Toward the end of Samuel’s life, Israel asked for a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5). “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations,” they said. We typically pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else — makes an easy Sunday school lesson on peer pressure, or a good sermon on “keeping up with the Joneses.” But there’s a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss. Israel had good legal support for their request, and there was a certain amount of wisdom in it.
Centuries before, the book of Deuteronomy had already set forth the laws for a king (Deut. 17:14-20). We pick on them for wanting to be like everybody else, but Deuteronomy plainly says that Israel can have a king “like all the nations.” Moreover, Deuteronomy stipulated that God Himself would choose the king, but Israel was fine with that. They didn’t appoint a king for themselves and then ask God to rubber-stamp their choice after the fact. No, they came to Samuel the priest/judge, God’s living representative, and asked for a king. On paper, Israel’s request was completely legal.
That said, Israel had been without a king for centuries. In fact, they had never had a king, although God clearly expected that they one day would. So why now? How could they argue that this was a good time? Easy. With Samuel growing older, and his sons unfit to follow in his footsteps, they needed another ruler. If Samuel died without appointing a successor, his wicked sons would wind up in power by default. How would that be good for anyone? “When a wicked man rules, the people groan.” It was the elders’ responsibility to see trouble coming and avert it if possible — “The prudent man foresees evil and hides himself; the simple pass on and are punished.” If Samuel appointed a king, the problem would be neatly solved. Not only was it legal, it also seemed a wise course of action in those circumstances.
On paper, Israel was covered all the way around. What’s to criticize?
Seriously, stop for a minute and think about it. Is there anything wrong with what they asked for?
God thought so. “They have not rejected you,” God said to Samuel. “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”
On what grounds was God able to say that? He continues with an explanation: “According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.” It would be one thing if Israel were faithfully worshipping God, forsaking all idols, and in the course of seeking God, asked for a king like Deuteronomy talked about.
This was something else entirely. Israel was bowing down to idols left and right, serving the gods of all the other nations, violating God’s commandments all over the place. Then, under those circumstances, she was also seeking a king like all the other nations. Even though on paper the request was neatly covered by the law and the circumstances, her heart was absolutely wrong. Israel was more than willing to be covered by the Law when it suited her purposes, but her real attitude toward God was revealed by her continual idolatry.
God gave Israel exactly what she asked for — a king like the other nations. The son of a powerful man, Saul was the handsomest man in Israel, and head and shoulders taller than everybody else to boot. No doubt he cut a fine figure as Israel’s king.
How did that all work out? Not too well — once you got past the exterior, there wasn’t much to Saul. He was cowardly, petty and jealous, and it cost him heavily. As Israel wasn’t walking with God when she asked for a king, she got a king that didn’t walk with God either.
So it turns out this is a lesson on peer pressure and “keeping up with the Joneses” after all, but there’s more depth to it than first appears. There wasn’t anything wrong with the request for a king — God never intended to rule Israel through judges forever. But everything was wrong with their hearts. So the question is not whether an inventory of our property and our habits will reveal similarities with our pagan neighbors. Of course it will, and that’s not necessarily bad.
The question is whether an inventory of our worship will reveal that we share the idolatries of our pagan neighbors. Do we worship what they worship? In our society, gross idolatry of the sort Israel fell into is rare. Even in the post-Christian West, almost nobody makes little statues and bows down to them anymore. But do we seek life and comfort from our insurance policies, our savings and retirement accounts, our homes and possessions? Do we seek status based on the perceived prestige of our careers? Do we covet a certain car, certain clothes, annual vacations in a certain place, a certain kind of house in a certain school district? These things are all subtler forms of idolatry, and they poison us spiritually just as surely as if we were bringing baskets of fruit to a little statue.
When we go to God in prayer, we can feel that what we are asking for is proper and biblical, just as Israel’s request for a king was proper and biblical — on paper. The question we need to ask ourselves is, have we listened to what God is saying to us? Have we obeyed in the things we know to do? Are we seeking to know God and follow His priorities, or are we simply hiding our own desire to “keep up with the Joneses” under cover of a Bible verse?
- Take some time apart to pray. Ask God if there is an area of your life where you are following an idol rather than seeking after Him. Wait in silence for an answer.
- If God shows you an area of idolatry in your life, don’t beat yourself up about it. Rather, face it squarely and name the issue. “Father, I confess that I believe this [house, car, vacation, business success, whatever] will give me life and comfort that You can’t or won’t give me. Of course I know I’m not supposed to say things like this out loud, but if I’m honest, that’s how I really behave, and it’s what I really think. Please reveal the truth about this to me.” Remain alert for God’s answer.