Samuel and Israel's Demand for a King

Last week we talked about Eli, his two sons, and Samuel. If you’ll remember Eli was the head priest, and he had two wicked sons who were doing a lot of terrible things. For this God punished them. The two sons both died on the same day in the same battle, and the Ark of the Covenant—the symbol of God’s presence in Israel—was taken out of Israel by the Philistines.

Meanwhile, Samuel grew up to be a righteous and true man. He answered God’s call, delivered some unpleasant news to Eli, and served as a prophet of God and a judge over Israel.

So today we’ll start with what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. Did it just stay in Philistine forever? Let’s find out. Please get your Bibles and turn to 1 Samuel 5:1-4. Before you read just know that Dagon is one of the Philistine’s gods and when they say “Dagon” they mean a statue of Dagon.

5 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2 then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

The Philistines take the Ark and put it in the house of Dagon. Dagon would be a god they would worship for weather and military success, so it makes sense that Dagon is the god the military people would worship and take the Ark to. Bringing the Ark there would symbolize to the Philistines that their god defeated the Israelite God. So they put the Ark next to the statue of Dagon. Then the next day they come into the temple, and Dagon’s statue is on the ground face down “before the ark” almost as if the statue of Dagon is in a submissive or worshipful pose before the representation of Israel’s God.

Now I’m sure the Philistines were just like “This is a fluke” which is why they put the statue back up and let it be. But then the next day when they come in not only is Dagon back face down on the ground before the ark but his head and hands have been cut off. To say this unnerved the people is a bit of an understatement.

After this there was sickness and boils in the town, as long as the Ark was in the town, they felt physically ill. Because the Ark did not belong there, and it did not belong to them. They even tried moving it to another Philistine town, but that just moved the sickness and oppressive feelings to the other town. Can someone read 1 Samuel 6:1-3?

6 The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with it to its place.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and will be ransomed; will not his hand then turn from you?”

For seven months, the Philistine deal with the bad presence of the Ark of the Covenant in their midst and finally they’re like “enough is enough! How do we get this thing away from us?’ To the surprise of no one, their priests are like “the answer is send it away, but with extra presents!” After all if someone is going to steal something and then return it to you, extra presents can only help.

We’re going to skip through this fast, but basically what they do is load up a cart with the ark and some presents and then just let the animals go. They’re basically like “We’re not going to take it back by hand, that would be suicide, but if this God is all that powerful, then he’ll lead the animals to the right place.”

And lo and behold, that’s totally what happens. The ark shows up in a town called Beth-shemesh. And everyone is super thrilled the ark is back. And they all lived happily ever after!

Except not quite. Cuz the book doesn’t end here.

Samuel is the judge of Israel during all this time. As we read last week, he was a very good and righteous man, who followed God. He leads Israel from the time Eli dies until he is very old. And that is where we’re going to pick up now. So this is many years later. Can someone read 1 Samuel 8:1-3?

8 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Samuel is old but still judge over all of Israel. He also sets up his sons as judges but like Eli’s sons they are not righteous. As judges they take bribes, letting that influence their decisions, instead of meting out justice. Why is this? Is it simply that every next generation is inherently worse than the one before? Well Samuel defies that because he was young and more righteous than Eli. However, Samuel wasn’t related to Eli. Samuel was called by God to be a prophet. So perhaps that is more the issue. People being handed jobs due to having a legacy that they did not deserve. This inheritance system was simply not working when it came to priests and judges.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 8:4-6?

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,

The elders come to Samuel and basically say “hey this judge system isn’t working for us anymore. We need a king.” And Samuel is not happy about this at all. Why isn’t he happy? Well they’re basically saying he’s not good enough for them. They’re basically firing him, after he’s been their prophet for decades. But more importantly he knows they are not trusting in God. Because it’s God’s current plan for them to have prophets.

As for the people, why did they even want a king? What good is a king anyway?

Well one reason they say right in their statement. Samuel’s sons have failed them. So it’s less an indictment of Samuel and more of one of his sons. The system for raising up new judges is not very good. It’s spotty at best. Sure God calls people, but he only calls people when he thinks Israel needs it. What about the times in between when people are just having normal disputes? Well that’s where we have these sons of judges covering the gaps and they’re just not doing a good job, whether it’s Samuel’s sons, Eli’s sons, or even going back into Judges you can see this with some of the other sons of Judges.

The other reason they say in their statement is they want to be like other nations. Every other nation has a king, so why don’t they? In reality God is supposed to be their king, but in the day to day, it probably didn’t feel like that to the average Israelite.

And Israel back then wouldn’t have been a nation like we think of them. At best it was twelve loosely connected clans, who all went to the same judge/prophet to settle disputes. But a king! A king would bind them all together into a “real” nation, like the other nations around them. In many ways, I think they’re asking for a sense of national identity. They have a religious identity, as Israelites and God’s chosen people, but basically they’re saying that religious identity is not good enough. They need a patriotic one too.

Also as we’ve read there have been a lot of battles in Israel’s history. They would look to a king to be a military leader—a consistent military leader that they could look to for protection. That would mean a lot to them back then, when they’re constantly getting attacked and taken over by some bordering nation or another.

These people didn’t just wake up one day and say to themselves, “We should get a king.” I think this was a thought out request. Just perhaps not all the way thought out. Perhaps they were only thinking of the benefits of a king and not the downsides.

Well let’s see what God will have to say about their request for a king. Can someone read 1 Samuel 8:7-9?

7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

God says “Give them a king.” He also points out that it’s not Samuel as prophet they have rejected but rather God as king. God is supposed to be their king, but that sort of less physical kingship is not what they desire. They want someone physical, who walks among them, that they can point to and say “that’s our king.” One might argue they’re unhappy with how God is ruling them. They want something different. And God’s going to let them have what they want—for good or for ill.

Though he does at least tell Samuel to warn them first, that kings may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 8:10-17?

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

So Samuel warns them. Basically up until this point the Israelites have never had a real government. They’ve had elders, priests, and judges, but not an honest to goodness structured government. Things have been more loosey goosey. And Samuel here is basically warning them about kings and well government. When you have a government, you need a standing army. Your sons go to battle. When you have a government, you have to pay taxes. When you have a government, that needs property. To give you an idea the US government owns 28% of the nation’s land. Now in the US, because we have a democracy, a lot of that land is state parks that you and I can use, and walk in. But a king could declare something like a state park for his use only. In fact that was a thing Kings of England did back in the day. They had the king’s own forest, which no one was allowed to go in without his invitation. If you were starving and saw a deer on the king’s land and went to kill it to feed your family—that was considered poaching. And until the 1700s, poaching was generally considered a death sentence.

Now, I don’t know if Israelite kings had their own national parks and forests, but what Samuel is saying here is that they will need land. They’ll need a palace. And they’ll need you the people to build it and serve in it, to serve the king. They’ll tax you to pay for their new palace, and they’ll make you build it.

Even a good king needs these things.

Let’s see if the people take his warning to heart. Can someone read 1 Samuel 8:19-22?

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.” 

The people are still determined to have a king. Samuel is still distressed about it, and God is still like “Let them have a king.”

God is going to give these people what they want.

Question: Is what we want always best for us? [Let them answer.]

No, it’s not. We may want to never sleep, but if we never slept, we’d eventually die. We may want to eat chocolate cake for every meal, but that would not be healthy. God is letting them have what they want, but it’s not the system he would have preferred for them. He’s going to give them what they want and let them live through the consequences of their decision.

Interestingly, Samuel doesn’t tell the people here that God is going to let them have what they want. Instead he sends them home. Maybe Samuel is hoping after a good night of sleep they’ll change their mind. But…they don’t.

Israel is going to have a king, for better or for worse.

Can someone please read 1 Samuel 9:1-4?

9 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. 2 He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

3 Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, had strayed. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the boys with you; go and look for the donkeys.” 4 He passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then he passed through the land of Benjamin, but they did not find them.

Suddenly we’re introduce to a young man named Saul. A very handsome and tall young man according to the Bible’s words. Some donkeys that Saul’s dad own get lost and so Saul is sent on a wild-goose chase for donkeys through the lands of Benjamin.

Now why do you guys think we’re being introduced to Saul right after all this discussion of kings? [Let them answer.]

That’s right. Saul is going to be the king they are given. Whether they like it or not.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 9:5-10?

5 When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to the boy who was with him, “Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.” 6 But he said to him, “There is a man of God in this town; he is a man held in honor. Whatever he says always comes true. Let us go there now; perhaps he will tell us about the journey on which we have set out.” 7 Then Saul replied to the boy, “But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What have we?” 8 The boy answered Saul again, “Here, I have with me a quarter shekel of silver; I will give it to the man of God, to tell us our way.” 9 (Formerly in Israel, anyone who went to inquire of God would say, “Come, let us go to the seer”; for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.) 10 Saul said to the boy, “Good; come, let us go.” So they went to the town where the man of God was.

They’ve been wandering and looking for these donkeys for a while and Saul is like “We better go back soon or else my dad is going to think we’re lost.” But instead his servant says to him, “Hey Samuel lives near by—you know Samuel the prophet—why don’t we go see what he has to say?”

Then Saul is like “But I have nothing to pay him with.”

And then his servant is like “I have a piece of silver. No worries.”

There are a couple of things in this passage. 1) Why didn’t Saul know Samuel is near by? Even if Samuel didn’t permanently live there, he’d be so famous by this point that everyone would know his movements and where he is. It’s sort of like in the New Testament how crowds showed up everywhere Jesus went. The land of Israel is not that big and they don’t have that many celebrities. People usually know where their most religious person is. Sort of like how Catholics generally know whereabouts the pope is.

And if Saul’s servant knew than there is no way it’s because Saul’s home is to far in the boonies. So maybe Saul just doesn’t pay attention to these things.

Seems like a bad sign for a king.

The other than that gets me is: why does he need to borrow money from his servant? Even if Samuel required a payment—which I’m pretty sure as a prophet he does not—Saul borrowing money from his servant is kind of sketchy. He better pay that kid back.

Moving on, they go into town looking for Samuel. Can someone read 1 Samuel 9:14-17?

14 So they went up to the town. As they were entering the town, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the shrine.

15 Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed to Samuel: 16 “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be ruler over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.” 17 When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people.”

As soon as Samuel sees Saul, Samuel knows this is the guy. This is the guy who’s going to be king.

Considering Saul is tall and handsome, he certainly looks the part. Maybe Samuel was a little impressed by this and was like “Well God sure does know how to pick them.” Or maybe Samuel grumbled because of course a king would be tall and handsome and isn’t that sooo superficial. We don’t know. We just know that the moment Samuel laid eyes on Saul he knew this was the guy God had picked.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 9:18-21?

18 Then Saul approached Samuel inside the gate, and said, “Tell me, please, where is the house of the seer?” 19 Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer; go up before me to the shrine, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. 20 As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, give no further thought to them, for they have been found. And on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed, if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” 21 Saul answered, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?”

So Saul approaches Samuel and doesn’t even know it’s him. Samuel then provides Saul with everything he wanted and more. He tells him that his donkeys have been found and not to worry about them. Then he tells him that he is going to fix all of Israel. To Saul’s credit, he replies humbly. Basically saying, that it can be him because the least of people.

Humbleness is definitely a quality you want in your king, so maybe this Saul guy is going to turn out alright after all.

Or maybe not.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 9:27 – 10:2?

27 As they were going down to the outskirts of the town, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the boy to go on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.” 1 Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: 2 When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?’ 

Samuel anoints Saul before he leaves town. Anointing basically means putting oil on him and saying like a blessing or prayer over him. And Samuel tells Saul that God has chosen him to be king, to rule over Israel. And should Saul not believe him, as a sign he will meet two guys who have found his donkeys and they will tell him that their dad is worry about them now.

He also tells him some other things that will come to pass, that he’ll meet some other men on the road who will offer him gifts, that he’ll run into a group of prophets playing musical instruments, and guess what it all comes to pass.

Because this guy, Saul, is the one God has chosen to rule over Israel. For better or for worse.

Now what’s interesting in all of this—to me—is that Samuel hates the idea of Israel having a king, but does he try to argue God out of his decision? No. He tries to talk Israel out of it, but not God. Because he knows God’s plan is for the best—even if it doesn’t always seem that way. So even though Samuel could’ve ignored the request or even turned a blind eye to seeing Saul in the town and just pretended like he never saw him, he doesn’t. He acts on God’s commands, even when he doesn’t like them.

Samuel is a good prophet. It remains to be seen whether Saul will be a good king.

So next week we’ll talk about Saul, about how the news of him being king is broken to Israel, how they take it, and what kind of start his kingship gets off to.