Summary: We are called to be different.
Just Like Everyone Else
In a way, we can’t blame Israel for wanting a king. They had gone through hundreds of years of anarchy. The book of Judges which precedes 1 Samuel historically started off on a good note but progressively deteriorates into periods of captivity because of their sine alternating with God raising up a judge to deliver them when they repented. They would soon forget the lesson as well as the Lord and go into captivity again. There is a downward spiral in that book which degrades to violent leaders, intertribal war, genocide, and utter moral depravity. The book ends with the stark words: “In that day there was no king in Israel. Everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.” Calvin makes a sage observation that an evil government is better than no government at all, which is anarchy.
The book of Ruth in the canon precedes 1 Samuel as a welcome rest from an utterly depressing history. It is a parallel development to both Judges and 1 Samuel and shows that God who foreknows all was already anticipating Israel’s desire for a king who would fit His own greater predestined purpose. The Messiah, Jesus, would descend from this king David whom God was already in process of setting up. In the midst of Israel’s misery, God was gracious to them. Despite the failure of Israel to keep the covenant, God was still at work.
The beginning of 1 Samuel picks up where Judges left off. The priesthood was utterly corrupt. The High Priest’s own sons were seducing and raping the women who came to the Tabernacle. God was so angered that He cursed the children of the High Priest Eli and marked them for death. In their place, God raised up a new leader, Samuel, who was both a prophet and priest. He would become a judge over Israel, but not a king. These three offices would become united later in Christ. Israel eventually found some deliverance from their enemy, the Philistines, but not until another catastrophic episode which involved the Philistines seizing the Ark of the Covenant.
When we look at the text this morning, we see Samuel as a faithful judge in Israel. However, Samuel was getting old, and his children were evil. The people of Israel were tired of the anarchy and disunity. They did not want to repeat the downward spiral one more time. So they came to Samuel at Ramah and demanded a king be set up to rule over them. They had seen all of the nations around them, especially mighty Egypt. They seemed to be more united and stable than their tribal confederacy. Surely if they had a king, they would be better able to stand against their enemies. They would be united. By a worldly perspective, it seemed like a sensible request. So they asked for a king to rule over them, just like all the other nations around them.
But it was the Lord’s intention that Israel be different than everyone else. This is why He chose them. He had led them out into the wilderness and taught them there for an entire generation in isolation from worldly culture. The Law was meant to set them up as a peculiar people who marched to the beat of God’s plan. They were led by the fiery pillar by night and the cloud by day. These are in a sense the feet of God. They followed Him in the wilderness in the way He led. God was to be their king, their inheritance, their everything.
So Samuel was upset by Israel’s request. From an earthly point of view, their request could be understood as a repudiation of Samuel’s leadership, especially because he had failed to inspire his own children. It is true that Samuel was human, just like all of this. However, I feel that Samuel as a prophet saw this as being a rejection of the leadership of the Lord. Whatever may have motivated Samuel, the Lord makes this rejection explicit to Samuel in verse seven. He tells Samuel to accept their request and tells Samuel that the people of Israel had not rejected, Samuel. Rather they had rejected the Lord. It was God’s will that He would be Israel’s king. It is God who made Israel, Israel. Israel’s identity was tied up in their covenant relationship with Yahweh. If they were to revert back to where they came from, it would be national suicide. By wanting a king like the other nations, Israel was taking the first step into a downgrade into apostasy and death. Indeed this would eventually happen to ten of the tribes of Israel. They disappeared into the greater Assyrian world, worshiping their gods and losing their identity. The same would have happened to Judah except for God’s preservation so that the promised King would be born in Bethlehem of Judah.