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A King Gone Bad: Why Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

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January 5, 2014

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king. (1 Sam. 15:23)

We begin a new series today called “A Tale of Two Kings.” We will be following the story of Saul and the story of David. Through their stories, we are going to tap into a rich vein of Scripture that speaks powerfully to our lives today.

We’re going to look today at 1 Samuel 15, but I want you to turn for a moment to 1 Samuel 8. This is a turning point in the Bible story. God’s people had been brought into freedom under the leadership of Moses, (Exodus through Deuteronomy). Then God gave them Joshua, who led the people in the conquest of Canaan (the book of Joshua).

After the time of Joshua, there was a period of about 300 years[1] in which God raised up leaders at times of crisis, and these leaders were called “judges.” The book of Judges is tough reading, and the repeated refrain was “Everybody did what was right in their own eyes.”

The judges were a mixed bag. Some of them, like Gideon and Deborah, were heroic. Then you have others like Samson, a poster boy for bulking up, but not exactly a role model for your children to follow!

The last of these judges was a man by the name of Samuel. He was a good and a godly man, but his sons followed a different path: “His sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3).

The people see what’s coming and they don’t like it. They come to Samuel and say, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5).

Things are not going well and the people say to Samuel, “We need a different form of government. We think the answer is a monarchy. That’s what the other nations do. It works for them. We think it’ll work for us.”

It was not wrong for Israel to ask for a king. God had anticipated this and had planned for it. He gave instructions for kings in Deuteronomy 17. A good king is one who submits himself to the rule of God. God tells Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel; a turning point in the Bible story.

Take your Bible in your hands and follow me here, so we can see what follows. In my Bible, 1 Samuel 8 is on page 295. The rest of 1 Samuel is about King Saul. Then we have 2 Samuel, which is about King David.

Next we have 1 Kings and 2 Kings, which is all about the kings that followed David! Then we have 2 books of Chronicles, which follow exactly the same story.

The end of Chronicles is on page 491 in my Bible, which means that almost 200 pages are given to these kings. That’s about one seventh of the entire Bible! Kings are important in the Bible. God has much to teach us through them. To understand the message of the Bible, we need to grasp what it means to be a king.

This is not going to be easy since we are all glad to be living in a republic! So there’s a bridge of understanding that we have to cross. And I want to help us make that crossing today.

Our form of government reflects the conviction that if power is centered on one person things will not go well. We believe that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and therefore it is for the good of the people and for the health of government that there should be a separation of powers.

Because of this conviction, our government is divided into three branches: The legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the White House), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court).

The legislators write the laws; they decide what the laws should be. That’s the work of Congress. The executive branch puts them into effect; the role of the president is to lead within the law. The judges determine when the laws have been broken and the consequences that should follow. In ancient cultures, the king held all three powers together. Our natural reaction to this is that it would be a complete disaster.

Here is the great irony of our culture: Having believed so strongly that absolute power corrupts absolutely, having planned so clearly that there should be a separation of powers, having discerned so wisely that there should be no king, we have proceeded to make kings of ourselves!

We have created a culture in which every individual is king in his or her own life. Our postmodern culture says to every individual, “Write your own rules (be your own legislator). Follow your own desires (be your own executive). Decide what is right for you (be your own judiciary).” What are these, but directions for becoming your own king!

Here is the ultimate irony of American life today: Believing as we do that absolute power corrupts absolutely, we give absolute power to ourselves!

The roots of this go back to the first book of the Bible. God created the man and the woman, and he placed them in a beautiful garden where they would thrive as they lived under his rule as their Lord and their God.

God was the King, and he’d given one rule for the protection of the people: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).

But then Satan came to tempt them. Think about what he said. There were three parts to the temptation:

  1. “Did God actually say ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’” (Gen. 3:1)? That’s legislative: “Is this the right law? Isn’t it too restrictive? Should there not be a better one?”
  1. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). That’s executive: “You could be the one calling the shots, shaping your own future, and making things happen.”
  1. “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). That’s judicial: “God may warn you about judgment to come, but nothing like that is going to happen. You’ll be your own judge. To thy own self be true!”

What was Satan doing in the Garden of Eden? What is the core of his rebellion against God and his temptation to us? Be your own king! Live by your own code. Be your own executive. You must stand or fall based on your own judgments.

And here’s the problem: Absolute power corrupts absolutely! But somehow we manage to convince ourselves that the power we would never trust to another person can safely be held in our own hands! The problem is that putting ultimate authority for your own life in your own hands is always a road to disaster.

Never is this seen more clearly than in the case of Saul, Israel’s first king. We’re going to follow his story in this series. Saul reigned for 40 years.[2] 1 Samuel 15 comes about half way through his reign.

For a few years things have gone well. There have been victories over the Ammonites (chapter 11) and the Philistines (chapter 13). Then in chapter 13, Saul extends his own power. Not content with being king, he acts as priest as well, offering a sacrifice to God.

In chapter 15, God sends Saul on a mission to deal with Agag, who had a long and terrible history of war crimes. Instead of putting Agag to the sword, Saul chooses to bring him back alive. And instead of destroying the animals—as God had commanded—Saul kept them, and justified his actions by offering some of them as sacrifices to God.

That night, God spoke to Samuel about Saul: “I regret that I have made Saul king” (1 Sam. 15:11). Power has corrupted Saul, and there was grief in the heart of God over the path he had taken. Samuel loved Saul, and he was in an agony of soul. He cried out to God all night until he came to the place of saying, “Your will, not mine, be done.”

Samuel went to speak with Saul. “And Samuel said… ‘Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king’” (1 Sam. 15:22-23). Saul is convicted on three charges:

 

1. Rebellion

Rebellion is as the sin of divination. (1 Sam. 15:23)

When a king came to the throne, his first responsibility was to make his own handwritten copy of the entire book of Deuteronomy. He was to have it on his night stand. He was to read this Word of God daily, so that he could live by it and lead other people in it.

But Saul did not listen to the word of God. As time went on, Saul convinced himself that he could decide what was best. He would determine what should be done. He would stand or fall by his own judgments. Samuel nails that for what it is — rebellion: “Saul, you are not living according to the Word of God. You are walking in your own way.”

On the last day the question will be a simple one: Who was king in your life? Was it God or was it really you? Every day, every week, every year, you are working out the answer to that question by the decisions, choices, and priorities of your life.

What place does the Word of God have in your life? If you don’t read his Word, how can you possibly live by what he says? Who determines what is right and wrong for you? Whose will is decisive for the decisions and direction of your life? Whose judgment carries more weight than your own in your life?

Who is king in your life? If it is you, do you see that you are guilty of rebellion against the King of kings, your Creator, who alone has the right to rule over you (1 Tim. 5:15)?

2. Presumption

Presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. (1 Samuel 15:23)

What’s so striking in the story is that Saul manages to convince himself that he is pleasing God even when he is in rebellion against him! Saul says to Samuel, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord… I have obeyed the voice of the LORD” (1 Sam. 15:13,20).

Saul goes on to explain, “I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:20-21).

 

Saul is quite sure that he can please God in his own way: “We spared the sheep to sacrifice them to the Lord! We did it to please God. What could be more pleasing to God than sacrifices? Isn’t that what he wants?”

The point, Saul, is that it’s not what God said! Your whole approach to God reflects your arrogant assumption that you know how to please God, that whatever you think is good will be pleasing to him, as if God were simply a reflection of your own ideas.

And Saul, just so you know, that assumption is as bad as if you sat down with a piece of wood and stone and made your own idol. “Presumption is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23).

3. Disobedience

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice. (1 Sam. 15:22)

Samuel is not making a critique of sacrifices. Sacrifices were given by God, and when they were offered with a humble and faithful heart, they were an expression of worship.

But Saul had slipped into the deadly snare of religious people: He offered sacrifices to God, but then followed the impulses of his own heart. Saul, don’t try to use religion as a smokescreen to cover the ungodliness of your life. It will never work. God sees right through it!

I go to church! I take communion! I went to a bible conference last year and heard 10 of the best Christian speakers! So what? It doesn’t matter, when you continue to walk in disobedience to God!

Rebellion, presumption, disobedience—three strikes against Saul, and then he heard the words that must have as awful for Samuel to speak as they were for Saul to hear: “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23).

The chapter ends with a tragic scene: Samuel the prophet had brought the word of God to Saul. He had loved him, prayed for him, and guided him in his earlier years.

“Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:34-35).

Saul was still on the throne, but he had lost his power. He still wore a crown, but it was an empty symbol. He struggled on, trying to bring order to his own life, but God was not with him. God was not for him. He was without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12).

We’ll follow the story, and we will see how, having chosen to be his own king, Saul moved into greater and greater darkness. We’ll see how he became consumed with jealousy, and the dark moods and violence that come with it. We’ll see the tragedy of a man alienated from God with no way back.

The indictments against Saul: Rebellion, presumption, and disobedience, all of them rejected, are the Bible’s analysis of the human condition. We hear the indictment and we have to confess, “That’s us!” Like Adam, we have decided to be our own kings. Like Saul, we are kings gone bad. I am so glad that the Bible does not end at 1 Samuel 15!

We are all like foolish puppets who deciding to be kings

Now lie pitifully crippled having cut off our own strings

Randy Stonehill

What has God done for this world of self-appointed kings gone bad?

He has sent another king! This is what we’ve been celebrating over Christmas. The angel says to Mary, “You will… bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David… and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33).

 

The Magi come asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). These kings came to worship the King!

At the launch of his public ministry, he says, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The King shows his authority, stilling the storm, casting out evil spirits, healing the sick, and raising the dead.

But the King is rejected. The people said, “We will not have him reigning over us.” So they dressed him up in a purple robe. They put a crown of thorns on his head. They put a reed in his hand, and mocked him. Then they nailed him to a cross, and put a sign over him that said, “This is the king of the Jews.”

But death could not hold this king. On the third day he rose from the dead.

And God has highly exalted him, giving him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow!

At the end of the Bible, when his glory is unveiled, we are told that “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). All power is given to him and the reason that this power does not corrupt him is that he is God and sin is not in him.

This king offers himself to rebellious, presumptuous, disobedient sinners like us. He is ready and able to reconcile us to God, to adopt us into his own royal family, to bring us out of the kingdom of darkness and into his kingdom of marvelous light. Is Christ your king? Is he your Lord? Don’t be your own king! It’s a sure route to disaster.

You need a king to whom you can trust absolute authority in your life, a king whose laws you will obey, a king whose direction you will follow, a king whose judgment you will submit to. There is a king to whom you can trust your life, and his name is Jesus.

Don’t try to be your own king in 2014. It is always the road to disaster.

Submit yourself to Jesus Christ as your legislator, your executive, and your judge. Join with Thomas who fell before Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God!” Embrace Christ as your Savior, your Lord, and your King!

 

[1] Walter Kaiser, “History of Israel: From Bronze Age Through the Jewish War,” (Nashville: Broadman and Holman), 1360-1084 B.C., 1998.

[2] Kaiser, 1051-1011 B.C.

 

© Colin S. Smith

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By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org



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