Posts Tagged ‘monarchy’

PSALM 47

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
    and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
    the pride of Jacob whom he loves.Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
    the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
    sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
    sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
    as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
    he is highly exalted.

It is a real effort for native citizens of a liberal democracy to relate to metaphors of God oriented on monarchy. Kings, thrones, and shields, trumpet processions and coronation events – these don’t ring rich with meaning as they must have once upon a time. Indeed, “once upon a time” in storybooks and Hollywood movies is about the only places we encounter this way of organizing life in the world.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense, mind you, but that their meaning isn’t very relevant to our daily experience. For many of us, kings and queens are odd anachronisms and exotic (maybe less advanced) symbols of government from another time and place.

Where we live, the aggregate effect of individual wills participating in dialogue and voting their preferences is how politics is done. In fact, breaking free from the tyranny of monarchical dynasties and taking a risk on the sovereign will of individuals electing their own leaders is how “the West was won,” as they say.

So isn’t it strange how we have struggled, sacrificed, and built our way of life on the rights and responsibilities of liberal democracy, and yet in our religion – particularly in our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning – we glorify God as a king on his throne, ruling over the nations? We fight for our freedom across the seas and defend our rights to property and protection against “big government” (the republican equivalent of the royal despot), while our mythology, theology, hymnody and worship exhort us to obeisance, submission, and obedience!

But what choice do we have? It’s there in the Bible, and the Bible is our ultimate authority on God-talk. Right?

However unacceptable it may sound at first, it is possible to see the Bible as both a timeless revelation and a very time-bound expression of the human quest for security, meaning, and destiny. It is timeless in the way it might bring us close to (but without containing!) the divine mystery, and it is time-bound because its metaphors, stories, and teachings were produced out of specific historical contexts.

It just so happened that the artistic and literary production of certain periods in the past was preserved, collected, and later canonized as sacred scripture. As subsequent generations progressively lost confidence in their own ability to seek and know God for themselves, they relied increasingly on these earlier efforts and agreements. We may be encouraged to pursue and cultivate our own experience of the divine mystery, but then we are expected to talk about it using a vocabulary more than two thousand years old!

Does God have to be a king sitting on his throne up there in heaven? Does God have to rule over the nations, or sponsor our nation over others? Does God have to be a male authority, a lord of all? Does God have to be personified at all?

How can we, today, express the present mystery of God in a meaningful and relevant way?

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1 SAMUEL 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

After the Israelites settled the Promised Land but before they were united under a single monarchy, social order was managed by a tag-team of charismatic leaders known as the Judges. Samuel is an interesting transitional figure, being the last Judge and the one who anointed the first kings. There were many who felt that a monarchy amounted to a defiance of the theocracy (more or less direct rule by God) that had been in effect during the period of the Judges.

The loose federation of tribes that had left Egypt for Palestine were struggling with this transition from an “ad hoc” government where issues could be addressed spontaneously on the basis of what god commanded in the moment, to one that had to work through multiple channels and by means of an all-too-human administration. This added element of mediation (magistrates, secretaries, and officials) is what caused the feeling of many that their nation was sliding irrevocably into a secular age.

Of course, just because “God” is calling the shots doesn’t automatically mean that a nation will be godly. We put the word in quotes to remind ourselves that our concepts of God will always reflect our general needs and aspirations as a species, as well as our more peculiar quirks, hangups, and ambitions as individuals. In other words, “Thus saith the Lord” doesn’t mean we should simply accept what follows on blind faith.

So there are dangers on both sides – a more secular (this-worldly) government that might easily lose its moral footing and get too self-involved to do any good for its people, or a theocracy where “God” might be little more than an unimpeachable (and conveniently transcendent) warrant for bigotry, dogmatism, oppression and violence.

King Saul, Israel’s first, did not fare so well. By going off on his own course and not listening to God, he had pulled his nation into some dangerous religious compromises. So “God got rid of him” – at least that’s how the rankled golden-age folks were reading history.

Back to the theocracy of charismatic leadership, then? Not so fast.

                                                                                                 

Truth is, charismatic forms of government just can’t manage the expanding concerns of a growing population – not to mention that they are inherently unstable. However much the Bible story of Israel’s emergence is actual history and how much of it is more like many other national myths, including the United States of America, social order and politics inevitably moved in the direction of monarchy.

Samuel’s task now was to follow God’s direction and anoint Saul’s successor. He was sent to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse who had eight sons. At a special ceremony Jesse sent his sons out to Samuel, one at a time beginning with the eldest. 

Samuel naturally had his own assumptions and preferences, and after God said “pass” on each boy that he regarded as qualified for the job – down through the list of seven sons that Jesse had summoned to attend – the prophet looked around quizzically, perhaps a little embarrassed. “Is that it? No more boys?”

“Oh, well” answered the father, “there is my youngest, but I didn’t think to have him here. He’s young, inexperienced, and tends to daydream and scribble poems while supposedly watching my sheep.”

“Bring him to me.” When the young lad arrived, God confirmed: “This is my man!” And so that day, Samuel anointed David the new king of Israel.

It makes you wonder just how many blessings, opportunities, and even miracles might never make it to your eyes because your mind isn’t looking out for them.