Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:9 (ESV)
Chris over at Awaken Me recently posted his observations on the long line of kings in the Bible from Saul on down. I’m right around that point now in my reading of the Old Testament and have just finished 2 Samuel. As we read in 1 Samuel, Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah “did not walk in his ways” (v.3) so they were probably not likely candidates to succeed their father as ruler or “judge” over Israel. The elders of Israel and the people themselves picked up on this and wanted someone else to rule over them, as Samuel was an elderly man at this time. But there was probably a bigger reason at work here. The Israelites wanted to be like their neighboring nations and seemed envious of the rulers these nations had. The elders and Israelite people confirmed this by demanding to Samuel, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Sam 8:5, ESV).
I think “like all the nations” is the key phrase there. The Israelites’ demand of a king had two fatal errors. One was their belief that the “grass is always greener on the other side”. They assumed that they would be ruled and judged fairly by a king. Samuel then warned them extensively about what they would be in for under a king’s rule (v. 10-18). But you could just picture the Israelites with their arms crossed and shaking their heads as Samuel spoke. They ignored his warnings and pleaded again for a king after the elders had also made their request.
I think the other fatal error is a lack of faith. As Jesus tells Thomas in John 20:29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (ESV). The Israelites seemed to want someone they could physically see, which was basically a continuation of their complaints when they were first brought out of Egypt. After the Exodus, they quickly forgot the hardship they were under there, (maybe because they couldn’t see God ?), complained constantly to Moses, and were afraid of the unknown as God’s chosen people. In a sense, Samuel’s warnings were basically a retelling of the oppression they were under in Egypt. But they ignored him and Saul was eventually chosen as their first king.
Samuel was rightfully upset at this, but God assured him that it was not Samuel that the people had rejected, but God Himself. He seemed to be telling the Israelites, “OK, you want it, you got it.” To be fair, there were a handful of good kings, even after the kingdom divided between Israel and Judah. But the kingship of Saul, and the many evil kings that came after him, were key factors in the Israelites’ slow descent toward the exile hundreds of years later.
The lessons I take from the Israelites’ demand for a kingship are that sometimes the grass isn’t greener. And a lack of faith can have grave consequences. We must be careful what we wish for.