To quote the great American theologian, Bob Dylan, “you gotta serve somebody.” And as Dylan indicates in his song, the question is not whether but which. Not whether or not you will serve somebody but which person will you serve and how. Who or what will we submit to? What will we allow to define right and wrong for us? The fact of the matter is we will elevate someone or something to that place in our life. Perhaps even more pointed, when we consider ourselves, will we fall into a the-grass-is-always-greener kind of scenario and look out into the world and begin to prefer someone to serve other than God? This question, this temptation is one we must face every day. And it is the question Israel is facing in today’s text. And as we see this problem work itself out in the lives of the people of Israel, we might also see it more clearly in our own.
Summary of the Text:
As so often is the case, Israel’s revival does not last very long. Samuel, the righteous judge of the land, is growing old and his sons are clearly not fit to follow him. They follow the pattern of the sons of Eli rather than their father as they take bribes and pervert justice. The elders of Israel seeing that there is no good successor to Samuel gather together to make a request of Samuel. “Give us a king,” they say, “Give us a king to judge us like the other nations.” Samuel recognizes their inherent lack of faith in the Lord to rule them in that request and is displeased but at the Lord’s command grants their request after giving them a warning.
A king, Samuel says, will reign tyrannically over you. The people’s sons and daughters will be forced to serve him. He will tax you 10% of crop and livestock. In short, Samuel says, “you shall be [the king’s slaves]. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you on that day” (verse 17-18). The people however will not listen to Samuel’s warning and again request a king.
On the face of it, you would not think that the people’s desire for a king would be such a bad thing. The deuteronomic law lays out guidelines for the king to follow (Deut 17:14ff), and I think I can make a case that the Messianic prophesies of the Pentatauch at least heavily imply if not out right prophesy of the coming of a king who will redeem all creation as well as the people of Israel. Genesis 49:10 for example predicts “the scepter shall not depart from Judah…and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” Furthermore it seems reasonable to infer that the seed of the woman will, in crushing the head of the serpent, fulfill all that Adam failed to do which would include an exercise of dominion over creation, and thus have a kingly role. With all this in mind, why was the people’s request for a king so poorly received by Samuel and by the Lord? Are they not simply asking for that which has already been promised to them?
Well if that is actually all that they were asking for, I suspect there would have been no problem, but by their words they reveal the motives of their heart in verse 19, “But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us that we may be like all the nations and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Before we get to the meat of their reasoning, let me simply point out that faithfulness is probably not what is being expressed when the starting point is refusing to obey the voice of God’s prophet. You can’t claim to be desiring what God has promised you, if God is saying to you, no, not yet. Whatever you want is not from God if you have to disobey God to get it.
But putting that aside, we see the heart of the problem is simply this: the people want to be like the other nations. Which is a bit of a problem because God had set them apart that they may not be like the other nations. Israel was to be a people set apart. A people devoted to the Lord. Led by the Lord. Personally protected and guided by the Lord. It was God who was to fight their battles. We saw this last time in Samuel. In 1 Samuel 7, an army of Philistines was marching on the people and the Lord threw the army into confusion which led them to being easily defeated by Israel. Think of the Song of Moses after Pharaoh and his army are buried by the Red Sea, “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name” (Ex 15:3). God has promised to fight on behalf of his people, what need is there of a human to lead them if that is the case! But the Lord’s favor is not sufficient for the Israelites. They want to be like the other nations. They want a man, a king to rule them, to judge them, to lead them into battle, someone they could see and hear directly. And such a desire, such a request could be nothing less than a rejection of the Lord’s provision over them. The Israelites failed to recognize that their military losses and moral failures stemmed not from their lack of a human ruler but their lack of faith in their true ruler, the Lord. The faith the Lord required them to exercise was too much for them—to wait on him, to act in ways that would even defy their own reason at times, such as what we saw in 1 Samuel 7.
Such behavior is not unique to the Israelites. We can see it even in our own hearts. The easy example here is politics, especially given our current cultural climate and the upcoming election. If only we can get “our people” in power. If only [insert your candidate here] will be elected president. If only this type of judge can be put on the Supreme Court. Then we can get the right laws passed. Then justice shall reign! Fundamentally there is no difference in that sort of thinking than in Israels. Our issues as a nation do stem from the fact that we do not have the right leader. But the right leader is no man but God himself. Only by his reign is justice established and all enemies defeated. To be clear that is not to say that we should not steward our vote well, or withdraw completely from the political process but is to say we cannot put too much stock in those things. This same kind of thinking appears in other places as well. We can most easily identify it by looking at the places of discontentment in our lives. Any thought that begins with “if only….would happen, things would be easier or better,” we should regard with immediate suspicion. When our hearts begin to long for the things of this world: wealth, comfort, power, influence, man’s opinion, self-gratification, then what we are really saying is: “there is a better king out there than God.”
But these kings that supplant the Lord are all cruel masters. They exploit. They dominate. They rob. They enslave those under them. All of them (v10-18). Failing to see this, Israel wants to be like the other nations, but they are called to be set apart. Set apart because they are to have a king not like the other kings. For the kings of the other nations, they “lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them…” but, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42,45). Christ is the better Adam who will have dominion over the earth and who has crushed the head of the serpent, and will one day roll back all the effects of sin and the fall. He is the lion of Judah, at whose feet, one day every knee will bow in submission. He is the king whom the Lord has promised and delivered, may we not then desire a king other than him.