These chapters recall the themes established in the initial scenes of 1 Samuel: the relationship between the ark of the Covenant and the LORD’s presence, and concerns about who would provide leadership for Israel. Despite the fact that the Philistines had captured the ark, the LORD’s presence was in fact yet with His people. But they—not yet satisfied with His reign—implored Samuel to give them a king so that they could be like their pagan neighbors.
While the first few chapters of 1 Samuel may have left doubts in the mind of Israel regarding the potency of the LORD’s presence in the ark of the Covenant (4.1-11), the Philistines’ urgent desire to be rid of the ark showed that He was yet present between the cherubim (5.1-6.18). Perhaps thinking it merely another idol, the Philistines placed it next to the statue of Dagon in his temple, but time and again Dagon bowed to the ark—even suffering damage when falling before it (5.1-5)! Further, wherever the Philistines moved the ark, it brought destruction upon the surrounding people (5.6-12). The Philistines felt so threatened that they “summoned the priests and the diviners and pleaded, ‘What should we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we can send it back to its place’” (6.1-2). These pagans surmised that the LORD of Israel was a God like theirs and formulated a plan for returning the ark to Israel (6.3-12). When the Israelites witnessed the ark, “they were overjoyed to see it’ (6.13); the Levites correctly handled the ark and the men of Bethshemesh “made sacrifices to the LORD” (6.15).
Yet when the men of Bethshemesh “looked inside the ark” (6.19), despising God’s holiness, the LORD struck them with a plague. The reaction of Israel differed little from the reaction of the Philistines, and they said: “Who is able to stand in the presence of this holy LORD God? Who should the ark go to from here?” (6.20). Their regard for the LORD showed little more reverence than the pagans. To this situation Samuel implored the people to rid themselves of the idolatry among them and “dedicate yourselves to the LORD, and worship only Him. Then He will rescue you from the hand of the Philistines” (7.3). When the Philistines heard that the return of the ark had caused a revival to break out amongst Israel at Mizpah, they marched up to attack; although Israel was fearful, Samuel’s petition prevailed; “The LORD thundered loudly against the Philistines that day and threw them into such confusion that they fled before Israel” (7.10). In fact the author noted that, “The LORD’s hand was against the Philistines all of Samuel’s life” (7.13).
Despite Samuel’s ardent spiritual leadership in Israel, the situation changed as he aged; “When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges over Israel…However, his sons did not walk in his ways—they turned toward dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (8.1, 3). This sad resemblance to the family of Eli had a devastating effect upon the people of God, and the author noted that, “all the elders of Israel gathered together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not follow your example. Therefore, appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have” (8.4-5). Israel’s lack of satisfaction with Samuel was nothing less than rejecting the LORD as their king, and He said as much to Samuel: “They have not rejected you; they have rejected Me as their king. They are doing the same thing to you that they have done to Me, since the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, abandoning Me and worshiping other gods” (8.7-8). Samuel told the people that if they thus rejected the LORD, they should be well-aware of the “the rights of the king” (8.9):
- As commander-in-chief, he could send Israel’s young men to battle at his discretion (8.10-12)
- He could take Israel’s daughters as staff for his regal maintenance (8.13)
- He would be free to take the best of the Israel’s land and produce, and a percentage of the nation’s GNP to support his own staff (8.14-17).
Despite the fact that Samuel told Israel that they would one day “cry out because of the king you’ve chosen for yourselves” (8.18), they stubbornly replied, “We must have a king over us. Then we’ll be like all the other nations: our king will judge us, go out before us, and fight our battles” (8.19-20). The whole of 1 Samuel 9 and most of 1 Samuel 10 detail how Saul was chosen as king—and the author did not hide the fact that Israel’s desire to be like their neighbors was akin to dissatisfaction with the LORD’s leadership: “today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your troubles and afflictions” (10.19). The fact that Saul returned quietly to his home in Gibeah demonstrated the coolness of the LORD toward Israel’s initial human king (10.26).
Israel longed for a human king, and a human king they got. Saul’s reign would in fact play out as Samuel had said, and the people would suffer for it. While David and Solomon would eventually display some divine character in their respective reigns, not until the coming of Jesus Christ would the people find the protection and significance they longed for in the latter days of Samuel. Samuel’s decline and Israel’s demand for a king thus point forward, and provide structure for the storyline of Scripture. Only in Christ does one find both the surety of God’s presence, and the Leader God’s people longed for. The angel Gabriel said so much when he announced His birth to Mary:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1.30-33).
*For a complete list of references, please see scripturestoryline.com