We live in an age of “strong man” leadership. We think of presidents and prime ministers like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Benjamin Netanyahu, Recep Erdogan, and Victor Orban. Their excesses are tolerated and excused because citizens want a “big man” to look after their interests. “Taking care of us” often means the domination and suppression of other people that dissent, object, or pose a threat to the authority of the “big man.”
The discourse of Samuel in 1 Samuel 12 is fertile ground for preaching and teaching in our churches. The nation of Israel was threatened by the expansionist objectives of the Ammonites. The citizens demanded that Samuel appoint a “big man” as sovereign ruler to take care of national security. Saul was chosen to be the nation’s first king. Like many people of our time, these ancient tribes felt that a “strong man” would protect their borders and guarantee prosperity.
Samuel had a warning. God has been their sovereign ruler since their flight from slavery in Egypt. Their desire for a strong man and their faith in a monarchy was actually a threat to God’s rule. In these changing circumstance, the citizens and the king must realize that together they were called to live under the reign of God. The king owed his first allegiance to God. The citizens, likewise, owed their first allegiance to God. A shift of loyalty from God to the king would actually be a threat to the well-being of the nation.
This passage calls us to re-affirm our first allegiance to God’s rule. Our primary duty is to orient our lives towards Jesus’ teaching about justice, mercy, and faith. It is too easy to compromise with the “strong men” to advance our self-interest. The words of Samuel also give us a position from which to critique the strong men, their policies, and personal practices. The proclamation of God’s rule, in our words and actions, can be uncomfortable and dangerous. John the Baptist was executed for his critique of Herod Antipas. Jesus was crucified. Strong men resist accountability to God and to the citizens of their countries.
We are challenged in an age of “strong men” to show that our first loyalty is to God.