ISRAEL’S FIRST KING 1 Samuel 8–12
“Give us a king to lead us” (1 Sam. 8:6).
The story of Israel’s transition to a monarchy reminds us that the root of our problems is often in ourselves.
Definition of Key Terms
King. In Old Testament times kings controlled all the functions of government-legislative, executive, and judicial. The people owed total allegiance to their ruler, and the ruler in turn protected his people by leading them in war as well as peace. As originally conceived, Israel was a theocracy—a people whose King was God. In the Old Testament Law Covenant God committed Himself to fight Israel’s battles and to cause the nation to prosper. In turn the people were to obey the laws enacted by their Monarch, and give their allegiance completely to Him. The role of the king in Old Testament times, and the teaching of Scripture that God was Himself Israel’s King, helps us to see why Israel’s request for a human monarch was in fact a rejection of the Lord. Anoint. The act of pouring oil on the head of a person. Anointing was a symbolic act consecrating persons whom God had chosen for a special role, such as priest or king.
Israel’s request for a king implied rejection of God (8:1–22). Samuel anointed Saul privately (9:1–10:8), and later publicly introduced him as God’s choice (vv. 9–27). After Saul led Israel to victory over the Ammonites (11:1–11), the people confirmed Saul as ruler (vv. 12–15). Samuel stepped down from political leadership, but warned Israel to obey God, and promised to pray constantly for them (12:1–25).
Understanding the Text
“Appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” 1 Sam. 8:1–22. Moses had predicted that one day Israel would have a king (cf. Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17; Deut. 17:14–20). Yet the motive of the elders of Israel who asked Samuel to appoint a king was wrong. God had held back the Philistines all of Samuel’s long rule as judge (1 Sam. 7:13). But Samuel’s sons, who he unwisely had appointed judges, accepted bribes. This, with Samuel’s age, created uncertainty about the future. The need even seemed urgent when the Ammonites prepared to move against Israel (12:12). Rather than inquire of God what to do, the elders of Israel turned to pagan ways to deal with a leadership vacuum. They asked for a king “as all the other nations have.” God pointed out to a visibly upset Samuel that the request was in fact a rejection of Him, for since the Exodus the Lord Himself had functioned as Israel’s King. Samuel warned Israel by showing the faults in the pagan system. Kings demand taxes, take the brightest and best to serve their administrations, and even transfer citizens’ property to their attendants (8:10–18). But the people insisted. They desperately wanted to “be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (v. 20). Like the ancient Israelites, modern Christians can be all too quick to turn to secular solutions. In times of uncertainty we often run to the world. Pastors struggling with church leadership sign up for seminars on management. Missionaries eager to reach a lost world look to statistics for principles of church growth. Parents desperate for guidance try pop psychology. While each of these may be of some help, each secular system has its drawbacks. But most tragic, each serves as a substitute for better ways that God has mapped out in His Word for believers. Israel’s insistence on a monarchy at this point in history stands as a warning to us. When we face uncertainty, let’s seek God’s answer, rather than adopt the world’s solutions and be “like all the others.” “He will deliver My people from the hand of the Philistines” 1 Sam. 9:1–10:8. The text describes a series of events that makes it clear the Lord personally supervised the choice of Saul. The loss of several donkeys launched Saul on a trip that led, step by step, to Samuel. God identified Saul as the one God intended to govern His people. After Samuel anointed Saul to be king, Samuel made a series of predictions intended to convince that reluctant young man that God had indeed chosen him (10:2–7). A question that has troubled believers is, Why did God choose Saul, in view of Saul’s later failures? Did God intend to show the people the error of their ways by selecting a flawed leader? Not at all. The people had asked for a leader who would “go out before us and fight our battles.” When God told Samuel to anoint Saul, the Lord told him, “He will deliver My people from the hand of the Philistines” (9:16). God gave Israel a king who would do just what the people asked! We need to evaluate our prayers carefully. Is what we ask for what we really need? Is what we ask for what is truly best for us? What Israel should have asked for is a king after God’s own heart. One who would be responsive to God, and keep Israel close to the Lord. It is a measure of God’s grace that when Saul’s flaws were fully revealed, the Lord provided His people with just such a king in David. “See the man the Lord has chosen” 1 Sam. 10:9–26. One of the means used in the Old Testament to determine God’s will was casting lots. Another was the Urim and Thummim—most likely smooth stones indicating yes or no—carried by the high priest. Here some such means was used to indicate the Lord’s choice of a tribe, clan, family, and finally individual. Saul, possibly moved by an appealing modesty or perhaps by fear, was found hiding among the baggage. He was an imposing figure, “a head taller” than any other Israelite. Based on the average height of Israelites in that era, Saul was probably between 6’4″ and 6’6″ tall. Saul was presented to the people, most of whom were impressed by his height and shouted, “Long live the king!” Like Israel, we’re often impressed by externals. Samuel’s invitation, “See the man,” reminds us not to judge by appearances, but to look for character. “Let us . . . reaffirm the kingship” 1 Sam. 11:1–15. The Ammonite attack on Jabesh Gilead may have been a direct challenge to Saul, who as a Benjamite might trace his lineage to this city (Jdg. 21:9–16). Saul rallied Israel and led the people to victory. The victory resolved any remaining doubts, and Saul was confirmed as king by all the people at Gilgal. Saul’s gracious treatment of those who earlier refused to acknowledge him was notable (1 Sam. 11:12–13). So was Saul’s humble attitude, as he gave credit for the victory to “the Lord [who] has rescued Israel” (v. 13). “You have not cheated or oppressed us” 1 Sam. 12:1–5. Few political or spiritual leaders can conclude their careers as Samuel did. He led for love of the people and for love of God, not for personal gain or power. “If both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God-good” 1 Sam. 12:6–25. Samuel turned over the reins of political power to Saul in the public gathering at Gilgal, though he continued as spiritual leader (cf. v. 23). The speech was dramatic. Samuel recounted how faithful God had been when Israel looked to Him as ruler, and made it plain that Israel’s motive in seeking a king at that time was wrong. To underline this, God sent a destructive thunderstorm. As wheat harvest is the dry season in Israel, this was viewed as a miraculous sign, and led Israel to admit their request for a king was a sin. Samuel’s response is for us as well as for Israel. “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord.” Sin is wrong, but God will not reject the person who turns from it and clings faithfully to Him.
Fully Equipped (1 Sam. 10–11)
Every child who goes to Sunday School is familiar with Saul’s failure. He is the flawed king, the vindictive enemy of David, who again and again disobeyed God. It’s no wonder that some question whether God deliberately chose a man who would fall short, as punishment for those who insisted on a king. Did God set Israel up? Was Saul God’s choice only so He could later say, “I told you so”? That question is answered clearly and firmly in the text. And the answer is no. In fact, God thoroughly prepared Saul—not for failure, but for success. Notice. Saul was given signs to ensure that he realized he had been chosen by God (10:1–7). God immediately let Saul know that He was personally involved in Saul’s choice and his life. Saul was infused by the Spirit of God and, the text says, “God changed Saul’s heart” (vv. 9–10). God worked within Saul to make him sensitive to the Lord. Saul was suddenly able to prophesy, causing amazement in those who knew him (v. 11). God prepared Saul’s acquaintances for Saul’s new role. Saul was publicly selected by God at Gilgal (vv. 20–24). God made it clear to the whole nation that Saul was His choice. Saul was again filled by the Spirit when he called out the nation to fight the Ammonites (11:7). God gave Saul special enablement when the crisis came. And Saul’s victory was evidence of God’s presence. The new king realized that “the Lord has rescued Israel” (v. 13). What this shows is that God did nothing that might have caused Saul’s later failures. Instead, the Lord did everything possible to equip Saul for success! As the New Testament affirms, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:13–14). What an important message for you and me. When God calls us to any task, He intends us to succeed! And He provides all the resources we need to achieve success. If we stay close to Him we will avoid the tragedy that later befell Saul, Israel’s first king.
Because each of us does have flaws, it is vital that we stay close to the Lord.