One of the most influential people in my life is a man I have never met, yet one whose words have, on multiple occasions, literally saved my life. Andrew Peterson is a singer, songwriter, and storyteller, whose stories and songs vividly capture, better than any other artist I know, what I call “homesick happiness,” the bittersweet longings of a broken world and broken heart longing for restoration. One of his earlier albums that has been steadily climbing the charts of my heart is his epic retelling of the Christmas story, Behold the Lamb of God, which traces the coming of Immanuel through the Old Testament, all the way to the cross. Probably my favorite song on the album is the hinge song, “So Long, Moses,” which unfolds the same story of kinglessness that we have been following through this book, beginning with the arrival of God’s people in God’s Country, yet without God’s King:
So long, Moses
Hello, Promised Land
It was a long, long road
But your people are home
So long, Moses
We’re coming to town
Twelve tribes and no crown
No crown, Oh Lord
We want a king on a throne
Full of power, with a sword in his fist
Will there ever be, ever be a king like this?
Peterson describes, in a verse, the story of the previous chapter. The downward spiral of anarchy and brokenness leaves us, at the end of the book of Judges, in horror at the violence and cruelty that God’s shattered image bearers are capable of. “There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” is the sad story of human authority gone haywire, twisted by the Curse and Fall into a nightmarish craving for power and status. The book of Judges confronts us with the tragic reality of sin. Disconnected from the wisdom, life, and power that flows from proper submission to the High King and stripped of the dominion and purpose that our souls long for, every human heart exalts its own desires to the status of functional god. In the end, each one of us will sacrifice everything in unappeasable, suicidal slavery to that god.
Andrew Peterson’s Christmas album traces that enslavement to kinglessness and rises to an urgent longing in this song: “We want a king on a throne, full of power with a sword in his fist; will there ever be, ever be a king like this?”
THE COMING GREAT REVERSAL
The book of Judges sets up the urgent question of a vacant throne, and the book of Ruth hints at an approaching solution, ending with the genealogy of the coming king, David. Yet 1 Samuel opens, not with the arrival of that king, but with the birth of God’s prophet Samuel and then continues on with several chapters describing the floundering foolishness of Israel’s leaders. At the moment when the story appears poised to finally move forward, we seem to have lost the plot.
Of course, we haven’t. What appears to be a detour is anything but (and if we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that detours are actually God’s design). This interval between the urgent question of anarchy and God’s answer sets up the crucial characteristics that God’s King must possess if he is to truly reign over God’s kingdom according to God’s design. We’ve seen this theme developing through the storyline of the Bible, how the Curse and Fall have turned our value systems upside down so that we celebrate pride, privilege, wealth, strength, and status, instead of traits that are truly valuable like humility, meekness, trust, patience, and kindness. The kingdom of hell and its government predicated on greatness, unchallenged since Genesis 3, will now face off against the kingdom of heaven and its government based not on greatness but lowliness. The opening story of 1 Samuel makes this theme explicit and will set the pattern for the rise and fall of God’s kings in the rest of the narrative.
The book of 1 Samuel opens with a story of a humble, patient woman named Hannah who trusts God fully. She sings a song in chapter 2 that sets forth the themes of pride and humility that will define God’s king and kingdom. Her song is an anthem against the upside-down kingdom of hell, confidently stating, against all odds, that God’s king and kingdom will put things right-ways up again:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn… The LORD raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by strength shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed. (1 Samuel 2:4-10)
This song vividly describes a coming great reversal, a clash of kingdoms, and how God’s kingdom will ultimately prevail over hell’s. What is crucial to see here are the values of these competing kingdoms: pride versus humility. Ever since Genesis 3, the mighty and powerful and strong and beautiful have scrambled to grab the crumbs of authority that fall from Satan’s table, but now a new age is dawning. Everything in Satan’s upside-down empire of evil is going to be overturned in this great reversal. The strong are shattered and the weak are clothed in strength (“the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength”). The rich and powerful are cast away, and the destitute are provided for (“those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger”). This coming kingdom exalts the lowly and the least because in this realm the values of humility and meekness are prized (“he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor”). This coming great reversal will succeed because it is nothing less than God re-implementing the original design of the universe. Humility and dependence are how he made his image-bearers and world to work. A new reality (or maybe we should say, an older reality) is breaking through the illusion of this present age, and it is coming in the form of a new king, a king who will reign as God always intended humanity to reign—not independently, but in dependent trust and humble reliance (“not by strength shall a man prevail… the LORD will give strength to his king”).
This song is the Bible’s first glimpse of Eden’s authority restored, a preview of coming attractions when God’s king will reign, the waking nightmare of shattered dominion will end, and reality will be restored. Hannah’s song gives us the lens through which to read all the stories of 1 Samuel, and also raises the stakes for readers. For these narratives are more than just the accounts of an ancient monarchy; these are the opening salvos of a war between rival kingdoms for mastery of the universe. Either God’s king will reclaim human dominion and the throne of reality through humble dependence on God, or else Satan’s usurped reign of terror will continue unchecked. The tug-of-war between rival kingdoms will be seen as pride and humility battle for supremacy in the hearts of God’s kings, with the fate of not just God’s people, but ultimately of God’s world hanging in the balance. These cosmic themes surface throughout the struggles of 1 Samuel, as the embryonic kingdom of God battles against the darkness of the present age.
GOD’S FIRST KING
1 Samuel follows the arc of the first two kings of God’s people, Saul and David. The Bible’s first answer to the problem of God’s kingless people is the seemingly dead-end story of King Saul, described thus by Andrew Peterson:
First king of Israel
You were foolish and strong
So you didn’t last long
After the clash of competing kingdoms is introduced in the opening stories of 1 Samuel, we finally arrive in chapter 8 at the climactic scene of God’s people demanding that God give them a king. The elders of Israel assemble with a fateful request: “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).
“Ah, finally!” we exclaim. At last we’re poised to return to the original, God’s king ruling over God’s people in God’s country. Everything will be right again, we think. But as we continue reading, we are soon surprised to discover that God is not pleased with the people’s request. “Your wickedness is great, in asking for a king,” Samuel accuses. (1 Samuel 12:17) Their desire for a king is born not of submission to God’s design, but rather from the polluted springs of kingless human nature, bucking against divine authority. The people have no interest in God’s kingdom as God defines it—God’s king reigning in humble submission to him—but only want to construct their own artificial empire “like all the other nations.” “Obey the voice of the people,” God says sadly to Samuel, “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
Here we learn that simply having God’s King is not enough. Human image-bearing authority must be a reflection and extension of God’s reign, or else it will ultimately collapse into the same chaos as every other futile kingdom-building exercise that mankind has undertaken. The kingdom must be shaped by the contours of Hannah’s song—humble trust and dependence on God—or else it will simply be another manifestation of hell’s kingdom. Thus, the fatal flaw of the Israelites in 1 Samuel 8 was the same error that Adam and Eve made: they wanted the benefits of the reign without the shackles of relationship; they wanted to rule apart from God.
How then will God respond to this perverted request? In the terrifying way he often responds to our rebellion: by giving us what we ask for. The people want God’s King in their own image, refashioned to reflect the priorities of their upside-down, serpent-enslaved hearts. And that’s what God gives them: hello, King Saul.
Actually, the story is a little more nuanced than that. The sad tale of Saul is actually a masterfully woven narrative of promising beginnings dashed to pieces on the rocks of human pride. The competing ironies of the account are evident from the very beginning. God, doing what he most loves to do, confounds all our expectations by picking a lowly man from a lowly family from a lowly tribe and exalts him as king over his people. He pours out his Spirit on Saul to anoint and empower him for service and gives him “another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9) to respond rightly to God. So far, so good. At this point in the story, we have cause for hope, for this is exactly what Hannah’s song tell us that God’s king is supposed to look like: humble and dependent.
When coronation day arrives, however, the darker side of the story reveals itself as Saul cowers behind the luggage rather than face his responsibility. And it is at this moment in the narrative that we are told that Saul outwardly looks the part of a king: “When he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. And Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people!’” (1 Samuel 10:23-24) By this point in the storyline of God’s dealing with humanity, we should begin to discern that God doesn’t have the same priorities and values that we do. We value outward strength and beauty and charm and influence while God seems to regard those qualities as negatives rather than positives. Saul looking the part of a king so convincingly should be a red flag to us, because the external qualities that hell prizes so highly are what this coronation moment is all about.
And thus is set up the tug-of-war competing for the heart of God’s king. One side, his Spirit-empowered humble origins; on the other, his Satan-exalted external qualities. Which side gains his allegiance will spell either ruin or success for the kingdom. The tragedy of Saul’s story is that, over time, he increasingly sides with the serpent, desiring authority and strength for his own ends, arrogantly disregarding God’s commands, jealously clinging to his position until his idol of power turns on him and destroys him (as all idols do eventually).
The kingdom starts off well in chapter 11, with Saul achieving great victories and treating his opponents with mercy. He expands and consolidates power, but his success is short-lived. By chapter 13, his dark side shows itself when, carried along by cowardice and presumption, he steps into the place of God’s prophet and offers unlawful sacrifices. Samuel’s rebuke is a staggering blow for all our hopes. This kingdom, begun with so much promise, will not endure:
Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14)
Yet mingled into the judgment is a word of hope—as is so often the case with God’s promises. “The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart.” The kingdom of Saul might be snuffed out, but God’s quest to re-establish the righteous rule of mankind continues. Another king will come, and this time his heart will be fully aligned with the Creator’s.
GOD’S GREAT KING
The story continues with the slow-motion collapse of Saul’s kingdom. He continues notching up victories, but the folly that will eventually consume him is expanding. In an episode intentionally showcased to remind us of the foolish judge Jephthah (from Judges 6), Saul makes a rash vow that nearly costs his son Jonathan his life. Then he once again violates God’s command, hoarding plunder for himself, at which point Samuel is sent to anoint David, the lowly shepherd boy as the new king.
Samuel’s search for the new king in 1 Samuel 16 serves as a point of vivid contrast to Saul, who looks so kingly and yet whose heart is increasingly far from the Lord. With this new king, God wants to make clear the message of Hannah’s song: that he is turning hell’s external-focused values upside down, that meekness and weakness and lowliness are the values prized in this kingdom. He sends Samuel to the little town of Bethlehem, to a family with seven sons, making the lesson explicit in verses 6-7:
When the sons came, Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
Even God’s prophet functioned with the assumptions of the rest of mankind. When he saw tall, strong, handsome Eliab, he assumed that this would be the king who would replace tall, strong, handsome Saul. But God wants to make clear the values undergirding his kingdom: humility is the highest virtue, dependence is the greatest asset, and everything that we naturally think would contribute to greatness are actually disqualifying. God does not see as man sees, and his great reversal will come through the values that his kingdom prizes: humility, dependence, and lowliness. And so he directs Samuel past all the seemingly more-qualified sons of Jesse to the last and least, the youngest son who is such an afterthought that he wasn’t even invited to the party. A humble shepherd boy, David is anointed as the next king over God’s people. The Spirit who empowered Saul departs from him and clothes the new king with power. Now God would finally have a willing vessel through which to bring the kingdom.
The contrast between Saul and David is immediately obvious and continually highlighted for the rest of the narrative, in order for us to clearly see the qualifications for true kingship—humility, trust, and dependence. Chapter 17, the famous story of David and Goliath, highlights this. David confidently trusts in the God of Israel while King Saul cowers. And why is David so confident? Because his boast is not in himself but in the Lord: “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand,” he says to the giant, “so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s” (1 Samuel 17:46-47). David looks past the towering foe to the grander, global plans of a God who always wins his battles.
A quick side note on the story of David and Goliath: we frequently misapply Scripture when we try to read our own story into the stories of the Bible’s heroes. Many an inspirational sermon has been preached on how we should, like David, trust God and see our own giants fall. While that’s not necessarily wrong, that’s not the point of this story. This is not an account of overcoming personal obstacles (in fact, such an application often smacks more of the “You are special and powerful” half-truth that the serpent whispers than of the humble, dependent virtues that define God’s kingdom). In the overarching biblical story of king and country, David’s victory over Goliath isn’t a testament to the power of personal faith. It’s a picture of God’s chosen king doing what God’s people could not: stepping into their place, fighting their battle, and through dependence and trust achieving a victory that counts for them. God’s king defeats God’s enemies, and God’s people reap the rewards. This is what God’s King and God’s kingdom looks like. If you must find yourself in this story, don’t look to David, who is doing what only God’s king can do. Instead, look to the soldiers cowering behind the front lines as God’s king accomplishes their victory for them; this is what your place in the kingdom looks like.
As 1 Samuel continues, the stark contrast between heaven’s kingdom—now led by David—and hell’s kingdom—now personified in Saul—takes center stage. Saul, rather than rejoice selflessly in God’s deliverance through David, is seized with selfish, arrogant jealousy and begins an increasingly deranged campaign to kill him. And how does David respond? Not once, but twice, when presented with the opportunity to kill Saul and take the throne by force, David instead responds with graciousness rooted in his trust in God’s faithfulness. “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD’s anointed…I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you,” David testifies (1 Samuel 24:10,12). Here we see, in clear relief, God’s kingdom values clearly displayed: turning the other cheek, kindness even to enemies, meekness turned into strength, and humble trust in God.
THE SONGS OF THE KING
It is in this period of David’s life, on the run from the murderous raving of King Saul, that his heart is most clearly revealed. The kingdom virtues of Hannah’s anthem shine through: “the feeble bind on strength,” “he raises up the poor from the dust,” “not by strength shall a man prevail.” David embodies the radical ideals of the kingdom, and in the process gives us a sneak peek into the dawning of God’s new reality where the weak are made strong, the humble are exalted, and everything broken is restored.
Following the saga of David’s fugitive journey, we are afforded “behind-the-scenes” glimpses into his soul through the numerous of songs that pour from his heart. It’s a well-worn cliché to note that our hearts are like sponges; when we are squeezed, whatever is in our hearts comes out. In David’s songs, we see that the heart of God’s king is full of worship.
Flip through the longest book in the Bible, right in the middle, and you’ll find that 73 out of 150 psalms are directly attributed to David. His life was a fountain of worship, ranging from peaceful ballads like “The Lord is my shepherd,” (Psalm 23) to the anguished cry of repentance, “Have mercy on me, O God” (Psalm 51), to songs celebrating God’s reign expressed through his human regents (Psalm 8). Several of his psalms were written during the dark days of his flight from Saul, and it is remarkable to read them through the lens of their context. Here we see what true trust and humble dependence look like and how God’s king views reality.
The introductory text of Psalm 57, for example, tells us that it was written “when David fled from Saul, in the cave.” As David was literally running for his life, this was what overflowed from his heart:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge…
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me…
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make melody!…
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
His song began with a cry for mercy and ended with a cry of worship. Twice in the psalm he prays, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!” Prayer in God’s kingdom hopes that God will be seen as great, even when one is fearing for one’s life. And woven throughout the song is an expectation of God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled, that divine blessing would flow through God’s King awakening worship throughout the world: “I will sing praises to you among the nations.”
David’s songs—as well as the rest of the psalms—abound with the hope that God will not abandon his king, but will, through that king, remake the whole world to be mankind’s perfect kingdom again. That messianic anticipation is what we’ll explore further in the next chapter. But for now, we behold in the psalms the humble, happy, hopeful heart of God’s king. This is what God’s king and kingdom look like.
AN EVERLASTING THRONE
Fast forward into the book of 2 Samuel, and Saul’s once-promising kingdom has collapsed under the mounting weight of his idolatry and foolishness. David has now ascended the throne. He is the amalgam of all the seemingly-backwards values of God’s kingdom: a humble leader and warrior shepherd who is gracious towards his enemies and dependent on God, the living embodiment of Hannah’s hopeful song. Could this finally be the king who would reunite the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man and reign from Adam’s throne?
2 Samuel 7 is one of the Bible’s most pivotal chapters, which gathers all the momentum of the narrative up until this point and propels it forward into the future. God appears to David, who has begun laying out plans to build a temple in Jerusalem—a permanent replacement for the tabernacle, uniting earth and heaven in the heart of the promised land. God commends David’s desire but tells him that it will be his son who will complete that capstone project. Then God drops the bombshell of all bombshells on David: his dynasty will expand beyond all expectations, and one of his offspring will build an enduring kingdom, establish an everlasting throne, and enjoy an utterly unique relationship with God:
The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11-16)
It is not an overstatement to say that God’s covenant with David is the central motif of the entire Old Testament—really, the whole Bible. An eternally-established throne, from which the Son of David will rule, is the promise to which every prior promise has been pointing, and from which every future prophecy will flow. This moment brings together every storyline we have traced so far. This son promised to David is descended from Eve’s lineage of grace, an offspring of Abraham, a leader arisen from the line of Judah, the fulfillment of millennia of guarantees to God’s people. He is the lion of Judah’s tribe who will crush the usurping serpent’s head, ascend to Adam’s throne, reclaim the crown of human dominion, and begin a new and unending human reign over God’s world. In the Davidic dynasty, God’s kingdom will at last have the human king it needs.
Except that there’s a problem. It’s a problem lurking in plain sight, right there in the text of the promise. “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him…” How could a sinful son of David possibly fulfill all these promises and inherit an everlasting throne? A sinful king would, by the very fact of his rebellious nature, still be under Satan’s thumb, subject to the Genesis 3 curse of futility and brokenness and death, and unable to wield dominion, let alone reign forever. How, then, could God possibly “establish the throne of his kingdom forever?” What are we to make of this?
As in most of God’s other dealings with humanity, once again we see redemption coming in stages. Just like Abraham was made heir of the world, and then inherited Canaan; just like the people of Israel were promised the presence of God and had to settle for a tabernacle; so also here: first the placeholder, then the promised fulfillment. There are multiple layers to this covenant—layers that aren’t immediately evident in the moment, but to which the prophets increasingly pointed. Every son in David’s line will fail to be the serpent-crusher that the ancient promise foretold.
David’s son Solomon comes closest, and fulfills several dimensions of the promise. He does in fact “build God’s house,” a glorious temple to replace the tabernacle and more closely embody the echo of Eden. His reign begins as the wonderful inverse of Saul: instead of pride embracing foolishness, we see humility embracing wisdom. God exalts Solomon to be the (second) wisest man who ever lived, a king unlike virtually any other, fabulous in wealth and prestige. Under his extended administration of peace, Israel attained a golden age unrivaled before or since. The presence of God dwelled visibly in the capital city of Jerusalem. Gold and silver practically paved the streets (we are told that “silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon… the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone.”), and the kings of the earth streamed to Jerusalem to honor him (“the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom”). Just as in the wilderness construction of the tabernacle, the account of Solomon’s kingdom pauses for several chapters to recount the building of the temple in great detail—details swimming with images of Eden. The point is clear: a human being is on the throne and God’s presence is in the midst of his people. However temporarily, for a brief and tantalizing moment it looks as though paradise is being restored. God’s people are in God’s country, with God’s king ruling over them, and the blessing of God is flowing once again.
But not for long. It will only be a few chapters until Solomon proves that the serpent’s hold on his heart has not been undone. As the puritan theologian John Owen sagely remarked, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” Solomon fails to crush the serpent’s head and so is crushed himself. He collapses into idolatry, and upon his death, his once-glorious kingdom falls into division and civil war—as if the cycle of kinglessness in the book of Judges is about to begin anew. Every king that follows—some good, some bad, some truly horrible—fails to be the messiah that God’s people need. As the story of God’s Country approaches its tragic terminus, the urgent question in our minds is the same question we faced at the beginning of the chapter:
We want a king on a throne
Full of power, with a sword in his fist
Will there ever be, ever be a king like this?