Samuel was not happy. The leaders of the people had gathered and had demanded that Samuel find them a king. In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel had tried to pass the leadership of the tribes over to his sons, but they turned out to be less than ideal leaders. The text says that they “…did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” So, perhaps it wasn’t that unreasonable for the elders of Israel to start looking at other models.
The problem was that Samuel wasn’t fully retired, yet. He still was pretty active as a judge and prophet for the people, and their desire for a king not only called into question his sons’ ability to lead, but his own as well. It was an insult. Samuel was pretty convinced that they had rejected him as their judge, and that stung. So he prayed about it, and asked the Lord about it. Beginning in verse 7: “And the Lord told him: ‘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 listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’"
There’s an awful lot that’s left unsaid, here. On the surface, and accurately I think, the story is about Samuel’s incompetent sons, Joel and Abijah, who saw their position as an opportunity for personal gain. It’s no wonder that the people were looking for other leadership. But dig a little deeper, and you may see a more complex narrative. Take a look at who is coming to talk to Samuel—it’s the elders of the people. On one level, these are the duly appointed representatives of the people, but on another level, these guys more than likely represent the powerful elite, the land owners, the wealthy traders. Think about it this way—if you were a lowly laborer, or a slave, or someone who was just trying to eke out a living, would you be able to take the time or energy to pursue some sort of regime change? Probably not. It’s usually those in power who end up tinkering with power structures, and usually for their benefit.
I don’t want to defend Samuel’s sons. They probably did need to be replaced. But the alternative suggested by the elders of the people reflects their abiding concerns. In verse 19, the text indicates that the people had some ideas about what leadership should do: “‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. 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.’” This is a lot more significant than just wanting the same toys the other kids have. The evidence is in the last part of that 20th verse: We want a king who will “lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
For these tribal people, the biggest problem they had is that another tribe was always threatening to eat their lunch. In this time period, when we talk about kings, we’re not talking about Henry VIII or Louis XIV. We’re not really talking about the Buckingham Palace or Versailles. Kings in this setting were really more like tribal chieftains, or if you like the word, warlords. It really was a matter of having someone go out before you and fight your battles. A strong leader, with a certain military prowess, was considered necessary for the protection of the status quo. And this was what the elders of Israel were asking for: someone to fight their battles and protect them from the surrounding tribes and their warlords. They wanted a king—not so much to be like other tribes, but to protect them from other tribes.
Now, in the context, and all other things being equal, I suspect that replacing Samuel’s corrupt sons with a strong, competent warlord might have seemed like a good idea, the preferable option. But when we’re talking about the people of God, all things are not equal. Samuel’s frustration is misplaced, because it’s not really Samuel’s leadership—or even the leadership of his sons—that the people are rejecting. Because these are the people of God that we are talking about, it is clearly a rejection of God’s authority. This is where the civic order of the people of God differs in a radical way from the civic order of other tribes or even nations. For the people of God to demand a king is evidence of a lack of faith in God’s providence and protection. What Samuel was faced with was a group of elders who would rather be the people of Saul (their eventual choice) than the people of God. God’s people cannot have a human leader without the potential of creating a conflict of allegiance.
The story of Samuel and the Israelite’s desire for a king is strangely pertinent today. At the risk of sounding cynical, the political climate in America has never seemed so divisive and uncivil. The nation is calling for a king, who will protect them from whatever threat they feel is most significant. The current rhetoric is only more strident because of we are in an election year. Whatever enemies within or without that happen to confront the nation, a king is called for to go out and fight the battle. Stagnant economies, rampant unemployment, dangerous viruses, whatever aberrant ideology the other side seems to represent—we want someone to go out and fight the battle. And perhaps the most problematic is that the people of God, woven in amongst the people of the nation, are at times caught up in the clamoring calls for a king.
There are two dangers here. First, there’s that possible conflict of allegiance that occurs when the people of God look to secular, human leaders for their security, safety or general benefit. It is too easy for us to back the wrong horse, particularly when all candidates fall short. When we’re presented with a choice of this “less-than-perfect” king, and that “less-than-perfect” king, and are forced (as we often are) to choose between the lesser of two evils, we miss the truth that we—as the children of God—have a third option. We can choose to obey God, and to submit to God’s authority. We can see the situation for what it is—not a choice between Samuel’s shifty sons or Saul (who ends up being a complete train-wreck of a king) but between all earthly leaders and the perfect leadership of God.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the civic realm. By all means, follow the Spirit’s leading and work for the good of the place you live. But don’t put a lot of hope in the ability of earthly kings to “fight your battles.” This is the second point: An earthly king (or senator or president) is far more likely to fight for their own benefit, than for your benefit. The Lord tells Samuel to communicate this truth: “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.” And Samuel tells them. “You want a king?” he asks, “Well, it’s going to cost you.”
Kings often take a lot more than they give. For the people of Israel, Samuel promised that the king would take their children for his armies and his palaces, would take the best of their flocks and herds, would take the top of all their harvest. And after he takes all that, Samuel says, you will become his slaves. And you will cry out for relief from this king that you wanted. We may want a king to fight our battles, but a king is a costly thing. Every would-be king who shouts promises that they will fight our battles ends up costing us something. And we may, eventually, cry out for relief from the king we’ve chosen.
Unless we take a different path. The people of God always have the opportunity to reject earthly kings and remain faithful to God. Again, we’re not talking about abdicating our role in the civic realm; feel free to participate in whatever way the Spirit leads for the glory of God and your neighbor’s good. But the people of God should never lose sight of the fact that we already have a Sovereign, one who is not bound up in self-interest, but is willing to sacrifice deeply on our behalf. We have a Leader who not only can fight for us, but who is ever triumphant. We can avoid the mistakes of the elders of Israel, who insisted on a king like the other nations, hoping that their interests would be protected, only to find the price of a king to be far higher than they were ready to pay. We need to be careful what we ask for when it comes to earthly leaders. Kings are always costly. There is only one Sovereign who is really worth the price.