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Great Themes of Scripture: Hebrew Bible
Great Themes of Scripture: Hebrew Bible

Samuel: Bowing to a King

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Great Themes of Scripture: Hebrew Bible

Samuel: Bowing to a King
Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Beginning with the books of Samuel, we can see a tension starting to develop between charism and institution, between the freedom of the Spirit and the inertia of society. Israel started out as a people on the move, following God’s lead. During the period of the judges they followed charismatic leaders in times of crisis. By about the tenth century B.C.E, however, they were starting to become a large and settled nation in the land of Palestine. They found themselves needing more structure, more organization, even more bureaucracy to keep themselves together as a people.

Many prayer groups have experienced this sort of tension as they start to develop into a community. In the early days of the New Jerusalem community, it was so nice when we were just a few people who prayed in a room together! We could go merrily on our way, trusting in the Lord, and everything would work out fine. But then the group got larger. We had to have more meetings; we had to take care of this and that; we needed more organization. At that point it gets very easy to stop trusting in God and to start doing it all ourselves.

The French lawyer and theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) wrote about Israel and our human tendency to place our trust in kings instead of God:

They wanted a king so as to be like other nations. They also thought that a king would be a better military leader. Samuel protested and went to God in prayer [see 1 Samuel 8]. The God of Israel replied: “Do not be upset. The people have not rejected you, Samuel, but me, God. They have constantly rejected me since I liberated them. Accept their demand but warn them of what will happen
[1 Samuel 8:7–9]. [1]

From the outset, it is clear that this new institution is a concession to the weakness of the people: They need to have a visible ruler. YHWH chooses Saul to be their king, but Samuel admonishes them, saying, in effect, “It is all right to have a king, but don’t take him too seriously!”

We often take ourselves too seriously, believing in ourselves rather than in God. Often, our actions do not come from a place of prayer and listening to God, but from what we want to do. Look at the pitiably little fruit of 2,000 years of Christianity, with the systems of injustice in which we have been totally complicit! So much of it has been our thing, our power. God has communicated in a million ways that “I am your power,” but we do not believe and trust what we cannot see or prove. Instead, we bow down to lesser kings (like institutions, nations, wars, ideologies, etc.) that we can see, even when they serve us quite poorly. Thus the entire history of the necessary tension between charism (“authenticity”) and institution (“concretization”) is set in motion. It will become the framework for most religious and spiritual journeys.

[1] Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (William B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1991), 48.

Adapted from Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, The Great Themes of Scripture: Old Testament (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 1987), 46, 47, 49; and

“Joshua to Kings: The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary,” The Great Themes of Scripture, tape 5 (St. Anthony Messenger Tapes: 1973).

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Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Reflections II (detail), 2020, photograph, Albuquerque.
Image inspiration: These intertwined branches speak of the braided nature of biblical themes: mystery, hope, possibility, resilience, vulnerability and strength. Although these leaves have seen better days, clouds carry hope for rain.
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