But now the nation of Israel wanted to have a king. The people said, “Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to judge us, to go out before us, and to fight our battles.”
Of course, we all know that this is not exactly how battles are won. The people do not sit in their homes while the king goes out and does the actual fighting. What the king does is raise an army from among the young men of the country, something about which the prophet Samuel warned the people would happen. In addition, the king would not only take the sons of the people to serve in the army, but for many other duties as well.
Samuel said to them, “He will take your sons and appoint them to his own chariots and horses, to run in front of his chariots. He will appoint some for himself as commanders of thousands and of fifties, and others to plow his ground, to reap his harvest, to make his weapons of war, and to equip his chariots.
“And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and grape harvest and give it to his officials and servants.
“And he will take your menservants and maidservants and your best cattle and donkeys and put them to his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:11-17 BSB).
A Brief Lesson in Military Strategy
This did not seem to matter to the people. They saw this system of living under a king in other nations, and their desire was to be like them.
Concerning the fighting of wars, the people of Israel had of course fought many battles previous to this, so they probably saw little difference in this particular aspect of having a king to rule over them. But they did not before have a recognized army—no class of men whose only occupation was to be a warrior. Up until this point, they only had “citizen soldiers.” When the need to fight came upon them, the men would gather from their farms and villages with whatever implements of weaponry that they possessed, mostly tools used in working the land or knives intended for home use.
In the days of the judge Deborah, she is quoted as saying that there was not a shield or a sword to be found among the forty thousand Israelites. In the battle that took place while she judged Israel, the captain of the enemy army was killed by a wife in one of the houses who drove a tent peg through his skull while he lay sleeping (Judges 5:8, 4:21).
Another of Israel’s judges, Ehud the left-handed man, assassinated Eglon, the king of Moab with a special blade that he had made for the task. He was able to gain entrance to the king’s chambers because the guards were accustomed to checking for weapons concealed only on the left side of a man, since that is the side where a right-handed man would reach down to draw out his knife or blade. Ehud, being left-handed was able to gain access to the king on a pretense of delivering a message. Once alone with the king, he reached down to the thigh on his right side, the side that the guards had neglected to frisk, drew his specially made blade and killed the enemy king. (Judges 3:20-23).
Shamgar struck down six hundred Philistines using only an ox goad (Judges 3:31). Gideon, with a force of only three hundred men, each armed merely with a trumpet and a pot containing a fire, used the element of surprise and trickery to defeat a huge army of Midianite soldiers (Judges 7). The evil judge Abimelech was killed when a woman dropped a millstone on his head, crushing his skull (Judges 9:50-52). Samson literally possessed super-human strength, and on one occasion used a jaw-bone of a donkey, wielding it like a club, to slay 1000 Philistines who came to attack him (Judges 15).
These were all great victories for the Israelites, but no military strategist would suggest using these methods to defeat an enemy. Thus, when Israel prevailed, it was apparent that it was a work of God. God was fighting for them.
It was as Moses told the Israelites when they first were to enter Palestine:
When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an army larger than yours, do not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, is with you.
When you are about to go into battle, the priest is to come forward and address the army, saying to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are going into battle with your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be alarmed or terrified because of them.
For the LORD your God goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:1-4 BSB)
A Lesson for Joshua
It was God who gave the victory, it was not the superior military might of the nation. Nevertheless, God gave the Israelites leaders as deliverers, such as was Joshua in the first years in the land.
Joshua was considered the commander of the army of Israelites, but this was no army with formal military training. Also, the army of Israelites was not actually the LORD’s army, and in the battles that the Israelites would fight, it would not be the army of the Israelites that would defeat the enemy. It would be the LORD’s army.
Who the LORD’s army was, was made plain to Joshua in an interesting passage of the Bible that tells about something that happened some time just before the Israelites attacked the city of Jericho. The captain Joshua was no doubt considering the upcoming battle with Jericho, and probably trying to strategize how to attack it, when he had a most unusual encounter with a man.
The passage reads like this:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in His hand. Joshua approached Him and asked, “Are You for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” He replied. “I have now come as Commander of the LORD’s army.”
Then Joshua fell face down in reverence and asked Him, “What does my Lord have to say to His servant?”
The Commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15 BSB)
As you recall, the Israelites ended up capturing the city of Jericho by marching around it a series of times and finally shouting at the top of their voices while the priests blew their ram horn trumpets, after which the walls of the city completely collapsed.
I have heard theories concerning this destruction of the city that the vibrations in the ground made by millions of feet for seven consecutive days began to expose weaknesses in the wall’s structure, and then, with the final sonic shock wave of the loud shout and trumpet blast, the wall collapsed.
I will not go so far as to say that this idea is complete nonsense, but it does seem a little far-fetched. Clearly, it was the Lord’s army led by their Commander who gave the victory to the Israelites.
A Lesson for the Servant of Elisha
There is another interesting account of something that happened during the life of the prophet Elisha. Elisha actually lived after the events of First Samuel, but during Elisha’s time, Israel was again at war. At that time, they were fighting the Aramians. The king of Aram was told that Elisha, with the help of God, was anticipating their every move and warning his own king of Israel. Thus, the king of Aram sent out a contingent of soldiers to capture Elisha.
Early one morning, the servant of Elisha rose from sleep and went outside. What he saw frightened him. The entire town was surrounded by soldiers from the Aramian army.
“Oh, my master,” the servant said to Elisha, “what are we to do?”
“Do not be afraid,” Elisha answered, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Then Elisha prayed, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.”
When God opened the eyes of the servant, he saw that the hills around were full of horses and chariots of fire. This was the LORD’s army. They had come to protect the prophet and his servant.
“Give Us a King!”
But the Israelites of Samuel’s day, even with the accounts of the time of the judges and other examples in their history that demonstrated how God was fighting for them, they still did not want to depend upon the LORD’s army. Despite all of this and despite the warnings that Samuel gave to the people of the choice that they were making, they refused to listen.
“No!” they said. “We must have a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to judge us, to go out before us, and to fight our battles.”
“Listen to their voice,” the LORD said to Samuel. “Appoint a king for them.”
But how does one go about choosing a king? There was no previous royal family from which to choose the next king. No one was campaigning to run for the office of the king.
“God back to your cities,” Samuel told the people. Samuel needed time to consult with the Lord without the voices of the people disturbing his thoughts.
The Appearance of Saul
About this time, in the land of the tribe of Benjamin, some donkeys wandered away from the farm of a man named Kish. After looking in all of the suspected places where they may have gone, Kish still could not find them, so he told his son, “Take one of the servants and go look for the donkeys.” The name of the son was Saul.
The two men, Saul and the servant, made a wide and large search for the donkeys, but still could not find them. Finally, Saul said to his servant, “We had better go back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and start worrying about us.”
But the servant knew of the prophet Samuel, who happened to live right in the same area where the two men presently found themselves. The servant suggested that they go and ask Samuel about the donkeys, to see if he could tell them where they were. Saul agreed, and the two men set off for the city of Samuel’s residence.
For Samuel, on the day before Saul was to come to his home, God told him, “At this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you are to anoint him leader over My people Israel; he will save them from the hand of the Philistines. For I have looked upon My people, because their cry has come to Me.”
The following day, Samuel was waiting in the gate of the city. When he saw Saul, God confirmed with him that this was the chosen man. When the two men met, Samuel said to Saul, “Go up before me to the high place, for you shall eat with me today. And when I send you off in the morning, I will tell you all that is in your heart. As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them, for they have been found. And upon whom is all the desire of Israel, if not upon you and all your father’s house?”
No doubt Saul was happy to hear about the donkeys, but this last phrase of Samuel’s concerning Saul being “the desire of Israel” disturbed him.
“Am I not a Benjamite from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of Benjamin? So why would you say such a thing to me?”
Early the next morning, just before dawn, Samuel called to Saul, “Get ready, and I will send you on your way!”
Samuel walked with the two men to the edge of the city, and then said to Saul, “Tell the servant to go on ahead, but you stay for a while, and I will reveal to you the word of God.”
When the servant had left, Samuel took a flask of oil, poured it on Saul’s head, kissed him, and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over His inheritance?
Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel.
How does one choose a king? In this case, he was chosen by God. If we look at this from a purely political perspective, one could say that it was no different than how the judges were chosen. God also appointed them. The judges also were men and a woman who were chosen by God to deliver his people from oppression.
But it was not the same. Something very fundamental was taking place and changing within the nation.
The Proclamation of the King
It was after the Israelites had demanded a king that Samuel had told them, “Everyone must go back to his city.” That was before the Lord had brought Saul to him and told him that Saul was the one who should be named king.
Now, after Samuel had received his instructions from the Lord, he summoned all the people to come to him.
He said to the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and of all the kingdoms that oppressed you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your troubles and afflictions, and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us’” (1 Samuel 10:18-19 BSB).
Then, to demonstrate to the people how they would determine who was to be the king, Samuel had the people come before him, each along with his tribe. Out of the twelve tribes, Saul’s tribe of Benjamin was chosen. We are not told how this choice was made, but it was common in those days to make these types of choices simply by casting lots—a throw of the dice, if you will. This was not considered a random chance however, since the Lord was invoked to reveal his choice in this way.
Next, of all the clans in the tribe of Benjamin, the clan of Matri (Saul’s clan) was selected. In this way Samuel continued the selections until he came to the family of Kish, and finally to Saul, the son of Kish.
It was all simply a formality, certainly, since God had already made the choice. Samuel had even already anointed Saul to be king at their first meeting.
Samuel said to the multitude, “Do you see the one the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.”
The king had been chosen and a new form of government had been established in Israel. So that the people would understand how things have changed, Samuel next explained to them “the rights of kingship.”
We are not told what these specific rights were, but I think it is fair to assume that they followed along the lines that Samuel had earlier explained: The right of the king to take the young men from their families as his own servants, to work in his fields and care for his livestock, and to serve in the military. The right of the king to confiscate whatever land he desired for his own use. The right of the king to appoint the young women to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And of course, the right of the king to impose taxes on the people of the land.
Samuel’s Farewell Address
Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have listened to your voice in all that you have said to me, and I have set over you a king. Now here is the king walking before you, and I am old and gray… I have walked before you from my youth until this day.”
Samuel then explained to them the true source of their security. National security did not lay in any one particular form of government, he said, but it was in God. Samuel said to the people, “The LORD is the One who appointed Moses and Aaron, and who brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.”
The old prophet next reviewed a bit of the history of the people.
When Jacob went to Egypt, your fathers cried out to the LORD, and He sent them Moses and Aaron, who brought your fathers out of Egypt and settled them in this place. But they forgot the LORD their God, and He sold them into the hand of Sisera the commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and the king of Moab, who fought against them.
Then they cried out to the LORD and said, “We have sinned, for we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and Ashtoreths. Now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, that we may serve You.”
So the LORD sent Jerubbaal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel, and He delivered you from the hands of your enemies on every side, and you dwelt securely. But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we must have a king to rule over us’—even though the LORD your God was your king.
Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you requested. Behold, the LORD has placed a king over you.
If you fear the LORD and serve Him and obey His voice, and if you do not rebel against the command of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God, then all will be well. But if you disobey the LORD and rebel against His command, then the hand of the LORD will be against you as it was against your fathers.
A Lesson for the Israelites
Then Samuel did something most unexpected. He said to the people, “Is it not the wheat harvest today? I will call on the LORD to send thunder and rain, so that you will know and see what a great evil you have committed in the sight of the LORD by asking for a king.”
And that is what he did.
In response, on that very same day God sent great torrents of rain, no doubt hindering, if not ruining much of the harvest. The act filled the people with fear.
They pleaded with Samuel, “Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die! For we have added to all our sins the evil of asking for a king.”
Samuel replied to them, “Do not be afraid. Even though you have committed all this evil, do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. Do not turn aside after worthless things that cannot profit you or deliver you, for they are empty. Indeed, for the sake of His great name, the LORD will not abandon His people, because He was pleased to make you His own.” (Scripture passages from 1 Samuel 12)
The evil deed of the Israelites was not in seeking a new form of government, at least this was not at the heart of their sin. Their evil was that they thought that they could rely upon their own ability to govern themselves and provide protection for themselves. They thought that they could do this without God.
It was only when God gave them a simple demonstration of his great power did they realize that they were powerless without Him.
The Best Form of Government
What is the best form of government? Probably most of us in America would say it is a democracy.
Probably most of us would also agree with what Winston Churchill said in 1947: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
But he also said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
One of the best quotes that I read on democracy was by the American playwright William Inge. He said, “Democracy is only an experiment in government, and it has the obvious disadvantage of merely counting votes instead of weighing them.”
We have been brought up in America to believe that we have the power of the vote, and that we are wise enough and virtuous enough to choose what is best for our own situation. But in the past several elections, it has become evident that our system is not incorruptible, and that the single vote of a well-researched and thoughtful voter has no more weight in deciding a leader than someone who votes for the candidate simply because he or she is better looking, or even than a fake ballot that someone has managed to slip through the system.
Democracy is not perfect. It has always been a debate and a dilemma on how best to organize a people into a nation and how to best govern them. Humanity has experimented with many forms of government. We are said to have a democracy in our own nation, or perhaps more accurately put, a “democratic republic.” This has worked relatively well in the past, but as we can see in our own day, even this is not without its weaknesses and drawbacks.
Ancient Israel, in its day, decided that living under the authority of a king would be the best way in which to govern themselves. Indeed, they ended up doing so for more than a thousand years.
But what Samuel was teaching the people of his day was that the system of the government was not the key concern. What was paramount was the godliness of the people.
“Even though you have committed all this evil, do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. Do not turn aside after worthless things that cannot profit you or deliver you, for they are empty.”
It does not take a prophet of God to realize this. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Ronald Reagan said, “Without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure.”
The Most Evil Form of Government
I fear that we are presently at this point in our own democracy. We are a nation without God and who believes that we have the wisdom to govern our society without His leading and protection.
If we maintain this perspective, we cannot long endure.
The LORD frustrates the plans of the nations; He thwarts the devices of the peoples.
But the counsel of the LORD stands forever, the purposes of His heart to all generations.
And blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD! (Psalm 33:10-12)
Like the servant of Elisha, we do not see with our eyes. Like Joshua before he met the Commander of the Lord’s army, we believe that the power lay in our own hands.
But as Job of old said, “Wisdom and strength belong to God; counsel and understanding are His. What He tears down cannot be rebuilt; whom He imprisons cannot be released. If He holds back the waters, they dry up, and if He releases them, they overwhelm the land. True wisdom and power belong to Him. He makes nations great and destroys them; He enlarges nations, then disperses them. He deprives the earth’s leaders of reason” (Job 12:13-16, 23-24 BSB).
Our security does not lie in our greatness. Indeed, what we perceive as our own greatness will be our destruction.
“Above all, fear the LORD and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things He has done for you,” Samuel told the Israelites. “But if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.” (1 Samuel 12:24-25)