The Lord provided a great deliverance at the second battle of Ebenezer, and Israel was greatly blessed by it. But blessings are like manna—they must be replenished daily. They go bad over time; they don’t keep well. Yesterday’s grace stinks by the time today’s troubles set in. Grace must be replenished constantly. Now Samuel was an adult at the time of the battle, and he was a great blessing for many years as he judged Israel. But when this chapter opens, he is an old man—probably about 30 years later. So Israel did not stumble over this point three weeks after the battle, but they did stumble over it.
“And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah: they were judges in Beersheba. And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment . . .” (1 Sam. 8:1-22).
Summary of the Text
When Samuel was old, he provided for the succession by making his sons judges (v. 1). They lived in the far south, in Beersheeba, and judged Israel there. Their names were Joel and Abiah (v. 2). But they were not upright like Samuel; they took bribes and bent justice (v. 3). The elders of Israel came to Samuel in Ramah (v. 4), and they said that Samuel was old, his sons were not like him, and so they asked for a king like the other nations had (v. 5). Samuel was displeased about this, but prayed to the Lord (v. 6). And God said that Samuel should do it, and encouraged Samuel by saying that it was not Samuel they were rejecting, but rather the Lord (v. 7). They were now doing to Samuel what they had done all along to the Lord (v. 8). So, the Lord said, give them what they ask for, but warn them about the consequences (v. 9). And so Samuel warned them with the words of God (v. 10).
This is what a king like the other nations will be like—he will conscript sons for his army (v. 11). He will build a fancy and impressive infrastructure, and he will staff it (v. 12). He will take daughters to be confectioners, cooks, and bakers (v. 13). With this last reference, there may be an allusion to a harem (2 Sam. 13; Job 31:10). He will seize the best fields and lands, and give them to his favorites (v. 14)—eminent domain is older than the Kelo decision. In order to fund all this, he will take a tithe of your produce (v. 15). He will conscript servants (v. 16). He will take a tithe from the flocks, and reduce Israel to servitude (v. 17). Israel will cry out because of this internal oppression, but the Lord will not hear (v. 18). Samuel said all this, but the people refused to listen (v. 19). They wanted a king for three reasons—that they might have status like the other nations, that he might be a judge over them, and that he might go out before them to fight their battles (v. 20). Samuel heard what they said and reported it all to the Lord (v. 21). And so the Lord said to Samuel that he should comply with their request (v. 22).
The Coming King
Gideon had been used as a deliverer of Israel, but when he refused the crown he did so in stark either/or terms. Either Gideon would rule or the Lord would (Jdg. 8:23). In the period of the judges, there was one man who was proud enough to try to be king, and that was Abimelech (Jdg. 8:31), Gideon’s son by a concubine. That was a short-lived experiment. And yet the author of Judges indicates that some of their lawlessness arose from the fact they did not have a king (Jdg. 18:1; Jdg. 19:1). The added comment that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” indicated there was some sort of problem (Jdg. 17:6; Jdg. 21:25). Deuteronomy anticipates the sin of wanting a king like the goyim have (Deut. 17:14-16), but then charges them in the law to prohibit the kind of thing that Samuel said would certainly happen. The law allowed for a king, but not for a king like the nations had. He could not be a foreigner, and he could not multiply in a 3G fashion—guns, girls, or gold. When the moment came, Samuel knew they were off on the wrong foot, and his words of warning were prophetic. They were the words of God.
A Pattern of Sons
Eli was a good man, a leader in Israel, and he had two natural sons, both of them corrupt. His adopted son, Samuel, was an upright man. Samuel was a leader in Israel, and he had two natural sons, both of them corrupt. His adopted son, Saul, began humbly and well, but the temptations of his office soon turned him aside into corruption. Saul was a leader in Israel, a corrupt man, and he had two of the noblest sons found in Scripture— Jonathan and Ishbosheth.
The Rule of God
Samuel bore some responsibility for this. He appointed two corrupt judges, related to him, which gave Israel the excuse they needed to seek for a king like the other nations had. At the same time, this was just a convenient excuse. They had two judges who corrupted justice at the Little League level, so what sense does it make to demand a king who would do it at a World Series level? Israel didn’t like getting her feet wet at the beach, and so they swam out to sea.
The dire warnings given by Samuel seem modest when set alongside the claims of the modern overweening state. What we wouldn’t give to get back to a ten percent level of taxation! The significance of this number lies in the comparison, not in the amount. When the king claims as much as God does, or more, this is a (sometimes thinly) disguised claim to Deity. But the solution is not this party or that one, this protest or that one, this politician or that one. The solution is repentance, a repentance that works its way out into Christian self-government. Self- control, a fruit of the Spirit, is the foundation of all political liberty. Without that, your choice is the tyrant in the red hat or the despot in the blue one.