Now, let me see if I have this straight. By the time we come to the end of Samuel’s life, it is almost 1000 B.C., and the Israelites have been living under the authority of judges for hundreds of years. Centuries earlier, Moses had given instructions to the people of Israel about what to do when the time came for them to have a king (Deut. 17:14–20), so the idea of having a king is nothing new. Furthermore, the book of Judges paints this period of Israel’s history with dour colors, and says repeatedly that Israel’s hardships have come to them because “there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). In addition to all of the above, Samuel’s two sons have been appointed judges, but have become perverted and unjust (1 Sam. 8:1–3). Is Israel to simply grin and bear their corruption?
And so I ask, what is the problem with Israel wanting a king?
Israel’s desire to have a king is condemned without question. When the elders of Israel make their demand, Samuel takes it as a rejection of his leadership (1 Sam. 8:6–7). More important, God agrees with Samuel’s perception and sees Israel’s desire ultimately as a rejection of His own rule and reign.
But, again, given the expectation of a king in Israel, why the severe chastisement? Israel’s desire seems to be normal, almost expected, not devoid of reason, and even virtuous to some degree.
First of all, the problem with the Israelites’ desire for a king would be more correctly stated as a desire for a certain kind of king, on the basis of an improper motivation, and within their time frame—not God’s. Think of how many actions are right in one context but wrong in another. Indeed, most sins fall into precisely this category. Did Adam and Eve sin by eating a piece of fruit? No, they sinned by eating the fruit of one particular tree that God had put off limits; the rest of the trees in the garden were fine. Does God condemn all sexual relationships between men and women? No, He is the very One who designed the sexual relationship. What He opposes is sexual encounters outside of the context of the marriage covenant. The problem with many of the things we do is not the things themselves, but the context in which we do them, our motivation, and the timing. The people of Israel want the wrong kind of king, one who looks good, not one with a heart after God. The motivation behind their request is not God’s glory and purpose, but their own.
This brings us to the second problem—the people of Israel are demanding something from God when they should be inquiring of Him. In their own minds, they are only taking care of business, doing the reasonable thing. But our bald reason often gets us into trouble. It is not that reason is bad; indeed, it is impossible to make any decision without the use of it. But the Israelites’ reason goes only so far. It assesses the unjust quality of Samuel’s sons, the oppression from enemy nations, and the positive results that could come from having a king, but it doesn’t lead them to God. There is no record of them assembling for prayer or going to Samuel to seek God’s wisdom about this matter. It’s amazing how quickly a prayerless heart becomes a demanding mouth.
The third problem with Israel’s request for a king is like the second but goes deeper. The request, although reasonable, is not based in the will of God. One could easily envision a scenario in which the elders of Israel read the books of Moses, came across his words about Israel’s king, and were stirred to assemble the people to pray and to have Samuel inquire of God about the proper timing. In that light, God very well could have said, “Yes, this is the time.” But, in fact, God’s will is never sought.
Fourth, Israel’s desire for a king is a repudiation of its God-given responsibilities. We usually think of the rebellious heart in terms of throwing off all restraint and demanding its freedom, but here we find just the opposite. The Israelites want someone to rule over them because they want life to be easier. God had commissioned the twelve tribes with the task of conquering the nations around them. Now the people simply want to be safe. In the same spirit of previous generations who wanted to return to Egyptian slavery, this generation is willing to exchange its freedom for an easier life.
Israel’s desire for a king is quite reasonable, but its fatal flaw is that it is based in humanistic, self-focused concerns instead of God’s great purpose and will. This is the heart of the matter. We forget that “ ‘without [Christ] you can do nothing’ ” (John 15:5). As a result, our decisions are too often like Israel’s. We are quick to demand that God bless our plans instead of being quick to discover His plan, and then conforming our actions to it. Therefore, we often attempt grandiose tasks for God instead of accomplishing tasks of true importance in God. This may seem like a fine line, but it makes all the difference to God. It’s the line between flesh and spirit, faith and disbelief, right and wrong.