(1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20)
Mediation. For those who remember raising children or are now watching your grandchildren being raised, this can feel like it is the main task of parents. Even those with only one child, and I speak from experience, spend a lot of time in negotiations. So, I have great respect for all of you who raised more than one child. I mean with everything from fighting over the soccer ball or Frisbee (even though there are multiple outdoor toys of all shapes and sizes available) to arguing over a particular seat at the dinner table or in the car to endless debates about who got more popcorn, pretzels or grapes as a snack – I have to imagine that many parents wish they had taken conflict resolution training before that first blessed event.
All that being said, what must it have been like to be a prophet, constantly mediating between God and people? To be a representative of the people for God and intervene on their behalf? To be the mouthpiece of God and remind the people who saved them from bondage? I can only think it must have been exhausting.
In 1 Samuel Chapter 8, the people of Israel do something that becomes the beginning of the downfall of Israel. God had told them that He will be their King, and they need to obey only Him. He had protected them. He had provided for them. He had fought their battles. But the Israelites were not happy with that arrangement. They seize an opportunity that came their way when the sons of Samuel did not walk in His ways. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
By this point in Israel’s history the nation has, for generations, been governed by – and rescued from military crises by – local leaders called “judges.” There were some great ones you’ll remember – like Deborah and Gideon; some who were so-so – like Jephthah and Samson; and some about whom we know almost nothing – like Shamgar and Elon. But that judge system has lost support, and now here’s the last one – Samuel – judge and prophet. And the people demand that he change things – that he anoint a king as his successor – in spite of God’s warnings that this will bring disaster on Israel. And this was not their first attempt; about 120 years earlier they had tried to make Gideon their king but he refused.
Just one chapter before, in chapter 7, when the people were troubled they came to Samuel and asked him to plead to the Lord on their behalf regarding the Philistine problem. But the elders do not do that this time. They do not come to Samuel and tell him that there is a problem with Samuel’s sons so plead to the Lord for an answer about who will lead us. Rather, the people have their own solution. The people are going to tell Samuel, which is ultimately telling God, what their answer is from their own desires and their own wisdom. The elders do not seek what God’s answer would be. They have their answer and they are telling their answer to God. We want a king.
The second problem about this request is that they want a king because they want to be like the other nations. Now it is important to note that God anticipated that the people would demand a king and even made provision for it in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. But God did not want the people to have a king who would act like the other kings of the nations. The king was to act on behalf of God and completely trust in God. God would have been fine with that type of king. The problem is that Israel did not want that type of king and did not need the kind of king the people wanted. Remember that the book of Deuteronomy declared to Israel that if they would obey the Lord, God would repel their enemies (Deuteronomy 28). Obedience and repentance would solved their problems, but they want to be like the other nations. God had called Israel to be high above the nations (Deuteronomy 26:19), not like them. God wanted Israel to stand out and be different. Israel did not want to be different. Israel did not want to stand out.
Samuel understands these problems and hates their request. Samuel prays to God about what the people are demanding. Listen to verse 7. God tells Samuel, “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” This is not really an issue with Samuel. The first three verses make it sound like the problem is Samuel and his sons. But that is not really the problem. The problem is that the people do not want God to be their king. An issue with Samuel’s sons, while it may be real, is simply an entryway to what the elders really want. Rejecting Samuel is a picture of the people’s rejection of God. Rejecting God’s prophet and judge is rejecting God Himself. But God will allow this decision.
From everything Samuel knows to be God’s plan for governing His people, this request is totally out of bounds. But though it is out of bounds, it is no surprise to God. God tells Samuel, “As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.” He brought them out of Egypt, He carried them along, provided for their needs, kept them safe. He led them across the Red Sea on dry land and destroyed their enemy Egypt. But still, they moaned and complained – and demanded more and different things! They demanded meat – they were tired of manna. They wanted water on the spot. And, in Psalm 106 we read, “In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test. So he gave them the desires of their heart, but sent leanness into their souls.”
So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who asked him for a king. And he said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
There is the “best” argument they can come up with repeated a second time: “then we will be like all the other nations” It didn’t matter to them that God had warned that a human king is going to do terrible things to them, it didn’t matter to them that they are forsaking the protection and provision of the creator Himself for human protection (the Lord will not answer you!). What mattered to them was they the fact that other nations around them had kings and they did not. By comparison, they thought that they lacked something that the other nations had. They thought the other side was greener. God does not stop our foolishness or sinfulness. He responds and warns us; telling us that we are not getting what we think we are getting.
We need to hear this message. We do not want what we think we want. We think that our wisdom will lead to exactly what we want. God is constantly telling us that our wisdom will lead to our destruction and not our joy and happiness. God tells us what we are pursuing is going to hurt us, not help us. The Scriptures are filled with pictures and declarations from God that the direction we are going in this life is disaster, not rescue or satisfaction.
Yet, God’s love is such that He shows a willingness to bend toward His children’s unreasonable demands. And He does so because God is in relationship with us and longs to respond to us. He knows, even through His frustrated tears, that our selfish demands can be used to reveal His grace. It will be a much more painful grace than if we had listened, but it will be grace nonetheless.
So what do we learn from Israel’s failures? First, we should consider that being like the world is not going to make your life better. Going with the crowds is not the answer. We are easily tempted to think that if we could just act more like the world, share the values of the world, and think like the world then our lives would be better. But God tells us that our lives will not be better but worse. You do not want to follow your desires. You do not want to put your hope in this world.
Israel seemed to think if they had a different leader that this would make all their lives better. And we do the same thing every four years when we think a different president is going to make everything so much better in our lives. Every new president is presented as our savior who will either rescue us from the prior administration or continue to a greater degree the prior administration’s policies. This time, this president will make everything better. We need to see that this is never true. Our lives are not so dramatically better or different every four years. But worse than this, we are rejecting God as king in our lives when we look to our political leaders in this light. God is our king. God is our help. God is our only Savior. Being like the world and turning to the world is not going to help. What is even worse is God will turn us over to the desires of our hearts (Romans 1:25). God will give us what we want. If we want this world to save, then see what that will look like. God will turn us over to our desires, despite His warnings, so that we will experience and see the disaster of our decisions. We need to listen to God who calls us to look to Him and not look like the world or turn to the world for help.
Finally, we need to see the response God gives to the request of a king. The king that the people want will only hurt them. But think about the king that God will ultimately give to us in Jesus. Jesus is the king who takes nothing but gives everything. Jesus is the complete opposite of the picture presented by God regarding the earthly kings Israel would experience. Jesus is the king you need. Jesus is the king who will give you everything that you truly need.
Jesus takes nothing from you. He asks you to give from the heart, but He does not take. Not only does Jesus not take but He asks you to give only after He has given to you. God does not say, “Give to me and then I will give to you.” God always gives first, takes nothing, and then asks us to give back to Him. Our King Jesus is the king we need. What we do not need is another earthly leader – no matter what party. What we do not need is to conform to the world. What we do not need is to look to the world for answers. What we need is to listen to God who responded before we even knew what to ask and gave us the king we need so that we can enjoy this life and the life to come.