Rejecting God as King

Rejecting God as King

Last week we considered how the LORD called Samuel at a very young age to follow and serve him; this week we’re going to consider how the people of Israel ended up rejecting a now old Samuel as one who had been called by the LORD.

In the intervening years between Samuel’s call by God and his rejection by God’s people, some key events had taken place. One of the most important is the story of the ark of the LORD, [1] the chest containing the two stone covenant tablets of the Ten Commandments.[2]  The Philistines, Israel’s enemy, captured the ark and moved it to their seaport of Ashdod. They placed it beside their god Dagon in his temple. When after two nights, Dagon had not only fallen upon his face but also lost his head and hands on the threshold, the Philistines moved the ark to Gath, another Philistine stronghold. But the LORD’s hand was heavy against the people of Gath and they were afflicted with tumors. So they sent the ark to Ekron, a third Philistine town, where the affliction with tumors again occurred.[3] Finally, after spending seven months with the Philistines, their priests and diviners had the ark, along with gifts and offerings, sent to the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh. And though the people of Beth Shemesh initially rejoiced and sacrificed to the LORD upon receiving the ark, when seventy of their people were struck down for looking into it, they asked the people of Kiriah Jearim, another Israelite city, to take it.[4] The ark of the LORD stayed in Kiriah Jearim at the house of a man named Abinadab where it was guarded by his son, Eleazer. In all the ark stayed there for twenty years.

Then a wonderful thing happened for the people of Israel who had strayed from the LORD turned back to him. So Samuel said to them: “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”[5] So the people obeyed and served the LORD only and Samuel interceded for them. And as the LORD had promised, when the Philistines came up to attack Israel, they failed. Then Samuel set a stone and named it “Ebenezer” (stone of help) saying “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”[6] And then we find this beautiful statement summarizing Samuel’s ministry:

13 So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines. 14 The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. 15 Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life.[7]

So by way of Samuel, his servant, who spoke for and represented him God led, provided for, and protected Israel.

Given what happened next, this snapshot highlighting some of the events that took place during Samuel’s life is important to note for as chapter 8 opens, we find an aged Samuel whose sons, Joel and Abijah, had been appointed by him to serve as Israel’s leaders. Unfortunately, unlike their father, we’re told in verse 3 that Samuel’s “sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” Because of this, Israel’s elders gathered and, understandably, rejected Joel and Abijah as their leaders. As stated in verse 5, “They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways;’ Now had the leaders stopped at this point and simply requested a leader or leaders more suitable than Samuel’s corrupt sons, I suspect all would have been well. Having witnessed the LORD’s judgment upon the corrupt sons of Eli, his spiritual father, Samuel would have had an opportunity to replace his sons with a more responsible leader or leaders.

However rather than simply reject Samuel’s sons as their leaders, the elders added, “now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” And the reason they gave for the change in leadership structure is what is so problematic. As reflected in verse 6, “But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.’” To be clear requesting that a king lead them wasn’t the problem; the problem was the reason they gave. Though Israel was a unique nation God had created and set apart for himself to be different from other nations—to live according to the commands of the LORD kept in the ark; to commit themselves to the LORD and serve him only; to trust in their Ebenezer, their stone of help, nonetheless his chosen people were now requesting a king such as all the other nations had.

Now to have a king who lived and led his people according to the ways of the LORD had ever been part of what God had intended. We see this early on when Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel,[8] was blessing each of his twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel. In his blessing upon Judah—from whose tribe Jesus, LORD and King of all arises—we read: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”[9] This “he to whom it belongs” was initially fulfilled in David but, again, was fulfilled in an ultimate way in the person of Jesus Christ. So, again, we can see how providing a king to rule his people had been part of God’s plan right from Israel’s inception.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we again see this anticipation of a kingship for Israel as Moses sets forth requirements for a king. Namely, he

“must be from among your fellow Israelites” and not a foreigner.[10]

“The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them.”[11]

“He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.

“He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”[12]

But most important of all,

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.[13]

So the king the LORD intended Israel to have was to be a man of God, someone who understood that not even he was above the law, but on the contrary his life was to exemplify the law as he revered the LORD, carefully following all of his ways. You can be certain that a king who sought to serve and please God would be a king who would similarly seek to serve and care for the people he led.

Last, but certainly not least, even in the book of Samuel we find the anticipation of a king. In the Song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, as she praised the LORD for his mercy and goodness, we read the following: “It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”[14] So, again, it’s important to note that asking for a king wasn’t the problem Samuel was confronting for the LORD had ever intended to provide a king who would rule his people. God wanted the people to have a king who knew and followed him; who knew and obeyed his law; and who, by way of his relationship with and knowledge of him and his ways, would lead those over whom he ruled to similarly know, follow, and walk in his ways.

So the problem with the request of the elders of Israel was that they were asking for a king “such as all the other nations have.” And this pattern of rejecting God and his ways in favor of other gods had been an ongoing problem with Israel, the nation he had created for himself that they might be holy and set apart and different from other nations as they followed and served and loved him the one, true LORD. So starting in verse 7, we have the LORD’s response to Samuel’s prayer, to Samuel’s turning to him for guidance: “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 we’ve noted before with regards to Jesus that he identifies so strongly with those who belong to him that whatever harm is done to them, he takes upon himself.[15] We see the same dynamic at work here. The LORD recognized and acknowledged that it wasn’t Samuel the people were rejecting but, because Samuel represented God to them, in rejecting him they were really rejecting God himself. And, again, sadly this wasn’t a new behavior for so they had been doing since the time that the LORD had delivered them from the tyrannical reign of the Egyptians during the time of the Exodus. Despite this deliverance, the people of Israel had rejected Moses, God’s servant, and sought to serve other gods. And we find the same dynamic here. Though during the time Samuel had led them, the people had had peace and protection from their enemies, the Philistines, they were now requesting for a king like that of their enemies to lead them.

Yet even in the midst of this rejection, the LORD in his great compassion and mercy provided them an opportunity to reconsider. In verse 9 he tells Samuel to warn the people about what life under a king “such as all the other nations have” will be like. So he told him, “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.” In his greatness and kindness, the LORD was letting the people know what would be in store for them should they opt for a king like that of other nations. He was making clear that what appeared to them to be greener pastures would really be dried out grass for the behavior described is in keeping with how the tyrannical Canaanite kings led. What we have listed in what follows is a king whose leadership is in stark contrast to the godly servant-king the LORD would have provided for his people.

So Samuel’s lifetime of serving the LORD never got easier. As his initial call had begun with having to deliver to Eli, his spiritual father, words of judgment from the LORD, so we see here how he continued to be true to his call as he told, “all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.” Starting with verse 11 he said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights.” Notice this list. No words were minced. The oppressive reality of the kings “such as all the other nations have” is presented here in its fullness. For as to their sons this king:

“will take [them] and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.” So the sons of the people of Israel would have to put their lives at stake for the king. In every area of their lives they would no longer be at Israel’s bidding but instead would be at the bidding of the king. For, verse 12:

“Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties;

“…others to plow his ground and reap his harvest,

“and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.”

Should the people have a king “such as all the other nations have” their sons would be at the beck and call of the king. They would be required to do whatever the king asked of them, whether in military or agricultural service.

So, too, it would be with their daughters for, verse 13, the king “will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.”

Further, this king “such as all the other nations have” would not only wreak havoc on their family ties but upon the land of the people as well as their other possessions would now be at the king’s disposal. As stated beginning in verse 14, the king

“will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.

15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.” This king’s interests would be vested in himself and those who served him, not upon those over whom he ruled. Further,

16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.

17 He will take a tenth of your flocks,” Again, the best of the people’s possessions would now be taken by this king. And if all of this wasn’t enough to give the people pause in requesting a king “such as all the other nations have,” at the end of verse 17 the people are told, “and you yourselves will become his slaves.”

This is a disturbing picture of life under such a king. Through Samuel’s words the LORD was warning his chosen people what the cost would be to having a king “such as all the other nations have.” Whereas they had been living under a peaceful theocracy following judges whom the LORD had raised to lead them, under the rule of the God who had called them and made them into his chosen nation, now they sought instead to live under a king who would oppress them in every area of their lives. Whereas God had ruled them for their good, the king they were requesting would rule them for his good. This is an example of “be careful what you pray for.” Though we may think we know what it would take to make us happy, more often than not we don’t.

And if risking becoming slaves to the king hadn’t been bad enough, the last warning comes in verse 18: “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.” Now you would think that having heard all of these warnings, the people would have been brought to their senses. You would think that the thought of losing their sons—and their daughters—and their fields and vineyards and olive groves—and their grain—and their servants—and their cattle and donkey—and a tenth of their flocks—and their very own freedom in being made slaves themselves—and not having any possibility of relief from such a king would have been enough to cause them reconsider their request. You would think they they would have recognized how foolish they were in asking for a king “such as all the other nations have.”

But they didn’t. They were determined to have such a king. As stated in verses 19 and 20, “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.’”

Though throughout Samuel’s life, as he had led Israel in the ways of the LORD, they had been delivered from the Philistine enemies who surrounded them, the elders of Israel nonetheless had decided that life under a king like that of their enemies would be better.

Whereas the LORD had been going before them and fighting their battles and protecting them, they had decided that they would rather trust in a king who had the appearance of strength and might to go before them instead.

Though the LORD through Samuel gave his people a clear picture of how oppressive life under such a king would be, it’s almost as if they had stopped their ears that they might have their way instead. They had rejected God as their King, and demanded an earthly king instead.

And I would say that we ought to find Israel’s behavior hard to believe but it’s only hard to believe if we don’t know ourselves. For don’t we who have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ know a similar struggle? Aren’t there times when we have knowingly done things that go against the LORD’s teaching? Aren’t there times when we have knowingly done what we knew would harm us? Aren’t there times when we have knowingly stopped our ears and insisted on our own way?

Yet what occurs with Israel also occurs with us for, thank God, though he may allow us to experience the painful consequences of our poor and sometimes rebellious choices, he is ever ready to come to our rescue; he is ever ready to forgive us; he is ever ready to have us return to him. Because he loves us; because he knows our weakness; because knowing our hearts, he loves us all the same. Our gracious God is incapable of turning away from us even when we turn away from him. Though we are faithless, he is faithful—always.[16] And so I pray that we’ll allow his love to soften our hearts—that we’ll allow his kindness to lead us to repentance—that we’ll turn to him today and always and acknowledge his goodness and greatness and mercy.

Let us pray.







[1] Chapter 4.

[2] Instructions for building the ark may be found in Exodus 25:10–22. Also known as the Ark of the Testimony it also contained Aaron’s rod and a pot of manna. Hebrews 9:3–4:Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.

[3] Chapter 5.

[4] Chapter 6.

[5] 1 Samuel 7:3.

[6] 1 Samuel 7:12.

[7] 1 Samuel 7:13–15.

[8] This change in name takes place when Jacob wrestles with God. Genesis 32:28: Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Israel probably means he struggles with God.

[9] Genesis 49:10.

[10] Deuteronomy 17:15.

[11] Deuteronomy 17:16.

[12] Deuteronomy 17:17.

[13] Deuteronomy 17:18–20.

[14] 1 Samuel 2:9b–10.

[15] E.g., when Saul (Paul) was persecuting Christians, the risen Christ said to him, ““Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Also, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the King (representing Jesus) says that as we have done—or not done—to the least of these, his brothers and sisters, so we have done—or not done—to him (Matthew 25:40, 45 respectively).

[16] 2 Timothy 2:11–13: 11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

Leave a Reply