As Samuel advanced in years, he associated his two sons with himself as Judges in Israel. But these young men – far from imitating their father’s piety – were guilty of the lowest corruption in their office as magistrates. The nation soon uttered a loud complaint through its representative elders, and the desire for a king – of which some indications had appeared at a much earlier date – now manifested itself in a formal and urgent demand.
It is true that the ancient God-given constitution of Israel had distinctly contemplated and provided for a monarchy, when the people had attained a settled state in the land of Canaan. And it must be admitted that the circumstances in Israel, at the time, pointed to this as the proper period, if there was ever to be a change in their form of leadership. The institution of Judges – however successful they were at times, and as individuals – had failed as a whole. It had given neither external security nor good government to the people. Obviously, this period was at an end. Samuel would eventually die, and what would be after him? Would it not be better to make the change under his direction, instead of leaving the people in charge of two men who could not even keep their hands from taking bribes? Clearly, this was the best time, if there ever was one, to carry out the long-desired and much-needed reform.
Keeping in mind, then, that there was nothing necessarily wrong in Israel’s desire for a king (Deut. 17:14; compare with Gen. 17:6, 16; 35:11), nor even in the time when this demand was made; the explanation of the difficulty must lie in the motives and the manner, rather than in the mere fact of the elders’ request. Israel was asking for a king to “judge” them, just like all the other nations around them. In Israel, a “judge” was an individual who was specifically and Divinely appointed to deliver the people from their enemies. The people had to look beyond the human Judge and rely upon the unseen God Himself! Up to this point, their deliverance was only certain to those among them who possessed faith in the Lord; but it was quite uncertain to those who had a faithless state of mind – as they were in now. Their help was in heaven, but they wanted it to be upon earth. Their helper was God Himself, but they wanted to see it visibly embodied in a mere man! In this aspect of the matter, we can easily understand why the Lord characterized this request for a king as a rejection of Himself; and it is no surprise, then, that He directed Samuel to bear strong testimony against the people in this matter.
Samuel himself was highly displeased at the people’s request, and he laid the case before the Lord in prayer. He could patiently bear their bad reflections upon himself and his own family; but it distressed him when they said, “Give us a king to judge us” – because that showed their bad reflections upon the Lord! This drove him to his knees. When anything disturbs us, it is both our duty and our privilege to lay our troubles before God.
The Lord’s answer confirmed Samuel’s own view of the people’s request and its motive. The Lord desired him to comply with their demand; however, at the same time, he was to warn them of the evils of arbitrary regal power, and of the costliness of maintaining a royal court. The subsequent history of the nation supplies numerous illustrations of the evils that were thus faithfully pointed out by the Lord’s prophet. God’s answer to Samuel in this matter was not to show that He was pleased with the people’s request; but rather – just as He sometimes opposes us in lovingkindness; and at other times, He gratifies us in wrath – so He did here. He knows how to bring glory to Himself; and He serves His own wise purposes, even by the foolish counsels of human beings.
If Israel wished to have a king to rule over them, they would find the yoke exceedingly heavy. Samuel told them of the hardships that they would have to endure under the leadership of a king. Those who submit to the government of the world and the flesh are plainly told what hard masters they are, and what tyranny the dominion of sin is. The law of God and the manners of people differ widely from each other. The former should be our rule for our lives; the latter should only be the measure of our expectations from others.
The people of Israel were obstinate and urgent in their demand, even after hearing all the warnings that Samuel gave them. Sudden resolutions and hasty desires make work for long and slow repentance. It is true wisdom to be thankful for the advantages of the government that we live under, and to ask the Lord for grace to be patient under its disadvantages. Also, we ought to pray continually for our rulers and leaders, that they may govern us in the fear of the Lord, and that we may live under them in all Godliness and honesty.
Lord, as we read of the rebellion of Israel in desiring a king, when You Yourself were their gracious King; we pray for grace to learn how prone is the heart, even of Your own people, to rebel against You! Help our eyes to continually behold Jesus, our King, in His beauty! We are sure that since He has taken away all our sins, He will not plead against us in judgment on the great Last Day. May the language of our hearts be like the words of the prophet of old: “The Lord is our judge: the Lord is our Lawgiver: the Lord is our King; he will save us!” Amen. (Isa. 33:22)
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