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I can’t remember when it was that I first became aware of the “problem” with kings. Like many children I grew up immersed in fairy tales, with their stories of kings and queens and princes and princesses. As a college student I eagerly watched the TV and print coverage of the royal wedding between Diana, the princess who was exactly my age, and the man who will be king Prince Charles. And, like many women my age, I actually wept years later when her fairy tale had turned into a nightmare that ended with her untimely death.
Did I first become aware of the problem with kings then?
Or was it years before, when I was studying my U. S. History, in elementary school and high school, and learned about George III, who unfairly taxed the colonies right into revolution and the birth of a new nation? Or, was it when I learned about the various other kings throughout history whose peccadilloes and/ or crimes and/ or poor decision-making cast serious doubts on the whole concept of “divine right”?
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I definitely learned that some kings are examples of inspiring leadership: Shakespeare’s Henry V comes to mind, as does the real-life George VI, who saw Great Britain through World War II. But the institution itself, at a human level, tends to be deeply flawed and problematic.
That’s pretty much what God said it would be like. Back in 1 Samuel, when representatives of the twelve tribes said to the prophet , “Give us a king to govern us.” God responded:
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; 12and 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. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.
~1 Samuel 8:1-18
As God was paraphrased in an earlier sermon, “here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i] A word that is repeated again and again in this passage is “take.” A king is very good at “taking.”
And by this point in the biblical story, we have met many kings. We have met faithful but also deeply flawed kings like David and his son Solomon. We have met flawed and deeply unfaithful kings like Ahab, and now, Jehoiakim. If there’s anything the institution of hereditary monarchy in the bible teaches us, it’s that the character of the parent and the character of the child can be radically different. Jehoiakim is the son of one of the southern kingdom’s great heroes, the faithful reformer King Josiah. Jehoiakim couldn’t be more different. His faithlessness is exceeded only by his arrogance.
When we meet him, the year is about 605 BCE, the Southern kingdom is in much the same state Isaiah described last week: a sinful nation, unfaithful, chasing after other gods and not only ignoring the welfare of the people, but crushing them. This is while the great empire Babylon is consolidating its power, and King Jehoiakim is paying the Babylonians tribute as a precautionary measure, trying to stay on their good side. “At this crucial junction, God is giving Judah one more chance to repent.”[ii] This is where the prophet comes in.
Jeremiah is a towering figure of the Hebrew Scriptures, called when still a young boy and having a long career as a gadfly to the powerful. His prophetic ministry lasts almost 40 years, through five separate kings and into the time of the Babylonian captivity and exile. One article on Jeremiah lists several of the tribulations to which he is subjected as a result of his intense, unflagging ministry:
Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers [12:6], beaten and put into the stocks by a priest… [20:1-4], imprisoned by a king [37:18, 38:28], threatened with death [38:4], thrown into a cistern… [38:6], and opposed by a false prophet [Ch. 28].[iii]
God’s word comes to Jeremiah continually throughout that time period, and it is a word beseeching all—king, commoners, priests, prophets alike—to repent, turn around, and be faithful to God once again. At this very moment, when Babylon is becoming more and more of a threat, God prods Jeremiah yet again, and he dutifully dictates God’s words to his scribe, who writes them all down on scrolls and reads them aloud in the temple, where, suffice to say, Jeremiah is a persona non grata.
Jehoiakim, is in his winter apartment, and that little detail evokes so much of what is wrong with this king. He is cozy and warm while others are freezing. He is insulated, inside before a toasty fire, while others are exposed, both to the dangers without and to the warning word of God as it is being read in the temple. But he must know that gadfly Jeremiah is at it again, because he calls for the scroll to be read aloud to him. His response to what he hears is utterly shocking: “As [his servant] read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire…” [Jeremiah 36:23]. The king of Judah, the southern kingdom founded upon the covenant promise of God, treats the words from God as fuel for the fire to warm his winter apartment, and no more. God’s words of warning are falling on deaf ears.
Jeremiah is undeterred. He calls his scribe and instructs him to write another scroll, with all the same words on it that have been burned by the king of Judah.
There are a number of problems with the institution of the monarchy, as we see it unfolding in the story of scripture. But let’s just focus on this one: If the people regard the king as a kind of stand-in for God on earth, and the king does NOT regard faithfulness to God as the first priority… a chasm opens up between God and the people. It doesn’t always have to be that way. King Josiah, made spreading God’s word among the people his life’s work. But his son’s casual use of the sacred scroll as kindling to warm his toes tells us all about his priorities. This king will not lead his people back to God.
At this point in our reading, we go back… we go back to the words of chapter 31, because the message of God through Jeremiah is the same after the king’s arrogant gesture as it was before. God offers the people a complete do-over. God, who, as ever, is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing, offers a new covenant.
… [T]his is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. ~Jeremiah 31:33-34
It is God’s plan to bypass the king entirely. No longer content to let the king—or any king—be the determining factor in God’s relationship with the people, God is prepared to close the chasm in the most dramatic and direct way. Rather than having a law that exists only on a scroll or in the words of a prophet, God makes each person a kind of living scroll. Rather than charging a king or an order of priests to enforce God’s law, God will place the law directly into every human heart. Rather than having the law written on parchment, it will be written on the heart.
And so we have, in starkest terms, the contrast between an earthly king and God as king. The earthly king is the king who takes and takes and takes—taking sons and daughters for armies and harems, taking taxes and wealth to pay his expenses and butter up his nobles, taking the people’s very lives for his forced labor and military campaigns. God as king gives and gives and gives—giving second chances, and third, and more in endless number; giving the law to be planted in the hungry soil of every heart; giving the intimate knowledge of real relationship: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
I suppose the question is as crucial for us as it was for this king and his subjects of two-and-a-half millennia ago: What will we do with the word of God? What will we do with God’s call—which starts to sound less and less like the command of a king and more and more like the wooing of a lover? What will we do? In the words of our prayer of confession, will we yield ourselves to God’s transforming grace? In the words of the prophet, will we allow the law of God—which is love—to be written on our hearts? And if we can’t, or won’t, or find ourselves saying “Not now, later,” will we, can we trust that the offer remains open? That our God is a God of kindness and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? For the continued, gracious invitation, all thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rolf Jacobson, Podcast: “Narrative Lectionary 051, Solomon,” October 21, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_lectionary.aspx.
[ii] J. Clinton McCann, “Narrative Lectionary 055, Jeremiah,” November 18, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_lectionary.aspx.