Political Leadership in a Changing World
Updated: Jun 16
1 Samuel 8: 4-20 (NRSV)
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me,[a] from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us,20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
In today's passage, Israel faces a crucial moment of institutional change. The rule of the Judges comes to an end, and the people desire a king to lead them (verses 5-6). In so doing, they reject the leadership of Samuel and, above all, God (7). Their motivation in wanting a king stems from their desire to 'be like other nations' and have a king govern them and fight their battles (20). In obedience to God, Samuel presents a devastating critic of kingship, leaving the people in no doubt as to the implication of choosing a king (10-18). In Samuel's mind, Israel is making the wrong decision, for by choosing a king, they are rejecting God's rule over them and failing to weigh up the consequences of temporal kingship.
We also live in a changing world: COVID-19 has devastated the globe; Western democracy is under serious threat; new democracies struggle to flourish; Myanmar is under military rule; China is exerting increasing political influence; nationalism and fascism are on the rise; the UK is on the brink of disintegration; hard-line dictatorships flourish, and multinational corporations exert enormous political influence. All this raises many important questions: How will we restructure our relationship with those who hold power in a post-Covid world? What place does God have in the public arena? Why must power be always called to account? What role should faith communities play in holding power brokers accountable? Who are the kingmakers today? Who do we choose as our political leaders? What role do tech giants and media influencers play in our world? How are they shaping governments and also our freedoms?
There are no easy answers to such complex questions. Individually and corporately, as the people of God, we must seriously grapple with such issues, seeking the mind of Christ and the common good. In responding to diverse problems, we must react graciously and lovingly toward all who disagree with the political positions we hold.
May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.