During our trip to Israel earlier this month we devoted a day to sights in the ancient tribal allotment of Benjamin. While tour itineraries often get adjusted, I was intent that this day end at Nebi Samwil, a mound named after the prophet Samuel. We made it before sundown when Jews began filing into the synagogue below and the call to worship from the Moslem mosque above pierced the air. (All this on top of remains from a Byzantine church! Welcome to the juxtapositions of the “Holy Land.”) Like Joshua of old, we were hoping for the sun to “stand still” as we perched next door to the ancient home of the Gibeonites whose deception ironically prompted this miracle. Taking in the rooftop’s 360 degree view, we could imagine Samuel’s ministry circuit (1 Sam 7:16-17). Like a rural minister with a four-point charge, he travelled from his home in Ramah to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah (which might have been Nebi Samwil). We could see to our south Gibeah, the home of Saul, Israel’s first king and, further along the same horizon, Jerusalem, the infamous city associated with their second king, David.
Why was it so important to finish our day here? Because in this very region God seemed to make a surprising “concession” to Israel regarding their leadership. It was an historic hinge event that beckons for further reflection. 1 Samuel 8 records Israel’s request for a king: “Then all the elders gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’” (Samuel, like Eli, hadn’t learned to make his own family a spiritual priority.) You remember how the story continues. Samuel is angry over this personal rejection, but God says surprisingly, “Obey 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” (v. 7). The concession is quite striking. Was God telling him to follow their suggestion because they have rejected Him?! The theocratic ideal promoted since the days of Moses should be abandoned because the people wouldn’t comply?!
What was the true King of Israel up to?
Israel was in open rebellion against their Covenant Partner. Yet, rather than terminating the relationship or resorting to “punishment,” God chose to reconstruct their relationship in a way that would both discipline them and set the stage for something even better. He co-opted their mutiny for His own ends. Saul would become a painful object lesson in “having a king like all the nations.” He was an unstable tyrant. But a divine choice would follow – an undershepherd who knew he served the Divine Shepherd. And the Davidic dynasty became the basis for the messianic tradition in Israel. The promised eternal “Son of David” was none other than Christ, the King of Israel in human flesh.
I find this characteristic tendency of God to co-opt our self-centered choices one of the surest prompts for praise and one of the strongest reasons for hope. The best things in Scripture often come in the wake of human mistakes and rebellions. It began in the Garden after “the Fall” when God coupled discipline with the first promise of a divine deliverer.
I trust that, in your imagination, you can join me atop Nebi Samwil, looking first at Gibeah of Saul, and then beyond to the Jerusalem of David. We live with the consequences of our choices, yes, but also, more importantly, with the creative responses of a King determined to reign among his loved ones, one way or another. Hear the amazing words of God to Samuel: Yes, they have rejected me (again). But just watch; this is when I do my best work!