1 & 2 Samuel Part Two Deep Dive
WHO IS REALLY IN CHARGE? | DR KYLE KEIMER
Who is really in charge? This is something that the Bible poses over and over to those who read it. In Exodus God says he will give certain signs so that ‘they will know that I am God’ (the ‘they’ is both Israel and Egypt depending on the specific verse. Ex 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 10:2; 14:4, 18; and others). Judges 6 highlights that it was not Gideon who won the battle against the Midianites, but God. Over and over again God is the one who is in control. Yet we sometimes forget this. Whether in our own pride or ignorance we seek to elevate ourselves or others to the place that only God commands. The ancient Israelites did this as we do it today. But there is one instance where Israel’s rejection of God stands out as it both set the tone for what would come and shows God’s great mercy to work everything together for good.
In 1 Sam 8:5 the people of Israel come to the prophet Samuel and demand that he appoint over them a “king” like all the nations. With reluctance—really, only with God’s prodding—Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Samuel sees the request of the people as a rejection of his leadership, but God sets him straight by saying that, no, it is not Samuel that they are rejecting, but God himself. Still, even when rejected by his people, God is gracious and allows a “king” to be appointed. With this appointment of a king, the Israelite monarchy begins; a monarchy that will continue for the next 500 years. Yet, it is interesting in 1 Samuel that even as God allows an earthly king to rule over “His [i.e., God’s] people” Israel, that God never cedes ultimate power. So while the Israelites will put more and more hope in their earthly kings over the next 500 years, God is very clear that he alone is the true king and worthy of praise.
How is it that God’s true kingly status is contrasted with that of the earthly king that Israel requested? Through the use of very specific words in the Hebrew text. In Hebrew, the word for ‘king’ is melek. It comes from the verb /malak/ which means “to rule”. The telling thing is that whenever the author of the book of Samuel relays God’s words, God never refers to the person that will rule over His people Israel as the melek. Instead He always uses the term nagid, which means “leader”, “prince”, “shepherd” (1 Sam 9:16; 2 Sam 5:2; 7:8; 1 Kgs 14:7; 16:2; 2 Kgs 20:5; Isa 55:4; 2 Chr 6:5). This might seem like a semantic nuance, and it is. But it is an important nuance. Whenever God speaks about giving Israel a king he always says that he has given them a “leader”, not a “king”. God knows, and so does the biblical author, that God is the king. The human in charge of Israel, or any other nation for that matter, is not really the king, let alone the king of kings as some ancient rulers claimed.
Even David, when he is anointed to replace Saul as “king” refers to himself as the nagid and not the melek (2 Sam 6:21). There is a humility in David’s words that recognises where ultimate power actually lay. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that David is chosen by God and even said to be a man after God’s own heart (or, the better translation of this phrase is “a man whom God will choose” (1 Sam 13:14); conceptually they are the same. God chooses those whose hearts are right and not proud (cf. Jam 4:6)).
Later, when David is dying and about to appoint his successor, he says that his son Solomon will be nagid after him (1 Kgs 1:35). This verse is very interesting because it says:
“You shall then come up after him, and he shall come and sit on my throne, for he shall be king in my place. And I have appointed him to be ruler (nagid) over Israel and over Judah.”
The English of the ESV says that Solomon will “be king”, but the Hebrew has a greater range of meaning; it can mean, “to be king” but it also means generically, “to rule.” The tone of this passage, when viewed in light of David’s relationship to God suggests that the best English translation is actually “to rule.” What is the difference between ruling and being king? If we understand David as saying Solomon will be “king”, then how do we make sense of the rest of the verse where it specifically says that David made Solomon the nagid? What the text is saying by having David refer to Solomon as nagid is that David still recognises his place in relation to God and he wants his son to recognise his place as well. Solomon may be “king” for all intents and purposes, but he must have a humble heart and recognise that his authority is given from God and that God is the true king while Solomon is only the nagid.
What’s at stake here is how the biblical author, or David, or Solomon, understand God’s place in the lives of the ancient Israelites. They recognise that God is the king and that the earthly “king” that the people requested is no more than God’s elected representative. There is only one king. Yet, this recognition is soon forgotten among the people, and the earthly king becomes the one in whom they place their trust, instead of God.
Contrast David’s words in 2 Sam 6:21 with what the Chronicler has David say in 1 Chr 28:4:
'Yet the LORD God of Israel chose me from all my father’s house to be king (melek) over Israel forever. For he chose Judah as leader, and in the house of Judah my father’s house, and among my father’s sons he took pleasure in me to make me king (melek) over all Israel.'
By the time the Chronicler is writing in the 4th century BC (We don’t know exactly when the Chronicler is writing the books of Chronicles, but a date in the 4th century is commonly assumed. Neither do we know when the books of Samuel were written, but they are clearly written long before Chronicles) the idea of kingship has developed. Israel/Judah had put their hope in their kings, but this hope did not stop the Assyrian Empire from destroying the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonian Empire from destroying the southern Kingdom of Judah (the United Monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon split after Solomon’s death). Still, following the exile and return from exile in the Persian period (539-332 BC) when the Chronicler was writing, there was an aspiration for the restoration of the Davidic line. The people wanted a king again instead of God!
This desire for an earthly king is part of the idea of “messianism”, the hope in the “messiah”, who is God’s anointed ruler. The irony is that God once again heeded to the people’s request and provided a messiah, a king. But as the people did not get the type of king they expected back in the days of Samuel, so they did not get the type of king they expected in these latter days. The former kings exploited the people and brought destruction, the latter king was meek but brought righteousness and life. The latter king was none other than God himself who came in such a manner as to truly evaluate people’s hearts. Did they, and do we recognise who the true king is? What kind of king do we serve?