Israel demands a King

1And it came about when Samuel was old that he appointed his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judging in Beersheba. His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LordThe Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.”

1 Samuel 8 is a turning point in the story of Israel. After moving into the land led by Joshua and several generations of cyclical sin on a national scale as detailed in the book of Judges, the elders of Israel seemed to think it was time for a change. They came to Samuel and requested a king—rejecting God and His purpose for Israel.

There are a few observations we can make which will help us in the contemporary world, no matter what culture we’re living in or what our job is.

Appointed judges and officers.

In Deuteronomy 16, verses 18-20 we see the command to appoint judges and officers in Israel.

18 “You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.19 You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

Not only is the appointment of judges and officers proscribed for all the towns, but it is also described what sort of people they should be:

  • they shall judge with righteous judgment (v. 18)
  • they shall not distort justice (v.19a)
  • they shall not be partial (v.19b)
  • they shall not take a bribe (v.19c)
  • they shall only pursue justice (v.20a)

In 1 Samuel 8, the description we read of Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah, seems to draw on Deuteronomy 16:19:

Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

It is clear that Samuel’s sons were the opposite of what God required from a judge or officer—the elders were right to protest their actions.In the very same sentence things became slippery; they ask, “Give us a king to judge us.”

Like all the nations.

Israel was to be holy amongst the nations, set apart for the Lord Himself (Deuteronomy 14:2). When the elders of Israel requested a king, they said, “appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (v.5). It seems that the elders—being rightly unimpressed with the oppressive sons of Samuel—looked around and saw what everyone else was doing.

The grass is greener on the other side, as the saying goes.

God says to Samuel in verse 7 that in asking for a king, the elders of Israel were rejecting God as king over them.

The implication is that God gave Israel the law to govern themselves, and in rejecting it’s commandments, they reject God. Israel rejected God and asked for a man to rule them.

When Samuel becomes angry and brings their complaint to God, God somewhat surprisingly gives the go-ahead, but commands Samuel to warn Israel of what they are asking for.

The way of a worldly king.

In 1 Samuel 8:11-18 Samuel lists out all the downsides of having a king:

  • he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots (v.11)
  • he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots (v.12)
  • He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers (v.13)
  • He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants (v.14)
  • He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants (v.15)
  • He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young menand your donkeys, and put them to his work (v.16)
  • He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves (v.17)

Despite this warning, the people refuse:

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us,20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8: 19-20)

Samuel obeys God and sends the elders home, and later Saul is appointed as the first king of Israel.

What does this mean for us now?

There are. a few contemporary applications which I think we can make.

Power is dangerous.

We need to be aware that simply because we or someone we trust appoints someone to power, that doesn’t mean they are worthy of it or will use it well. Most people have a story about how someone with authority and power over them mis-used that power—teachers, coaches, pastors, and politicians. Saul’s sons used their position for evil, and Samuel’s prophecy of the abuse of the kings showed how they, having absolute power, would abuse it.

We should consider this carefully when we are structuring our families, churches, businesses and governments—the more power that rests on any one individual, the more they are able to abuse. Does your church have one person at the top of a pyramid of authority who isn’t truly accountable to the whole body? Is your local politician listening to their constituents, or do they simply follow the party line on every issue?

Perhaps when it comes to authority, we should “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” as it says in 1 Timothy 5:22. We may not be able to fix a broken system, but we can surely choose prayerfully and carefully.

Don’t ask against the will of God.

As Christians, we should be very wary of how we ask God for things. Do we want to find ourselves in a situation like Israel where we’re asking for something the world deems wise, and yet would be disobedient to God and against  His will?

Should we pray to have one candidate over another as president or prime minister? Might we not be found in opposition to will of the Lord if we set our eyes on a man-made solution like a specific political system, country, or candidate?

There have been several political events in the last couple of years—like Brexit in the United Kingdom or the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States—that have deeply divided not just the UK or US, but what seemed to be a large part of the world. Everyone had an opinion—Leave, Remain, Never Trump, Never Hillary, everything in between—and it seemed there were but a few voices that said God already knows what He is going to do. It’s not worth splitting churches over.

Look to the Bible.

Instead of looking around us as the Israelite elders did and trying to emulate what the world is doing in the church, let us look to Christ. What is He planning?

If we want to truly make a difference in this world, we don’t need to do the things that the world is doing, we need to do the things that Christ called us to do: preach the gospel, make disciples, and take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

He gave us clear instruction in the Scriptures on how to organise the Church, what to teach in it, and what our purpose is. We need to keep those things at the forefront of our minds, walking in obedience instead of asking God to help us be like the world arounds us.

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