Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. As Americans we are a little shocked by the demand of the Israelites that Samuel give them a king. After all, our last king was George III, and we got rid of him in 1776. After the American Revolution, some veterans of the Continental Army wanted to crown George Washington as the Emperor of America, but he politely turned them down. (Aside: For what it’s worth, Washington was the first victorious general in the history of the world who did not use grab political power by military might. Talk about a humble man!)
Despite our bad memory of monarchy, Americans are still just a little obsessed with the British Royals, as proved true by the spectacular television and Internet audiences that watched the marriage nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle earlier this year. Even though we may not wish to have a king or queen as head of state, there remains something magical about monarchy, and I suspect than many of us are more than a little jealous that the UK has the House of Windsor to represent (and entertain) them.
Jealousy was, at least in part, the reason why the Israelites wanted a king. All the other nations around them had kings, and they wished to be like everybody else. The elders of Israel, representing the heads of the tribes and clans, told Samuel: “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5, ESV). Even after Samuel warned them that a king effectively would turn them into slaves through forced military conscription and heavy taxation, they still held forth: “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (8:19).
Samuel was angry by the people’s demand. After all, he was the last of the judges and saw their demand as a rejection of his own rule. But the LORD God, Yahweh, told him not to take it personally. “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 Sam. 8:7). In other words, Israel already had a king: Yahweh was king! “The Lord reigns” (1 Chron. 16:31). But the people did not want Yahweh to be their king. They didn’t want to live under God’s gracious rule and reign. They would rather usurp his authority and hand it over to a man who would lord it over them.
Tragically, everything Samuel told Israel about kings came true. The first king, Saul, failed to follow the Lord’s instruction. King David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). But he was a failure as a father and husband. His own sons waged civil wars that nearly tore apart the kingdom. And wise King Solomon forced conscription and heavy taxes upon Israel before finally abandon his faith to worship other gods. After that, the whole monarchy fell apart and descended into disorder.
Whether or not we realize it or not, we are prone to this kind of idolatry and usurpation as well. Even though we don’t have a king in our democratic republic, we do have a tendency during every election cycle to imagine that such and such candidate is going to be the answer to all our problems. And no matter which party he or she hails from, we are fools for setting such high hopes on a person—a mere human being. Our Psalm today warns us: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3). Politicians and leaders disappoint us and die just like anyone else. Imagining that any man or woman is going to save our country is foolish.
Those in power are always tempted to abuse their power. Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…” (Luke 22:25, NIV). Yet Jesus admonishes his disciples, “But not so with you…” (Luke 22:26). Rather, the greatest must be the least of all and youngest of all. Those who lead properly, whether in the government, business, or church, must see their role as one of service, not as one of lordship for their own benefit.
As Christians in a republic, we have no earthly king. But we still have a King. His name is Jesus! And if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. This does not mean that we are fundamentally anarchists. To the contrary! The Bible says that the governing authorities are God’s servants (or ministers) to punish evildoers and reward those who do good (Rom. 13:1-7). As such, we owe them respect, honor, and taxes—even when we dislike or disagree with them. But when the government forgets that it serves at God’s pleasure, not just that of the people, matters become untenable. Tyrants are born when they forget that leadership means service—and subjection to God’s ultimate rule and reign. And don’t forget that even a majority can be wrong. In the Weimar Republic it was a majority which voted Adolf Hitler into office as the German Chancellor. Politicians—and the people who elect them—cannot be trusted fully. As Winston Churchill once observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all others that have been tried.” And that is why we must put our trust and confidence in Christ the King. No matter who is president or prime minister, Jesus must be king.
Jesus is not a king like the nations. His kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). Nor does his rule look like the regimes that rule the nations. No, Jesus does not lord it over us. He does not force himself upon us. Instead, he stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, waiting to be let in (Rev. 3:20). Jesus is a Servant-King who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, was enthroned on a cross and crowned with twisted thorns. He died between two criminals, mocked and scorned by the religious and political elites of his day. But he did not die a failure. He died for our sins. He came in apparent weakness in order to raise up the whole world with him on Easter.
Jesus is not a king who will fail you. His plans did not perish on the day he died (cf. Ps. 146:4). For Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. And he promises eternal life and a place of honor in the coming kingdom to all who believe (cf. Luke 22:29-30). What kind of earthly king ever shared earthly rule willingly? Julius Caesar waged war against his fellow Consuls. In the game of thrones, there can be only one winner. But Jesus shares his gracious rule and reign with every single Christian. For, as I said before, he is not a king like the nations. He is the King who came to serve. So do not set your hope on princes. Instead, set your hope in Jesus, the Prince of Peace! In the name of the Father and of the Son and + of the Holy Spirit. Amen.