Read the passage here.
Continuing in our study of the book(s) of Samuel, our passage today represents a shift in the narrative of Israel (or of God’s work in and through Israel) from a tribalized Israel (that is, an Israel that is made up of essentially separate tribes – specifically, the twelve tribes of Israel) led essentially by what are known as Judges to a unified Israel under a single king. Or, to put it another way, it represents the shift from what we saw in the book of Judges (which we covered a few months back) to what will eventually become the Davidic kingdom. We will recognize that all of this has to do with the theme of Israel becoming a nation – what should be the nation or kingdom of God.
The person of Samuel personifies this transition. We haven’t discussed Samuel in detail, but there are a few key elements of Samuel’s character that we see throughout the narrative (in the chapters of 1 Samuel leading up to today).
First, we see that Samuel was born of Hannah who was barren before Samuel (1 Samuel 1). As we know, this motif of an essentially divinely ordained birth happens numerous times throughout scripture. Most notably in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the wives of the patriarchs, Sarah (mother to Isaac), Rebecca (mother to Jacob and Esau), and Rachel (mother of Joseph). This theme seems to underscore God’s providence and sovereignty in birthing the nation of Israel (which has to do also with redemption). What all this tells us in the narrative is that Samuel (and the attendant events around Samuel) is someone we need to pay attention to.
Second, we see that Samuel supersedes Eli and his sons in the priesthood. We know that Eli and his sons are condemned by the text for their unfitness for the priesthood. They care only about themselves and what they can get out of the position – they have little concern for Israel as a covenant people, and even less concern for God. In the narrative, they are rejected, even though they presumably stand in the proper lineage, and Samuel takes over as priest.
We then see Samuel function in the role of judge – in the same way that we saw the various Judges (Gideon, Samson, etc.) in the book of Judges. Israel is oppressed by a foreign power (in this case, the Philistines), and Samuel gathers the armies of the tribes of Israel together to defeat the Philistines.
And what we also see (or will see) is how Samuel moves from the role of Judge to the role of prophet, especially in relationship to the kings of Israel, Saul and David. But more about that later.
So at this point, as we’re talking about the transition from an Israel ruled by judges to a king, it’s worth remembering some of what we discussed in the book of Judges. One of the themes or motifs that we saw in Judges was the theme of “Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” at which point, they were given over to their enemies, and then ultimately delivered by a judge. This same theme is essentially what we’re seeing in the first part of Samuel. But in the latter part of Judges, a different (though related) motif becomes evident:
- 17:6 – In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
- 18:1 – In those days Israel had no king. …
- 19:1 – In those days Israel had no king. …
- 21:25 – In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
So in other words, what we’re seeing in 1 Samuel – in the transition from judges to a king – seems to be a direct response to this motif in the second part of Judges – that Israel had no king, everyone did as they saw fit (and that every did and saw wrongly). And more broadly, 1 Samuel and the establishment of the Davidic kingdom is a direct response, or the logical narrative outcome of what we’ve seen in the book of Judges. Though the people of Israel have possessed the land, they are still not the people of blessing that God has called them to be (in Abraham). The establishment of a king-ship can therefore be seen as a next step in the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the people of Israel.
However, there’s a really important proviso.
Firstly, we read in our passage today that the Israelite’s demand for a king seems to be contrary to what God (and especially Samuel) want.
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 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. 8 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.1 Samuel 8:7-8
So it’s obvious that Samuel was unhappy with this request for a king. It’s a little less obvious that God is unhappy with this request, but it does seem evident. But we also remember from the book of Deuteronomy that God anticipated this happening and that it wasn’t contrary to His plans for Israel. In Deuteronomy 17, we read:
14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.Deuteronomy 17:14-20
Now we’ve talked about this Deuteronomy passage on at least a couple of occasions so we won’t go into it in detail. But in short, God is saying that the king of Israel must be different than the kings of the nations around them. Israel’s king should not be guided by concerns about power, prestige, and money. Rather, Israel’s king must be guided by the word of God. Hence, the first thing that Israel’s king is to do is:
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
So, without dragging it out, and at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the Israelites’ demand for a king wasn’t wrong because they wanted a king – this was all part of God’s plan, after all. The Israelites’ demand for a king was wrong because they wanted a king “such as all the other nations have.” (v.5)
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to leadus, such as all the other nations have.”1 Samuel 8:4-5
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 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.”1 Samuel 8:19-20
What the Israelites were asking for was not a king after God’s own heart. They were not interested in being a nation who would be blessed to be a blessing. They wanted a king to lead them in power; they wanted a king to increase their prestige; they wanted a king who would make for them a name that would be considered great among all the other nations. They saw the kings of the powerful nations around them and they wanted what everyone else had.
And unless we miss the point, this is precisely what the people expected of Jesus – that is, this is what the people expected of the Messiah. And it is precisely not what Jesus intended to do.
Now I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I want to pre-empt our expectations a little bit as we continue to read through the books of Samuel. Because what we will see (and what the later Israelites saw) is that David (both pre-kingship and in his kingship) was renown for his military prowess and successes. But what I want to suggest is that David was king not because of his military victories but that his victories came because of his devotion to God. And this is precisely the point (at least one of the points) that we saw in the ark narrative of chapters 4-6.
What we saw is that when Israelites tried to make use of the ark, they were defeated. That is, when Israel tried to make use of God – when they tried to turn God into an instrument for their own purposes – they found that God could not be used. God overcame the Philistines (through a faithful Samuel) only according to His own purposes, and according to His own sovereign will. And what I’m going to suggest is that David finds victory precisely because He understands this relationship – that He is God’s and not the other way around. This will be (again, spoiler) one of the key differences that we see between Saul and David.
It is desperately important that we understand this. It’s desperately important that we understand that God does not serve our purposes; that God has no interest in aiding us to build our kingdom. And this should not be a dead horse that needs beating. And yet we so often fail at precisely this point.
So, returning more specifically to our passage today, the Israelites were interested in building a nation – in building a kingdom – sure. And they understood that a king was necessary for that process. But what they were interested in was not God’s kind of king – they wanted a king such as all the other nations had. They weren’t interested in God’s kind of kingdom – they wanted a kingdom such as all the other nations were.
And so many of the people may have loved David because what they saw was enemies defeated, Israel being honoured, and no doubt their quality of life going up, scripture makes it clear that David stood out because he was a man after God’s own heart.
And all of this begs the question, what is it that we want? What is it that we are doing? In my personal opinion, it’s a particularly pertinent question for us in 21st century Canada; in 21st century North America. Are we seeking to be people of God’s kingdom? A kingdom that was demonstrated and typified by the life of Jesus Christ; a life of humility, love, sacrifice, and even suffering? Or are we seeking – even as the church – to be like all the other nations of the earth? Do we look to leaders (Christian and otherwise) who demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control – those who show us and point us to God? Or are we looking for leaders who promise us power, prominence, and maybe even a “return to glory?” Are we earnestly seeking what the Father is doing, what Christ has done, and the work of the Spirit to bring about His kingdom? Or has God merely become a tool to give us what we think we deserve?
Now I can’t answer that question. What we can do is ask the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, to reveal that which we must confess, and to lead us in His way, for His name’s sake. What we can do and must do is pay attention to God working continuously in our hearts that there would be only one King in our lives, the One who alone is truly King of all.