But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 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.”
What do you look for in a leader? When it comes to election time, in addition to policy platforms do you look for any attributes in particular? Israel certainly had something in mind for the leader they wanted to replace the aging judge Samuel:
“…You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Sam 8:5)
Samuel is angry with this request, but God tells us what is really happening (vv. 7–9). The “appoint a king” demand is the presenting issue, but the problem is deep. The nation has been like this for their entire history, doing something similar time and time again. The second half of the verse shows what is wrong with the request: “like all the nations”. They’re rejecting God. This is a political version of idolatry.
Israel were meant to be a holy nation. Just as the LORD is holy, the people were to be holy, set apart specifically for God, unlike the other nations. A kingdom of priests, who were to show God’s faithfulness and his character, his goodness, perfection, power, compassion, and all-encompassing goodness to the rest of the world.
(It might be instructive at this point to consider how we also desire to be like the nations—to be like others around us, who don’t follow Jesus. Perhaps some of the ways that we talk about church leadership or growth can reflect this impulse: to implement the proven experience of the business world that have made other organizations vibrant—to have a church CEO like the other nations? Alternatively, it can be easy to look wistfully at the apparent freedom of others in their choices of how to spend their time, money, resources, affections, and desires.)
Even after Samuel lays out before Israel the many and varied negative consequences of having a king, they still say, “There shall be a king over us, 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” (vv. 19–20).
After all this discussion, it is now clear to everyone that the people are rejecting God. Yet surprisingly, he tells Samuel to accede to their requests, to do all that they ask (v. 22).
Sometimes, you see, God gives us what we ask for as judgement. We see this in Romans chapter 1, where those who reject the knowledge of God are given up into sinfulness: God allows them—and us, at times—to reap the consequences of our rebellious choices.
Through the next few chapters it’s initially unclear whether the king will be a curse, or a blessing, or maybe a mixture. As we’re introduced to Saul he’s ambiguous: he’s strangely passive and indecisive, but at the same time is a thoroughly impressive sight. He is the people’s choice. He’s tall, strong, capable, able to lead them into battle and win (1 Sam 11). The people asked for a king; God gave them their choice—although as the leadership saga unfolds throughout the books of Samuel, it becomes increasingly clear that this choice of Saul was a disaster. Israel sinned in rejecting God; he gave them what they asked for.
Yet even in this rejection of God there is hope of repentance: Samuel pleads with the people, saying that if they and their king truly follow God it will go well for them (1 Sam 12:13–14). John Woodhouse points out that there’s a striking echo of these events in the New Testament.1 Because even though the people sinned by asking for a king apart from God, he worked his plans through to the point where another man, not visually prestigious like Saul but roughed up, imprisoned, and brought before the authorities was asked:
Are you the king of the Jews?
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)
Do you hear what Jesus was saying? He is not a king like the kings of the other nations. Now there is a king worth living for.
 J Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2008, p. 151.
- J Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2008, p. 151 ↩