All the Kings’ Horses

Horses and chariot

All the Kings’ Horses

Deuteronomy 17:14–20; 1 Samuel 8

In the late 1700’s, Scottish inventor, James Watt, was trying to market his newly invented steam engine.  A prospective customer challenged him to prove that his steam engine could provide more power for his mill than the customer’s best workhorse. So, Watt started calculating how many times per hour a horse could turn a mill wheel and compared that to the amount of work his steam engine could do. The result is that steam engines and later other types of engines started being rated in terms of horsepower, and the term has stuck to this day.[1]

Even in Bible times, the horse represented power. The number of horses that a king had at his command indicated the amount of power that the king could generate against his enemies. For example, in the book of Exodus there is a description of what the Israelite slaves in Egypt were up against as they tried to escape the power of Pharaoh.

The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea… Exodus 14:9 (NRSV)
23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. Exodus 14:23 (NRSV)

Pharaoh measured his power in horses and chariots. Today’s leaders measure power in tanks and planes, bombs and guns. They also gain power through movements where they shape the opinions of thousands and even millions of people. Yet, leaders at various levels of society as well as people in general face this question in personal relationships, in the workplace, in communities large and small, in the nation, and the world: Where does your power come from?

In ancient Israel’s book of the law, called the Torah (the first five books of the Christian Old Testament), Moses speaks to Israel about a day when they might become like Pharaoh and Egypt.  That probably seemed laughable at the time, but God revealed to Moses this characteristic of human nature. From a band of nomads wandering in the desert, Israel would develop into a nation with a fixed territory and a human king who would seek power.

Thus, the question of power surfaces at the beginning of Israel’s story. Moses tells the people that an Israelite king, “…must not acquire many horses for himself or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses…” The older English versions (such as the King James Version) use more colorful language: “he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses,”

To multiply horses is to acquire power. Thus, a key question for God’s people and the community they form and the kingdom or nation they create centers on multiplying horses. In other words, where does your power come from? Why do you want such power in the first place?  What kind of leadership will you have to manage such power?

As Israel’s story unfolds, the first major leader is Moses. Moses was not a king. Later Jewish tradition called him a prophet. He was a prophet not in the fortune-telling sense that we sometimes use the word today. He was a prophet in the original sense of that word, someone who speaks the Word of God. Moses brought God’s Law, the Torah, to the people. It was around this Word that God formed this rag-tag group of runaway slaves into a people and a nation.

It’s one thing to have a law; it’s another to interpret it. So, Moses was also a judge who corrected the people and settled disputes. At one point while they were still in the wilderness, the disputes got be to too many. Moses had to appoint others to judge minor disputes and to bring only the major ones to him. Moses functioned like the chief justice of the supreme court.  When Moses died and Joshua led the people to settle the land, this system broke down. Sometimes other judges emerged, particularly ones who represented God’s people against their enemies. These judges settled disputes with their neighbors as God intervened to bring them justice and peace.

Moses was also instrumental in setting up priests, starting with his brother Aaron. Priests represented leadership in worship and in teaching God’s Word. Priests carried on a function like Moses did, serving as an intermediary between God and the people. Godly priests became respected leaders of the people, some recognized as prophets and judges as well. In other words, Godly priests were those who not only carried out the mechanics of worship and the sacrificial system, but spoke God’s Word as prophets, and discerned God’s will in specific situations as judges.

Samuel became a leader in this holistic tradition. As a young boy, Samuel served at the place of worship at that time called Shiloh under a priest named Eli. After Eli died, Samuel essentially assumed this position as worship leader.  

However, as Samuel grew up, he was recognized as a prophet.

And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. 1 Samuel 3:20–4:1 (NRSV)

Finally, Samuel was recognized as a judge. He interpreted God’s word and God’s will to the people. He helped people come back to the worship of God after a fiasco when the Philistines captured the ark of the Lord. (1 Samuel 7). At the end of 1 Samuel 7, it says,

15 Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16 He went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places. 17 Then he would come back to Ramah, for his home was there; he administered justice there to Israel, and built there an altar to the Lord. 1 Samuel 7:15–17 (NRSV)

While Samuel became a widely recognized Godly leader, he could not do everything. As he grew older, he had the same problem as his mentor, Eli. Both Eli and Samuel had sons who took advantage of the power of their fathers and became corrupt, seeking gain for themselves.  In addition, there was still the issue of those pesky enemies of Israel all around them. Other peoples had their own gods and their own kings to lead an army against the Israelites. So as Samuel got old, 1 Samuel 8 tells how the people came to Samuel and said, “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

Samuel was upset, so he went to God in prayer,

Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 1 Samuel 8:6b-9 (NRSV)

Samuel reports God’s response to the people. Having a king, a permanent political ruler, will change the life of their community. Samuel starts every sentence with the words, “He will take…” In other words, the king will take from the people to add to his power.  And the first thing mentioned is that the king …will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots, 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots…

By the time Samuel finishes reciting all of the things that the king will take, it should be obvious that any king will not finish taking from the people until they are slaves. In essence, Samuel tells the people whom God has brought out of slavery in Egypt that they will once again become slaves, this time to their own king. When the people no longer recognize God as their king, they become slaves, for better or worse, to the most powerful ruler in their lives. The question remains: where does your power come from?

It turns out that Samuel’s warning echoes the warning of Moses found in Deuteronomy 17. Moses says that a Godly leader must not do certain things:

Starting with military power, Moses said, 16 Even so, he [the king] must not acquire many horses for himself or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses… Deuteronomy 17:16. A Godly leader is not to rely on military might to maintain power.

Yet, the multiplying or acquiring or power grabbing doesn’t stop there. 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself or else his heart will turn away… (Deuteronomy 17:17)  In our day, we think about acquiring wives as having lots of sex. But that’s not the point of this admonition. In ancient days, if one king wanted to keep another powerful king from invading his territory, he negotiated a treaty. Part of that treaty was that the daughter of one king would become the wife of the other king. The idea was that a king would not attack another king if that would put his own daughter in harm’s way.  Also, the wife of the king would influence her husband to not attack her father. So, acquiring wives represents political power. The more wives you had, the more political power you had over enemies and potential enemies.

Moses warns the people about putting in place a king who will simply cozy up to foreign rulers for political power gains. The part about his heart turning away is about putting trust in the foreign gods that came with the foreign wives. When political power becomes the goal, God is no longer recognized as King, as the Sovereign Lord. Political power teams up with military power to squeeze the one true God out of the equation.

In the last half of Deuteronomy 17:17, Moses completes the power triangle by saying that the king must not acquire silver and gold in great quantity for himself. This represents economic power. In our day, it is represented in the phrase “the Almighty Dollar.” Clearly, economic power goes hand in hand with military and political power. The military requires great sums of money in taxes. Politics involves paying more sums of money to those who can produce the things that the ruler wants to enhance his power.

The combination of all three represents the dangers of the power of the king. The king depends upon military, political, and economic power instead of God. Is there a way out of this dilemma? Where does your power come from? Can it come from both God and a human leader at the same time?

Samuel doesn’t think so. As he prepares to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, these are the words from 1 Samuel 10:17–19 (NRSVue):

17 Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah 18 and said to the Israelites, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said, ‘No, but set a king over us.’ Now, therefore, present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and by your clans.”

In Samuel’s mind, the people have rejected God and God is giving them what they want as well as the consequences that go with their willfulness.

Moses is a little more hopeful. Instead of acquiring ever more horses, and wives, and gold, the king can do something else. He says about the king to come…

When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll… 19 It shall remain with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment,.. Deuteronomy 17:16–20 (NRSVue)

So who was right? Who is right?  We still have this discussion today. Can a Christian be involved in politics? Biblical history tells us the following.

The first king, Saul, soon turned away from God. The Kingdom was given to David. David built up his army, including many horses. He built his alliances and took multiple wives. His most famous wife was previously the wife of a foreigner. When he took her, it led to his greatest sin and nearly led to the overturning of his kingdom. God told David that his military power, the blood on his hands, made him unfit to build the temple.

David’s son, Solomon, was famous for his wisdom and knowledge of God’s law. Nevertheless, he enslaved thousands of people to build up the military might and the fame of his wisdom among the nations. He married 700 wives and had 300 sex slaves to multiply his political power. Rather than preserving his kingdom after all his wisdom, his heart turned away from God.

Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, was even worse. He promised to take more power from the people for himself. Thus, the majority of Israelites rebelled, and the kingdom was split in two. Neither the king nor the temple priests that the king funded and controlled lived out God’s law. They rejected God’s method of exercising power through the wisdom that God gave to Solomon.

So, the power to speak God’s Word returned to the prophets who popped up throughout this period of time. Yet, the people didn’t listen to them either, and the king didn’t lead in righteousness. The people rejected God’s Word and went into exile, victims of the power politics that they themselves had initiated when they said, “We want a king.”

So, Moses’s “maybe” was never fully put into effect. The king never fully followed God’s way of the power of righteousness. He always returned to the devil’s triangle of military, political, and economic power.

However, God showed us a “yes” to our questions in the politics of Jesus. Jesus shows us what a Godly leader is like. He demonstrates that the true nature of God’s power is the exact opposite of “multiplying horses,” acquiring the power of an earthly king. It is rather in the power of suffering love.

Jesus rejected military power. When he was on trial, 33 …Pilate…asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” John 18:33–38 (NRSV)

Jesus rejected economic power. He never accumulated money for himself. He never used his popularity or status as a teacher as a tool for a fundraising campaign. Instead, he took the position of the lowliest slave and washed his disciples’ feet.

And Jesus rejected political power. Rather than lead an armed rebellion, he was betrayed by the very people he came to lead as Messiah King. He died at the hands of the greatest political power of his day, Rome. Jesus relied solely on the power of his Heavenly Father’s love, the power of the resurrection.  

As Jesus’s disciples, we are also called to stop acquiring the tools of power for our own selfish interests. Instead, we, too, are called to be servants, extending God’s love, especially to the powerless. It is in that power of God’s love that we find our hope and our salvation.

[1] “Horsepower” in Wikipedia.
The Origins of the Term, ‘Horsepower’

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