A King Instead of a God
1 Samuel 8:4-20
Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah,…

The history now moves in one great step to Samuel's old age. Of his marriage, family life, and the gathering round him of the manifold affection for which such a nature as his must have been beautifully fitted, we know nothing. If we have any hint, it is in the naming of the two sons who are mentioned in this chapter. In the same spirit as that in which he named the place of victory — Ebenezer — Samuel called his firstborn son Joel; that is — Jehovah is God. This must have been as a protest against the idolatry, the Baal and Astarte worship, with which Israel had been infected and polluted. Samuel named his other son Abiah; that is — Jehovah is Father. This ought to obtain from us admiring and reverent regard as we think of the fragmentary suggestions of Samuel's family life. Jehovah was truly God over all, blessed for evermore; Dagon, Baal, and Astarte embodied only the inane and foul misconceptions of man's nature and God's demands They were as naught before the God of gods. But more: Jehovah was a Father, tender and true to home and nation, to heathen and Jew. And this double truth it is that the naming of Samuel's sons betokens. For the first time in the Old Testament the recognition of this foundation doctrine is announced to us, as it was many a time subsequently, by names devised in a time of deep feeling and earnest consecration of heart and home to God. This is the first recorded evidence of an endeavour to witness to the assurance of the adoption, to cry Abba, Father! Both the sons of Samuel were destined, in their father's thought, to be living witnesses to the Lord: one to the greatness of God and the other to the gentleness of the Most High. In spirit this act of Samuel is no more than should be the feeling and purpose of all spiritually-minded parents in their thoughts of their children. As we often give the children an ancestral name that we revere, or honour them by naming them after someone whom we esteem in public or private life, so our first and deepest thoughts of the children should be the longing and purpose that they may truly live to the honour of God, and carry, as it were, "His name in their foreheads." This should mark our chief hopes and efforts on their behalf. But here we come to what so often is a cause of grief, and sad, heart-wearing disappointment. With such a man for their father as Samuel, and carrying in the very singularity of their names the marks of a high designation as plainly as a Brahmin carries the marks of his caste, we might have expected that they would have felt a restraint from sin, and an inspiration to rectitude and holiness that would have made them, at the least, worthy of their father and grandmother. The grandsons of Hannah and the sons of Samuel — Joel and Abiah — ought to have been like Timothy, whose "unfeigned faith" dwelt first "in thy grandmother, Lois, and thy mother, Eunice." From the first son of man, who was a murderer, down to the present time, good men's children, or, as here, ministers' sons, have not been proverbial for increasing the piety of the world, or lessening its sin. The child of a saint needs the forgiveness its father has found; and the son of a sinner is not, on account of his awful parentage, placed at a disadvantage with God. Still, in view of Samuel's sons, the remembrance will come that Samuel's pain and David's wail have been the sadness of many a saintly man. Samuel could not have indulged his sons in sin. The history leads us rather to think that the sins were such as might not reveal themselves until the public life of judging in Beersheba came. The private lives of Joel and Abiah may not have given opportunity for the grave sins that marked their judicial position. Many a man lives a good life as a private person who would be a great sinner if exposed to the hazards of public life. Napoleon I might have lived and died a decent man had he lived only in privacy, end never entered the army. To such a being the command of men with muskets and swords in their hands was like the scent of blood to a tiger. Judge Jeffreys might not have been infamous if he had never been a judge. The sin of Eli's sons was unchastity; that of Samuel's sons was covetousness. Young men, you may not fall as Hophni and Phinehas did; take care that you do not sin as Joel and Abiah. The weak link may not have had to bear the strain with you. Life may soon have to bear the test on your weak side. May God keep you from yielding when the pressure comes.

1. The sin of Samuel's sons brought swiftly on a national crisis. The old-fashioned theocratic commonwealth would not do any longer. They would have soldier-kings, and they got them; but how many of them were better than Joel or Abiah, or even superior to Hophni and Phinehas? Very few. And from the first to the last of them, who of all the kings was fit to stand with Samuel? The truth is, that, from the first, the God-governed commonwealth that was associated with such names as Moses and Samuel was a conception of political and social order that the Jews never cared to appreciate. Even before Samuel's time, the Hebrews had shown unwholesome longing for visible military kingship and rule such as the heathen around them had. When Gideon, at the call of God, led them to victory the only use of the victory they made was atheistically to say to Gideon, "Rule thou over us, both thou and thy son and thy son's son also"; and the better judgment, the holier manhood of Gideon, is seen in his answer, "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you." Gideon and Cromwell have tried to teach men in nations to trust and obey God the Infinite more than to admire lucky soldiers and successful adventurers. Soldier-kings and nationalities, held together by the sword, are not God's preferred agencies in working out the history of humanity. Rather are they His scourges and penalties; and, like all ether devastating powers, are not to be forever, but have their highest functions, as the fire dressing of a farm field, only in being preliminary to more rational and Divine processes of life and growth, instead of fire and death. To something higher than the sad miseries of the soldier-monarchies that succeeded Samuel, to the ideal kingdom of the ever-present God on earth, it was that Isaiah pointed the Jews in the days "when kings went forth to battle." "For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King; He will save us." But this was precisely what the faithless Hebrews would not believe.

2. The spirit and unworthiness of the movement may be seen in this — That they asked not counsel of the Lord, nor of Samuel. The history of this demand, and the outworking of it in the progress of the monarchy, are illustrations of the rebellion and the sinfulness of hiding counsel from the Lord. We, especially, who profess to sing the Ebenezers of Divine deliverance, must go on to seek the guidance of the Divine wisdom in all things; trusting in the Lord with all our hearts, leaning not to our own understanding; in all our ways acknowledging Him and hoping that He will direct our paths.

3. The folly as well as the sin of the project will be further seen from remembering that God had chosen them to be alone and the guide of all the nations; but their self-degrading demand was to be as the nations. They may have been caught by the false glare and splendour of the monarchies around them, as well as moved by the fear of Nahash, King of the Ammonites. More certainly they ignored the high intention of God in establishing His own regal authority among them; and, ignoring the higher destiny, they fell into a lower degradation than that of their neighbours. For a nation to forget its mission as the most liberal and hopeful people of the earth, and descend to the infamous degradation of being mere traders and gun makers and lenders of money to anyone who will give interest enough, as England seems to be doing — this is an abdication, a self-degrading, vast and solemn enough to make a crisis in the history of the world; and is as fit a theme for religious thought and solemn, prayerful consideration as anything that ever happened in the history of Israel.

4. Moreover, it is evident from the history that the pernicious influence of international rivalry was at work among the elders of Israel — rivalry, that is, chiefly in means of making war. To be as, or better than, other nations in war power is a poor ambition, and does no good to any in the long run, but rather evil all round. A boy never had a knife without wanting to cut something with it, and, as likely as not, something that did not need cutting. So, too, a nation, or, rather, a military caste never has a big gun now without wanting to shoot it; and, more likely than not, it will fire at something that did not need shooting. If, now, you look at the national life represented on the one hand by the judge and on the other by the military king, you may find sufficient explanation of the rejection of Samuel and God, deeper down than the occasion given for the rejection by the injustice of Samuel's sons, at Beersheba. The judgeship under Samuel was the rule of right, and knowledge and regard, above all things, to the ends that God had in view. The soldier-kingship was the showy rule of the strong hand, in which "the elders" who came to Samuel would have chief gain, and the people would be pleased by having the outward and visible signs of greatness and strength that in politics and religion so often do duty for the reality long after it has departed. Plain principles of eternal righteousness, where have they ever stood half so high in popular esteem, and the desires of privileged classes, as the gaudy pretentiousness of the uniformed soldier and priest? Certainly they never did among the Jews; and they do not, I fear, among us nowadays.

(G. B. Ryley.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,

WEB: Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah;

The Minister's Family
Top of Page
Top of Page