The Wisdom of the Elders

Scripture can be found here...


We are now deep into the time of kings, and I have to say—it isn’t going well.


This may be a good time to mention to you that God never thought having a king was a good idea in the first place.


Samuel knew, that prophet who anointed David. Remember him? He was the one the people came to, when they were a loose confederation of tribes, and all was chaos and violence. They pleaded. They demanded. Give us a king! They thought a strong ruler was what they needed.


Samuel took it under advisement. Which is to say, he took it to God. And when he returned from his tête-a-tête with the Almighty, he said this: You want a king. But you do not understand the ways of kings. A king will take what is yours. Your land, your crops, your livestock. A king will even take your children, to make them soldiers and cooks—and they will have no choice about it. A king will turn you into slaves. And then… you’ll be sorry you ever asked for a king. (See: 1 Samuel 8:11-18)


But the people insist. And so, with God’s less than ringing endorsement, Samuel helps the people find their first two kings. Last week we met David, who is called in scripture “a man after God’s own heart”(1 Samuel 13:14). And still, many of God’s words of warning about the nature of kings come true in David.


Solomon in even worse. He builds the “house of God,” the first temple, and at times it sounds as though he does it all singlehandedly, the truth is quite different: Solomon took 30,000 Israelites and made them slaves. That’s how the temple was built.


And now, there’s Rehoboam. When we meet him, he is receiving emissaries from the people who are pleading with him to loosen the shackles put on them by his father. “Your father made our yoke heavy,” they say. “Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4).


To his credit, Rehoboam asks for time to decide how he will respond. It is a big deal, that Rehoboam might consider reversing the policies of his father. But the people are asking the same thing that Moses asked of the Pharaoh: Let my people go.


Rehoboam consults his father’s advisors first, and their response is both ethical and practical. They remind Rehoboam that the true nature of a leader of God’s people is to be a servant to them. And they also remind them that servant-leaders inspire the same ethic of service in those whom they lead.


Rehoboam then turns to the young men who make up his entourage—people who’d grown up with him, and who now pretty excited to be the in-crowd with their bro, the king.


You heard their advice. It involves, first, a caricature-like boast about the king’s personal physical attributes (“My little finger is thicker than my father's loins”), combined with a threat to be even worse a slave-master than his father (“Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions’”; 1 Kings 12:10b-11). It’s horrifying. It’s embarrassing.


It’s also incredibly foolish. The arrogant posturing urged on by his pals costs Rehoboam a unified kingdom. Eleven tribes peel off immediately, and form the northern kingdom of Israel under their spokesman Jeroboam. Rehoboam is left with only the tribe of Judah, which becomes the southern kingdom.


I actually think this terrible story is a wonderful story about discernment. How do we make decisions? Who or what guides us? How do we listen to one another, and respond to one another in ways that are just and loving?


When the people come to the king, they are speaking out of their pain… and that can be hard to listen to. The pain of others reminds us of our own pain, and sometimes we would rather hold that at arm’s length. Who wants to feel pain? It can be easier to turn away.


Next, the king seeks counsel, and this is the wisest and best thing he does. Notice that he asks his father’s advisors first—the elders of the kingdom. The wisdom of the elders, here, is wonderful. And it’s not only what they say—that the king should serve the people—it’s the motivation behind what they say. A time of change in leadership can perilous. The future peace and stability of the kingdom is at stake. This is the goal that guides these advisors.


We do best, in seeking to make a decision, when we keep the big picture before us. How will this decision serve God? How will it serve God’s people? Will it uplift or will it tear down?


But Rehoboam ignores all that, and heeds advice given by his friends. This advice does not seem to be paying attention to either the concerns of the people or the well-being of the nation. Instead, this advice comes from a place of anxiety and insecurity, and a desire to strut and dominate.


These anxious emotions are pretty much guaranteed to crowd out real wisdom. We are all prey to the desire to look good, the desire to appear strong and decisive and in charge. We are also vulnerable to our instinct to avoid pain and discomfort. Beware decisions that offer us a mask and a Band-Aid, when what we need is to find the inner voice where God is truly speaking to us.


In his very last sermon, given at Spelman College in 1980, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman implored the graduating students to listen for what he called “the sound of the genuine” in themselves and others. He said,


There is in every person that which waits, waits, waits, and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself. There is that in every person that waits—waits and listens—for the sound of the genuine in other people. And when these two sounds come together, this is the music God heard when He said, let us make man in our own image.[i]


When we can listen to one another with compassion and a genuine sense of who we are… when we can get out of our own way, and let go of our need to be right or sound smart or strong… when we can weigh our actions according to how they will or will not serve the kingdom of God… then we have the beginnings of real wisdom, wisdom that is available to us at any time, at any age, the wisdom that is uniquely ours, for those tasks God has uniquely called us to do.


“Go thy way,” said Dr. Thurman, “and be sure of this:”


No other can do for thee, that appointed thee of God.

Not any light shall fall upon thy road for other eyes.

Thee the angel calls as he calls others.

And thy life to thee is precious as the greatest life can be to God.[ii]

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, “The Sound of the Genuine,” in Crossings Reflection #4 (Indianapolis, Indiana: University of Indianapolis), 2.

[ii] Ibid., 4.