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We Will Have a King over Us

The desire for strong leadership has been a natural tendency for people throughout human history. The evidence of this is abundant in Scripture, which gives us the names of men like Lamech and Nimrod, who stood out as mighty men of renown in their day. Lamech was a proud murderer who raised three sons who led the world with their ingenuity. Nimrod was a mighty hunter who led the people of Mesopotamia to gather at Babel, seeking to build a glorious civilization that would allow them to ascend to God in heaven. Both were examples of the strong man that the world loves to follow and, if we are honest, loves to worship. 

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the fallen people who make up God’s church throughout history have often slipped into a similar pattern of thinking. Consider, for example, the Old Testament people of Israel during the days of Samuel. Sick and tired of the endless cycle of warfare that brought constant insecurity to their land, they came to Samuel and demanded that he find them a strong man who could rule them. 

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. (1 Sam. 8:19–20) 

From one point of view, we can sympathize with the Israelites. What they appeared to want was simply the fulfillment of God’s promise to grant them the land of Canaan through victory over the wicked people surrounding them. Years of pressure from the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and other heathen nations had made them weary. They were disunited, vulnerable, and fractured into regional tribes with only an occasional judge to lead them. What they needed was a strong leader—someone like Moses or Joshua—who could truly unite the whole nation and bring security to its borders. What they wanted was a king. 

In and of itself this desire was not entirely wrong, because God had indeed promised that the seed of Abraham would someday produce the promised Messiah. This Messiah would be a royal leader, someone even greater than Melchizedek who could intercede for his people as a priest and lead them into battle as a king. The spiritual remnant in Israel always looked for this Messiah, expecting that God would fulfill his promises to their forefathers and raise up a man who would lead them to peace with God for eternity. 

The problem, of course, was that the desire for a king that most Israelites expressed was corrupted by their underlying motivation, which was betrayed by their words “that we also may be like all the nations.” This desire was not really for the promised Messiah, but for an earthly king who would provide physical security in the violent and dangerous land of Canaan. The Israelites wanted someone who could settle disputes and enforce the laws of the land. Someone who would fight the nation’s battles for her, keeping her borders safe from threats. Someone who could project the power, wealth, and glory of Israel for other nations to admire and fear. That was the kind of king Israel wanted. An earthly ruler, just like the other nations. 

The story of Old Testament Israel isn’t an isolated incident. Around one thousand years later, the Jewish people were just as confused about the Messiah as were their forefathers during Samuel’s days. What they expected (and truly wanted) was a Messiah who would overthrow the political power of Rome and lead the Jewish nation to independence. Very few of them were looking for a spiritual Messiah who would deliver them from their sins. Even fewer looked for a poor, meek, suffering servant who would carry out a brief and controversial ministry before dying as an outcast on a Roman cross. It simply was beyond their comprehension that this was the true Messiah that God had promised. Jesus simply didn’t fit. 

The inability of fallen humans to imagine a king like our Lord Jesus Christ will always be true apart from the gift of faith. To the natural man, God’s wisdom in saving his people through the means of a meek and humble servant who gave his life for his friends will always seem like utter folly (1 Cor. 1:22–29). In truth, our Lord was the antithesis of what the world looks for in its leaders. Even in his powerful miracles he always pointed away from the physical event to a deeper spiritual reality (John 6). When most of his followers figured this out, they quit following him. The world isn’t interested in the humble Christ of Scripture. They want a strong man. Someone who can be an earthly king. 

Before we get too fixated on criticizing the world around us, however, we would do well to ask whether we wrongly fall into this same mindset in the church today. Even followers of Christ have a natural tendency to look to strong leaders as the solution to their problems in the church or in their personal lives. We all like someone to lean on during difficult times, and most often the type of person we gravitate toward is one who is a bold and confident leader. Most of us would take a David over a Mephibosheth given the choice. 

To be clear, strong leaders are not necessarily a bad thing. We may rightly be thankful for men who have been put in a position of church leadership by God’s providence and have carried out their role with faith and conviction. Their courage to stand for the truth of God’s word during times of spiritual trouble is a gift to the church of Jesus Christ. We may admire their abilities in writing and speaking or their wisdom in leadership so long as we never lose sight of the source of these gifts. Strong leaders in the church can be a good thing. 

But alongside the gift of strong leadership comes the temptation for us to make more of our leaders—past and present—than is biblically proper. In our admiration for their abilities, we can begin to see them as infallible or inspired. When this happens, we often become over-reliant on their opinions about matters of doctrine or practice in the church. Maybe some readers have experienced this during a church Bible study or an informal group discussion of Scripture. Over the course of the discussion, someone refers to a commentary or a sermon by a prominent church leader that offers an interpretation of the text at hand. As soon as the name of the leader is referenced, discussion comes to a screeching halt. Who wants to offer an opposing point of view when it means questioning the perspective of that man? Shouldn’t we just take his word on the matter and end discussion?  

When this sort of experience becomes the common feature of our Bible studies, it might indicate we have a problem. Of course, we ought to respect and honor the viewpoints of faithful leaders in the church, but we ought not elevate their opinions to the same level as Scripture. Doing so suggests that our leaders have become objects of trust in place of the Lord they represent. Even worse, they can become objects of our worship, which is a huge danger to the people of God. Scripture offers a firm warning about this error from the apostle John’s encounter with an angel in his vision. 

And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God. (Rev. 22:8–9) 

Like the Old Testament Israelites, it’s entirely possible that we desire the good gift of strong leadership for the wrong reasons. We need to ask ourselves why we want this type of leader. Is it perhaps because we lack confidence in the word of God as an infallible guide? Or is it maybe because we are too lazy to invest the time required to understand the doctrines of grace taught by God’s word? Do we want a leader to “go out before us, and fight our battles” for us because we are too timid or busy with other distractions to fight sin and error ourselves? If any of these motivations describe us, we need to repent and seek the Lord Jesus Christ as the one true object of our faith and hope.  

Let me close with one last thought for young people who are starting to become more active in church life as confessing members. When you have a vote in selecting elders and deacons or calling a pastor, look for the most important qualifications in a leader first. Your reference point here should be Jesus Christ himself. He was indeed a strong leader, but he came to us in the form of a humble servant rather than a conquering king (Phil. 2:5–8). Look for that sort of leader and trust that the weakness of God is stronger than the wisdom of men.