So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
I Samuel 8:4-18
In this text, God sees a human king as a rival, a false god. The king will claim divine prerogatives for himself. Notice that the problem here isn’t exactly that the king will institute a tax, but that the tax is, overtly, presented in the language of a tithe. He wants a tenth, and he wants the best that the fields produce. But the best is supposed to go to God! The people will have to choose–who gets our best now, God or the government? Your sons will be caught up in the military-industrial complex, and your daughters will be perfumers and cooks and bakers for the king–the same kinds of servants that the demigod Pharaoh was surrounded by.
I know that the force of this text is somewhat ameliorated when David comes along and is the apple of God’s eye. But we shouldn’t let the force of this critique slip away from us too easily. This is God’s initial reaction to the idea of human governance. And he says people won’t be able to serve both him and a king. It’s a long way from here to the current evangelical position, which is that serving government and serving God are almost always the same thing.
At what point does participation and support of government become idolatry? Or do we think that isn’t possible any more? After all, in the West, we are democratic. The people themselves hold the reigns (in theory). And we would never set ourselves up as gods, would we?