1 Samuel 8:4-20

If you’ve grown up in Church, in Sunday School, reading the Bible, listening to – or at least, sitting politely through – sermons, I reckon that there are two aspects to story of Samuel you might have heard.

The first is his call, that we heard read last week, although I didn’t speak on it, the voice, calling in the night, God, calling him to be God’s prophet, to speak against the corruption of his day, corruption that reached even into the family of Eli, the Priest.

And the second is his role in the appointment of the first two kings of Israel, Saul, and then David. And the passage we heard read today is the start of that phase of Samuels ministry.

The people come to Samuel, and are, lets face it, a bit undiplomatic: “you’re old, your sons aren’t like you, your time as a leader of the people of God is coming to an end”.

But it’s not just Samuel’s time coming to an end. The conversation recorded in our reading today marks a much more complete transition than that.

As recorded in the Old Testament books of history, ever since the people of God had entered, or invaded, the land, they had been ruled over by a collection of more or less random individuals, whose stories are recorded in the book of Judges.

Actually, ruled over isn’t really accurate, for the people of Israel were not a nation at that time; Old Testament scholar Kenneth Kitchen describes it like this:

the Israelite tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed but in times of crisis, the people were led by ad hoc chieftains, known as judges

You’re probably aware that the twelve tribes of Israel came from the twelve sons of Jacob who went into Egypt – the whole “Joseph and his amazing technicolour dream coat” story that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have part of popular culture.

But when the land was divided into twelve, two of the twelve portions went to descendants of one son; Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, and the descendants of another son, Levi, received no allocation of land. Instead, they became the priests, scattered all over the land, they stood outside the division into tribes as a unifying priesthood.

So the people were a loose confederation of twelve tribes, united as the people of Yahweh by the line of Levi.

And when there were disputes between the tribes, or threats from outside the land, the people would unite under the judges – some, people of wisdom, others military figures – but all identified as being called by God to serve in this particular way.

Samuel was one of those judges. The Phillistine nations had been at war with Israel, inflicting major defeats upon them, but under Samuel’s leadership land had been regained, peace established, a border with the enemy agreed. And at the end of Chapter 7, we read:

Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. He went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places. Then he would come back to Ramah, for his home was there; he administered justice there to Israel, and built there an altar to the Lord.

But then, at the start of Chapter 8, in the verses just before our reading, we read

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

The story has come full circle. As a child, Samuel had served under Eli the priest, and his first calling as a prophet was to denounce Eli’s sons, whom Eli had appointed to serve alongside him, for they were abusing their positions as priests for their own personal benefit.

In Eli’s case, appointing his sons as priests had been appropriate: the priesthood was, at that time, hereditary; a son would succeed his father in the role.

But for the judges this had not been the case. Judges had been individuals (men and women, it’s worth noticing) called by God out of their normal lives; their children were not, as a rule, judges after them.

When we read “he made his sons judges over Israel” we ought to stop, and read again. Because that is not how the judges were appointed. It’s not how Samuel had come to be judge, or

Because judges were not appointed by people; they were called and appointed by God. Like prophets, they came from anywhere and nowhere, recognised by the clarity of their calling, the wisdom of their judgements, the truth of their character.

The priestly line of Eli had failed because his sons did not serve, but turned aside for personal gain; and now, with Samuel’s decision to appoint his own, unjust children, the time of the judges is also coming to an end.

So it is with some justice that the elders come to Samuel and say, “you are old, and your sons are corrupt”. But they don’t remember their history, and trust in God to raise up another judge, as has happened so often before; instead of looking to their history, they look to the nations around them.

appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations

What was it about having a king that seemed attractive? We hear this at the end of our reading:

we are determined to have a king over us, 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

And, as you read on through the rest of the Biblical history, you discover that this is exactly what they get – kings that make them like all the other nations. They get Saul – a success, at first, but then tormented by what today would surely get a mental health diagnosis. Then David – military leader supreme, but with the whole Bathsheba thing. Solomon, great in wisdom, except when it came to his wives and children, who took the nation into civil war.

Having a King solved, in a way, the problems that the elders perceived: having a king gave them unity, made them a nation, enabled them to compete on even footing with the nations around them.

But it did so by making them just like those other nations.

And of course, that’s the point.

They became like everyone else.

And the people of God were never meant to be like everyone else.

So it is that God’s reply to Samuel is

they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them

Because they’ve chosen to be like everyone else.

Because they’ve forgotten how God has worked in the past.

That’s actually a central theme of the Hebrew scriptures – that the mistake so often made by God’s people is to forget. They forget what God has done, and look instead around them, look for what is bright and shiny and new. Look for how everyone else operates.

It’s there in Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount – ‘even the gentiles do that,’ he says of those who just love those who love them, just treat well those who have something to offer in return.

But the people of God were called, are called, always will be called, to be something different. Something more.

So often the command of the prophets is ‘remember!’ – I think that’s up there with ‘fear not!’ as the most common commands in scripture.

Remember who you are.

Remember you are supposed to be different.

So perhaps the question that the story of Samuel poses for us is this:

Have we remembered that?

Have we remembered that we are called to be different because we are the people of God? Amen