It was a difficult time for the Israelites. Taking the promised land was not easy, but they had done well by following God. From Moses to Joshua to a number of judges, there had been steady leadership. But Israel’s enemies were all led by kings – merciless, ruthless kings. The Israelites started to worry that they could not continue to claim promised lands without the strong, steady leadership of a king. They demanded that God appoint a king to rule them. So God gave them a king – Saul became their very first king. He would later prove to be unworthy of the title, and the battles for kingship would last for centuries.
It's hard to know whether the Israelites desired a king more because they were afraid of their enemies or more because they lacked faith that God would continue to be with them. Either way, their lack of faith unalterably changed them from a people who followed God to a people who followed people.
Are we people who follow God or people who follow people? (Most likely, it is a blending of the two – I have rarely found our choices to be that black and white.) I have a number of friends who are parish pastors serving in congregations of varying sizes. They all have reported an interesting phenomenon. Parishioners consistently decide whether or not they are attending worship based on who’s preaching that Sunday. Solo pastors report worship attendance decreases dramatically when they are on vacation or have guest preachers. Pastors in multi-staffed parishes report worship attendance that fluctuates with whichever preachers are assigned for the Sunday. So it makes me wonder – do we worship for God or for ourselves? Are we so sure our faith will be more strengthened when we listen to our favorite preachers? Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But it certainly makes it easier to understand why Israel had such a difficult time trusting in a God they could not see in favor of trusting in a human ruler.
1 Samuel 9:27-10:8, 10:17-27
As they were going down to the outskirts of the town, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the boy to go on before us, and when he has passed on, stop here yourself for a while, that I may make known to you the word of God.”
Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?’ Then you shall go on from there further and come to the oak of Tabor; three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. They will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from them. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.”
Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah and said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and by your clans.” Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the family of the Matrites was taken by lot. Finally he brought the family of the Matrites near man by man, and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. So they inquired again of the Lord, “Did the man come here?” and the Lord said, “See, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” Then they ran and brought him from there. When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship; and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord. Then Samuel sent all the people back to their homes. Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went warriors whose hearts God had touched. But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” They despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace. Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammoni and had entered Jabesh-gilead.