Summary: Saul’s mistake was that he was more worried about his success than God’s glory. God became for him a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. So this is both warning and a challenge to us. Make sure that God is at the centre of our focus in everyth
On the surface, the story of Saul’s life is one of wars against his enemies, mostly victorious. But that’s just the setting for a much more significant drama that unfolds as his life as king progresses, a drama that involves his relationship with the God of Israel. It’s ironic that as the story develops we discover that though Saul is a formidable leader, when the going gets tough he quickly forgets that its his relationship with God that will determine his success or failure. And so it’s significant that at this point in the story as we’re about to embark on the history of Saul as king, the chronicler brings us the farewell speech of Samuel. Only then will he launch into the tale of the exploits and ultimate downfall of Saul.
Samuel is about to move off the stage. He’ll appear from time to time in the next few chapters, not least of course in the naming of David as Saul’s successor, but his time as leader of the nation is at an end. Now the King takes centre stage while the prophets move around the periphery offering warning and commentary to each succeeding king.
So Samuel takes the opportunity while the whole nation is gathered together at Gilgal to confirm Saul as king, to address them with one last major speech. There’s an echo here of the speeches of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy or that of Joshua in Joshua 24. In fact Samuel is the last in that line of leaders raised up by God to lead his people as God’s representative on earth. From now on the people have a king of their own asking.
Samuel begins by establishing his own righteousness before the people. He asks them whether he’s taken advantage of his position to oppress anyone under him; whether he’s ever accepted a bribe or defrauded anyone. The answer of course is no. Samuel has proved to be a leader and judge above reproach. He certainly isn’t the reason they’ve asked for a king.
Having established that he isn’t the reason he begins to remind them of their history. And notice what it is that he talks about. He says "I will declare to you all the saving deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your ancestors." And so begins a long recitation of the history of the Exodus and the Judges, a history that resonates with God’s long suffering loving kindness in the face of the Israelites faithlessness. "When Jacob went into Egypt and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your ancestors cried to the LORD and the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, who brought forth your ancestors out of Egypt, and settled them in this place. 9But they forgot the LORD their God; and he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of King Jabin of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab; and they fought against them. 10Then they cried to the LORD, and said, ’We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD, and have served the Baals and the Astartes; but now rescue us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve you.’ 11And the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak, and Jephthah, and Samson, and rescued you out of the hand of your enemies on every side; and you lived in safety." There are in fact a number of other instances that he leaves out as he reminds them of their history, but the point is made. God has saved them from their enemies time and time again. He’s provided leaders for them whenever they were needed. They have nothing to complain about.
So why are they asking for a king? What was wrong with the status quo? Well, I guess there are 2 answers to that question. First of all the status quo included the fact that whenever the people were safe they turned away from the Lord again. So their security was always a conditional thing. Samuel points out that, each time God has saved them, once they’ve been safe again, they’ve turned away from the Lord and begun to worship other gods. So there’s an inherent risk in relying on God to save them.
But the other answer is that in the end they don’t want God to rule over them. They want to rule themselves. They want a human king, despite all the warnings that Samuel has given them. Despite the fact that all they’re doing is going from one form of government to another and this one inherently inferior to what they’ve had. No, like all human beings since the fall, they long for autonomy, for the right to determine their own futures. That’s why Samuel is so upset by their request. He mourns the fact that by asking for a king they’re in fact turning their backs on the rightful King.