In those days there was no king in Israel, but every one did what was right in his own eyes. - Judges 17:6
This evaluation of the situation that prevailed during the period of the judges represents what we might think of as the major theme of the Old Testament story. In that major theme, Abram is promised that his descendants will become a great nation, and specifically, that some of those descendants would be kings (Genesis 17;6). Gradually, the elements of the nation are assembled, so to speak, until finally, under David, the promise is realized. Israel is a nation secure in its land, and David is the king after the Lord’s own heart. When that kingdom falls because of its faithlessness, the prophets see beyond the exile to a restoration; and one of the things they see is a king of the line of David restored to the throne.
There is a minor theme, though, that should not be overlooked. At the critical point of transition from judges to kings, the initiative came from the people. “Then all the elders of Israael gathered themselves together and came to Samuel at Raman and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make someone king to judge us like all the nations.’ But it displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Make someone king to judge us,’ and Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘hearken to the voice of the people in everything they are saying to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not rule over them’” (I Samuel 8:5-7).
This passage goes on to tell how Samuel is to warn the people that this king will demand a great deal of them. This is a theme highlighted in Deuteronomy, where it is specified that when the time comes for a king, that king shall not amass great wealth or great numbers of horses or great numbers of wives, but shall be diligent in reading and observing the law. And this in turn seems clearly reflected in the latter part of Solomon’s reign, with the opulence and evident arrogance that would soon lead to the secession of the northern tribes, the end of the united monarchy. At times there are even wistful glances back to the wilderness days as though those were the days of true faith.
This is a familiar ambivalence. When things seem disorganized, the natural tendency is to look for strong central leadership. But strong central leadership all too easily becomes an end in itself. What begins as setting the house in order declines into tyranny. Hitler rose to power not simply because of his emotional oratory, but because Germany was in moral and financial chaos. Everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes.
The ideal solution is obvious. It is for everyone to do what is right in the Lord’s eyes~—for all of us to care about and for each other. If the prevailing will of everyone is the welfare of all, then no strong central control is needed. Swedenborg’s description of government in heaven fits perfectly. People turn to the wisest for guidance because they want to do what is best.
The ideal and the actual, though, can be far apart. There is a great deal of good will in our world, to be sure. We were reminded of this time and again after the fire. There is a great deal of ill will as well, which regularly hits the headlines. When we feel that things are getting out of hand, we want the government to take charge. This is not a simple right-wing/left-wing issue, incidentally. The same people who want government to be less intrusive in some ways want it to take stronger control in others. It is striking how often the prohibition of abortion and the permission of assault weapons go together, as do the permission of abortion and the prohibition of assault weapons.
In other words, the issues of centralization that we find ourselves wrestling with are not new. As long as there are conflicts of will, as long as there are incompatible value systems vying for dominance, questions of control will vex us. The issues keep coming up because they are so deeply rooted in human nature. As long as we are prey to our evils, there will be no ideal solutions.
In fact, the issues that we see being acted out around us are issues that we ourselves face internally. The research that has been done on the way faith develops agrees with developmental psychology in seeing the passage from youth to adulthood as marked by a kind of taking charge of our own lives. The “declaration of independence” that regularly begins with adolescence not bears fruit. We are ready to leave home spiritually as well as physically. This is what growing up is all about.
If we look at the Biblical story as a kind of parable of our spiritual life journey, then the obvious equivalent of this independence is the establishment of the kingdom. This is the point at which Israel becomes self-governing. It is the fulfillment of a promise, the realization of a dream. It has taken a long time to get here. There have been conflict and pain along the way; but now we are on our own.
It is only when we begin to look at this in its largest context that its problematic side becomes evident. To put it most bluntly, from a heavenly point of view, we are not designed to be “self-governing,” we are not equipped to function “on our own.” Our theology reminds us time and again that we are simply vessels recipient of life from the Lord, utterly incapable of sustaining ourselves by our own strength. We seem to be able to do the things necessary to sustain life~—we can eat and drink and exercise and sleep—but we haven’t the slightest clue as to how we might make ourselves live. It just happens.
Further, we depend on each other, and the more technologically advanced our society becomes, the less independent we become. If we had to raise and shear our own sheep, spin our own wool, and make our own clothing, there would be a lot of empty coathangers in our closets. I suspect there is hardly a house in Bridgewater that does not have something in it from Taiwan, and outside are cars made in Germany with fuel that came from the Middle East. If our links with the rest of the world were cut off, our standard of living would drop like a rock.
Our physical interdependence, though, is just beginning to catch up with oru spiritual interdependence. On a large scale, we are saturated with the culture we live in. It affects the way we think and feel more subtly and pervasively that we may realize. On a more intimate scale, we need human contact. For all the blessings of privacy, we do keep gathering together. We need to see faces and hear voices. We need to talk and listen, to give and receive.
Actually, it usually does not take long for the young adult to discover that there are some fairly narrow limits to self-government. There is a world out there that restricts our range of choices. It seems to a child that parents can do anything they want to. They have all the power. Needless to say, that is not what parenthood feels like. Parenthood is immensely demanding.
I was reminded the other day of a time some years ago when I went to the door to go out and realized that for the first time in about thirty years, I didn’t have to tell anyone. Lois was at work and the kids were all in school. If I wanted to, I could just go outside, just like that. It felt awfully strange, as though something must be wrong.
At the same time, though, there is no question that as an adult I had a measure of freedom that is simply not available to children. Perhaps the simplest way of putting the pieces together is to highlight the difference and the relationship between “taking charge” and “accepting responsibility.” Ideally, becoming an adult is first and foremost a matter of accepting responsibility. If meeting that responsibility means taking charge of something, then so be it. It may be that meeting that responsibility means doint what someone else requires of us.
If we put taking charge first, though, things are very different. This is the kind of king the Lord does not want, the kind who is concerned to magnify his own power and wealth, who is not concerned with understanding and observing the law. The problem with Israel’s request to Samuel was not simply that they wanted a king, it was why they wanted one~—to be like the other nations. The minute we begin comparing ourselves to others and trying to rival them, we lose sight of the fact that the Lord has something special in mind for us.
“In those days there was no king in Israel, but every one did what was right in his own eyes.” The image is not simply one of disorganization. It is one of irresponsibility. The book of Judges tells how Gideon’s son Abimelech tried to make himself king. His reign was brief and bloody. We might say that for a few years there was a king in Israel, but that because he did what was right in his own eyes, Israel was worse off than ever. Germany under Hitler was organized.
The ultimate issue, then, in our collective and our personal lives, is not simply one of centralization. It is a matter of where we center ourselves, of what is central to us. If power and control are central, if our prime goal is to be self-governing, we are on the path to tyranny. If the serving the Lord is central, then we place ourselves in the hands of one whose providence is focused on our own freedom. For whatever power we may pretend to have, there is only one who is actually omnipotent—and that power is devoted to our eternal well-being.