A weaker offering than last week’s pilot episode, “Let the Wicked Be Ashamed” meanders through the aftermath of Saul’s rebellion against the Prophet Samuel and the beginnings of the disintegration of Saul’s kingship. Very little of this episode is grounded in the biblical narrative, which is fine as it stands and expected of a serial television production, yet the plot seems to stall when it is not moved along by biblical events.
The overarching theme of this episode and the topic I wish to explore in this post is the “price of kingship.” There is a double meaning to this phrase, in that kingship exacts a high price as the king makes the difficult, sometimes immoral decisions for the greater good. Kingship could be described as a necessary evil, an office that demands its holder to do the dirty work of enforcing law and order, which demands severity, ruthlessness, and sometimes cruelty. In this episode, it means the execution of a man and his family, including a young boy. The death of innocent women and children is again explored in this series as an unfortunate by-product of “kings and prophets.” We are again lead to question the morality of kings (as well of God himself) who rule absolutely and beyond criticism. We question the morality of policies that place judgment over mercy and retaliation over forgiveness. Ironically, both Saul and Elohim (God), who are placed in opposition over the severity of judgment, end up taking the same policy of wrath over mercy. Elohim commanded the complete eradication of the Amelekites, to which Saul objected that the ancient feud be forgotten. Elohim, through Samuel, refused and commanded their deaths as payment for the Amalekites’ own maltreatment of the Israelites generations past. Even though Saul sought a peaceful and merciful path in that case, he is unable to do so when given the opportunity himself, when he is betrayed by an ally and orders the execution of the man, his wife, and son. David objects to the execution of the son, but Saul is unwilling in order to preserve the deterrent of betrayal. Kingship seems to know no mercy.
The “price of kingship” is also one that is exacted from the king and his family as power leads to the inevitable loss of power and the death of those that lose it. For this reason, Saul’s firstborn, Ishbaal, attempts to assassinate Samuel before he is able to anoint a new king, yet this leads to the further disintegration of the royal family. Saul’s preference for his concubine over his own wife leads to her jealousy and adultery. The desire to gain and maintain power exacts a high price on all.
As we move ahead in the biblical books of Samuel, we find David attempting to chart a new course for his own rise to kingship and eventual rule. He chooses mercy over judgment, clemency over punishment, life instead of death. David passes up two opportunities to kill Saul, who is chasing after David seeking his life. He laments the death of Saul and Jonathan, preserves the life of Mephibosheth, and refuses to avenge the rape of his daughter, Tamar, by his son Amnon. When Tamar’s brother, Absalom, seeks to avenge it himself and eventually attempts a coup to overthrow his father, David commands that Absalom be kept alive.
Yet David cannot escape blood. He kills Goliath, sends Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, to the front lines resulting in his death, he goes out to war time and again against the Philistines. “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands,” the people chant. In spite of David’s desire for peace and mercy, it seems wherever he goes, death and bloodshed follow.
The price of kingship.
There is a price of ruling over others. Even those with the best intentions cannot avoid conflict. This goes for secular political rule as well as ecclesiastical and spiritual rule. It is a fearful thing to given rulership over a nation, even more so over a church, and yet even more over a soul. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The words of Christ describe those who would rule over others, either politically or spiritually. Let us not seek to rule over others, for it will likely be our ruin. Let us pray for those who rule, that they will rule in the image of Christ who washed his disciples’ feet and gave himself over to death for their sake.