Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.”
Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its clans, and the clan of the Matrites was taken by lot; and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. So they inquired again of the LORD, “Is there a man still to come?” and the LORD said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
(1 Samuel 10:17-27 ESV)
I was chatting with two of the women from our church yesterday at a picnic we had, and our conversation got onto simpler, better times. The women talked wistfully about neighbors and neighborhoods, about a time when community life and church life were pretty much the same, about church suppers, the building of the “new” part of Concord after World War II, and about raising large families in small houses.
I do remember a good bit of what passed for Americana. I remember the church suppers and church fairs. I remember the Fireman’s Carnivals, the penny candy store near the railroad station, a druggist, Good Humor Man, and milkman who all knew me by name. I remember having free-reign of the three streets that made up our neighborhood, and a time when I could tell you the last names, at least, of every family on our block.
I hate to snap us all out of our collective reverie, but that’s all gone now because Israel demanded a king.
God looked at his people as they insisted that they get what other nations had – a king – and he told them, “if you do this, it won’t go well for you.” But they wouldn’t listen. So God sighed and granted their request. As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.” The word that most comes to mind when I think of this episode in the history of Israel is entitlement.
I’m no economist but I’m pretty sure the reason we’re in such hot water financially these days has something to do with spending 50 or 60 years trying to give everyone, and I mean everyone, what they want. The veneer of Americana was very much like a movie set – beautiful, wistful parts were the parts on the surface. The cost of Americana was that a great many people lived in deep poverty in order that a relatively small number could purchase Americana from them.
Sometime after World War II, we decided we should all have the dream, and began to purchase it from the public coffers rather than from each other, and the Permanent National Debt was born. Right now, at 8:35 AM on Monday, June 27, 2011, that debt is a little over $14,255,000,000,000, and is growing at such a pace that calling up the National Debt Clock on my computer caused my internet to crash.
We have gone from exacting a high standard of living from the toil of other men’s lives to placing it all on a national charge card. Take careful stock of the standard of living you enjoy. If you are reading these words, you own a computer. If you own a computer you are living in the rarified entitlement sector that has largely forgotten how to make, build, craft, and basically work for most of what you have. Rather, you believe you are entitled to it all. Make no mistake, I do not believe it is innately wrong to own property or have a few nice things. This is a complicated problem, and I won’t resume to offer a simple solution.
Until the day Israel chose Saul to be king, the people lived under a limited anarchical theocracy. That is, there was no centralized government, no particular governing figure, and the people looked to a God or gods for protection and guidance. But the people of Israel felt entitled to a king so they could be like the rest of the nations. And when they chose Saul in what was surely the first example in recorded history of stuffing the ballot box, they got what they asked for.
They chose Saul out of all the men of Israel quite simply because he was taller and more handsome than anyone else. They didn’t choose him because he was a better leader than the rest. They chose him because he looked like a better leader (something we should think about as November, 2012 approaches).
I know Saul had other things on his mind than how to balance Social Security and a vast military budget against the National Debt. But my guess is that he was smart enough to know that he wasn’t up to the job. That’s why, when they went looking for him to proclaim him king, they found him cowering in the luggage room. It is also telling that about two seconds after Saul was found and made king, the sycophants began bringing him gifts. The political patronage game was on.
I know you’re probably thinking I have some great conclusion up my sleeve about how to make America great again. I don’t. In fact, the lesson of 1 Samuel 10 is the same lesson the prophet Micah learned after watching Israel’s whole house of cards collapse: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Micah says nothing about the pursuit of wealth or a higher standard of living. No country is great in God’s eyes. The country that would be truly great, I suppose, would be one that chose the way of Christ – the way of humble service, healing, identification with and charity toward the poor and infirm, love, mercy, and justice. But then, that would be a return to a limited anarchical theocracy -- a country without a king.