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Why We Elect Handsome Tyrants

We see a tall person and we swoon.  —Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (2007)

A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. — The Declaration of Independence (1776)

The Warren Harding Effect

Malcolm Gladwell has argued that good looks and an imposing stature are a decided political advantage.  It’s not that we consciously vote for tall, handsome men, but something beneath our conscious mind associates a certain look with leadership.  “We have a sense of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations” (Blink, 88).  Gladwell has dubbed this the “Warren Harding Effect” because President Harding apparently reached the White House more on looks than on character or ability.

Scripture records something very similar.  The man involved was Israel’s first king, Saul.

Like All the Nations

When Samuel was old, the people of Israel decided that they were tired of judges and wanted a king instead (1 Sam. 8).  They wanted to be like all the other nations.

Now God had promised Abraham and Jacob that kings would come out of their loins (Gen. 17:6; 35:11).  In the Law He had even listed a number of restrictions that would apply to Israel’s future king (Deut. 17:14-20).  Specifically, their king was not to multiply to himself horses (offensive weapons), wives (foreign alliances), or gold (a huge budget).  He was, however, required to write out by hand a copy of God’s law and to read from it all the days of his life.  This was to be more than a devotional exercise.  It was supposed to be a judicial education.  Israel’s king was to rule in terms of God’s revealed law.

Yet when the elders of Israel demanded a king, God took their demand as tantamount to idolatry (v. 8).  “They have not rejected you, “ He said to Samuel, “but they have rejected me that I should not rule over them” (v. 7).  Israel didn’t want a king under God. They wanted a king instead of God.  They wanted a political savior.  God told Samuel to honor the letter of their demand.  But first he was to give them a solemn warning.

Every Act Which May Define a Tyrant

Samuel told the elders of Israel exactly what their new king would be like.  Here’s part of Samuel’s list:

  • Their king would conscript their sons for both his military and agricultural armies.
  • He would conscript their daughters to work in his bakeries and kitchens.
  • He would take the best of their lands (eminent domain) and distribute them to his lackeys.
  • He would take their slaves for his own use.
  • He would take the tenth of their seed, their vineyards, and their sheep.

The last point is especially significant.  A tenth of the year’s increase was the equivalent of the LORD’s tithe, Yahweh tax on Israel.  As far as Samuel and God were concerned, a ruler who imposed an income tax of 10 percent was necessarily a tyrant.  For what mere human would dare demand a tax equal to God’s?

Samuel warned the elders of Israel that one day they would cry out to Yahweh because of their king’s tyranny and that in that day God would not hear them (v. 18).  The elders wouldn’t listen.  “No, we will have a king over us so that we may be like all the nations; and so that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (vv. 19-20).  They thought a king would save them.  They were wrong.

Is Saul Among the Prophets?

God chose a good-looking man named Saul, a Benjamite, to be Israel’s first king.  But God began the creation of this new monarchy with very little fanfare.  Saul was out looking for his father’s missing donkeys, and his search led him to Samuel’s hometown.  Saul decided to ask for the prophet’s guidance (9:6-10).  When he got to the city, he learned that Samuel was officiating at a public sacrifice.

Now God had already prepared Samuel for Saul’s arrival.  Samuel came out to meet Saul and invited him to the sacrifice and the feast that would follow.  Samuel set Saul in the chief seat—that is, in his own—and gave him the shoulder from the peace offering.  That piece of meat normally went to the one who performed the sacrifice.  By this gift Samuel was including Saul in his circle of close friends and dependants, even within his own family.  He was pointing out Saul as his successor.

The next morning at sunrise Samuel privately anointed Saul to be king of Israel and sent him on his way.  Along the road, Saul met a company of prophets chanting the word of the LORD to the psaltery, pipe, and harp.  The Spirit of God descended upon Saul, and he, too, sang out God’s prophetic word (vv. 5-13).  Bystanders quipped, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”  Another asked, “But who is their father?”  The prophets’ earthly father was Samuel (cf. 1 Sam. 19:20), and Samuel spoke for Yahweh.  Would Saul really be Samuel’s son and God’s?  Would Saul listen to his new mentor and obey the word of the LORD?  God’s warnings suggested otherwise.

Electing an Image

Samuel called Israel together to Mizpeh.  After renewing his admonitions, he had the people present themselves by tribes.  God chose Benjamin.  (Judah was supposed to be the royal tribe—another warning.)  Then He chose Saul’s family and finally Saul himself.  But Saul was nowhere to be found.  The company enquired further of Yahweh, and God told them that Saul was hiding among the baggage.  The crowd brought him out into their midst.

Saul was visually impressive.  He was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in Israel (v. 23).  He was handsome and strong and, given his reticence to appear in the assembly, apparently humble.  And God had chosen him!  The people shouted, “Long live the king!”  No one enquired further about his piety or character.  No one asked about his executive experience or his judicial qualifications.  No one remembered God’s warnings.  Appearance carried the day.

With Republican Simplicity

“Then Samuel told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote in a book, and laid it up before the LORD” (v. 25).  We aren’t told the specifics of this civil constitution, but we are told that there was one.  This king’s authority was supposed to be limited and structured by written laws and set procedures.  The covenant document was laid up before God as a reminder that Yahweh was still Israel’s High King.  Saul wouldn’t be an autonomous monarch.  He would reign at Yahweh’s pleasure and as His servant.  At least, that’s what the constitution said.

Saul had his detractors, but he wisely ignored them.  He went home, accompanied only by a small band of men whose hearts God had touched (v. 26).  Saul had no further bodyguard or bureaucracy.  He didn’t raise taxes or stockpile weapons.  He simply went back to farming.  So far, so good.

Then an urgent plea came from Jabesh-gilead (11:3-5).  The Ammonites had invaded the land.  Jabesh was under siege.  The Spirit of God came suddenly upon Saul.  He laid hold on a yoke of oxen and hewed them in pieces.  He sent those pieces throughout Israel as a summons to battle:  “Whoever doesn’t come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” (11:7).  The fear of God fell on the people, and they came.  Saul led a forced march to Jabesh and came suddenly upon the Ammonites.  Israel destroyed and scattered them.  The king of the Ammonites was Nahash, “a serpent.”  Saul had smashed the serpent in God’s garden.  He was off to a good beginning.

Samuel’s Farewell

After Saul’s victory, Samuel called Israel to Gilgal to renew the kingdom (ch. 12).  There they sacrificed peace offerings and rejoiced before Yahweh.  Samuel preached one last sermon, indicting Israel for her long history of faithlessness.  He ended with her foolish demand for a king.  That demand had been idolatrous.  And yet Yahweh was merciful.  If they and their king would fear God and obey Him, Yahweh would continue to bless them (12:13-15, 20-25).

This is an amazing thing.  Samuel didn’t demand that Israel abolish the monarchy.  He didn’t call for political restructuring.  Repentance, in this case, didn’t mean going back to their more republican beginnings.  Repentance meant obeying God from that day forward within the political structure that already existed.  God required faith, not political perfection.


Idolatry is an obsession with an image.  It’s a rejection of reality.  Saul’s image was impressive, and for a time God used him powerfully.  But God knew Saul’s heart.  In time the reality would eclipse the image.  Saul would prove indeed to be a king like those of the nations roundabout.  He would become a tyrant, a murderer, and worse.  He would try to kill the LORD’s servant.

Saul’s reign was a judgment from God.  “I gave thee a king in mine anger,” Hosea would write to Israel centuries later (Hos. 13:11).  Israel’s basic problem wasn’t her political structure or her weak military or her lack of leadership.  Israel was under the righteous judgment of God because of her sins.  The only solution was sincere repentance.

When we repent, God meets us where we are.  He doesn’t ask us to undo all our past mistakes or to alter all our present circumstances.  But He does demand faith and obedience right now where we are.   Until we’re ready for that, we should expect good-looking political tyrants to be elected one after another until our country is no more.

For Further Reading:

Peter Leithart, A Son to Me, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 2003).

Peter Leithart, A House for My Name, A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 2000).

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Warren Harding Error:  Why We Fall For Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men” in Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York:  Back Bay Books, 2007).

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