1 Samuel 8: Royal Freedom

God calls us to freedom, through fear we run back to slavery, yet God stays faithful despite our failure and works with us toward fulfilment.

God creates life, sin twists it to death, the two wrestle through incarnation, until new life is born in resurrection

One: freedom – life – creator King

Exodus 1: 8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.
“Look,” he warned his people, “the Israelites have become dangerously numerous, much too powerful …
So the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly.
They made their lives bitter: hard labor in brick and mortar. Backbreaking work in the fields….
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help went up to God.
 
Most of you will know the story.
The Israelites cried to God, and he answered.
God sent Moses
 
 
In the beginning, God pushed back the waters of chaos, created the earth-the first paradise, and birthed the first people
Now God blew back the Red Sea.
after 400 years gestation in Egypt, Intense birth pangs of slavery and the final contractions of the 10 plagues,
Israel was born.
our God is the God who gives new life
 
In the words of an old Negro spiritual,
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We are free at last!”[1]
 
This escape from Egypt, or Exodus, is the pivotal event of the Old Testament
From then on, God is defined as the God who brought them out of Egypt, out of slavery.
 
Our God is the God who hears the cry of his people and sets them free
 
Freedom
 
freedom from being slaves in Egypt.
Freedom to be different.
 
God called them to be different from other peoples,
Different from the Egyptians, not like the Philistines.
Why? To bring God’s blessing to them.
To be a light to the nations
 
So God allowed no compromise.
No treaties with the nations
no intermarriage
no worshipping their gods – their petty, man-made gods.[2]
 
They were to live by trust in the one true God
 
 
so the 10 Commandments began:
Exodus 20:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods.
You shall not make an idol
 
Set free and called to be different
 
40 years after the escape from Egypt, Joshua led them into a new paradise, God’s promised land of milk and honey
But to their neighbours:
“look at this rabble, crawled in from the desert.
No culture, no arts – Uncouth barbarians
and yet got the arrogance, the audacity to challenge our gods -who do they think they are?
and you know what?
No iron, no chariots, stuff all military technology.
Maybe it’s time they learnt a lesson”
 
Israel’s freedom was fragile
 
Inevitably, their neighbours attacked
but as in Egypt, Israel cried to God, and he rescued them.
In the hour of need, he raised up heroes called judges – Like Samson, Gideon, Deborah
one off, short term leaders, because God was the real boss
 
the last great judge was Samuel.
The only one with his own book
his mother Hannah had been barren, sterile, but she cried to God.
Again, the human cry of need, and God’s answer of new life
 
We saw last week, 1 Samuel 7, the Philistines mustered their troops,
Israel was outnumbered and outgunned – or should I say, out charioted.
Their troops trembled
but Samuel prayed
when “the Philistines drew near to attack; the Lord thundered with a mighty voice
he threw them into confusion; and they were routed.” (1 Samuel 7:10)
 
Once again, the people can dance in victory, and laugh for joy.
God heard their cry and set them free.[3]
 

Two: fear – death – rejected King

What a God!
The gods of the nations are dead: deaf dumb and helpless.
The God of Israel hears and sees, speaks and rescues
 
But this God has certain drawbacks.
As Bruce said last week, he takes a long time.
In fact, he leaves things to the last minute – some of us know that
Worse, he hides himself.
You can always grab an idol, when you need it
There’s no guarantee that God will show up when or how we want
 
Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he wants (Psalm 115:3)
Can you grasp a lightning bolt?
Set its schedule by your watch.
Tell it where to strike
God is not at our beck and call.
 
 
Two weeks ago, 1 Samuel 4, Israel learnt this
once again, the Philistines marched in
4000 Israelite soldiers died.
They were desperate.
Where was God?
They tried to force God’s hand
they took the ark – the holy box Moses made in the desert.
It’s called the throne of God
They carried it into battle – a secret magic weapon – their God in a box,
But no one got what they expected
 
30,000 more Israelites were slaughtered.
The Philistines captured the ark – “all right boys! We got Israel’s puny God!”
 
 
Reminds me of the little girl, who asked,
“Mummy, is it true that God is everywhere?”
Mum replies, “yes dear.”
“So you mean, God is even inside this glass?”
“of course, dear.”
Claps hand over top of glass-”Aha! I caught God!”
 
 
And that’s what the Philistines thought, but they got a shock
their idol collapsed.
plagues broke out – like in Egypt
 
And no one wanted the Ark near.
Like hot nuclear waste,
the Geiger counters were going crazy
get that thing outta here!
get rid of it! but not in my backyard.
 
So, they returned it to Israel.
Most Israelites rejoiced. But some didn’t, and died
Don’t mess! that thing was highly charged.
 
 
Both Philistines and Israel found that God doesn’t take sides.[4]
God bursts out of the box, out of our hands, out of control,
idols may be bolted down, so they don’t fall over – like the Philistine god Dagon, but no one pins God down
 
 
“a man or woman who has never tried to flee God, has never experienced the God who is really God.”
(Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 49).
 
There is nothing to fear from gods that we make – they’re cosy and comfortable.
God is not.[5]
 
 
The Israelites had a lot of fear
For many, fear of being different, the tall poppy, the laughing stock, the odd one out among the nations
for others, Fear of the enemy. Fear of their armies
For some, Fear of God
I suspect all these fears drive what happens in chapter 8.
 
************* 1 Samuel 8:1-20
 
 
At first, their royal request seems reasonable
Samuel is old and grey. Who’ll replace him? His sons? Badly corrupt.
 
but wanting a human King means rejecting God as their true King
rejecting his call to be different, copying the nations
 
 
Samuel warns them what a human King will be like:
he will conscript their sons into his army.
Force them to work in his fields and factories.
He’ll take their daughters as his cooks, cosmetic makers,
and, we might add, concubines – King Solomon had 700!
Take the best of their crops and flocks.
That 10th of their produce they gave to God
He’ll commandeer their servants.
And to cap it all off,
he will make them his slaves.
 
 
Behind all excuses, At the end of the day, demanding a King was asking for slavery.
Here’s what they wanted: “escape from freedom”[6] (Eric Fromm)
Freedom was too scary.
They wanted a master “over” them,
they wanted back to Egypt
 
In a great English poem, the devil says.
“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” (John Milton)
better to slave in the Egyptian hellhole,
Than freely serve God, in the promised land.
 
 
What a tragedy: Paradise Lost
God called them to be different from the nations, and give His blessing to others.
But they want to be the same, and get what the others have got.[7]
 
a permanent King, a standing army, stables of horses and chariots.
visible strength to ward off the threatening neighbours.
A safe human King and man-made security between them and their terrifying God
much more comfortable, much more convenient
A god in the hand is worth two burning bushes!
 
 
“This is what the Lord says: I brought you up out of Egypt,
delivered you from all the kingdoms that oppressed you.
saved you from calamities and distress.
but you have said, ‘No! set a king over us.’’” (1 Samuel 10:18-19)
 
 
Doesn’t it make you want to scream? How could they be so stupid? So blind? It’s insane!
But are we that different?
Who or what is our King, if we are honest?
Where is our security, really? in a time of financial crisis?
In the bank? In our job? In government rescue packages? In ourselves?
 
In the New Testament, Paul wrote a letter to the churches in Galatia,
they had much the same problem
 
In Galatians, salvation is like a new exodus out of Egypt – liberation from spiritual slavery under sin and death
Jesus Christ died on the cross to set us free (Galatians 1:4).
So we are no longer slaves, but God’s sons and daughters.[8]
 
The Galatians had found this freedom
they’d tasted the joy of grace, God’s new birth.
If they knew the hymn, they’d have sung
“My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth and followed thee.”
but now, like Israel, they want to go back
 
Paul is outraged (Galatians 1:6).
It is his most passionate letter.[9]
 
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?
You were running well. (Galatians 5:7, 13)
You began with God’s Spirit.
You trusted Christ.
But are you now trusting human effort? (Galatians 3:1-3).
How can you turn back?
back to your ridiculous religious rules?
back to your sickly self-righteousness?
you miss your chains?
You want to be enslaved all over again? (Galatians 4:8-9).
 
 
we can also fear Christ’s work is not quite enough to save us
In this time of crumbling economies and sinking stocks, maybe the cross has also devalued.
So we take things into our own hands,
try to earn moral credit with God.
just in case.
 
 
Samuel and Paul teach the same principle:
we mustn’t add trust in kings, armies or idols, the work of human hands, to faith in God to save us.
We can’t add human work to Christ’s work on the cross.
 
So Paul shouts to the heavens:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then,
Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1).
 
——–
 
Like Paul to the Galatians, Samuel stressed what Israel’s flight from freedom would mean
the King will exploit and abuse them, take take take
was that really what they wanted?
 
But “They refused to listen …, they said “no! We are determined to have a king.”
Samuel was not pleased.
but the Lord ordered him, “listen to their voice and give them a king.”
1 Samuel 8:19-22
 
In chapter 9, Samuel did just this – he anointed Saul as the first king.
 
In chapter 12, Samuel makes his farewell speech.
“Whose ox have I taken?
Whose donkey have I taken?
have I ripped you off?
have I taken a bribe?”
No. Unlike the King, Samuel took nothing.
 
 
The third King, Solomon, built the temple and Palace in Jerusalem with thousands of forced labourers. (1 Kings 5:13, 9:15)
when he died, the people asked his son to lighten their load
but he answered
“My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.
You thought his yoke was heavy?
My father struck you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:14)
Just like Egypt.
It was for freedom that God had set them free.
But now they wanted a king; they wanted slavery
 

Three: faithful failure – incarnation – crucified King

 
Any philosopher will tell you, God is infinitely above us.
God is all knowing, all-powerful, unchanging,
but several times the old testament says, because of something people did or asked, God changed his mind!
Incredible! Some Bible translations can’t cope, and euphemize around it.
 
But in real relationships, both sides give and take
the name Israel means “he struggles, wrestles with God.”
 
we see it in this passage.
It seems that a king probably was God’s plan.[10]
But the timing was not right; the motive was wrong
The first king Saul was a disaster.
It wasn’t God’s way, but he accepted their decision.[11]
God made us free and he respects our freedom – sometimes shockingly so.
Our freedom sometimes seems more important to God than almost anything else
 
Isn’t it amazing?
The King of Kings is not an absolute monarch.
God’s kingdom is no dictatorship,
but a coalition between heaven and earth.
God makes us co-workers in his plans.
 
At the end of Samuel’s speech, the people realise they have sinned.
They realise they’ve rejected God,
he’d have every right to abandon them.
 
But Samuel says
“Do not be afraid… For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people,
because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.” (1 Samuel 12:20-22)
 
Yes, they must live with the consequence of their choice – much unnecessary pain.
But God will stick with them, stay with them, struggle with them
In their failure God remains faithful.
 
 
This year I’ve been getting into the Old Testament.
More than anything, it’s a book of stories
 
there are two sorts of stories with two sorts of heroes.[12]
There are stories with fairy tale heroes
unblemished honour, unflinching courage, unwavering faith,
you’ll find a few in the Bible – Samuel comes close.
 
But if you like black and white truths in a nice tidy system, the Old Testament is a nightmare.
It is full of the second kind of story:
Confusing and contradictory, ambiguous and ambivalent, even immoral stories
beauty and brutality, praise and perversion, can jostle in the same chapter![13]
heroes with deep flaws who pay a price for big mistakes.
Samson and David are crippled by lust.
Jonah runs away from God
the people of Israel reject him
 
 
I really discovered these Old Testament stories when I was 21.
I spent hours lining the stories up with the maps at the back of my Bible, figuring out how it all fitted together.
I made this list of the Kings with plus or minus, for good or bad.
Here’s an old picture showing the same-over the centuries, up and down
trusting God in righteousness, turning to idolatry.
Up and down. Faith and failure.
What a rollercoaster.
And yet, the good news is this, the miracle is this:
in it all, God was working!
 
A few years after that, I heard the evangelist Julian Batchelor.
the most confident sort of chap, you’d think had no downs.
On the whiteboard, he drew a graph of the normal Christian life.
I expected steady growth, strongly surging upwards.
But he drew something like this – something like those Kings.
Up and down, down and up
feeble, fluctuating, faith and failure
 
I found that most encouraging,
the normal Christian life – just like me!
 
 
a young chap once asked a wise old monk what life was like in the monastery.
He doubtless expected a super spiritual reply – that steady up
but the monk replied, it’s very simple.
We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. – someone made a song of it
Somehow by the grace of God still faithful, despite our failure.
 
You can often see God more in broken people.
wounded healers, saints with scars, rough diamonds
his glory shines through their cracks.
 
That’s what I love about these stories and these “heroes” from the Bible
A saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.
“Only weathered wood makes singing violins” (Calvin Miller)
 
 
two weeks ago, we sang a song based on Isaiah 40,
“As I wait, I’ll rise up like the eagle.
And I will soar with you,
your spirit leads me on
by the power of your love.”
 
Sometimes life is like that:
soaring like the eagle on a spiritual high
– the first kind of story
 
but you know what?
sometimes, I’m more struggling like the snail.
Slaving in the slime, with a burden on my back.
Full of fear. Terrified a bird will spot me for his dinner
– maybe one of those blooming soaring Eagles.
 
The great thing two weeks ago, was the spelling in our lyrics:
“And I will sore with you”,
yes! Stunning! Inspired!
Incarnation means God sores, suffers, with us
 
Incarnation means God gets into our flesh
he mingles with our mess
He stirs his Spirit into our stew
wrestles his clay back into shape
incarnation means God doesn’t leave the world a get-well card; he gets sick with it (Calvin Miller)
 
——-
 
The people in Samuel rejected God as their king. They wanted a ruler like the nations
many years later, God sent a new king, totally unlike the kings of the nations.
A king of peace who led no armies.
A servant King, who made no slaves, but washed his people’s feet
a suffering king, who took nothing, but gave his very life.
 
But people don’t change
when Pilate said of Jesus. “Here is your king!”
They cried “we have no king, but Caesar.” (John 19:14-15)
the ultimate rejected King
he died with nothing but a crown of thorns.
The crucified king
 
 

Four: fulfilment – resurrection – returning King

 
Tonight, we’ve moved through three themes
Freedom, fear, faithful failure.
 
God hears the cry of his people, and sets them free.
Freedom from Egypt, from Philistines
freedom from slavery under death and sin
 
He sets us free and calls us to be different.[14]
 
But from Adam to Israel, from the Galatians to us.
Fear steals our freedom.
 
We reject God as our King.
We run back to slavery
from freedom to fear, God’s new life to our old death.
 
 
Yet there is hope.
Despite our failure, God stays faithful.
Incarnation.
God’s life wrestles with our death, his freedom with our fear
 
Life, death, incarnation
freedom, fear, faithful failure
 
 
In the Old Testament, God is the God who rescued his people from Egypt.
in the new, God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
 
Freedom out of slavery. New life from the tomb.
the rejected King, the crucified King, became the risen King,
 
 
We are on the way to destination paradise
As Jesus said, the road is neither wide nor easy.
 
We are sore yet soaring,
Sinful saints,
we live in freedom and fear.
We fall down, we get up.
we faithful failures look forward to fulfilment.
 
One day, all creation will be free (Romans 8:21)
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! Free at last!”
 
 
Life. Death. Incarnation. Resurrection.[15]
 
at the end of our time, here’s the end of a poem
on the second coming of Christ, the return of the King:[16]
 
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,                 
Is immortal diamond.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

 


[1] Quoted by Martin Luther King. I also thought of William Wallace’s cry "Freedom!" in the film Braveheart.
[2] The gods of Greek and Roman mythology are frequently squabbling, chasing women, making havoc – not much different from us.
[3] Long before, Moses had said that “when you go out to war against your enemies, and see forces and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt … the Lord goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:1-4).
[4] Before the Battle of Jericho, Joshua met a strange warrior. Joshua asked “are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither. But as commander of the army of the Lord. I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14).
[5] James K Baxter:Who is harsher than this God of ours?   The God they imagine, and pray to very often in the churches, is a God of sugar compared to the terrible One who grips our living entrails… He comes like a sandstorm out of the desert, or the avalanche on a mountain village, or tons of black water from the depths of the sea.”
[6] The title of a 1942 work by psychologist Eric Fromm, seeking to explain why people in the modern world fear their freedom and embrace dictators or totalitarian regimes that enslave them, such as the German people following Hitler. For existentialist philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free”, yet often flees this freedom, rejecting responsibility for his own life in “bad faith”. I suspect the Israelites’ request for a king could be read in such psychological terms. Samuel insists the people must “take their stand” (1 Samuel 12:7,16), and accept responsibility for their decision.
[7] One of the saddest verses in scripture is “They went after false idols and became false themselves” (2 Kings 17:15), reflecting one of the great spiritual principles: we become like what we worship.
[8] God has given us not “the spirit that makes you a slave begin to fear”, but “the spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15).
[9] Galatians has been called the “Magna Carta of Christian liberty.”
[10] In Genesis 17:6, 16, God promised Abraham that kings would come from him. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Moses gives instructions regarding a future king. In particular, he is forbidden to accumulate silver and gold, many wives, or many horses (“money, sex, and power”), the exact things that Kings from David and Solomon onwards did, and were led away from God by.
[11] George Macdonald: “The Father will never give the child a stone that asks for bread; but I am not sure that He will never give the child a stone that asks for a stone. If the father says, ‘my child, that is a stone; it is no bread’, and the child answer, ‘I am sure it is bread; I want it’, may it not be well that he should try his ‘bread’?”
[12] The two stories idea is from John Goldingay, 2000, Men Behaving Badly – a series of studies on the book of Samuel.
[13] Theologian Walter Wink describes his own Jacob-like wrestling with the Scriptures: “I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censor it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, cowardice, and an addiction to war. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating until it wounds my thigh with ‘new-ancient’ words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both.”
[14] Not conformed to this world or squeezed into its mould (Romans 12:1).
[15] Paralleling these four parts, the gospel has been summarised in four words: good, bad, new, perfect.
The good: the life of freedom, given by our creator king.
The bad: slavery to death, when we give way to fear and reject our King
The new: incarnation of the faithful God into our failure as the suffering servant, the crucified King
The perfect: the hope of resurrection and fulfilment with our risen and returning King.
[16] In Revelation 19, Christ more resembles the sort of victorious general-King they expected, returning as the rider on a white horse, the King of Kings at the head of heaven’s armies.