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1 Samuel 8:1-22

Text Comment

Now, as we are going to see, the attitude the Bible takes toward the rise of the monarchy in Israel is complex and it is not always easy to reconcile the various statements that are given. On several occasions in the later part of the book of Judges we are reminded by the narrator that there was no king in Israel during that time. He seems to feel that the fact that, in those days, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” was, in part, the result of Israel’s having no king. However, in the same book, Gideon, if  you remember, after leading Israel in victory over the Midianites, resolutely refused to found a dynasty and become Israel’s king. Israel did not begin with a king. She lived for hundreds of years without a king. So, when the Israelite elders came to Samuel, as the spokesman for the Lord, to ask for a king, he was resistant. He saw the request as evidence of Israel’s failure to trust in the Lord. This interpretation is confirmed by the Lord himself in his response to Samuel. Nevertheless, the Lord orders the establishment of the monarchy and, as we know, the result of that will be one of the great prefigurements of the Lord Jesus Christ in the OT. Indeed, the term “Messiah” itself is a royal term. It means “the one anointed to be king.” Remember, we’ve already had a very positive mention of the Lord’s anointed, Israel’s king, in Hannah’s song, in 2:10 and Deuteronomy 17:14ff. provided for a king once Israel had entered and taken possession of the Promised Land [cf. Gordon, Com., 108]

v.3       There had to be some arrangements made in view of Samuel’s old age and so Samuel made his own dynastic arrangements. Not unlike Eli, Samuel made a better judge than a father and his own sons had turned out like Hophni and Phinehas. That was not going to work in any case. The result of the failure of his sons was, of course, that Samuel handed to the monarchy party a perfect excuse for making their request for a king. Israel had to have someone ruling her and Samuel’s sons obviously wouldn’t do.

v.5       The failure of Samuel’s sons was the pretext, but their real interest was conformity to the world. They wanted to be a nation like all the other nations, a motivation confirmed by restatement in v. 20. They use the term “to judge” us, in vv. 5 and 6 (what Samuel was doing) [The NIV translates it “to lead”, but it is the verb of the same noun “judge” already used of Samuel’s sons in v. 1.], perhaps to make their request seem less revolutionary. They seem to be saying that this king will just be another form of the “judge” Israel had long been used to.

v.8       It is interesting that we have not been told that Israel worshipped idols during this time. Perhaps they did and this is the proof of it. Or, perhaps the term is being used in a more general sense – they have, in their unbelief, given their loyalty to other things, other gods – small “g” – and that was idolatry then as it is now.

v.9       The NIV has “what the king…will do.” Lit. it reads “what the “ways” or “custom” or “practice,” or “mode of operation” of the king will be.” It is a word play that gives away the sense of the narrative and its moral point. That word “ways” is, in many other texts translated “justice.” As a verb, the same root means “to judge” or “to rule” as it is used in vv. 1 and 2 and vv. 5 and 6. The point, as it is amplified in vv. 11-18, is that Israel should be concerned that in their effort to get justice for themselves they will institutionalize “injustice.” [Gordon, Com., 110; Alter, Com., 42] This word is thus the “key-word” or “leitwort” for the section. We get it again at the end in v. 20 where the NIV has “lead” once more. Remember Augustine’s command: “Take away justice, and what are governments but brigandage on a grand scale.” (City of God, IV, 4)

If the people thought that a king would be like their judges had been, Samuel is quick to disabuse them. He will reign over you. Samuel never reigned over Israel!

v.11     What follows is an unflattering portrait of ANE royalty and its rule. Remember, Israel wanted a king like the other nations had! “Runners” were a form of vanity. Absalom would later use them to advertise his importance. You will notice that Samuel does not make the point that Israel, in asking for a king, was abandoning the Lord. His argument was entirely pragmatic, an appeal to self-interest. No doubt he thought that was all that would weigh with them.

v.15     A greater problem in Israel’s case as the tithe already belonged to the Lord and was used to support the life and worship of the temple and the levitical ministry.

v.16     The Hebrew has “young men” not “cattle,” which is the reading of the LXX. “Cattle” is the likely reading because the young men have already been mentioned and the next term is “your donkeys.”

v.17     As such Israel would lose a great protection that God’s law had provided her. An Israelite could not make another Israelite his slave (Leviticus 25:39f.). Even if the man became poor and sold himself into slavery, he had to be treated as a hired worker. Kings would be typically indifferent to such protections.

v.19     They accept this worst construction. “We want a king over us.” Not unlike the Jews before Pilate. Let his blood be on our heads!

v.20     The reason uppermost in the minds of the people is the acquisition of military power and, so, security from the Philistines who, obviously, still menace Israel and her future.

v.22     As one commentator puts it: “Samuel’s position elicits sympathy; he does not recognize the divorce, yet has to perform the remarriage.” [Gordon, Com., 111]

You may remember in your reading that at different places in the narrative and at different times in the narrative, different explanations are offered as to why the Canaanites were not completely driven out of the Promised Land before the Israelites and why numbers of them were left to trouble and to tempt the Israelites in the years following the conquest. In several places it is said that the Lord himself decided to drive out the nations before Israel only little by little so that the land would not become desolate and the wild animals multiply (Deuteronomy 7:22; Ex. 23:28-29). In another place, the reason the Canaanites were not driven out was because Israel had been unfaithful to the Lord (Judges 2:20-23). They were left to test Israel to see if Israel would follow the Lord. And, then, in still another place (Judges 3:2) the Canaanite nations are said to have been left in the Promised Land to teach Israel to war, especially those Israelites who had not fought with Joshua in the initial conquest.

Now, liberal scholarship has always assumed that if you find two or three explanations for the same thing, you have there evidence of two or three different original sources or traditions that some editor has clumsily combined in his finished book. Nowadays, thankfully, we are getting past that to the recognition that the narrators of the Hebrew history fully understood the complexity of life and had no problem with the fact, obvious enough to anyone who observes life, that there are often many reasons for or causes of a single event or decision.

Take another example. Have you noticed the different reasons that are provided why David could not build the temple and that Solomon was to build it instead? One reason is that David had fought many wars and shed much blood and for that reason, because of the violence of his life, he was not to build God’s temple (1 Chronicles 22:8; 28:3). Solomon tells King Hiram of Tyre that David could not build the temple until all of his enemies were subdued. That never happened in David’s reign, but Solomon had, as he says, “rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster,” and so he was free to build the temple (1 Kings 5:3-4). In other places, the emphasis seems to fall on the importance of David’s son building the temple as proof that God had made a covenant with the house of David (2 Samuel 7; 1 Kings 8).

Illustrations of this kind of complexity of motive and purpose and cause abound in the Bible. Church discipline is exercised, so the Bible teaches, sometimes to teach the saints to fear the judgments of the Lord, sometimes to recover the sinning brother by making him or her face the full consequences of the choices that he or she made; sometimes to pay honor to the holiness of God. No doubt it is right for us to see that all of these purposes are served by church discipline, whether or not each of them is mentioned in every case. The same affliction in the life of one of God’s saints can have for its purpose the testing of faith, the revelation of God’s grace to the spiritual world, the occasion for God to reveal himself in some special way, a judgment for one’s own sins or the sins of others, and so on.

Well, we have something similar here. The royal house in Israel came into existence because God always intended for Israel to have a king as a type or enacted prophecy of the coming King of Kings that God would someday send to her. So we read in Deuteronomy 17. The royal house of Israel came into existence because Israel sinfully and faithlessly wished to be like the pagan nations around her and trusted more in human instrumentalities – such as a king and royal government – than she did in the Lord God who had just given her a great victory over her enemies. Or, we could even say that the royal house of Israel came into existence because Samuel, despite all his virtues, was as poor a father as Eli had been and his sons, having corrupted the office of judge, left the nation with no adequate provision for her government in the future.

What we have, therefore, is a case of God working his purpose out, even through the sinful failures of men, bringing to pass something incredibly important and precious, a key piece in the history of salvation. Imagine the story of the Bible and of Jesus Christ without David, without the house of David, without the promise of a Messiah, without a King in the future of God’s people. But it all begins here in this sordid family failure and this worldly unbelief on the part of the people of God.

How often we see this in the Bible. God overcoming his people’s sins, even turning them into the means by which his good is done in the world. God, as a former pastor of mine used to put it, “using sin sinlessly.” This divine sovereignty and mercy may be seen everywhere in our lives.

I was on the campus of our Covenant College for several days a week and a half ago. And how that college has prospered. It is thrilling to see what has become of such small beginnings years ago: the beautiful, impressive campus; the wonderfully appointed facilities; the solid faculty; the maturing of the school as an academic institution in so many ways. Those who know the story, know that Covenant College was born out of an unseemly, disgusting little squabble over some ethical questions that had surfaced in our very little church. Things were being said and done that should never have been said and done in a Christian church. And out of all of that, through circumstances far too complicated to explain now, Covenant College came into being.

If the truth be told, the history of this particular congregation, like the history of a great many other congregations in the Lord’s church, began in a squabble. There was sin all around when this congregation was formed.

The jealously and cruelty of Joseph’s brothers, sent Joseph ahead of Israel into Egypt to prepare the way for the exodus in due time. David and Bathsheba produced the progenitor of the Lord Jesus Christ! And, before that, the royal house of Israel was born out of the spiritual corruption of Samuel’s family and Israel’s unbelief.

Our God is a redeemer! He has woven the principle of recovery, of restoration, of redemption into the warp and woof of salvation history. And at the end, the greatest sins that have ever been committed, the murder of the Prince of Life and the King of Glory, would achieve the salvation of the world and the eternal happiness of God’s people.

We do not take from this wonderful truth comfort for ourselves in our sinning or a lackadaisical indifference to God’s law and our obedience to it; for the eventual blessing that Israel’s royal house brought to the world did nothing for Samuel’s corrupt sons.

But, we are absolutely right to take away from 1 Samuel 8:

  1. the confidence that God’s purposes in the world will never be frustrated even by the sins and the rebellion of men, even the sins of God’s own people;
  2. and the knowledge that when God promises us that ultimately all things work together for God, he means even those sins that, if left out of the equation of Romans 8:28, would leave that promise null and void.

There is a Christian doctrine which goes by a Latin phrase taken from an early Christian text: “O felix culpa.” “O happy guilt.” As John Owen put it, “The greatest evil in the world is sin, and the greatest sin was the first; and yet Gregory feared not to cry, ‘O felix culpa; quae talem meruit redemptorem!’ – ‘O happy guilt, which found such a Redeemer!’ [Works, viii, 35]

This is a doctrine for experienced, thoughtful, careful believers only. You can easily see how easily the thought of how sin has been a means to bring us God’s love and blessing and the glories of salvation could degenerate into an indifference to holiness in our own lives. “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” If God uses my sins to bring good things to pass, then really my sins aren’t all that bad. The man who thinks so will find that God uses his sins to take him to hell!

Still, here is some deep thought for you. It was Samuel’s screwed up home that led to David and the Messiah. “O felix culpa! O happy fault!”

And it is so even in your own life and with your own sins. We could elaborate that in many ways, but consider just this. Consider just this about your sins, your far too many and far too disgusting sins, your sins that deprive you of so much in your life as a Christian and that deprive the Lord Jesus of so much from you.

“God did not sanctify you on the same day on which He justified you…. I will put it to yourself to say – if you had been both called and justified and adopted and sanctified wholly and all at once, you would never have known, you would never have believed, what an inveterate and hopeless and unparalleled sinner you are, nor what a glorious Savior you have got in the Son of God. No, it is not your first pardon that gives God his great name in you. It is his every day and every hour pardon of yours sins; sins that are past all name and past all belief.” [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 99-100]

In this way and others we can see our lives in the history of 1 Samuel 8. God using even our sins to produce what is holy, just, and good in us; using even our sins to bring his love home to our hearts; using even our sins to accomplish our salvation.