The People's Desire for a King
1 Samuel 8.
In a world where death reigns, all things, even the good, must come to an end. Samuel grows old. His well-spent life is reaching its close. It is then that he makes the first mistake which is recorded of him; a natural mistake indeed, and yet evidently he had not the mind of God in what he did. He makes his sons judges at Beersheba. Here we have in essence the whole principle of natural succession recognized. Because the father was a judge, the sons must be judges. It reminds us of that plea of Abimelech, the son of Gideon: "My father [was] king," which suggests the succession from father to son, of office. The name Abimelech was a Philistine one given to their kings, as the title Pharaoh to those of Egypt, and it is really nature's substitute for dependence upon God. It is sad and strange to think of the victor over the Philistines falling into one of the snares peculiar to that people. A carnal and formal religion is based upon the principle of succession. "No bishop, no church" conveys a certain truth if it is man's church that is in question. It is through the bishops that succession comes, — remove that, and the whole fabric of Rome and sacerdotalism generally would fall to the ground.
Gideon had refused absolutely this principle, even for himself or his descendants. He had left the power with Him who had given it, God Himself: "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. The Lord shall rule over you" (Judges 8:23). So, too, Moses, when told that he could not lead Israel any further than the border of the land, and that he must lay down his leadership, did not presume to name his successor, much less to think of his own son as taking up that which he had laid down. How beautiful it is to see this meekness in the great leader, who, we may well suppose, as he felt so keenly the deprivation, would have loved to temper it by the privilege of naming his successor. But self is obliterated, and nowhere does his character show more beautifully than: "Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd. And the Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit . . . And Moses did as the Lord commanded him" (Num. 27:16-22).
In this way Joshua is as directly called of Jehovah as Moses himself had been. Unquestionably he was fitted by his own association with Israel's leader to carry on the work which he laid down, and it is equally probable that Moses himself might have chosen Joshua as his successor, but the point is that he did not do so; he left it entirely to God, realizing that wisdom and power for such responsibility could not be conferred by the hands of man, but must come from Him alone in whom all power is.
Without unduly criticizing the honored and faithful prophet of whom we are speaking, Samuel seems to have failed to see the immense importance of this. There is no mention of any turning to God and asking that He would select a successor. He seemed to forget the history of the judges, when, for each emergency, God Himself had raised up the judge of His own choice to deliver His people. He would do it himself. His decision is accepted by the people. No question is raised, no opposition apparently is made, but God was not in it, and so the sons show what they are. They take bribes and pervert judgment, and, instead of perpetuating the honor of God as their father had done, they indirectly bring reproach upon him, subjecting him to the humiliation of a public rebuke by the people, and weaken in their minds that faith in God's sufficiency which it had been Samuel's great effort to establish.
Nor is it necessary to suppose that these sons of Samuel were specially evil men. While reminded of them, we cannot class them with the apostates, Hophni and Phinehas, whose wickedness was of such a gross and glaring character as to bring down the immediate judgment of God. It is to be noted that they failed as judges, their wrong-doing confined to the exercise of that office into which they had been intruded. They took bribes and perverted judgment. Lord Bacon, whose wisdom and greatness, and, we would fain hope, his Christianity, are beyond dispute, failed in the same way. He was officially disgraced, and yet even in his own time his personal character and abilities were recognized to a certain extent. It was felt that the man was better than the officer, and that his position was responsible for bringing out that inherent weakness of moral character which might have remained in abeyance had he not been unduly tempted. At any rate, we may well conceive that Samuel's sons in other respects were fairly blameless men, and had they been allowed to continue in private life or in the path to which God Himself would have called them, might never have fallen into the sin which is the only record that we have of their lives.
All this emphasizes the importance of what we have been dwelling upon. God will never delegate to the hands of man responsibility for transmitting that which comes alone from Himself. The failure to see this has been one of the fruitful causes of all the apostasy of the professing Church from the earliest times. Man desires to have things in his own hands, and, having them there, only proves how utterly incompetent he is to administer these great and solemn responsibilities. So the ordination of men to office but fixes the man in a position which may not be of God at all. If a man has been divinely called, he needs no human authorization and, if not called, all such authorization is but confirming a human mistake, and paving the way for such failure as we see in Samuel's sons. This touches upon a most profound and far-reaching subject. The leaven of Samuel's mistake has permeated all Christendom until it seems heresy to dispute the principle of succession, and yet is it not a distinct denial of the presence and sufficiency of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the Church to guide, control and actuate all ministry?
Returning to Samuel's mistake in thus making his sons his successors, we are led to ask how far it showed his failure to bring up his children aright. Had he unconsciously imitated the weakness of Eli, with whom he was associated in early life, and whose family failure was of such a glaring character as to be the cause of God's sorest judgments? It would hardly seem likely, for he had warning before his eyes and from the lips of God Himself. He himself in his childhood had been the messenger to unfaithful Eli as to this very matter, and he witnessed the captivity of the ark, the death of Eli's sons, and of the high priest himself, all because of this indifference. His own personal faithfulness with the people at large, his prayerfulness, forbid the thought that he was careless or indifferent as to his responsibility in his own home. On the other hand, are we not reminded in Abraham, that he would "command his household after him," and in Joshua's strong words, "As for me and my house we will serve the Lord," that they link the family together with the father? Are we not told in the New Testament that one indispensable requisite for a leader of the people of God is that he should "rule well his own house"? Carelessness in the home would mean carelessness everywhere else, or a foolish and undue severity in just the place where it was not called for, as Eli could rebuke poor Hannah at her prayer, while his sons reveled in godlessness unrestrained.
May the truth not lie between these two extremes? That Samuel was not entirely without blame we have already seen. He failed to grasp the mind of God. We may well believe that his frequent absences from home, the absorbing interest in a nation at large, unconsciously to himself closed his eyes to responsibilities at home which no weight of public care could relieve him of. "Mine own vineyard have I not kept" has only too often had to be the sorrowful confession of those who have labored in others' vineyards. It is not a thing to excuse nor explain away, but solemnly to face and to remember the danger for us all, if such a man as Samuel, with such an example as that of Eli before him, could in any measure commit a similar wrong. May God's mercy be upon the heads of families, giving grace and dependence and prayerfulness that the households may be an example of submission to His order!
These sons were, after all, but a reflection of the state of the entire people, and even of the flesh in Samuel himself, and so in man generally. Wherever mere nature acts, we may be sure it does not act for God. Hence even natural affection, the strong ties that bind the household together, if not controlled by the word of God and the Holy Spirit, may do the very opposite of His will. How different from Levi, "who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed Thy word, and kept Thy covenant" (Deut. 33:9). Therefore they would be qualified for wider service: "They shall teach Jacob Thy judgments and Israel Thy law" (ver. 10). How perfect in this, as in all else, was our blessed Lord Jesus, who rendered all due obedience in its place, and whose words from the cross itself bespoke a tender love and care for His mother; and yet, whenever nature intruded between Himself and His Father's will, how He could rebuke her, or show that obedience to God was to Him a clearer proof of relationship than any mere natural tie! "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother and sister and mother."
Was it not, also, a certain measure of unbelief in Samuel in the sufficiency of God and care for His own beloved people that led him to appoint successors? We cannot therefore be surprised when the contagion of this unbelief spreads to the people at large; and so they come to Samuel as seeing the very thing which he himself had seen, and desiring to provide against it in much the same way in which he had attempted to do: "Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us, like all the nations." Was it not, after all, simply seeking to remedy a manifest evil, which was all too plain, by recourse to a human expedient rather than to God Himself?
In passing, we may notice the humiliation to which Samuel was subjected in thus having to hear from the lips of those whom he himself had judged, sad words in relation to the failure in his own family: "Thy sons walk not in thy ways." Alas, too true, and we can well conceive the shame that would mount to the aged prophet's cheeks as there, before the people, the sad state of his own house was declared to him! There is no mention of any resentment, and, from all we know of this dear and honored servant's faithfulness to God, we may well believe that he bowed under what would seem most clearly to have been a chastening from God's hand. We never gain by refusing such chastenings, painful and humbling though they may be. Let us be more concerned to avoid the cause of them, the need for them, than the shame of being subjected to them. May God write this lesson deeply in our hearts!
"Like all the nations." How human this is! It is as though they were like all the nations. It is putting themselves on the same plane with those very Philistines whom but lately they had overthrown in the power of God alone. Alas, so easily do we forget and so quickly turn away from our blessed God, who would have us different from all the nations! Had He not singled them out as a peculiar people in His electing choice, by the wondrous signs in the land of Egypt, by the sheltering blood, and bringing them forth with a high hand and an outstretched arm? Had He not guarded them as the apple of His eye all through "that great and terrible wilderness"? Had He not cast out the nations from the land of Canaan and given them an inheritance — houses which they had not builded and vineyards which they had not planted? What nation had ever been so treated? This wretched word "like all the nations" is a denial in one breath of their whole history. If they were to be like all the nations, they would be still among the flesh-pots of Egypt, groaning in bitter and hopeless bondage.
And for ourselves, does not the desire for human remedies for recognized evils, for some resemblance to the ways of men about us, deny all that divine grace has done for us in making us a peculiar people for God Himself? Has not our salvation marked us out as distinct from the world in which we live? Has not the blood of the everlasting covenant forever separated between us and the judgment-doomed multitude who go on in their own way? Does not the presence of the Holy Spirit as a seal upon each of us mark us in God's eye, as it also should in the eye of the world, as "not of the world" even as Christ is not of the world? Do we desire to be "like all the nations"? No; in the name of all the grace and love of our God, of the all-sufficiency of His blessed Son, let us repudiate the faintest whisper of such a thought, and go on with acknowledged weakness, so feeble though it be as to be a subject of mockery to the world; let us as Jacob halt upon our thigh that the power of Christ may rest upon us, rather than seek for any human expedient like the world around us.
It is beautiful to see how Samuel turns in all this to God. His heart is grieved at what the people have asked, nor is there the slightest suggestion of the repetition of his previous failure, which stands out alone, and that by implication only, as we have seen, in a character otherwise unmarred by any manifest blemish. Samuel prayed unto the Lord. Well would it be for us, when we hear of weakness in others, to bring it before God and pour it out there, rather than seek weakly to reprove or correct it by our own efforts. He gets, in a certain sense, comfort from God and yet no relief in the ordinary sense of the word. He must hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say, and then the sad fact comes out that this had been the treatment to which the blessed God Himself had been subjected by this same nation from the beginning: "They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even unto this day, so do they also unto thee." Samuel must expect the same treatment from the nation as God Himself had received. The one who stands with God must feel what the psalmist felt: "The reproaches of those that reproached Thee are fallen upon me." Man's hatred of God was never more fully manifested than in the cross of our blessed Lord Jesus, and all that He was subjected to at the hands of man but manifested the treatment that they had in heart accorded God. Sad and sorrowfully true it is; and yet what an honor in any measure to be permitted to stand for God, even to suffer the reproaches, to meet with the treatment, which our blessed Lord met with: "If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also."
But the people are not allowed to have their own way without having a divine and perfectly clear warning as to where that way will lead, and so Samuel is instructed to tell them what it means to have a king, like the nations. In brief, they will be slaves to their king: "He will take your sons and appoint them for himself for his chariots, and to be his horsemen, and some shall run before his chariots." They will no longer be servants of God in that sense, and no longer free to labor for their own profit. They will be liable at any time to be called upon by their king to engage in war, needless or otherwise, as his fancy may dictate, to be menials about his house, to be servants of his servants.
Then, too, their property will not be safe from his aggression. Their lands can be taken away. The tenth part of their increase, the very same that Jehovah claimed as His own, must be given to their king. In other words, they would bitterly rue their choice, and find that from the perfect freedom of service to God they had passed into the bondage of human tyranny. How fully this was verified in after years, a glance at their history will show. Even David, in his awful sin, exemplified the arbitrary character of kingly power — a royal murderer, against whom no hand could be lifted in vengeance! Solomon's oppression, that of Asa, the glaring robbery and murder of Ahab, are but illustrations of what was, doubtless, but too common amongst the kings of Israel, who in turn were, no doubt, held in from going to the extremes of other nations by the restraining witness of the prophets constantly sent from God. From that time onward, royalty, if that in reality, has been but another name for self-will, oppression and tyranny, save where, in the mercy of God, His grace overruled. It is not that a king necessarily must be a tyrant, but human nature being what it is, it is what is to be expected. God's thought, after all, is for a king, but it must be the true King, who shall reign in righteousness, of whom there is but One in all the universe of God. When He comes whose right it is to rule, and the government is upon His shoulders, oppression will cease, the meek shall be judged, and the oppressed shall be rescued, as is beautifully set before us in the seventy-second psalm.
Nor let it be thought for a moment that there is no necessity for human government at the present time. Kings and all that are in authority are, after all, but "the powers that be;" and the fault is not in the power, but in the men who misuse that power. But for a people who had God as their Ruler, for whom He had interposed in an especial way, it was nothing short of apostasy to desire a king like the nations. However, after the solemn witness is borne and the people repeat their desire, they are left — solemn thought — left to their choice. They shall have their request, even though it bring leanness to their own souls. Our blessed God often permits us to have our own way, that He may show us the folly of it. Alas, would that we might learn His way in His own presence, and be spared the sorrow for ourselves and the dishonor to His name which come from the bitter experience of a path of disobedience.
Again Samuel rehearses all the words of the people to the Lord, and again he is told to hearken to the voice of the people, who are for the time dismissed with the tacit promise that, as they have desired, so it shall be. Sad journey homeward, as every man goes to his own city after having deliberately refused longer to be under the mild and loving sway of the only One who could be truly their ruler!