Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations . . .
And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
Of the greater portion of Samuel’s life, of the days of his greatest strength and influence, of the major part of his work we know very little. We remember Samuel mostly for those events, spectacular in themselves, which marked the beginning and end of his labors in the church of God. They are the events which are recorded for us because they have the greater significance for the continuing history of the people of God. But between those beginning and closing events, we must remember, there were many years in which Samuel served faithfully, traveling his circuits throughout Israel, instructing and judging the people in the law of the Lord. Those were the quiet years, but they were also the most effective years. Gradually under Samuel’s patient labors, the spiritual life of Israel which had reached an all time low in the early days of Samson and Eli began to rise again and the people began to draw closer to their God.
After an extended period of silence, the Scriptures take up the record of Samuel’s life as he was approaching old age. The burden of years was beginning to tell on him. It was not as though he had now become in any way decrepit or incapable of performing his work. There were still many years of faithful labor in Samuel before he would finally be permitted to lie down in his final rest. It was just that some of the vitality, some of the enthusiasm, some of the eagerness which had characterized his younger years was beginning to wane. More and more he was inclined to seek the quiet peace of home over the duties that carried him out upon the way. Rather frequently he found it convenient to delegate duties to his two sons for them to perform in his stead. It was a perfectly natural thing. As a person grows older, he naturally seeks a more relaxed and leisurely pace of living. This he found in his home at Ramah.
It was a delegation of elders from the people that suddenly one day brought him to the realization that all was not yet right in Israel. They had a request to make of Samuel and curtly, without sympathy, they expressed it. “Behold,” they said, “Thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” There were barbs, a sting in those words and they cut deeply into Samuel’s sensitive feelings. It must have taken all of the will power Samuel could muster not to reveal the hurt which that request made upon his feelings until after he had dismissed them with the promise that he would bring the matter before the Lord in prayer. But once the door was closed and the men were gone, it came, the anguish and dismay of his soul pouring forth before the Lord as the contents of a bitter fountain. Samuel knew what those words meant. The people weren’t satisfied with him any longer. They didn’t want him any longer to be their judge. They wanted another, one to be their king. They were politely telling him that as far as they were concerned he was through.
The first reason which the elders had given for their request, the one that he was now old, was only partially true. It was true enough that he was no young man any more, he was well advanced toward old age. But their implication was that he was now so advanced that he could no longer perform his labors properly, and that was far from so. Maybe he had slowed down somewhat and stayed closer to home than formerly, but only after he had taken care that the needs of the people were provided for. Moreover, if special needs should arise, the strength of his body was still there and could be expected to be for a good many years. His eyes were not dim, his mind was far from senile, his legs could carry him along on the way with the best of the young men. No, the plea of his age was only an excuse, there was more under the request of these elders than that.
In fact, they had said what it was: that was what hurt. There was only too much truth in the accusation they laid before Samuel that his sons did not walk in his ways; and he was one who should have known so much better. After all he knew so well what had happened to the labors of Eli through his children, he had seen the sin which Hophni and Phinehas had committed, he had seen the failure of Eli in correcting them, and he was in fact the one through whom God, had reprimanded Eli with a special revelation. Now the same thing had happened to him. It was true, perhaps, that he had not been as completely negligent as Eli; neither had the sins of his sons, Joel and Abiah, been as many and serious as those of Hophni and Phinehas; but the similarity was there just the same. It all had come so naturally. Joel and Abiah were his children, they had grown up in his house, they had been thoroughly instructed by him in the word of God, they had lived for years before his example. When finally they had come of age and the press of duty had become heavy, it had seemed the most natural thing to delegate some of the duties of his office into their hands. Oh, he had known. The rumors had come back to them that his sons had not been able to resist the temptations of the office. They had been unable to resist the temptations of this world and its pleasure. They had even gone so far as to take bribes in their duties to the perversion of justice. He had told them that he knew; he had rebuked them often; but somehow he had never found the strength to take from them the duties of this office. They were his children, and he had never been able to give up the hope that the next time they would listen to him and become a credit to their father. But now the time of reckoning was come. The people were through with him too. They wanted a king, and they threw the sins of his sons in his face as the reason. No wonder he had been unable to answer. The truth of the accusation and the guilt cut Samuel deep, to the very quick.
But still there was more to that request than just this. Samuel knew it; their request, so brief, still reflected it.
It was not as though the desire of the people for a king was so terrible in itself. Any serious student of the law and of the Scriptures knew that the day was sure to come when Israel would have a king. Already Jacob had said of Judah in his final blessing, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come,” and the royal implication was clear. Even more frankly, Moses had said to the people before he died, “When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shall possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shall say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose . . . ,” and from there Moses went on to give several commandments about such a king. The teaching was plain. A student of God’s word knew that the day was going to come when Israel would have a king. But such an understanding of the word of God, and a desire for the fulfillment of the promises of God was not the motivation behind this request of the elders.
The greatest truth in this request of the elders was in the last few words of what they asked. They said, “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” and those last few words told the whole story. That was what hurt Samuel more than anything else. He had spent his life telling them that they could not, they should not try to be like the heathen nations about them. They were a different people, the chosen nation of the living God. Their joy was not in the things the heathen sought. Their goal was not to have the things the heathen had. Their strength was not to be in the earthly weapons in which the heathen trusted. They belonged to God, and their life was to be found in Him. They would have all of these things, strength, joy, and prosperity, only through trusting in Him. But this the people would not believe.
It was true, on the whole, that the days of the judges had not been pleasant for the children of Israel. They had been overrun by many enemies, they had experienced famine, they had suffered much. What Samuel tried to show them, as had all the judges before him, was that the reason fork this was only one thing—their lack of faith in the living God but it was this that they would never really believe—at least, not for long. They would always come back claiming again that if they could have the things the heathen had, if they could have the same weapons, if they could have the same friendships and alliances, if they could have the same gods, then everything would be all right. And now they had a new one, now they wanted a king, convinced that this, rather than the way of faith, would make them mighty and strong.
It was for this reason that Samuel wept when he came that night to the Lord in prayer. He felt that he had failed in his duty, in the instruction of the people, in directing them in the better life. But the answer of God told him differently. It was not his fault, it was the People’s. He assured Samuel, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” It was not the failure of Samuel. It was the same old sin which had plagued that nation from its beginning and would continue to do so until its end.
But to this sin God had an answer. It was very simple—give them what they want. He said to Samuel, “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee.”
Actually, had the people waited for the time of the Lord, it would not have been very long anyway before the people would have received a king. David had been appointed by God from eternity to sit upon the throne of God’s covenant people; and he was now already born. But the people were impatient. They could not wait for the time of the Lord, and anyway they really wanted a king of an entirely different sort. There must be first for them a lesson.
Thus it was that Samuel called the people to him once again. He told them exactly what God would do—He would give them a king exactly as they wanted. Even more, Samuel told them what the king would be like. He said, “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you; He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots and to be his horsemen . . . And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks . . . And he will take your fields . . . And he will take the tenth of your seed . . . And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants . . . He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”
But the people were adamant. They would not listen. They were convinced, as so many generations before and after them, that they knew better than the way of the Lord. They answered, “Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that your king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” The miseries of Israel were only those which they brought upon themselves.