family fleeing to Egypt because "King Herod was angry," then returning to their homeland after his death. So we've been having a lot of conversations about why King Herod was mad at baby Jesus and why baby Jesus was in Egypt until King Herod died.

For real, this is what happens in my house at 8pm. #pastorskid

This is how I have explained it to my three year old, which is the best way to clarify anything to yourself, too:

King Herod was angry because people said baby Jesus was a king. So Herod thought he wouldn't be king anymore, and that made him mad. Sometimes when people are mad, they do things that hurt other people.  So Jesus and his family moved away to stay safe until King Herod was gone.

I've been repeating this almost every night for two weeks, so as I read the Scripture for today God's warning to the Hebrews rang loud: You will cry our for relief from the king you have chosen.

Most of history has been lived out during the time of "tyrant kings," to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd. Kings just as Samuel described, who claim as their rights their people's sons to fight on their behalf, their people's daughters to work, their people's fields for food, their people's cattle and flocks, and the people themselves to serve the king and the kingdom over their own welfare. 

These literal tyrant kings-- corrupt governments, dictators, emperors, pharaohs-- of the past and present enslave their people through fear of violence, of other tyrant kings and nations, of scarcity of resources. But actual tyrants and corrupt government are not the only tyrant kings of our lives. Nor were they the only tyrant kings the Hebrews were turning toward in our text. 

The tyranny of fear in our lives can come in many forms. You know your own heart what tyrant kings you serve: money, success, toxic relationships, admiration, pleasing others, comparison, shame, pleasure...there are many tyrant kings striving to lord over us.

Yet, Samuel was wrong in his final word to the Hebrew people, "When that day comes you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day." The Lord did answer. The Lord does answer. Because the Lord never ceased to be the true King. 

Perhaps the confusion is that God does not seem like a king. Really, king is a paradoxical word to use to describe God. Kings rule over, kings hoard riches, kings incite violence, kings build up walls to protect US from THEM. But what kind of a King is God? Who was this King that Herod so feared?

A human, fragile baby born in a stable.
A refugee fleeing violence.
A homeless traveling teacher.
A healer.
A friend of zealots, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, women, Samaritans, and the poor.
A servant.
A prophet, flipping tables and speaking uncomfortable truths.
A King killed by tyrant kings.

God's defining trait as king in the Scripture of 1 Samuel is as the one who, "brought them out of Egypt." God as King is a liberator from all other tyrants. God's Kingdom is the reordering of the world to free the oppressed, the poor, the prisoners of tyrants.

Just as the Hebrew people in 1 Samuel 8, we too often place our trust in tyrant kings over our liberator God. We place our trust in our worst fears over God's great love. We place our trust in perceived strength over vulnerable, peaceable freedom in God.

But God does not let our cries for liberation go unheard and unanswered. God in Jesus shows us the way of the true Kingdom. The Kingdom that is not for the welfare of a tyrant, but the welfare of the poor, oppressed, and imprisoned in all forms.

May we chose the Kingdom of God and King Jesus over all other tyrant kings. May we chose God's love over fear and be liberated to the freedom of God's Kingdom here and now.