Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: A Lesson from the Israelite Kingship

The divine sovereignty/human responsibility debate is one that I’ve tackled for the last year now. Every time you, the readership, approach the blog, I imagine that you keep thinking, “She’s at it again.” And you would be right---yes, I’m at it again!! I’ve been tempted to see what the Bible has to say about the divine sovereignty/human responsibility debate, and come across specific passages of Scripture that can shed further insight into what seems to be an unceasing debate. For this post, you have my Old Testament Theology Professor, Dr. H. Thomas, to thank.

My readership will be extremely shocked by this post. Normally, I’m always using Greek word studies here to help exposit passages of Scripture; today, however, I will be using Hebrew to reveal what the Scripture has to say about the issue of Israelite kingship. Now, the classic passage of kingship is 1 Samuel 8, where the people go to Samuel and request a king: “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5, NKJV).

Samuel was a judge, which was God’s designed form of leadership for His people. God was to be their King. Here in 1 Samuel 8, however, we find that the people now want a “king”---in other words, they want a leader that will in some sense “replace God” (since He was their King). Let’s note that this is the human request made. How interesting it is to find the leadership of Israel (the elders) requesting a king! What’s even more interesting is that they go to the man of God (Samuel) to make this happen, since he was the one who stood between the people and God.

What we notice after the request is not only the anger of Samuel, but also the anger of the Lord: “Heed the voice of the people IN ALL THAT THEY SAY TO YOU; for they have not rejected you, but THEY HAVE REJECTED ME, THAT I SHOULD NOT REIGN OVER THEM” (1 Sam. 8:7).

As verse 7 shows us, the Lord was not pleased to institute the kingship. In the eyes of the Lord, the Israelite kingship was really a means to replace HIS ROLE in the lives of His people. For those who hold to Calvinist theology, the act of Israel rejecting the Lord was NOT designed by God Himself. Somehow, Calvinists have to explain 1 Samuel 8, as well as God’s displeasure with His people.

And then, if God’s words in verse 7 are not bad enough, read verse 8:

“According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, EVEN TO THIS DAY---with which THEY HAVE FORSAKEN ME AND SERVED OTHER GODS---so they are doing to you also” (1 Sam. 8:8).

These words from the Lord are not words of sheer excitement over appointing a king; rather, they are the condemning words of God Almighty.

As 1 Samuel 8 shows us, the Lord was displeased with the people’s request, but He consents to their decision: “Now therefore, HEED THEIR VOICE” (v.9).

And this is where the biblical text gets interesting. As if 1 Samuel 8 doesn’t tell us what God thought about the people’s request, we are told of God’s displeasure by word study. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people ask for a “king,” the Hebrew word used in the chapter is “melek.” In 1 Samuel 9:15-16, however, we read the following words:

“Now the LORD had told Samuel in his ear the day before Saul came, saying, ‘Tomorrow about this time I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him COMMANDER over My people Israel, that he may save My people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have looked upon My people, because their cry has come to Me’” (1 Sam. 9:15-16).

The capitalized word in the passage above is “commander.” Isn’t this weird? In 1 Samuel 8, the people speak of a “king,” a “melek”; in 1 Samuel 9, the Lord tells Samuel that he was to anoint a “commander” over His people. Why does the New King James translate the word as “commander” instead of “king”? BECAUSE A DIFFERENT WORD IS USED! “melek” is not the Hebrew word in 1 Sam. 9:16; the word used in this verse is “nagid.”

According to “The Brown Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon,” the following is the entry for “nagid”:

“nagid (n.m.) leader (lit. prob, ‘one in front’), ruler, PRINCE;” (“The Brown Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, ninth edition. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, page 617).

Now, if you return to 1 Samuel 8, you’ll remember that Israel specifically asked for a king, a “melek.” Here in chapter 9, though, God gives them a “prince,” instead of a “king.” What’s the significance of this “word change”? It shows us that, although Israel rejected the Lord from being King over them (they wanted a human king instead), God gave them a leader WITHOUT giving away His Sovereignty! And the reason that God could do this is because He is God...and human choices do not “steal” power from Him or make man “autonomous.”

This is just another special “peak” into the world of the sovereignty/responsibility debate. And it serves as a good warning for Calvinists AND Open Theists: for the Calvinists, it serves as a reminder that man’s power to choose comes from God and cannot go “outside” of God’s power; for the Open Theist, it shows that God is sovereign. We must recognize the sovereignty of God, but we cannot recognize His sovereignty without also paying due recognition to the power of choice which He bestowed upon His crowning creation.

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