Reflections on 1 & 2 Samuel
In the opening monologue of the Bible’s most cynical book, Solomon writes, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new?” (Ecclesiastes.
1:9 – 10). It’s a withering take on the world but I don’t think I can argue with it. Even our trust in technology is as old as that time in Genesis when the people living on the plain in Shinar discovered a revolutionary new building material. They believed that it would empower them to change the world. They called it . . . brick.
Go ahead. Chuckle. In a hundred years our descendants will laugh at our Blockchain, Big Data and all the other techy buzzwords that make us feel like we just added the 119th element to the Periodic Table.
As I read 1st and 2nd Samuel over the past week, I saw something else that is not new; low character among people in high positions. The first person you are likely to think of is King David. He certainly had some character issues. But before David there was Saul, Israel’s first king. In the beginning, Saul seemed the ideal man for the job. He was so unassuming that they had to practically drag him to his own inauguration, (1 Samuel 10:20-24). Five chapters later, he built a monument to himself, (15:12). The rest of Israel’s history, as you will see when you read Kings and Chronicles, is heavily weighted with low character kings. So if nearly all of their kings were corrupt, or at least highly corruptible, why did Israel want a king in the first place?
Two reasons. Before Saul, the sons of Samuel, Joel and Abijah, led the nation. But unlike their father, they turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice, (1 Samuel 8:3). Like the sons of Eli and many of the judges who had led Israel in the past, Joel and Abijah lacked the character to lead. Give credit to Israel for at least recognizing that in order to set the standard, their leaders needed some standards of their own.
The other reason they wanted a king, however, was not so noble. To Samuel they said, “Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have,” (1 Samuel 8:5). Such as all the other nations have. You get the impression that the shenanigans of Samuel’s sons were a smoke screen for Israel to get what it really wanted – the international prestige of royalty. I imagine huge rallies with banners and bands and everybody wearing trucker hats emblazoned with the letters M I G A (Make Israel Great Again).
Which brings us to the current conversation about leadership and character. Remember Solomon’s scorching observation? There is nothing new under the sun. Though some these days seem to have only recently discovered it, low character leaders are not a recent innovation. People have been electing, appointing, submitting to and suffering under sorry leaders since before Noah felt the first raindrop.
Leadership required character then. Leadership requires character now. It is true if you’re talking about Britain’s Parliament, America’s congress or Nashville’s mayor. It is true if the president’s last name is Trump or Clinton or Nixon or Kennedy. It is true if you’re talking about the CEO of a social media giant, the chair of a non-profit or the pastor of a church.
You cannot lead without character.
I know. I tried it once. It didn’t work out well for anybody.
Now, before you decide to like this post because you don’t like the current president (or didn’t like his opponent or his opponent’s husband when he was president), remember that one of the reasons character matters in a leader is because character matters in a people. Our leaders are as much a reflection of who we are and what we value as they are an inspiration for who we should be and what we should value. It is not surprising that Israel’s first king fell because of pride. Israel’s pride is what put him on the throne in the first place.
The temptation for us is to vote for or defend a low-character leader who promotes policies we believe in. “Sure, they’re a scoundrel. But they are for/against the things I’m for/against.” I know that governance requires compromise. But when we compromise on character, we lose more than policy positions could ever gain for us. As another famous leader once said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Speaking of that leader, you may be wondering why I’m not writing an Easter post. But I really am. Were it not for the resurrection, every single one of us would drag around behind us a character permanently corrupted by sin. None of us would ever qualify to lead, much less to walk with the Holy God as sons and daughters. But because the cross was occupied and the tomb is empty, we can. So maybe I can argue with Solomon. We can stand beside that rolled-away stone and say, “Look! This is something new!”