“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ ”
I Samuel 8:4, 5
The account of Israel’s elders coming to Samuel with their request gives us a good example of the influence that secular, irreligious culture can have on the people of God. These two verses identify all the elements that we want to observe. The Scriptures are good at that. No wasted words. Right to the point. In future days, these verses would be used to remind Israel, and us as well, of the consequences of following the crowd (I Samuel 10:17-19).
What is the background for the request for a king? To uncover the real issue, we must retrace Israel’s steps all the way back to the Exodus and before. Jacob’s sons had conspired together to sell their brother Joseph into slavery. Unknown to all of them, it was God’s plan that Joseph was to lead the way into Egypt where the people of Israel were to become a nation. They “. . . meant it for evil; God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:15-29). In other words, despite all outward appearances, God was using the brothers’ hatred for Joseph to achieve His goal. Israel was to be a great nation.
The people of Israel stayed in Egypt for about 400 years. At the end of that time, they were numerous and powerful but enslaved by the new Pharaoh. God now determines that it is time to take Israel out of Egypt and He raises up Moses for that purpose (Exodus 3:7-10). Noting God’s message to the Pharaoh of Egypt is important:
“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says “Let my people go.” ‘ ”
Pharaoh’s response reveals his attitude. He states, “I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). In effect, the Pharaoh is saying, “I think there is some confusion. I happen to be the ruler around here and I do not believe I have given my approval for Israel to go anywhere. Get back to work!” Yes, there was some confusion, but God was about to set things straight.
Israel—God’s Chosen People
God’s command to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” cut to the core of the issue. Israel belonged to God. He was their King, not Pharaoh nor even Moses. God had selected this group of people, nurtured them and arranged for them to become a nation. Now He wants to deliver them from slavery and lead them into a land that He has prepared for them. God’s relationship to Israel is special. It is separate and distinct from that to all other people groups. They were His “Chosen People.”
Through a series of powerful signs, God not only convinces the Pharaoh, but permanently imprints His seal on the national fabric of the people of Israel. To this day, the Exodus represents to all people of Israel that incredible event of history which displayed God’s special relationship to His people (Isaiah 63:11-14). Old Testament history reveals the extent of that relationship.
Moses and Joshua
God’s relationship with Israel was further developed under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. During Moses’ life there were continual reminders of God’s presence and ownership:
–The giving of the Law (Exodus 20:1-17)
–Instructions for the Tabernacle (Exodus 26-30)
–The Lord’s presence in the pillar of fire and the cloud (Exodus 13:21)
–Provisions of manna (Numbers 11:7-9), quail (Numbers 11:31, 32) and water (Exodus 17:5-7)
–Victory over their enemies (Exodus 17; Numbers 31).
Though there were disappointing times when the people of Israel failed and rebelled, God stood by them throughout the life of Moses. The Psalmist memorializes much of this early history in poetic form (Psalms 105, 106).
Moses leads the emerging nation to the very edge of the promised land where he turns over the reigns of leadership to his younger assistant, Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:5-9). As they prepare to enter, Joshua becomes the instrument of God to the people of Israel just as Moses had been. From the very beginning, God reminds Joshua of what the secret of successful leadership is in God’s eyes:
“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Joshua 1:8
Throughout his life, Joshua was faithful to what God had said.
Later, as he is aging, Joshua realizes his time as Israel’s leader is nearing its end. So he summons all “the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God” (Joshua 24:1). Joshua’s purpose for this gathering was twofold:
1. He recounts how they had fared as a people when they followed God and he warns them of the disaster awaiting them should they discontinue.
2. He asks them to covenant with God, to follow and obey Him. The people agree and Joshua writes and records the covenant (Joshua 24:24-27). Soon, Joshua dies as do the rest of the leaders of his time.
Israel quickly forgets the covenant, however, and abandons the will and words of God. For several centuries (I Kings 6:1) the people of Israel go back and forth between obedience to God and rebellion, deliverance by God and bondage (Judges 3:7-11; 6:7-12, etc.). As a nation, they cease to follow God. Although God provides “judges” to be their leaders, notice how the people regarded His judges:
“Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the Lord’s commands . . . They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.” Judges 2:16, 17, 19
This extraordinary period of Israel’s history that began with Moses is now ending in the person of Samuel (Jeremiah 15:1).
Samuel and The Elders
All of this history is not lost when the elders come to Samuel to request him to appoint a king over them. If he grants their request, he will be the last of the judges of Israel. Yet, it was only when they had a God-appointed judge over them that there was any semblance of faithfulness to God, His covenant and His commands. These judges provided the leadership that freed them from the enslavement of the surrounding nations. God empowered them to deliver Israel.
Samuel, of course, believes the elders of Israel are rejecting him. But God says, “It’s not you, Samuel, they are rejecting—it’s Me!” He reminds Samuel that the people have an established pattern of rejecting Him (I Samuel 8:6-8). Despite what they knew and despite Samuel’s warning, the elders of Israel persisted. “No!” they said,
“We want a king. 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.”
(Emphasis added) I Samuel 8:19, 20
Their brief statement to Samuel reveals three significant factors:
1. They came to God’s official representative, Samuel, with their request.
2. They could recognize the sin of Samuel’s sons and the perversion of justice under their administration.
3. The basis of their request was not God, but the surrounding nations.
In other words, the elders of Israel were not ignorant about God and His standards—Samuel had taught them well. Yet, they chose not to follow his instructions.
How to Be Successful
The elders of Israel were tired of being in slavery and bondage to the surrounding nations. These nations had kings who led them successfully against the people of Israel. Their methods were working rather well, they thought. The motivation for requesting a king, “to be like other nations,” was so they could be free. Surely, no one would argue with their goal. The road to success in their culture, their world, was by having a king. The elders had noticed.
What was it that Samuel saw in their request? What did God see? What grieved both God and Samuel? The elders’ request was a rejection of God as their king.
“And the Lord told him (Samuel): ‘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.’ ” I Samuel 8:7
Why did God say, “They are rejecting Me?” Hadn’t He given Moses the guidelines for selecting a king? Yes, Moses had left instructions for that purpose, including the central element of God’s design. The king was to write out a copy of God’s law to carry with him at all times, to read it and to follow it. God’s key to success was not a king, but a king who obeyed His law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
However, that is not what the elders of Israel had in mind when they came to Samuel. You see, they already understood God’s way to be successful. They were aware of how to avoid the bondage and slavery the surrounding nations were imposing on them. If nothing else was clear to these leaders, it was that God had plainly, clearly and frequently told them what was the key to success (Deuteronomy 28:58, 59; 29:9-15, 29; 30:15, 16; 31:24-26).
From the Exodus, through Moses and Joshua, the judges and now Samuel, Israel knew:
“Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.”
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” Joshua 1:7; 24:14
The key to success and freedom for Israel was in following faithfully what God had said. It was not their neighbors or the surrounding nations that were to provide the pattern for successful living. Their God-given mission was to convey the Word of God to the world.
“What advantage, then is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” (Emphasis added) Romans 3:1, 2
Their history was to display God’s power (Deuteronomy 9:25-29). Not only was Israel’s mission God-given, but God had revealed the method by which that mission was to be achieved. However, the elders’ request of Samuel did not include that one essential element of success. Following God’s instructions was not part of their plan. Thus, God said to Samuel, “They not rejecting you; they are rejecting me.”
Perhaps the most curious thing about this story is that God ordered Samuel to give Israel what they wanted. He did not stop them. God said,
“Listen to them (give them what they want), but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” I Samuel 8:9
Samuel delivers a sharp warning (I Samuel 8:10-18) but the people “refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ They said. ‘We (still) want a king over us’ ” (I Samuel 8:19).
Success Without God
As Israel watched the surrounding nations, they observed the prosperous results of having a king. Their success came without the pain of having to live by God’s laws and standards! That is what Israel wanted when they came to Samuel. It wasn’t just a king. They wanted freedom from God’s commands and authority. They wanted to be successful on their own terms! But Israel was not just another nation. They were a special people, chosen by God to be a light, to be the deliverer, to be God’s instrument in the world for reconciliation. They were God’s people!
God was aware of the real nature of Israel’s request when He told Samuel to give them a king. He understood the motivation behind their request to be like other nations. Israel believed they saw in their surrounding culture an easy road to success without the burden of being faithful to God and His Word. While previously they had been and could continue to be successful by following God’s instructions and commands, they saw another option: Success without sacrifice; greatness without God.
Were these leaders orthodox? Yes! They even reported to Samuel the evil his sons were committing. They could recognize error when they saw it! That, however, was not the real issue. While acknowledging God’s authority by coming to Samuel with their request, they did not want to remain under His rule. The scene here in Samuel’s house previews the shouts of Israel’s leaders centuries later when Jesus was before Pilate, the Roman Governor. Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your king?” “ Yes!” they yelled back, “Crucify him. We do not recognize Him as our King” (John 19:14, 15).
So the issue was not whether Israel wanted to be successful and have freedom. That was the desire of both Israel and God. It was a decision on how to achieve and measure success. Would it be God’s standards or those of the surrounding worldly cultures?
The evangelical church also wants desperately to be successful! But how? By what measure of success? Whose standards will we apply? What methods will the church use to be successful? These questions are haunting the evangelical church.