Jealous of the political systems of their neighbors, the Hebrew people begged for a king, despite God’s warning against taking one. Given the chaos that ensued, it is well worth considering that there always remained the Hebraic love of law; indeed, it is from the Hebrews that America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of law.

“It is the prophets of Israel and Judah, not the kings, who teach us the meaning of order,” Russell Kirk wrote in 1974, echoing sentiments first expressed by American founder John Adams.[1] One can take Kirk’s point to the next level without damaging it. If anything, the first two kings of Israel taught the meaning of disorder, even though the very kingships of Saul and David and their relations to the prophets of the time, Samuel and Nathan, shape the relationship of the temporal to the spiritual to this day.

Jealous of the political systems of their neighbors and desirous of a bond more visibly tangible than the sacred covenants already established, the Hebrew people begged their prophet Samuel for a king. Corrupt, Samuel’s own sons had already forsaken the virtuous path of judges, and the Hebrews wanted some stability after their failures. They begged Samuel to speak to God on their behalf and with their request. Reluctantly and with some understandable shame given the nature of his sons, Samuel spoke with God. God assured Samuel that he alone was not to blame; the Hebraic people had turned to other gods for ages.

The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you.

Still, God commanded Samuel, remind them of the folly of their request.

11 He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. 12 He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 13 He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. 15 He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. 17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. 18 In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”

Yet, the people refused to back down and God granted them their request.

To be sure, this passage in scripture has become one of the most debated, especially given that it establishes a monarchical order for God’s people. Did God really not foresee and approve of a king? Did He really change his mind and acquiesce to something not of his choosing? Regardless, God chose Saul, a man from the least important family of the smallest tribe of Israel to rule as king.

Samuel, as seer, anointed Saul, thus establishing the anointing of all monarchs from the beginning of Christendom through to the present. Should someone succeed Queen Elizabeth in the United Kingdom, for example, she or he will be anointed as Samuel anointed Saul.[2] Even in the mythological understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo (the priest) hands Gandalf (the prophet) the crown as Aragorn becomes king.

Yet, neither Saul nor David, each “chosen” of God, managed their sacred office well. When Saul refused to destroy his enemy, utterly, as God had commanded him, God withdrew His “spirit” from him, demanding that the people reject him as well, and tormented Saul. “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.” Furious, Saul went more than a bit mad, filled with murderous rage for civil war and, through a witch, called Samuel from the dead.

Well known for his early success against Goliath as well as his music, David became Saul’s replacement as the second monarch. He, too, however, failed to live up to his office. Obsessed with the curvaceous shape of Bathsheba, David fell quickly. “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful.” David made love to her, impregnating her. When he discovered her pregnancy, King David sent her actual husband, Uriah the Hittite, into the thick of battle, unsupported by his troops. For all intents and purposes, King David murdered him.

Confronted, however, by his own prophet, Nathan, David repented of his sins. Critically, as God makes all evil into good, so he did with David and Bathsheba, their illegitimate offspring being Solomon, the wisest of all men. Still, David’s family—and, especially, his son, Absalom—never recovered fully from David’s disordered soul.

Given all of this chaos, it is well worth considering Russell Kirk’s reflections as recorded in his 1974 Roots of American Order, his most comprehensive look at the successes of Western civilization. Whatever the Hebraic failings, there always remained the absolute love of law, even when betrayed.

And from Israel, even more than from the Roman jurisconsults, America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of law. Certain root principles of justice exist, arising from the nature which God has conferred upon man; law is a means for realizing those principles, so far as we can. That assumption was in the minds of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.[3]

This is the fifth essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Western Odyssey” series.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), 17.

[2] For a fascinating examination of this tradition, see chapter 4, “Considerations on the Coronation of An English King,” in Christopher Dawson, Beyond Politics (London, ENG: Sheed and Ward, 1939), 95-115.

[3] Kirk, Roots of American Order, 29.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Saul Anointed by Samuel” (1919) by Adolf Hult (1869-1943), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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