As Israel’s renowned prophet Samuel approached death, the Israelites grew insecure about God’s ability to protect them from the perpetual threat posed by the surrounding nations. They therefore complained to Samuel that they wanted to “be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (I Sam. 8:19-20). Samuel was distraught, but Yahweh assured him that “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (8:6-7, emphasis added, cf. 10:19).
This passage makes it perfectly clear that all of this was a divine accommodation. For this passage equates demanding a king with rejecting God. When humans find their security in things like kings and military, they are to this degree rebelling against God’s creational design for them to have him alone as their ruler.
Interestingly enough, by the time the Israelites demand an earthly king, it seems their spiritual condition was such that God had no hope that they’d find a king who would live up to the standards he gave hundreds of years earlier in Deuteronomy 17 or that the people would even try to hold a king to these standards (as discussed in yesterday’s post). For, instead of reminding the people of these standards, as we might have expected, God rather warned them that whatever king they chose was going to bring them severe hardships, precisely because he would engage in many of the activities that God’s earlier instructions were designed to safeguard against (I Sam. 8:9-18). If God was stooping in Deuteronomy 17 when he first acknowledged that Israel would demand a king, he was stooping even further now that they were actually doing so.
Yet, despite God’s warning, the rebellious people persisted in their demand and Yahweh reluctantly acquiesced. In fact, the 1 Samuel narrative depicts him as acquiescing further to become deeply involved in the selection of their king (I Sam. 9-12). God was now stooping to select their king, knowing full well his former safeguards would not be honored. In this way this narrative reflects something of the incarnational, sin-bearing nature of Yahweh.
As it turned out, things went even worse than God had expected, according to this narrative, for it wasn’t very long before God regretted his choice of Saul as king. Though Samuel indicates that God was originally willing to give Saul and his descendants the throne “forever” (I Sam. 13:13), he now “regretted” making him king and therefore took it from him and gave it to David (I Sam. 15:11). David, for his part, is depicted as a much more godly king than Saul. Indeed, he was remembered as “a man after God’s own heart” and the exemplar king. Yet, it’s important to note that he too fell far below the standard set in God’s earlier instructions through Moses in Deuteronomy 17. Among other things, he acquired an unprecedented number of wives as well as an unprecedented amount of wealth and military power, to say nothing of his affair with Bathsheba and the murdering of her husband Uriah.
Nevertheless, not only does God condescend to work with David despite this sinful acquisition of wives, wealth and power; from the perspective of Christ, we can see that he condescended even further as he allows himself to be portrayed as the one who helped David sinfully acquire these things. Something similar could be said regarding God’s involvement with Israel and Judah’s subsequent kings. There is, it seems, almost no limit to how far the heavenly missionary will stoop to remain in relationship with his people and to continue to further his sovereign purposes through them.
All of this, I submit, provides further confirmation that when God is depicted along the lines of a pro-king, nationalistic deity, we should conclude that God is wearing a mask. These depictions, and the role that God assumes by appropriating them, tell us much more about the people God had to work with than they do about God. Yet, the fact that God was willing to condescend to wear this mask does reveal a profound truth about God, for it bears witness to the humble, incarnational God who was perfectly revealed in Christ.
Image by Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via Flickr.