“When God Is My King”

What do you think?  Are Thoreau, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant right. Do persons need to be left free to make their own choices, even if these choices are considered reckless, stupid or otherwise ‘bad’ choices by others?  Do we get better at making the right decision over time and with experience?

From the time of Moses up until the anointing of Saul as King in 1051 BC the Children of Israel who had escaped Egyptian bondage and settled in the land of Canaan relied on the unofficial leadership of a series of Judges.  The twelve tribes functioned as a loose confederation with no central government, no standing army and most of all, no king.  Every so often one of these leaders would gain followers from other tribes. They were thought to be ‘raised up’ by God to lead the people out of difficult situations.  The time of the judges was a period described as one of “conquest and settlement” of the Promised Land.  Those who were already living on the land took exception to the children of Israel displacing them.  Periodically armies would be raised to advance the process of conquest and protect the process of settlement.  That was accomplished by each tribe sending conscripted people to join the fray.  Four times in the Book of Judges we are told “there was no king in Israel…”  But, of course there was a king in Israel but the people refused the king’s leadership.

Remember the name of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, the guy who had all the resources necessary to help the people survive a famine, but who the story says abandoned the people?  Re-reading that causes me to challenge the tradition about Elimelech and suggest that, just maybe, he left Judea with his family because the people there rejected his leadership.  Recall what his name meant?  It meant “God is my King” which was the understanding the people had during the time of the judges.

When the tribes asked for a king to rule over them Samuel rebuked them.  In 1st Samuel 8 we hear Samuel’s warning against Israel having a human king. So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

And here’s the response from the people:19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.”

Samuel did it and Israel lived to regret it.  It started with Saul. When it was announced that he was king, he hid. His reign lasted only two years in which he got a reputation for being weak and inadequate though his raising an army unified Israel for the first time.  According to tradition, his big failure was his not eradicating the Amalekites. David was next. He consolidated the civil and religious aspects of the nation and people felt proud though his building campaign leveled heavy taxes of the people.  His immorality and abuse of power added to his failure. Third came Solomon. He was no where near as popular as we’ve come to think.  His tax and economic policies crushed the working people and his allowing heretical worship made matters worse.  And then when his son, Rehoboam, came to the throne the people asked him to be more lenient in his demands he said “my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.  That resulted in the once unified nation being forever divided.

The northern ten tribes which split off, led by one of Judaism’s greatest villains, Jeroboam, controlled 75% of what was once a single kingdom. It became known as Israel with it’s capital in Samaria.  The two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam on the throne, became known as the kingdom of Judea.  Judea, which according to most estimates never had more than 600,000 people, controlled not more than a few square miles of hilly, infertile land. They did possess one great asset: Jerusalem.  The Bible commands all Jews to make at least three pilgrimages every year to the Temple.  And from then into the future the children of Israel regretted having a king. So what if they hadn’t wanted to be like everybody else?  What if they had kept things the way it was before replacing God as King with human kings?

            I’ve gained a new appreciation for Judges 17:6 “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”  I understand that the best scholarship thinks this is a mis interpretation of the text but  I’ve heard that quoted as the very definition of evil. The more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve come to question whether it is an accusatory statement as is generally thought to be or whether it is a statement that actually reinforces Samuel’s contention.  As I said before, four times in the Book of Judges we are told “there was no king in Israel…”  But, of course there was a king in Israel but not a human king and the people refused the true king’s leadership. Naomi’s husband’s name – Elimelech.  God is King. When God is king human behavior has an internal regulator.  People make choices, ethical decisions, based on an understanding of what is right and what is wrong.  This system functioned well for four hundred years, much longer than the 120 years of Israel as a united kingdom.  It refused to establish some outward entity to define what one’s heart said was consistent with God’s kingship. 

            We’ve experienced prohibition in this country.  It provided that rule makers could determine for the individual what was wrong for them.  Without tossing out Oliver Wendle Holmes warning that my right to swing my fist ends where the other person’s nose begins”, we have to admit that prohibition has been an abject failure – it didn’t work. We are in the middle of another social experiment where once prohibited marijuana use has recently been legalized.  There are forces today who would prohibit abortion, believing that making a medical procedure illegal will prevent a person from committing an act that they believe should be criminal. Someone posted the other day that Roe vs. Wade didn’t start women getting abortions.  It ended women dying from them.  Such paternalism requires that an individual give up the right to do what is right in their own eyes.

Paternalism is objectionable because it violates what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the equal “dignity” of all human beings. Respect for human dignity implies respect for people’s ability to think and choose for themselves. Paternalism imposes choices on what one person thinks is good for another person. People who are interfered with are not treated as equals capable of making their own choices, Kant claims, but are treated as means to someone else’s view of what their choices should be, “like immature children unable to distinguish between what is truly useful or harmful to them.”


John Stuart Mill wrote: “With respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else…. He is the man most interested in his own well-being.”  Individuals are the best judges of their own interests and so should be left free to pursue them.

Henry David Thoreau remarked: “If … a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  There is a fine line between care and concern for the well-being of others and respect for persons as people of their own choosing and creators of their own destinies. For John Stuart Mill and his followers freedom is essential for the development of each person’s individuality, the attainment of truth, and the development of new and more enriching lifestyles. Persons must be left free to make their own choices about how they will lead their lives, even if these choices are considered reckless, stupid, or otherwise “bad” choices by others. Moreover, the ability to make choices that promote our well-being is a capacity one acquires and improves only through practice.

            What do you think?  Are Thoreau, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant right. Do persons need to be left free to make their own choices, even if these choices are considered reckless, stupid or otherwise ‘bad’ choices by others?  Do we get better at making the right decision over time and with experience?

            Quaker’s have an interesting tradition.  It’s based in the story of the military man, William Penn, asking the pacifist George Fox if he could be a Quaker and wear his sword.  Fox’s answer was ‘Wear it so long as thou canst’.  We recently passed the anniversary of the martyrdom of four Quakers on Boston Common.  I can’t imagine a greater example of doing what they felt was right in their own eyes – choosing obedience to what they felt God had called them too rather than taking the offer to just leave town.  Great story just came out about a retired Wilmington College history professor who received an apology from another college which accused him of being a communist and fired him in the 60’s. He had also been jailed for not registering for the draft and for counseling others to do the same. Every progressive step forward, from manumission to universal suffrage, has required that a person stood up and challenged that which they perceived to be wrong and did what was right in their own eyes. 

            That can only happen when we acknowledge that God is King and that it is incumbent on us to learn to listen to what God is calling us to do and be.

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