Meditation on 1 Samuel 8 and 9.
A major turning point in Israel’s history was when they asked for a visible king like all the other nations: “Give us a king to lead us”. God took it personally. It was, in effect, a rejection of God’s invisible kingship over them (1 Samuel 8). Painful. Especially after God, as Israel’s Warrior-King, saved her out of 400 years of slavery by supernaturally defeating the gods of Egypt. After God continued to manifest his invisible kingship in many powerful visible ways.
This is fallen human nature. We want the crown. We want the gift we see more than the Giver we do not see. The security of materiality, the physical form of leadership more than God’s spiritual Ruling Reality – to which all earthly forms point. It’s easier to live by sight than by faith. Easier to have visible leaders like other nations than to live by trusting God and his Kingship over us. The former tends to idolatry of humanity, the latter is true worship of the true God. Idolatry costs us dearly.
Though rejected, God obliged Israel, warning her of the consequences of physical kingship – see the list in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. In short, kings want to be served (using people and resources), not to serve. Be careful of what you ask. God may give it to you!
So, Saul, the first king, is introduced as an “impressive young man without equal, a head taller than any others” (the ideal champion people wanted) and a wandering donkey wrangler searching for stray donkeys (1 Samuel 9). That symbolised Saul’s stubborn and disparate kingship over the rebellious people who asked for a king. Their lust for a king was such that “all the desire of Israel turned” to Saul (9:20). Whereas all their desire ought to be turned to God (Psalm 73:25).
In contrast, the second king, David, is introduced as “a man after God’s own heart” (desired God above all else) and a shepherd caring for his father’s flock (1 Samuel 16). David knew Yahweh as his shepherd who met his every need (Psalm 23:1f). That symbolised God’s shepherding of God’s own flock via human agency, pointing to God’s ideal, the future son of David, Son of God. David’s own kingship, however, fell far short of the reality it represented. And likewise, all the kings that followed. Until Messiah Jesus, the promised son of David, who was/is God’s ultimate answer to, “Give us a (physical) king like the other the nations.”
Jesus of Nazareth was not only the material model, but actual embodiment, of God’s invisible Person and Ruling Presence. Jesus inaugurated, taught and lived God’s Kingship on earth as it is in heaven, teaching his followers to be and do the same.
However, even Jesus had to wean his followers from dependence on his physical presence and leadership. Even that could become idolatrous! After Peter rightly identified Jesus as God’s King, he opposed Jesus’ talk of suffering and death. Messiah must live and conquer! Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, your human ideas and interests oppose God’s ideas and interests” (Matthew 16:16-23).
Therefore, first Jesus’ followers had to go through the deep disillusionment of their leader suffering and dying in weakness, unable (apparently) to save anyone, let alone Israel. Would this traumatic test, this inversion of “leadership”, throw them back onto God’s kingship in purified faith? Or would they turn to another physical king to meet their expectations? A golden calf to save them, to take them back to “the good old days”?
Secondly, before Jesus suffered and died, he carefully taught and prepared them to live under God’s direct invisible government by his indwelling Holy Spirit (e.g. John 14 to 16). The Spirit will be “another Parakletos”, not physically with them as Jesus had been, but spiritually in them, just as the invisible Spirit of his Father had indwelt Jesus, governing and guiding his every thought, word and deed… even to death… and resurrection.
Thirdly, after his bodily resurrection, Jesus weaned his followers from dependence on his physical presence by repeatedly appearing and disappearing over a period of 40 days. Then he ascended “out of sight” to be coronated as The King over the heavens and the earth, and to pour his Holy Spirit into them. They had to live by faith and not by sight.
Christ’s followers throughout the ages are called to live in this way under God’s invisible leadership by the indwelling Holy Spirit. To live out his heavenly Kingship as a model and witness to all nations of what it will be like when Messiah returns to set up his visible Kingdom: a wholistic spiritual-socio-political-economic-ecological reality of God’s Shalom. An ‘in-Spirited’ tactile reality transformed into the fullness of God’s glory, of which every created material form has always and only been but a shadow representation.
Sadly, however, Christians (let alone people in general) continue to lust for physical kings and leaders to champion their cause. We do not really trust Jesus’ Kingship over us and over secular powers. The result – the price we pay – is that Christians and large parts of the Church continue to be captured by the idolatry of leaders, blinded by the ideological powers working through them. We knowingly or unknowingly live out their corrupt rule.
We are thus more a copy of contemporary society than a model of God’s coming Kingdom. We are unable to think biblically – with Jesus’ worldview, beliefs, mindset, values and ethos – about socio-political-economic-ecological issues and cultural challenges. The issues and challenges that come and go in each generation evangelise and divide Christians and Churches way more than we evangelise and reconcile them. We are as polarised along party lines and divided by ideological powers as society in general.
To conclude, the above is not to discount or reject physical leadership. No, it’s to strip our need and desire for, and our exercise of human government from all idolatrous elements, by recovering a biblical theology and praxis of leadership. It’s the call to see Jesus’ Kingship. To renew our thinking. To recommit to genuine faith in God’s invisible leadership, as we follow Jesus’ way (ethics) of the Kingdom, yielding to the government of the Spirit guiding our every thought, word and deed. In short, to form the moral character fit for such leadership.
To the extent human agency models and imparts THAT biblical quality of leadership and governance, whether political, civil or spiritual, we receive it. To the extent it does not, followers of Jesus prophetically speak truth to power. Why? Because “Jesus is Lord”, not Caesar! That common proclamation in the Early Church meant Jesus is King and Judge over all – by virtue of his suffering servant leadership, vindicated in resurrection power, given all authority over the heavens and earth. Jesus will hold every leader (emperor, king, president, government, priest and pastor) accountable for their leadership and treatment of people. Shakespeare was right, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”