Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kings and Queens of the Bible: Saul

Text: I Samuel 10:17-24, Romans 13:1-7

There have been some good ones; there have been some bad ones; there have been some downright ugly ones. The kings and queens who sprinkle our holy scriptures with stories of pomp and circumstance and brilliant moments which become the source for national pride are the same people who color the Bible with tales of betrayal, murder, adultery, and more. For almost five hundred years, Israel and then Israel and Judah when the one kingdom became two, was ruled by kings and queens who had some high points but also had quite a few low moments.

This summer John and I will explore with you some of the rich history and powerful personalities of royalty in the Bible. Today we begin a sermon series entitled “King and Queens of the Bible: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This morning we start at the very beginning – which as I’ve heard tell is a very good place to start.

The first king who ruled over the kingdom of Israel was a man named Saul. Before Saul became king, Israel wasn’t so much a kingdom as it was a tribal confederacy (getting together for the occasional potluck or to fight off a new enemy). When the people needed a leader to fight battles or solve some problem, God would raise up a person called a judge. These judges came and went and no leadership roles were passed down by birth; all were chosen particularly by God.

This system seemed to work pretty well but something happened during the time of Samuel – the prophet, judge, and priest who had been dedicated to God at an early age by his mother Hannah. The people of Israel came up to Samuel and demanded a king. They looked around the nations around them, saw what they deemed security in the dynasty of a king, and wanted that. They wanted what these other nations had – a king to govern them, to fight for them. They coveted their neighbors’ government.

They coveted, and even though Samuel warned them – that a king would take their harvest, their property, and even their children, that they would cry out to God for relief from the bitterness the king would bring, that they really ought to be careful what they wish for – the people cried out for a king.

And God gave them one. Ready or not, here he comes.

The first king of Israel is a king appointed by God – yes – but a king who is the embodied symbol of the people’s rejection of God. Saul is king because God appointed him king and yet God sees Godself as rejected by the people through this appointment of a king. The people would rather have someone they can see sitting on a throne than this eternal, mysterious, all-knowing deity as their one unifying and constant leader. How do we understand this beginning? Are kings and queens true servants of God or are they the people God finds Godself stuck working with? The scriptures never give us a straight answer on these questions; they have us live in the tension.

The tension can be felt in Saul’s own call story. Before the story we read this morning, Saul has met Samuel. Saul had gone and lost his father’s donkeys. He searched high and he searched low, but could not find them. So, he had the bright idea to seek out a seer who could help him locate the precious livestock lest he feel the wrath of daddy. This seer was Samuel. Samuel had been told by the Lord that a man would come to him from the land of Benjamin and this man was the one Samuel would anoint as king. When Saul approached Samuel’s gate, the Lord made it clear that this man was the one. With just the two men—Saul who would be king and Samuel who never wanted to see a king over Israel—the prophet anointed the Benjaminite as ruler over the people Israel.

A noble enough beginning for the monarchy in Israel. Much more noble than the story we read. Much more noble than the future king of Israel hiding from his fate behind a bunch of luggage. When Samuel solidifies God’s choosing of Saul via the old-fashioned and very public method of lots, this future king, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, is nowhere to be seen.

It’s almost as if God is saying, “You wanted a king, Israel? Well here he is – he looks very kingly, if you can get a look at him, if he’s not too busy hiding.”

The story of Saul’s rule continues to reflect the tension between understanding the monarchy as a good thing or a bad thing or even, perhaps, an ugly thing. Saul indeed does what the people wanted him to do. He fights their enemies and he is triumphant. This man who we met hiding behind baggage is brave enough to face down armies of his people’s enemies, risk life and limb for a newly founded kingdom.

But this man who shows his worth on the battlefield is perhaps a little too interested in his own worth. Twice Saul rejects the commandment of the Lord not out of lust or fear or doubt – but out of desire to solidify his own political glory.

At one point, right before a big battle, Saul uses the ritual of offering prayers and sacrifices to God not out of love for God, but out of concern that the people who were getting antsy for the proper priest—Samuel—to show up would slip away. Very politically savvy, this Saul, using important ritual and meaning to keep his constitutions interest. Very savvy but not very faithful.

The second offense of Saul’s was the one that sealed his unfortunate fate. Saul was told by God to completely defeat the Amalekites, which meant no one or thing would be left. No women or children, no elderly, no young men, no kings. A harsh command to our ears, but Saul’s instructions nonetheless. Saul defeats this people, destroys them completely – except for their king and the best of their livestock and property. He didn’t save women or children – those were considered to be useless to him. But anything that Saul might be able to use for his own glory was kept.

Saul disobeyed God not out of concern for the Amalekites but out of concern for his political status. Holding the king of a defeated peoples meant he held a pretty good card up his sleeve. Some leverage or political weight he could throw around with other enemies or perhaps the allies of the Amalekites. By keeping the king of the Amalekites, Saul did a smart political thing. But again, he did not do the faithful thing. Saul focused on his glory and not on the Glory of Israel – not on God.

This is the last straw for God who pulls support from Saul – God’s own anointed king – and promises to back another for king.

Saul’s rule never runs smoothly again. He begins to grow restless, mad one might say, and once David, the young harp-playing, slingshot wielding shepherd boy enters the scene, it’s all over. Everyone, from Saul’s own children to God, likes David better.

Saul’s reign as king and his life end twenty years after he was found hiding among the baggage. Saul is defeated in battle and rather than face capture—rather than be in a position like the Amalekite king he had captured years ago—he commits suicide.

Saul’s reign is the inauspicious beginning of the Israelite monarchy. A monarchy that can never seem to decide if it’s a system that will work with God and for God or against God and for itself.

The Romans text we read this morning can be read as suggesting that all government—including Saul’s—is put in place by God and works for the good of the people. What a wonderful thought – that the authorities who are in place truly are God’s servants for our good. Yet you and I know that governments and leaders are not always looking out for the people and not always serving the goodness of God. So when a government brings about ill instead of good, should we really just sit back and say “one must be subject?” Is that what God would really want?

No matter how good a person may be when they enter office, he or she is still a human being and still subject to the flaws of humanity. Saul was chosen by God to be king and still proved himself to be a sinful man.

Perhaps one of God’s concerns about kings and queens versus judges was that they were permanent, and traditionally passing the power down the bloodlines. And power, as we have heard and as we have seen in Saul, corrupts. No matter how well-meaning, no matter how seemingly ideal, every authority on earth is still of this earth, still fallible.

The story of the first king over Israel is a reminder to all of us that no leader is as true and good as God. God is the constant, not us. God is eternally good and faithful, not us. While yes, we can bring good, and yes authorities, kings and queens, leaders, can indeed be servants of the people, they are not God. They are not the ones we pledge eternal devotion to, the ones we swear our ultimate allegiance to. For even those called by God – like Saul – can turn away from God’s desires, from God’s glory and to their own.

In this time as much as any other, we need to be aware that no matter what leader may catch our fancy, no matter how fervently we support a candidate for office, it is not a human being who should hold our ultimate support – but God. The stories of the kings and queens of the Bible are exceptionally varied. Some are what we would call good, some bad, and some perfectly unpleasant. God can work through all—that’s what God does—but none are above God or beyond God, no matter what some of them, and some of us, may think.

It is perfectly appropriate to look to an earthly leader to guide us, to defend us, to serve the greater good. We should find leaders that inspire us, who we want to share our dreams and hopes with. We should become excited by those who seem to stand head and shoulders above us all. We should not, however, look for that earthly leader to be anything more than that – of this earth. We have a ruler in heaven, a king of kings, one is our alpha and omega, one who will always seek good things for us, always watch over us, always be true to us. Praise be to our God, our ruler, our guide, our guard. Long live this king. Amen.

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