Who Is the True Sovereign?

Ironically, the request for a king came at a time when memories of God’s sovereign intervention on behalf of his people, Israel, should have been rich memories of those issuing this ultimatum to Samuel. The Israelites had failed in a battle against the Philistines, but God himself assaulted the Philistines with a death plague, similar to the bubonic plague (5:11, 12). Twenty years later, he had scattered the Philistines by thunderous intervention from heaven as the enemy army had poised itself for a massacre of the Israelites (7:7-12). Then through Samuel, fulfilling his call from God as a judge and prophet, rendering decisions in light of his knowledge of the word of God and in accordance with the wisdom God gave him, the nation experienced inner stability, expansion of territory, and peace with enemies (7:13-15).

I. The dereliction of Samuel’s Sons (8:1-3)

A. Samuel’s age did not mean he was incompetent as a judge, or that he had lost either his piety or his wisdom, but that he was unable to maintain the rigorous schedule of circuit-riding he had done (7:15, 16).

B. He had committed some of the duties of judging to his sons, Joel and Abijah. Biological descent does not carry with it the gifts that have been sovereignly bestowed by God for specific purposes, nor does the gracious piety of one generation fall naturally to the next. These gifts are measured out by the pleasure of God and do not necessarily embrace the children of pious parents. With hopes higher than reality warranted, Samuel had given responsibilities to his sons that became opportunities for abuse. They did not walk in Samuel’s ways, but used the position to enrich themselves. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” unless that natural sinful propensity is redirected by divinely bestowed efficacious grace.

II. The Elders request a King (8:4. 5).

A. The elders of Israel, observing the tendency toward corruption, wanted to make a change before it was too late. Their trust in Samuel’s integrity, caused them to go to him both with their complaint and their request. Samuel’s time of effectiveness was closing fast, his sons were unreliable, and they wanted Samuel to “appoint for us a king.”

B. The wisdom of this tactic is greatly diluted by their obvious reliance on human leadership, on which they had come to rely. Samuel sought to point them to a heartfelt reliance on Yahweh, a heart full of love and trust toward him as their sovereign, their compassionate redeemer and protector (7:3, 4). Though they had set aside the external manifestation of their reliance on idols (7:5), they lost the clarity of their sense of God’s presence and his purpose for them. They did not see themselves as a “peculiar people and a holy nation,” but as needing to hold their own among the other nations. The Lord God Himself was their sovereign, protecting them, guiding, them intervening for them upon their submission to him, but instead they asked for a king “like all the nations.”

III. Samuel takes their request before the Lord (8:6-9).

A. Samuel’s displeasure arose from his knowledge of what would take place as the office of king became more and more settled and the position of entitlement wrought havoc on the sinful propensity of those that occupied the office. Before he gave any answer to the people, he took this matter to the Lord. This shows that even after so many years of effective leadership, Samuel had not developed a haughty spirit or a mind for self-reliance. Their request of him must be the Lord’s business.

B. God told Samuel what must have baffled him. God was giving them their request.

1. God let him know that their desire showed that they had lost any sense of the sovereignty of God over their nation. In spite of all his interventions, his having rescued them as his own nation from the slavery in Egypt, his having led them by the hand of Moses, his having given them laws like those of no other nation, his having granted them prophets for instruction, warning, and correction, and given them a land, they still resorted to ‘secularism,” the rule of that age’s values (verses 7, 8).

2. “Obey their voice.” Give them what they want. At the same time, display for them the complete imbecility of their minds and hearts under the influence of the world in which they lived. Give an extrapolation of the oppressiveness they invite upon themselves. If they think because of my laws they feel oppressed, let them know that when they are ruled over by one like unto themselves they will feel the real weight of sinful tyranny as opposed to the discipline of holiness.

3. God did two things in giving them what they requested.

One, he would let the natural tendency of human sinfulness in the position of worldly power run its course among them, finally to be under the rule of pure pagans, when their own kingship had led them to absurd degrees of perversion. Not only would they resist the divine order of special revelation, but they would invent perversions against the clear guidelines of natural order and affection.

Two, God again shows the overruling purpose of his providence in using the wrath of man to praise him. The line of descent from the second specially chosen “royal family” would be the line through whom the Messiah, according to the flesh would come (“The gospel of God, . . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, etc” Romans 1:3) If we look carefully at the text of Scripture, we should realize that all of the events recorded there were selected by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the Son of God and his redemptive work. That is one of the most prominent aspects of the work of the Spirit in the covenant of redemption. The unfolding of human perversity, clumsiness, and darkness is put alongside the law of God, his gracious control of history with his guiding purpose, and his overruling providence to bring good out of what we intend for evil. The standard for the interpretation of biblical history is seen in Acts 2:23 – “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In the event that constitutes this lesson, we see a similar thing, human sinfulness overruled by divine purpose and foreknowledge for the manifestation of the glory of the Messiah, God’s own eternal Son. In chapter 12, verse 22, Samuel said God would overcome their sin for his glory, “For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.”

IV. Samuel warns them of the Oppressive tendency of Kingship in the hands of men (8:10-18). In chapter 12 Samuel contrasted his ministry among them with the entitlements that a king would claim.

A. The king will break up families by taking sons and daughters for military service, for manufacturing implements of war, for cooking, and for tending his fields and his livestock.

B. The king will require land for himself and will take it from all the tribes of the people. Not only will he need large amounts, as well as the best quality, of land and livestock to support those that will work in his service, but he will enrich himself.

C. When they realize that his hand has become increasingly oppressive, they will cry to the Lord for relief, but God will not reverse this action. They will, in fact, eventually be led into evil by their kings and will be exiled from their land and live under the dominion of foreign kings. Even this, however, will not mean that he has forsaken them, for at the  birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah prophesied, “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

V. The Elders Insist, in spite of warning, on being like the other nations (8:19-22)

A. With a stubbornness that defied the obvious truthful observations of Samuel, the elders still insisted on a king.

1. They wanted to be like other nations. The privilege they had of being the people of God did not enter with power into their consciences. They despised being different and wanted to see a continuity of political arrangement, military method, national consciousness, and worldly impression with other nations. Their status as the people of God clearly was nominal as a nation, and only a remnant within the nation truly grasped the redemptive reality of the promises and the projections of the sacrifices and festivals. The new covenant redefined the people of God in spiritual terms, not in political and ethnic terms. The new nation to be bought with the blood of Christ would worship in Spirit and it truth. They indeed would be trained by grace to renounce “ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” while they wait for the return of Christ having been redeemed by him as a “people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).

2. They made the naïve assertion that he would “go out before us and fight our battles.” God had showed himself to be their leader in battle and had raised up judges to lead them when they cried to heaven for help. Now, if battles were to be fought, and their dependence was on their king, they would find themselves fighting, on occasion, without the blessing of God. The oppressiveness of the kingship eventually would lead to a divided nation and the exile of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms.

B. God reiterated to Samuel that he should pursue their request. Samuel dismissed them to their cities and began to prepare for the naming and anointing of a king.

C. Chapters 9-11 tell of the events that led to the choosing and anointing of Saul of the tribe of Benjamin as king. His early humility and successful actions for the safety of the people are recorded. Chapter eleven ends with the words, “So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed peace offerings before the Lord, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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