Seeing Christ in 1 Sam 11: Kings, Serpents, & Swords

It is increasingly appearing that American Christians, desiring to exalt Christ, will have an impossibly difficult decision to make, come November’s presidential election. Who shall be the next “king” of America? The leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, believes that the unborn exist as nothing more than potential lives. Therefore, as president, she approves of adults, who choose to take a “swords” (of sorts) to their unborn child. On the other hand, there’s the leading Republican Donald Trump. According to his crass views on foreign policy, it is conceivable that, if president, the Donald would wield the “sword” (read bomb) quite indiscriminately. Needless to say, the prospective “kings” aren’t looking great.

However, as David Cheng reminded us, this could be a good thing for the church. While we are called to bring the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship to bear upon our own lived realities, and while we must never ignore the already-ness of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom on earth, we know that our glorious hope is in heaven, and that our King has not yet returned to renew all things. So we embrace both our kingdom citizenship and our pilgrim journey, groaning with creation for future glory. We reluctantly choose between the kings of this age and patiently endure, as we await the King of kings’ return.

The people of God in America are not alone in the history of poor kingly prospects. First Samuel 11 offers us an account of two possible kings for Israel to choose between. Both choices were rather miserable.

In chapter 10, Saul was just proclaimed king by the prophet-priest, Samuel. Saul would officially be the first human king of Israel. However, not everyone was confident that Saul was the king that Israel needed, a king who could save them. And in a sense, we can sympathize with their lack of enthusiasm. After all, Israel had experienced a brutal “judges cycle” for possibly 400 years. In this cycle, they would 1) backslide and sin against their Deliverer, YHWH, 2) see external oppression from Canaanite nations, then 3) deliverance from God through judges, such as Ehud, Samson, and Deborah, and 4) enjoy a time of relative peace, but this would only be followed again by more 1′) backsliding, 2′) more oppression, and another 3’&4′) temporal deliverance. Their last judge, Samuel, was good, but not great. He was such a poor father that his corrupt sons took advantage of the people instead of shepherding them. Why would Saul be any different? And even if Saul was better than Samuel, in the way Joshua was greater than Samson, or Abraham Lincoln was greater than Richard Nixon, could any of these leaders bring a lasting salvation to their nations?

King Saul would have a chance to prove himself in chapter 11 when Nahash (which means ‘serpent’ in Hebrew), king of the Ammonites, besieged the people of Israel.

“Here we go again,” the people of Israel probably thought. “Another round of the judges cycle to go.” This complacency was quite evident in the fact that rather than seeking YHWH, fighting back, or running to their new king, Saul, they offered to make a treaty with the Serpent King, Nahash. They stopped believing that it was the Serpent’s head that would be bruised by the heel of God’s anointed king. “Cut a treaty with us,” they said, “Let us live and you can be our king!” to which the Serpent King replied, “Oh I’ll cut a treaty with you, alright. Sure, I’ll be your king, but only on the condition that I use my sword to cut your right eyes out, and bring disgrace upon you and your God, YHWH!”

“Maybe” was the people’s answer. “Give us some time to think about it and see if anyone else can help us,” the people of Israel said. In boastful confidence, the Serpent King acquiesced and messengers were sent throughout all Israel, only to be met by mourning and a spirit of defeatedness, as the whole nation heard this terrible news. The people of God thought that the only viable option was to surrender and pledge their allegiance to the Serpent King. They were prepared to allow a foreign king to disgrace their God.

But God’s anointed, Saul, though not sought out by God’s people, was attentive to their tears. After inquiring about their weeping, God’s anointed was filled with the Spirit in righteous anger. Saul cut oxen into pieces with his sword and threatened that same fate upon any Israelite who would not follow him into battle against the Serpent King. Thus the dread of YHWH fell on all the people, who, under Saul’s leadership, rallied their together, defeated the Serpent King, and saved God’s people.

In this respect, King Saul, filled with the Spirit, was a mighty king who actually could save his people. Saul’s sword thwarted the Serpent King’s, which threatened to disgrace YHWH and YHWH’s people. Saul even mercifully withheld his sword from those Israelites who doubted his ability to save them. He was obviously the preferred choice of king over Nahash, the Serpent King.

And yet, Israelite readers in exile surely knew that even this first King of Israel was insufficient. King Saul’s sword mightily delivered them from the Serpent King’s sword and was mercifully withheld from the necks of those who scorned God’s anointed as unworthy and insignificant, yet King Saul had not saved them to the uttermost. In fact, when you consider that Saul threatened the people of God with his sword by cutting up the oxen and sending the pieces out to all Israel, you begin to see that he was not all that different than Nahash. As it turns out, both were pretty miserable choices.

Americans, today, would do well to note that what Israel needed was more than a king like Saul. She needed a prophetic and a priestly king. Israel needed more than a man. She needed the God-man. America needs the same. America needs the God-man, Jesus Christ, a prophet, a priest, and a king par excellence.

Here are five reasons why:

  1. Jesus is a prophetic king. He speaks a prophetic word to us, a double-edged sword that pierces deep and judges our hearts’ thoughts and intentions. Through this prophetic word, he commends to us a better kingdom ethic than the kings of this age:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. (Luke 22:25-26)

2. Jesus is a priestly king. He’s a priest who can sympathize with Israel and us in every way. Leaving his heavenly home, he was born in a manger in Bethlehem, raised in the lowly town of Nazareth, exalted for a time as a celebrity preacher and miracle worker, hailed as the King of the Jews, only to be forsaken upon a bloody Roman cross. He is not unfamiliar with humanity’s cycle of suffering, facing swords of sorts from every direction.

3. Jesus is a mighty king. By his Spirit, King Saul delivered Israel from Nahash, the Serpent King. But it was Jesus’ heel that bruised the Serpent’s head once and for all at the empty tomb. Jesus’ mighty victory guarantees that the Serpent’s final destination will be the lake of fire. By his resurrection, our mighty King pierced his sword straight through the Enemy’s heart.

4. Jesus is a merciful king. Saul wasn’t the only king in Israel’s history to be rejected by the people of God. When Pilate put an inscription on Jesus’ cross, identifying him as “King of the Jews,” the people demanded that it be rewritten. They would not identify this man upon a cursed cross as their king. But what were King Jesus’ words from that cross? Rather than turning the sword of his Father’s wrath against them, he said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

5. Jesus is a master swordsman of a king. He’s a king unlike Nahash, Saul, Trump, or Hillary. Both Nahash and Saul threatened the people of God with swords. “Serve us, or the sword.” Trump threatens the sword against whoever he deems a threat. Hillary would permit the sword against the innocent unborn. Jesus, contrary to the wisdom of all the kings of the world, does not lead by threatening his people with the sword. He does not wield it against those who futilely threaten his rightful kingship. Rather, he permits the sword to fall upon the most innocent of humans, himself. On the cross, the King of kings took a sword to his own side, and poured out water and blood for the forgiveness of the nations. Whom shall we trust to wield his sword? What king has wielded his sword against himself in such a way that could save his people for all time? None but Jesus.

So as we contemplate the impossible decision before us in the 2016 presidential election, and every other evidence of brokenness in this cursed world, let us trust only in the Son of man in whom there actually is salvation, the King of kings, Jesus Christ.

Psalm 146:3

Put not your trust in princes,

in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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