Thought for the week 6th June 2021

This week's talk is written by Steve Langton.

Read the small print

Today’s Old Testament lesson is taken from 1 Samuel 8: 4-20 and tells the story about how the Israelites wanted a king.  It is a story that can teach us about how we react when the secular world we live in seems to reject Christian values.

Firstly let’s remember the background.  Israel was previously led by a series of judges, who acted as priests, judges and sometimes military leaders.  Samuel was in this tradition having got the job due to the godless behaviour of the sons of his predecessor Eli.

Samuel ruled over Israel with some success, including military victory over the Philistines.  However, when Samuel grew old he appointed his sons as rulers and history repeated itself, with the sons proving to be corrupt, accepting bribes and perverting the course of justice.  The Israelites were unhappy and came to Samuel saying that they wanted change.  They knew that other nations were ruled over by kings rather than religious leaders and, as is so often the case, the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, so they wanted a king.

Initially Samuel feels rejected by this, but he takes his problem to God.  To Samuel’s surprise God says ‘Yes, they can have a king if they really want one, but make sure you read them the small print’.

So that is what Samuel does.  He goes and points out the disadvantages of a king.  The king will be primarily a military leader, and the needs of the army will be put first, rather than being balanced against God’s laws and wider questions of justice.  So their sons and daughters will be conscripted and their wealth taxed to support warmongering.  They will end up little better than slaves.

But the people didn’t want to listen to the small print.  Popular opinion, or at least the noisier sections of it, is fixated on the new modern plan of having a king.  I’m pretty sure that there must have been other calmer, more Godly Israelites who were in despair about this, but the voices of common sense can so often get drowned out by the screaming of the mob.

And so God said ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’  Not only this but, in the next chapter, Samuel is given the job of anointing Saul as king of Israel.

So what can we learn from this passage.  Firstly, we often think of free will as a New Testament idea, but here we see it in the Old Testament – and not just in the sense of the Israelites going against God, but in terms of God accepting their plan and getting his servant Samuel to action it.  This has parallels to our modern world when we can see our nation going off in the wrong direction.  We may be called to speak out against what is happening – to ensure that society is made aware of the small print but, if that fails, we have to accept that both a democratic society and the individuals within it have the free will to make wrong decisions.  We won’t agree with those decisions, and we will probably despair about them to like-minded friends, but we must respect them. 

Moreover, some of us might be called to help God make the best of a bad job.  Just as Samuel was given the job of anointing the new king, thus ensuring that it was someone worthy of the role, we as Christians might need to get involved, either in our work lives or amongst our families and friends, in mitigating against the worst consequences of the prevailing culture.

Secondly, we need to take our time when confronted with a new idea that seems to challenge our beliefs and values.  When the Israelites first came to Samuel, it would have been easy for him to just fly off the handle and immediately condemn their plans.  Instead he took the time to pray about the situation, to listen to God, and ultimately to work with God to find the best way forward.

So, when we are faced with something that challenges our faith, let us remember to take our concerns to God, and maybe we will find ourselves surprised by how things develop to reveal God’s love to all humankind.