Like the Nations Around Us
In I Samuel 8:4f, the elders of the tribes of Israel approach an aged Samuel with the demand that he anoint for them a king “to judge us like all the nations.” We are not told in the context of this chapter exactly what motivated this request, though the elders do note that the two sons of Samuel “do not walk in your ways.” In v. 3 God describes Joel and Abijah as dishonest men who used their positions as judges over God’s people in order to further their personal gain, yet the request for a king by the Israelites is twice qualified by the desire to “be like all the nations” (v. 5,20). Samuel himself was upset by the request, apparently in part because he considered it a testament to some failure on his part (v. 7; I Samuel 12:1-5) and in part because he recognized it as a rejection of the kingship of God (I Samuel 10:17-19; 12:12-17). Yet the desire to be like the surrounding nations in their government was no surprise to God, Who had warning of this circumstance over three hundred years earlier. In Deuteronomy 17:14f, He describes the very conditions noted in I Samuel 8 and offers some “contingency legislation” to govern the behavior of the king that they would request. Interestingly, however, even in the prophecy God notes that the people would make this desire in view of “all the nations that are around me” (v. 14).
Human beings sustain a love/hate relationship with the concept of distinction. It appears that many folks retain some desire for individuality and uniqueness. And for some, this desire grows into a narcissistic ambition for attention and recognition. Yet for the average person, there remains a natural barrier to full-blown egoism simply because most of us really don’t want to be identified as peculiar or different. We like the idea of being our own person but we really don’t want to stand out in the crowd.
This truth is illustrated in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. As above, God’s people wanted to be God’s people but they didn’t necessarily want to be distinguished as strange when compared to the countries around them. Yet God instituted a number of laws for them that were intended predominately to keep them clearly separate from all other people. They were given a law and a system of worship that was peculiarly their own and were forbidden to recognize or worship the idol gods of Gentile nations. (Deuteronomy 5-6; 13) They were prohibited from entering into covenants or marriages with people from the land of Canaan which they were inheriting (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). There were animals that they could and could not eat (Deuteronomy 14) and particular ways that they were to prepare their food (Deuteronomy 12). They were bound by laws concerning the use of their land, their treatment of debtors and slaves (Deuteronomy 15), how they were to conduct warfare (Deuteronomy 20), how they were to administer judgment (Deuteronomy 21), and even miscellaneous details concerning benevolence, clothing, house construction, farming, marriage, and business transactions (Deuteronomy 22-25). It appears from even a casual reading of the Mosaic covenant that God intended His people to stand out, and I suspect that were one to travel through the Middle East in the thirteenth century before Christ he would find the Israelites to be a people very unique. God designed an entire system of life to underscore their dedication to Yahweh. Yet one of the resounding themes of the remainder of the OT is the chafing of the Jews against such distinction. Just as they desired in their governmental design to be like the other nations, so they consistently conformed to those around them in their worship, their culture, and their morality. That failure of holiness is one of the primary factors that led to their downfall and destruction.
Like our spiritual forefathers, God has demanded of the disciples of Christ that we be holy people (I Peter 1:13-19). We are warned about conforming to the standards of the culture around us (I Peter 4:1f; II Corinthians 6:14f; Ephesians 5:1f). In fact, Paul is quite direct in begging the Roman Christians that they would “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). If we are to be followers of Jesus – real, faithful, diligent, devout followers of Jesus and not just nominal church-goers – then we must be resolute in the determination to stand distinct from the world around us. Yet it seems to me as I look around that we are hesitant to accept the challenges, disregard, and ridicule that such peculiarity assures. We need to face the reality that faithful discipleship in this day and age will insure that Christians are clearly unlike everyone else. Our world is darkening morally and ethically. No longer do we live in a society that upholds and promotes truth, self-control, chastity, integrity, selflessness, and discipline. Yet Jesus demands – DEMANDS – such character of His disciples, and the adoption of such will surely set us apart. Paul warned Timothy of “perilous times” which will culminate in the fact that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:1-12f) and Peter assured that those around us will “think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation” (I Peter 4:1-4f). Pray tell how we are to retain such distinction – such holiness – when we are compromising our convictions? It concerns me to see Christians reveling in the party mentality of the world; embracing the immodest dress of the world; absorbed in the ungodly entertainment of the world; employing the abhorrent language of the world. Many no longer see the concession of holiness when we support and participate in school dances or when we run around naked at the pool or beach. It concerns me to see Christians involved in the often immoral atmosphere of fraternities/sororities on college campuses or unhesitant in their employment of irreverent speech (read “OMG!”). It concerns me that faithfulness in marriage is sacrificed to selfishness and parental discipline is forfeited for leisure, money, or youth soccer. Even some local churches seem to be modifying their work and worship so that “we” will be more appealing in our consumer-driven world. The local church is to be a group of disciples that are trying to help each other become like Christ and, in so doing, spread the good news of forgiveness to be found in Him (Ephesians 2-4). Yet it seems that some groups are more intent upon corporate organization, brand recognition, and appealing worship than upon pleasing and promoting God.
Like those of Samuel’s day, we can be so concerned about being like the nations around us that we sometimes forget that such should be the farthest thing from our minds. Some challenges just never go away, do they?