Expositor's Bible Commentary
And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel.CHAPTER X.
THE PEOPLE DEMAND A KING.
1 Samuel 8:1-22.
WHATEVER impression the "Ebenezer" of Samuel may have produced at the time, it passed away with the lapse of years. The feeling that, in sympathy with Samuel, had recognized so cordially at that time the unbroken help of Jehovah from the very beginning, waxed old and vanished away. The help of Jehovah was no longer regarded as the palladium of the nation. A new generation had risen up that had only heard from their fathers of the deliverance from the Philistines, and what men only hear from their fathers does not make the same impression as what they see with their own eyes. The privilege of having God for their king ceased to be felt, when the occasions passed away that made His interposition so pressing and so precious. Other things began to press upon them, other cravings began to be felt, that the theocracy did not meet. This double process went on - the evils from which God did deliver becoming more faint, and the benefits which God did not bestow becoming more conspicuous by their absence - till a climax was reached. Samuel was getting old, and his sons were not like himself; therefore they afforded no materials for continuing the system of judges. None of them could ever fill their father's place. The people forgot that God's policy had been to raise up judges from time to time as they were needed. But would it not be better to discontinue this hand-to-mouth system of government and have a regular succession of kings? Why should Israel contrast disadvantageously in this respect with the surrounding nations? This seems to have been the unanimous feeling of the nation. "All the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and said to Samuel, Make us a king to judge us like all the nations."
It seems to us very strange that they should have done such a thing. Why were they not satisfied with having God for their king? Was not the roll of past achievements under His guidance very glorious? What could have been more wonderful than the deliverance from Egypt, and the triumph over the greatest empire in the world? Had ever such victories been heard of as those over Sihon and Og? Was there ever a more triumphant campaign than that of Joshua, or a more comfortable settlement than that of the tribes? And if Canaanites, and Midianites, and Ammonites, and Philistines had vexed them, were not Barak and Deborah, Gideon and Jephthah, Samson and Samuel, more than a match for the strongest of them all? Then there was the moral glory of the theocracy. What nation had ever received direct from God, such ordinances, such a covenant, such promises? Where else were men to be found that had held such close fellowship with heaven as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, and Joshua? What other people had had such revelations of the fatherly character of God, so that it could be said of them, "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord did lead him, and there was no strange god with him." Instead of wishing to change the theocracy, we Flight have expected that every Israelite, capable of appreciating solid benefits, would have clung to it as his greatest privilege and his greatest honour.
But it was otherwise. Comparatively blind to its glories, they wished to be like other nations. It is too much a characteristic of our human nature that it is indifferent to God, and to the advantages which are conferred by His approval and His blessing. How utterly do some leave God out of their calculations! How absolutely unconcerned they are as to whether they can reckon on His approval of their mode of life, how little it seems to count! You that by false pretences sell your wares and prey upon the simple and unwary; you that heed not what disappointment or what pain and misery you inflict on those who believe you, provided you get their money; you that grow rich on the toil of underpaid women and children, whose life is turned to slavery to fulfill your hard demands, do you never think of God? Do you never take into your reckoning that He is against you, and that He will one day come to reckon with you? You that frequent the haunts of secret wickedness, you that help to send others to the devil, you that say, "Am I my brother's keeper?" when you are doing your utmost to confirm others in debauchery and pollution, is it nothing to you that you have to reckon one day with an angry God? Be assured that God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap; for he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption, while he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
But the lesson of the text is rather for those who have the favour and blessing of God, but are not content, and still crave worldly things. You are in covenant with God. He has redeemed you, not with corruptible things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. You are now sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what you shall be. There is laid up for you an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. Yet your heart hankers after the things of the world. Your acquaintances and friends are better off. Your bare house, your homely furnishings, your poor dress, your simple fare distress you, and you would fain be in a higher worldly sphere, enjoying more consideration, and participating more freely in worldly enjoyments. Be assured, my friends, you are not in a wholesome frame of mind. To be depreciating the surpassing gifts which God has given you, and to be exaggerating those which He has with-held, is far from being a wholesome condition. You wish to be like the nations. You forget that your very glory is not to be like them. Your glory is that ye are a chosen generation, an holy nation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, your bodies temples of the Holy Ghost, your souls united to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet again, there are congregations, which though in humble circumstances, have enjoyed much spiritual blessing. Their songs have gone up, bearing the incense of much love and gratitude; their prayers have been humble and hearty, most real and true; and the Gospel has come to them not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance. Yet a generation has grown up that thinks little of these inestimable blessings, and misses fine architecture, and elaborate music, and highly cultured services. They want to have a king like the nations. However they may endanger the spiritual blessing, it is all-important to have these surroundings It is a perilous position, all the more perhaps that many do not see the peril - that many have little or no regard for the high interests that are in such danger of being sacrificed.
This then, was the request of all the elders of Israel to Samuel - "Give us a king to judge us like all the nations." We have next to consider how it was received by the prophet.
"The thing displeased Samuel." On the very face of it, it was an affront to himself. It intimated dissatisfaction with the arrangement which had made him judge of the people under God. Evidently they were tired of him. He had given them the best energies of his youth and of his manhood. He had undoubtedly conferred on them many real benefits. For all this, his reward is to be turned off in his old age. They wish to get rid of him, and of his manner of instructing them in the ways of the Lord. And the kind of functionary they wish to get in his room is not of a very flattering order. The kings of the nations for the most part were a poor set of men. Despotic, cruel, vindictive, proud - they were not much to be admired. Yet Israel's eyes are turned enviously to them! Possibly Samuel was failing more than he was aware of, for old men are slow to recognize the progress of decay, and highly sensitive when it is bluntly intimated to them. Besides this, there was another sore point which the elders touched roughly. "Thy sons walk not in thy ways." However this may have come about, it was a sad thought to their father. But fathers often have the feeling that while they may reprove their sons, they do not like to hear this done by others. Thus it was that the message of the elders came home to Samuel, first of all, in its personal bearings, and greatly hurt him. It was a personal affront, it was hard to bear. The whole business of his life seemed frustrated; everything he had tried to do had failed; his whole life had missed its aim. No wonder if Samuel was greatly troubled.
But in the exercise of that admirable habit which he had learned so thoroughly, Samuel took the matter straight to the Lord. And even if no articulate response had been made to his prayer, the effect of this could not but have been great and important. The very act of going into God's presence was fitted to change, in some measure, Samuel's estimate of the situation. It placed him at a new point of view - at God's point of view. When he reached that, the aspect of things must have undergone a change. The bearing of the transaction on God must have come out more prominently than its bearing on Samuel. And this was fully expressed in God's words. "They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me." Samuel was but the servant, God was the lord and king. The servant was not greater than his lord, nor the disciple greater than his Master. The great sin of the people was their sin against God. He it was to whom the affront had been given; He, if any, it was that had cause to remonstrate and complain.
So prone are even the best of God's servants to put themselves before their Master. So prone are ministers of the Gospel, when any of their flock has acted badly, to think of the annoyance to themselves, rather than the sin committed in the holy eyes of God. So prone are we all, in our families, and in our Churches, and in society, to think of other aspects of sin, than its essential demerit in God's sight. Yet surely this should be the first consideration. That God should be dishonoured is surely a far more serious thing than that man should be offended. The sin against God is infinitely more heinous than the sin against man. He that has sinned against God has incurred a fearful penalty - what if this should lie on his conscience forever, unconfessed, unforgiven? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Yet, notwithstanding this very serious aspect of the people's offence, God instructs Samuel to "hearken to their voice, yet protest solemnly to them, and show them the manner of the kingdom." There were good reasons why God should take this course. The people had shown themselves unworthy the high privilege of having God for their king. When men show themselves incapable of appreciating a high privilege, it is meet they should suffer the loss of it, or at least a diminution of it. They had shown a perpetual tendency to those idolatrous ways by which God was most grievously dishonoured. A theocracy, to work successfully, would need a very loyal people. Had Israel only been loyal, had it even been a point of conscience and a point of honour with them to obey God's voice, had they even had a holy recoil from every act offensive to Him, the theocracy would have worked most beautifully. But there had been such a habitual absence of this spirit, that God now suffered them to institute a form of government that interposed a human official between Him and them, and that subjected them likewise to many an inconvenience. Yet even in allowing this arrangement God did not utterly withdraw His loving-kindness from them. The theocracy did not wholly cease. Though they would find that their kings would make many an exaction of them, there would be among them some that would reign in righteousness, and princes that would rule in judgment. The king would so far be approved of God as to bear the name of "the Lord's anointed: "and would thus, in a sense, be a type of the great Anointed One, the true Messiah, whose kingdom, righteous, beneficent, holy, would be an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion from generation to generation.
The next scene in the chapter before us finds Samuel again met with the heads of the people. He is now showing them "the manner of the king" - the relation in which he and they will stand to one another. He is not to be a king that gives, but a king that takes. His exactions will be very multifarious. First of all, the most sacred treasures of their homes, their sons and their daughters, would be taken to do hard work in his army, and on his farms, and in his house. Then, their landed property would be taken on some pretext - the vineyards and olive-yards inherited from their fathers - and given to his favourites. The tenth part of the produce, too, of what remained would be claimed by him for his officers and his servants, and the tenth of their flocks. Any servant, or young man, or animal, that was particularly handsome and valuable would be sure to take his fancy, and to be attached for his service. This would be ordinarily the manner of their king. And the oppression and vexation connected with this system of arbitrary spoliation would be so great that they would cry out against him, as indeed they did in the days of Rehoboam, yet the Lord would not hear them. Such was Samuel's picture of what they desired so much, but it made no impression; the people were still determined to have their king.
What a contrast there was between this exacting king, and the true King, the King that in the fullness of the time was to come to His people, meek and having salvation, riding upon the foal of an ass! If there be anything more than another that makes this King glorious, it is His giving nature. "The Son of God," says the Apostle, "loved me, and gave Himself for me." Gave Himself! How comprehensive the word! All that He was as God, all that He became as man. As prophet He gave Himself to teach, as priest to atone and intercede, as king to rule and to defend. "The Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep." "This is My body which is given for you." "If thou knewest the gift of God, and Who it is that saith unto thee, Give Me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water." With what kingly generosity, while He was on earth. He scattered the gifts of health and happiness among the stricken and the helpless! "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people." See Him, even as He hung helpless on the cross, exercising His royal prerogative by giving to the thief at His side a right to the Kingdom of God - "Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." See Him likewise, exalted on His throne "at God's right hand, to be a Prince and a Saviour for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." How different the attributes of this King from him whom Samuel delineated! The one exacting all that is ours; the other giving all that is His!
The last scene in the chapter shows us the people deliberately disregarding the protest of Samuel, and reiterating their willful resolution - "Nay, but we will have 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." Once more, Samuel brings the matter to the Lord - repeats all that he has heard; and once more the Lord says to Samuel, "Hearken unto their choice and make them a king." The matter is now decided on, and it only remains to find the person who is to wear the crown.
On the very surface of the narrative we see how much the people were influenced by the desire to be "like all the nations." This does not indicate a very exalted tone of feeling. To be like all the nations was surely in itself a poor and childish thing, unless the nations were in this respect in a better condition than Israel. Yet how common and almost irresistible is this feeling!
Singularity is certainly not to be affected for singularity's sake; but neither are we to conform to fashion simply because it is fashion. How cruel and horrible often are its behests! The Chinese girl has to submit to her feet being bandaged and confined till walking becomes a living torture, and even the hours of what should be rest and sleep, are often broken by bitter pain. The women of Lake Nyassa insert a piece of stone in their upper lip, enlarging it from time to time till speaking and eating become most awkward and painful operations, and the very lip sometimes is torn away. Our fathers had terrible experience of the tyranny of the drinking customs of their day; and spite of the greater freedom and the greater temperance of our time, there is no little tyranny still in the drinking laws of many a class among us. All this is just the outcome of the spirit that made the Hebrews so desire a king - the shrinking of men's hearts from being unlike others, the desire to be like the world. What men dread in such cases is not wrong-doing, not sin, not offending God; but incurring the reproof of men, being laughed at, boycotted by their fellows. But is not this a very unworthy course? Can any man truly respect himself who says, "I do this not because I think it right, not even because I deem it for my interest, but simply because it is done by the generality of people?" Can any man justify himself before God, if the honest utterance of his heart must be, "I take this course, not because I deem it well-pleasing in Thy sight, but because if I did otherwise, men would laugh at me and despise me?" The very statement of the case in explicit terms condemns it. Not less is it condemned by the noble conduct of those to whom grace has been given to withstand the voice of the multitude and stand up faithfully for truth and duty. Was there ever a nobler attitude than that of Caleb, when he withstood the clamour of the other spies, and followed the Lord fully? or that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when alone among myriads, they refused to bow down to the image of gold? or that of Luther when, alone against the world, he held unflinchingly by his convictions of truth?
Let the young especially ponder these things. To them it often seems a terrible thing to resist the general voice, and hold by conscience and duty. To confess Christ among a school of despisers, is often like martyrdom. But think! What is it to deny Christ? Can that bring any peace or satisfaction to those who know His worth? Must it not bring misery and self-contempt? If the duty of confessing Him be difficult, seek strength for the duty. Pray for the strength which is made perfect in your weakness. Cast your thoughts onward to the day of Christ's second coming, when the opinion and practice of the world shall all be reduced to their essential worthlessness, and the promises to the faithful, firm as the everlasting hills, shall be gloriously fulfilled. For in that day, Hannah's song shall have a new fulfillment: "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar out of the dunghill, to set them among princes, and make them inherit the throne of glory."