As we have seen, great things had been accomplished through Samuel, his prayers and prohesyings. Eli’s wicked sons had been destroyed, the gods of the heathen put away, the Philistines discomfited, and the people of Israel delivered in the way of repentance and return to the Lord. Having thus overcome, Samuel judged Israel, going from year to year in circuit to Bethel and Gilgal and Mizpah. Having thus been engaged perhaps for some fifteen years, he on a day was paid a visit by the elders of Israel, who came to him in Ramah. Their request was that he make them a king to judge them like all the nations. Why should they be asking for a king? The reasons they gave were that Samuel was old and that his sons walked not in his ways. It was true what they said. Samuel was old. And he had made his two sons judges over Israel as his assistants—his two sons, Joel, the firstborn, and Abiah. It was also true that these sons walked not in his ways. They turned aside after lucre, and took bribes and perverted justice. Such is the testimony of the sacred writer. And the elders were holding Samuel responsible for the crimes of his sons. They held it against him that he continued them in office. He should have deposed them long ago. The text at chapter 12:3 indicates that there were whispering among them that Samuel might even be a partner to their crimes. So the elders told him that the thing’ for him to do was to resign with his sons to make room for a king. Being old, he had served his usefulness; and his sons were a bad influence.
Samuel did not reply to the elders immediately. Doubtless he could not. For the request was evil and thus to a man like Samuel too soul-disturbing, especially its implications. (The thing was evil in Samuel’s’ eyes, chapter 8:6). What they told him about his sons he doubtless had heard before; and it is a good conjecture that he had taken them severely to task and would have discharged them had he not felt certain that they were mending their ways. But it is not likely that they had altogether ceased to offend, so that the elders could justly say to him that his sons walked not in his ways. Painfully aware that they might be speaking the truth about them and holding himself responsible for their misrule, he was doubtless too mortified and dispirited to frame a proper reply at that moment. Judges who like his sons turned aside for lucre, the elders did well to reject. He found no fault with them on that score. He would not have continued his sons in office had he known the truth about them. He was not that kind of a saint. With him there was no respect of persons. But his hearing the elders reject also him must have wounded his soul, cut deep into his heart and filled his soul with misgivings.
Having dismissed the elders without tendering them a reply, Samuel unburdened his soul in prayer to God. The prayer is not revealed to us; but the Lord’s’ reply forms the index to its substance, especially the statement, “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” Samuel was not sufficiently mindful of this. He imagined that they had actually rejected not the Lord, but him, Samuel—rejected him on account of his age but especially on account of the atrocities of his sons. Being the kind of a man he was, he must have been accusing himself before God for having brought on that crisis through his continuing those unprincipled sons in office; and telling the Lord that, it was his, Samuel’s, fault that they were now insisting, that he resign and make them a king. Thinking on the matter, he was grief-stricken and his heart was troubled. For their clamoring for a king was evil in his sight, and the thought that the fault lay with him, was too painful for words.
But the Lord, who knows man’s heart, assuaged Samuel’s grief by revealing to him that he had misjudged those elders. “They have not rejected thee but they have rejected me. . . .” It means that Samuel must not blame himself alone for their doing; that his age and the misrule of his sons had little to do with it. It may seem at the first reading of this reply that the Lord speaks here in riddles. For the fact of the matter is that the elders had spoken not one word against the Lord, but had concentrated solely on the age of Samuel and the misrule of his sons as the cause of their dissatisfaction. Taking them at their word, we are shut up to the view that what they wanted is not the abdication of the Lord at all but solely the removal of Samuel and his sons. It is Samuel and his evil brood that they reject not certainly God. For these elders, so it seems, are pious men. They ask for the removal of corrupt judges and thus are interested in righteous government. Can it be true of such men that they want not the Lord? The Lord’s reply to Samuel contains still another statement that may perplex us, “And the Lord said unto Samuel, hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee—thus make them a king— for they have not rejected thee, but me have they rejected. . . .” So then just because they rejected not Samuel but the Lord, Samuel must do as they requested. So the Lord commanded. At first glance, this mandate, too, may prove perplexing. However, the Lord’s reply will be understood if thoughtfully attended to. What the Lord meant by saying that they had rejected not Samuel but Him is, that what they basically were interested in was ridding themselves not of old, discrepant and corrupt judges in Israel, but of Jehovah their king. Assuredly, they had rejected Samuel, and the Lord meant not to deny it. But the point to the Lord’s reply is, that they had not rejected Samuel for the reasons they gave, which were that he was old and that his sons took bribes and perverted judgment, and that Samuel had continued these miscreants in office instead of discharging them. In saying that they objected to Samuel on these grounds, they were pretending. Their real objection to him—an objection that they, to be sure, did not dare voice—was that he, as judge, would not walk with them in their sins, bless them in their iniquity, and pray for their deliverance with them prostrated at the shrine of Baal. These were the actual reasons of their coming to him with the request that he resign with his [sons to make room for a king to judge them in his v stead. Samuel was of the party of God, the champion of His cause before men. Hence, ridding themselves of Samuel, they rid themselves of the Lord; and to rid themselves of the Lord, they must rid themselves of Samuel; for Samuel and the Lord were one. This being true, their insistence that Samuel resign was at bottom a request that he rid them of God through his ridding them of himself, and that he thereupon make them a King in the room of the Lord and Samuel.
It is then so very true what the Lord said, ‘They have not rejected thee (that is, rejected thee on account of thy age and the misrule of thy sons) but me have they rejected (and therefore also thee in that thou and I are one). The truth of the Lord’s reply is born out by their exaggerations. They said to Samuel that he was old, meaning that his age had disqualified him for the duties of his office. But they were making too much of that. At the time there still was in store for Samuel twenty years of active service. He had yet to anoint two kings—Saul and David—and to guide the destinies of the nation during the reign of the first. Thus his natural force was still far from being spent at that juncture. He was still the competent judge of yore, physically strong and vital despite his years, and mentally as keen, alert, and penetrating as ever. That was Samuel at the time the elders in Israel came to tell him that he was old, too old, and that therefore the thing for him to do was to resign and make them a king to judge them like all the nations. That was the man of whom they wanted to rid themselves—a man who, as their judge, feared God and eschewed evil and at whose heart the interests of God’s covenant lay very close, a man through whose fervent and effectual prayer they had but recently been delivered from the terrible oppression of a Philistine dominion, a man who could not be bribed, whom no one had even dared attempt to bribe. For the integrity of the man, his hatred of corruption, the way he was wont to denounce and condemn sin in high places, was known to all so that his fear was upon all. He was the very horses and chariots of Israel. Did they not want to realize this? How dared these elders complain to Samuel or to anyone else for that matter about the perversions of Samuel’s sons as if they, these elders themselves, were lovers of truth and justice and interested for God’s sake in righteous government, if they were resolved among themselves that a judge of Samuel’s virtue, competency, and achievements—by faith he had overcome the world there in Canaan—abdicate in order to make room for a king to judge them like all the nations! What hypocrites those elders were!
And yet, Samuel’s two unprincipled sons, these sons in office perverting judgment, raises perplexing questions. Had Samuel’s preoccupation with the manifold duties of his office, through the years of the past, resulted in his neglecting the religious training of his sons? This is too unlikely. Though he may not have been with them as much as he had liked, he had not ceased to instruct, admonish, and exhort them in their youth. And being the kind of a man that he was, he had all along set them the best of examples. There is also the question whether he was aware of the evil doings of his sons as his assistants in his office of judgeship. It may be that what they told him about his sons, formed a report of events of which he was completely ignorant. However unlikely this view, no statement occurs in the sacred narrative forbidding its adoption. It is significant that in his reply to Samuel’s prayer, the Lord made no mention of Samuel’s sons, except by implication. What this indicates is not that they were being falsely accused of men but that, for a reason unrevealed, the Lord was not blaming Samuel for their conduct. Certain it is that if Samuel was condoning sin in high places, just because these places were being occupied by his own flesh and blood, the Lord would no more have spared him than he had Eli.
Though the elders as the representatives of the people, had rejected Jehovah their king, they felt that they could not do without a king and with reason. It was the age of the judges in which every man did that which was right in his own eyes. There was no order. It had long given way to chaos and discord, carnal self- will, licentiousness, and passion. The national bond had relaxed and the nation assumed the form of several independent and rival kingdoms. It was on account of the prevalence of these conditions that the elders wanted a king to rule over the nation. But they did not desire the kind of a king the Lord by the mouth of Moses said they might have, a king “whom the Lord should choose”, one who “when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom. . . . writes him a copy of the law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites that it may be with him and that he may read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of the law and those statutes, to do them: that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel” (). In a word, they did not want a king of the party of God, with the fear of God in his heart, and bringing the nation under the yoke of God’s law. Their wanting such a king would have been equivalent to their wanting Jehovah. But Jehovah they had rejected. What they wanted is a man strong and capable, a leader of men, a god among his fellows, in whom men of common clay naturally put their confidence, thus a man supremely qualified to free them from the results of their apostasy,—which was war, oppression, chaos and passion,—as one willing to serve with them in Baal’s temple. What they wanted is victory, freedom, and prosperity and peace without truth and righteousness, heaven without God. The kind of king for which they asked is one who would give them these things without placing them under the necessity of eschewing evil and fearing God.
“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. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.”
Mark the statement, “So do they also unto thee.” They afforded the Lord and Samuel a like treatment and this of necessity as the Lord and Samuel were one. And just because they have rejected the Lord and Samuel his servant, Samuel must do as they requested; hearken unto their voice. So the Lord commanded. The implied meaning of the mandate is not that had they loved the Lord, Samuel would have been commanded to turn down their request. Had they feared God, they would not at all have asked for a king. But the question remains how it must be explained that Samuel must make them a king because they rejected the Lord. The explanation is this. The Lord was Israel’s king, and the instruments through which He exercised His rule were adequate. After the death of Joshua there subsisted in the nation a government which is indicated by the name “elders”. They were not chosen by the people but were the born princes and representatives of the people. Their task was to preside and to watch over the general interests of the nation and so to continue the rule of Moses and Joshua. For settlement of matters of general concern, they congregated in the central point of the land, which in the time of the judges was Shechem. They formed a high council in Israel which in great crisis such as war could confer its authority on a single individual. But it was not a law-making body, for Israel’s sole legislator was God. His laws he had communicated to the nation by Moses, and the elders were in duty bound to act by the existing legislation as supplemented, in all matters of public importance, by the will of God as revealed through the instrumentality of the “Breastplate of Judgment” or Urim and Thummim. As this device could be directly consulted solely by the high priest, the finally decisive word of God could be had only from this dignitary, who thus, in a sense, came to take the place of Moses in the assemblies of the nation.
Besides the council of elders as headed by the high priest, the nation had also its judges which according to the commandment of Moses (Deut. 16:18) the people chose for themselves in all the gates throughout the tribes. If the task of the council of elders was to watch over the general interests of the nation, that of the judges was to determine, in the light of Moses’ laws, questions of dispute in contests of law between individuals.
To the Levites, as assistants to the priests, were given the task of teaching the nation the law. The purpose of the appointment of the cities of refuge was to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. Certainly, the nation was in the possession of all the necessary institutions for righteous administration, maintenance of order and preservation of national unity, so that there was no need of a king other than Jehovah, if only the nation feared God and kept His covenant. Then the Lord would have commanded His blessings upon them in the city and in the fields, in the fruit of their body and the fruit of the ground and in the fruit of their cattle. Then he would have caused their enemies that rose up against them to be smitten before their face and to come out against them one way and to flee before them seven ways,ff. It means that the conditions in Israel that called for a king—such conditions as war, oppression, lawlessness, carnal self-will, licentiousness—resulted from the nation’s unwillingness to be one by a common faith in the Lord, from the people’s indisposition to serve God and Keep His covenant. The carnal Israel did not want peace and prosperity from the hand of God on the condition that they be his people wholly consecrated to him. If life and property and freedom from oppression could be had only in the way of obedience to the Lord, they preferred death to life. In the light of these observations, we can understand the Lord’s mandate to Samuel, “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee for they have rejected me.” The Lord had determined that Israel should have a king. Yet the conditions that called for a king resulted, as was explained, from their unwillingness to serve God; and their request for a king rose from their unwillingness to be saved and prospered by God in the way of their serving Him. It was thus in reply to a deeply sinful asking, that the Lord gave Israel a king; but so did he advance the cause of His kingdom and covenant, namely through the unbelief and apostasy of the carnal Israel.
Though Samuel must hearken unto the voice of the people, he must not fail “to protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.” As the request was deeply sinful, it had to be protested. The king that Samuel set forth in his protest was plainly an oriental despot, a heathen ruler, a godless man and thus a cruel tyrant, who regarded his subjects as existing for himself and treated them as such. This was really the kind of a king for which the people had asked. For their request had been that Samuel make them a king in, the room of the Lord and Samuel, that he thus set over them a tyrant, fearing God nor man. “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you,” said Samuel to the people, and then went on to tell them what he would claim from his subjects, according to the custom of heathen rulers. For example, “He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive- yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. . . . And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give them to his officers, and his servants. . . . And ye shall be his servants.” These words include all that is said before; the loss of all their freedoms and with reason. It was with their eyes on the kings of other nations that the people had demanded a king. What they asked for they would receive. And they shall cry out in that day because “’of your kings which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” But the people would not repent. “Nay”, said they, but we will have a king over us; that we may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.”