The Hebrew people had been working for, dying for and suffering for the Pharaohs. Then God came and brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery and took them to Sinai where God pledged to be their God, and promised to lead them to the very land God had promised to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On Sinai God promised to protect them, to guide them and to be their God. They promised to be God’s people; they would live as God called them to live, by God’s laws and God’s ordinances, to love and obey God in all things. God was to rule over them and they were to be God’s people. God would give them human leaders. God had given them Moses and Joshua, and then the judges Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Samson and now Samuel. God had never left them alone, had never disappointed or failed to be anything less than whom God had promised to be.
Now, here they are, displeased. Samuel’s sons are not wise (which is more than a mild understatement.) The elders gather and come up with a plan. Deciding what is best for the people has been God’s job, but the elders do not think things are going to work out the way they want them to. Therefore, they meet and decide what is best for all of them is a king.
Now what is a king, but a Pharaoh by a different name? However, learning from the past is not Israel’s strong suit. They want a king so they can be more like all the other nations. Instead of being ruled by God, through judges and prophets, they can be like other nations and be ruled by a king. Being different is hard. A king would be easier. A king would be better.
They come to Samuel with their plan, and ask him to go tell God they want a king. Notice they do not care to tell God for themselves. They send God’s messenger to do their dirty work for them. They are not entirely stupid, who wants to be the chump to stand before God and tell God that God’s own people are deposing God (as they would a king). Now let us be clear about this, they still want God to be God, but God and king should be separate. God, can be God, but they do not want God to rule any more. They want to rule themselves. Because ruling themselves is what having a king, is all about after all, right?
Samuel is upset on God’s behalf about this. He sees what is going. The people do not trust God to handle things anymore. They no longer like the arrangement they have with God, so they are choosing to alter it, for their convenience. They want God to agree and go along with it. Samuel takes their “plea” to God, fully expecting God to laugh in their faces and say, “No,” and then tell Samuel what the next step is. After all, everyone is on the same page about Samuel’s sons taking over – nobody wants that.
God does not flat out reject the plan. God agrees; they can have a king. God wants them to be warned that this will not work well for them. Kings do not work for the people, the people work for the king. Kings do not rule on behalf of the people, they rule for themselves. They seek only to uphold and protect their power, doing everything they need to do to extend their power to make it greater. The people may think that having a powerful king will make them a powerful nation, but having a powerful king will mean they live and die to serve that power; to strengthen and ensure that power. Kings take your sons. They take your daughters. They take the best of your land, the best of your fruit, the best of your crops, the best of your animals and then force you to work on their behalf. God brought them up out of the land of slavery who has done nothing but love them and uphold the covenant but because they demand it, God will allow them to be slaves again. God lets them know, a nation with a king is a nation of slaves.
Samuel goes back to the people telling them all God told him. He explains clearly how bad a king will be and how miserable their lives will be. Do the people listen and cry out in a united voice, throwing out this idea of a king? Of course not, they insist God give them a king. They are certain if God chooses the king, their king will be good. Their king will not be wooed by power and will not lord power over them, like the kings of all the countries they want to be like. Their king will be different. They just know it, besides a king is good when you have to go battle with all those other nations with kings.
God gives them Saul, and we all know he was a great and awesome king, that is if you like kings who are narcissistic madmen who like to throw spears at their musicians, and decide falling on their own sword is the proper way to end a losing battle. Saul fails so miserably at being anything close to a good king. Then David becomes king after him and succeeds where Saul fails, or so we like to think. Although David is lauded as everything Israel ever hoped and dreamed a king would be, that depiction of David’s kingship glosses over more than one or two failings he had as king.
This passage is the prequel to all the good and bad king stories which follow throughout the Old Testament. This is the beginning of all the kings, because Israel chooses to depose God. They ultimately do this because they do not trust God to be who God says God will be. They reject the kind of leadership God has been giving to them. They do not completely understand how this system of judges and prophets works. They want a system of governance, which makes sense to them. In many ways, they are tired of the ambiguity involved in the way God has been leading them. They do not want to be different from other nations. They want the nations around them to accept and see them as equals. They think if they have a king, just like the other nations have kings, things will be better. They need a king to lead them into battle so these other nations will see their king, and tremble and leave them alone. This is how it works. God lives in the heavens, where gods live and does not really understand how things work down here. Down here, in the real world, it is not good to have an unseen ruler, an intangible force with whom the other nations must recon. God does not understand. They do. God needs to listen to them and do things their way. Their ways are the ways of the world, and God’s ways are, well, God’s ways. They do not work here in the real world.
Trusting God is hard. We live in a world of empirical data. We need to be able to touch, see, taste and prove what we know, in order to trust that it is true. If an experiment cannot be set up to prove something is so, then it is not true. It has not been proven true. We have a hard time trusting what we cannot prove to be true. This is just the way things work here. It is rational.
We live in a world that believes in what can be seen, touched, tasted, heard and proved. We believe in a God who cannot be known in any of these ways. We can want God to be different. We can even come to a place where we believe God can be proved true, and when we do so, we are doing what the Israelites do here. We want to be able to understand God on our terms. We want God to be the way we want God to be, so that God can be understood in world that functions and lives by a different set of rules. We need God to function in ways that make sense to us and to the people of our world. In this way, we depose God in our own lives. That is not trusting God to be the God says God is.
Trusting God is not easy. Trusting is hard. Trusting is exactly what we are called to do; to believe, to trust, to depend on God, to be who God says God will be, to do what God says God will do, in all things at all times.