Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:1–13
Four phrases. Each dripping with theological significance. Each sets the trajectory for God’s people in 1 Samuel in a new way.
Two weeks ago, things looked like they were on the right track. The prophet Samuel had been called by God, and he had answered the first of the three phrases: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It was a symbol of what God’s people could be: receptive, trusting, open to God’s leadership, ready to reject injustice. All looked good.
But then last week, things took a turn. The people of God, nervous about what this new era of trust would mean, uttered the next phrase: “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” Samuel’s guidance—marked by trust and receptivity to God’s leading—was rejected by God’s people, in favor of a political figure who would tell them what to do and remove all ambiguity. God and Samuel, in tandem, warn the Israelites that if they choose this path, things will get messy.
Messy, indeed. The first of the kings that they demand was a man named Saul. He was everything that the people wanted in a king: popular, charismatic, prestigious, politically savvy, tall, dark, and handsome. But he was exactly what God and Samuel warned them about. First, he personally conducted the religious blessing of his own army before he led them into battle instead of waiting for Samuel, asserting himself as both political leader AND religious leader—a danger in any age. Second, he stole the spoils of war for himself, gathering flocks and herds for his personal wealth. This leads to the third phrase that sets the trajectory for the next several chapters. Samuel tells Saul: “the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” Technically, Saul is still king, but God and Samuel were already done with him, and Samuel began actively looking for his replacement. Which leads us to today’s passage…
1 Samuel 16.1–13
Last week, I talked about Kristen Kobes Du Mez and her book Jesus and John Wayne. Some of you might have been thinking, “wait a minute, I love John Wayne! Rooster Cogburn! True Grit! Sands of Iwo Jima! I grew up on his movies! Why would you pick on John Wayne?” But in the book, Du Mez pulls the curtain back a little bit on John Wayne, the person. The actor behind the roles. The roles of John Wayne included a bunch of military heroes, whereas the actor John Wayne begged for a military exemption so that he would not need to serve during WWII. The roles of John Wayne included a lot of men who treated women with respect and honor, whereas the actor John Wayne had several high-profile affairs and married and divorced several times. The roles of John Wayne included men of faith and commitment to a religious way of life, but the actor John Wayne had never spent much time in church before Hollywood and politicians in Washington decided to remake him as the perfect Christian man.
Du Mez goes on to write that Christians fell in love with this character that John Wayne played, even though it wasn’t based in reality. According to Du Mez, politicians manipulated his image so he could serve as a mascot for their causes. It is a refrain repeated again and again for a century in the Church here in the U.S: people who see the advantage of the Christian vote, who talk like a Christian, but do not act like Christ. The point Du Mez is trying to make is that this hypocrisy ultimately hurts the Church, leads people to reject Jesus by association, and leads them away from the saving grace of Christ. So why pick on John Wayne? Because when we idolize or try to emulate the wrong people, when we fall for an imposter, we cause more damage than good.
First Samuel tells this story in vivid detail. Throughout the book, and really throughout much of the Bible, there are these two parallel tracks. Two types of figures that the people of God must choose between. I would name them as the ways of Monarchy and Prophecy.
First is the way of Monarchy. Monarchist voices are those who feel like the kingly path is the right path. The voice of elders from last week, suggesting that they need a king like the other nations, are monarchists. And whenever you hear someone gushing about the “dynasty of David” or the “wisdom of Solomon” or David as a “man after God’s own heart,” you are probably dealing with a monarchist. These are the ones who suggest that kings are the way to go, and sure, they might mess up every once and while, but if we just find the right one, everything will be great!
But look at what 1 and 2 Samuel does with the monarchist path. There is a reason why the books are called 1 and 2 Samuel and not 1 and 2 David, even though the whole book is about the king. Even this king, who is supposed to be the best of the best, comes up short. Remember the list of things last week that Samuel and God said that a king would take? Look what 1 and 2 Samuel does with that list:
• “The king will take your sons as soldiers.” The whole book of 2 Samuel tells the stories of the battles that David waged and the soldiers he drafted to do so.
• “The king will take your land.” Chapter 24 tells of the census that David takes in order to centralize his power and holdings.
• “The king will take your daughters.” Chap 11 tells the story of his abusive abduction of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.
The authors of 1 and 2 Samuel have a definite perspective when it comes to David and the monarchy, and they have kept receipts. But they offer an alternative: the voice of the prophet. The prophet is the one who does not seek political power, but speaks on behalf of God to the world and often against political power. Think the Prophet Samuel, telling the people that they don’t need a king, and telling Saul he was out. Think the Prophet Nathan, telling David “you are the man” in response to his mistreatment of Bathsheba and Uriah. Think Isaiah, shaping the reign of King Hezekiah. Think Amos, standing against the ruling class of Israel. Think Jeremiah, standing against King Zedekiah and the final kings of Judah before the Exile.
Think about Jesus. Do you remember how many times Jesus associates himself with the voice of prophecy? Quoted the Prophets in his teachings? Identified himself with Prophetic symbolism, like riding a donkey and turning over the tables. The Monarchists tried to make him a king, a Messiah with royal kingly power. But he claimed himself and his identity in this parallel track: his calling was to stand against the political power of his day. Jesus would not take the royal reins of the Monarchists, but instead chose the way of the Prophets.
Why does this matter? Why is this relevant for us? Because that same division exists today. We must still choose between those parallel tracks. Will we choose the way of prophecy or monarchy? How do you know when you are on the wrong track? A few suggestions.
You may be a Monarchist if you have ever suggested that one political party is the “Christian one.” I don’t care what party you espouse, if you suggest that that party is somehow equal to the life and teachings of Christ, you are probably on the monarchist track.
You might be Monarchist if you spend a great deal of your time aligning yourself to political platforms, listening to political pundits, letting social media and cable news teach you about your faith instead of the other way around. If you align and surround yourself only with those who agree with your political identification, you might be a monarchist.
Or let’s get specific. If you saw the billboard in Missouri a few years ago with Donald Trump’s face on it and the Bible verse, “The Word became flesh…” and weren’t immediately horrified by the idolatry, you might be a Monarchist.
Or if you saw Joe Biden’s face on your screen last Fall, with the words “confirmed electoral college winner”, and you sat back in your chair and exhaled and said “we made it. Now our work is done,” you might be a Monarchist.
Our world today is filled with Monarchists of all shapes and sizes, crying out to God “give us a king like the other nations have!” If you have ever suggested or stated outright that having a certain political king or queen at the helm will make everything alright, you join them in their cries.
But there is another way. The Prophetic way. The voice of the prophets. This prophetic path winds its way through Scripture, finding some of the unlikeliest and most unexpected figures along the way. And in the process, invites us to join that path, as well. Today, you may be a prophet! Let me suggest three ways that we can follow the prophetic path, and not get distracted by monarchist values of power and accolades.
You may be a prophet if…you are ready for hard conversations. Remember last week, when the people told Samuel, “we want a king to fight our battles for us”? So often, we are unsure of our own value and worth that we are willing to hide in the shadow of whatever bully creeps out of the depths. Let him fight our battles for us. But the prophetic way does not run from hard conversations. It may not necessarily mean standing up to the royal court, but instead whispering the ways of Jesus to a friend. It may not mean turning over tables, but choosing to post a message of grace and peace instead of anger or Monarchist certainty. Sometimes the prophetic way is telling a story, like Nathan did. Or choosing to live alongside those who are suffering, like Jeremiah did. Today is Halloween, of course, but it is also Reformation Sunday, where we remember that a young monk that no one had ever heard of, named Martin Luther, engaged in a hard conversation. Nailing the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door was like a social media post, saying “our Church needs to be a Church of love and inclusion and not Power-for-Sale.” And when even he became distracted by power and prestige, it took another set of voices, more radical reformers, to preach an even more radical inclusivity. It takes some hard conversations to be a prophet.
You may be a prophet if…you look on the heart. Did you notice what Samuel said in the story today, in his anointing of David? He had a chance to pick another king like Saul. All of David’s brothers were big and strong and tall and charismatic, very John Wayne-esque. But God looked past all of that and chose David, whose own father didn’t even think he could be an option! David was not old enough, not first-born enough, not manly enough, a shepherd and musician who sang to the sheep. Monarchists value certain kinds of bodies and personalities, but God looks on the heart. And it doesn’t matter if you are a child, like Samuel. Or a woman, like Huldah. Or a shepherd, like Amos. These are the prophets that God chooses. And you, too, might very well find yourself speaking with a prophetic voice to the people, and maybe even against the kings and queens of our land. But when we devalue ourselves or others because we don’t fit some stereotypical idea of God’s servant, then we are denying the voice of God within us, the image of God inside us. Prophets look on the heart.
Finally, you might be a prophet…when you align yourself with the Spirit of God. Lest you think I am being too hard on young David and his monarchy before it even begins, let me make this clarification. The Scriptural narrative suggests that monarchy as a whole is fraught with danger. Kinghood is a failed enterprise. But that doesn’t mean that kings aren’t capable of doing good things. There are holy moments sprinkled throughout where even imperfect kings speak as the voice of God.
Anyone notice that I only named three phrases, when I said there were four? This passage gives us our fourth phrase that sets the trajectory for David and the whole of Scripture: “the spirit of the Lord came mightily” upon him. When David aligns himself with the Spirit of God, he is capable of true greatness. Prophetic greatness. He spares Saul’s life and chooses peace instead of violence. He confesses his sins in Psalm 51, showing humility and grace. He cares for the vulnerable in the story of Mephibosheth. Even the monarch can act like a prophet, from time to time! And if he can, so can we. Fellow prophets of God, remember that the same Holy Spirit that came mightily upon David comes mightily upon us as well.
The old song says it well…”If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, and say He died for all…”
It is the Spirit that gives us the words, the Spirit who heals the sin-sick soul, the Spirit who comes mightily upon us. Rise up, prophets of God, Reformers, and be ready to live out the Gospel of our Christ!