“A Kingdom Provided” Israel’s First King
One of the challenges I face as a father is knowing when to let my kids fail. My impulse is to protect them—to shield them—from all harm, great and small. I want them to be happy. I want them to be successful. And because I desire that for them, it means there are times I need to let them fail. Failure is perhaps life’s greatest laboratory for learning. My kids need to face adversity to learn from it and also to understand that their actions have consequences—for better or worse. And so, as a loving father, there are times when I allow my three kids to make choices I am sure they will regret. Not in the big things, but in the lesser, safer things. It is difficult, but I do it because I love them.
As this session’s story opens, we encounter yet another failure of one generation to follow in the faith of those who came before them. In this case, we read of Samuel’s sons pursuing dishonest profit, taking bribes, and perverting justice (1 Sam. 8:3). We saw this with Eli’s sons just a few chapters earlier, and more notably, we saw this throughout the Book of Judges. Here, we cannot blame Samuel too quickly. While he may have failed to disciple his sons, the text does not tell us that. These sons may have simply rejected God as so many had done before them and have done since.
In light of this, Israel’s elders brought what appears to be a reasonable request before Samuel. Because Samuel was old and his sons did not walk in his ways, they asked for Samuel to appoint a king over the people like the other nations around them had. Of course, it is impossible for us to read tone, body language, and so forth when they said this to Samuel. This may have indeed been a request, or it may have been more of a demand. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up as a request, especially when we see what they would say later.
Again, their request seems reasonable on the surface, but there is at least a hint of concern when they add the phrase, “the same as all the other nations have.” God’s desire was not to form a people to be like the nations. His desire was to form a people to be unlike any other nation. The Israelites were to be set-apart—holy—in all their ways. This final phrase denotes that the Israelite elders failed to grasp this.
How about us? Are we that unlike the Israelite elders? Do we struggle to understand how God has called us to live set-apart from our culture? We have been called to live as a holy people, not in odd ways, mind you, but rather in beautiful ways that proclaim the beauty and glory of our King. I fear we miss this often though. I know I do. The enticement to conform to the world’s comfortable, appealing patterns is always before us. And it is an allure that we succumb to easily.
It is not surprising that Samuel didn’t take their request the best. When God told Samuel that the people had not rejected him, the prophet, but rather God Himself, we are given a hint that perhaps Samuel took the elders’ request personally (1 Sam. 8:7). It would be understandable had he. Sure he likely knew all about his sons, but he was still their father. And no father likes to admit his sons’ failings.
But if that was Samuel’s initial posture, God quickly pivoted the discussion away from the prophet and toward Himself. The people were not rejecting Samuel ultimately, they were rejecting God. That is what was untenable.
And so God told Samuel to warn the people (1 Sam. 8:10-18). They didn’t understand what they were asking for. A king would haul off Israel’s sons to war. He could require the people to work for his gain, not Israel’s. He can confiscate property. He can levy heavy taxes. A king would lead the people to cry out in distress, a cry God would not answer.
God’s warnings are no less clear for us. In fact, God has given us much more warning concerning the dangers of pursuing our own will rather than His in the full counsel of Scripture. We have more of His commands. We have more history of watching what happens when people obey and disobey Him. And of course, we have the full story of the gospel to change our hearts and create a desire through the Spirit’s work to pursue God’s will and glory.
And yet, we struggle to believe God—at least our conduct often indicates this. We like to talk about “falling” into sin, as if we are tricked all the time. But that isn’t reality, is it? In reality, we more often knowingly pursue sin. We ignore the warnings and plunge full steam ahead. Just like Israel.
And how did the people respond to God’s kind warning? Like this:
The people refused to listen to Samuel. “No! ” they said. “We must have a king over us. Then we’ll be like all the other nations: our king will judge us, go out before us, and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20 CSB)
Notice three aspects of their response.
- They refused to listen. This never bodes well. The people rejected God’s warning through Samuel and apparently did not even consider it. God’s warning fell on deaf ears and hearts of stone. In humility, however, we must recognize that we respond to God in the same way at times. And it never bodes well for us either.
- They demanded a king. If the people had indeed requested a king before, here they give up any appearance of humility and outright demand one. Read their language: “No.” “Must.” If there was any doubt before this that Israel had crossed a line, it is removed here. This is not a tragic mistake by the people; this is open rebellion against God’s authority. Again, we need to read this with humility because we do the same thing. We may not be as crass to use this language with God, but in practice this is how we live at times. We try to force God into the role as our servant, bending to our will and desires.
- They rejected God. Here the hint of rejection is made overt. The people proclaim that the king they are demanding will judge them, go out before them, and fight their battles. Those sure sound like promises God had made to the people concerning Himself. Indeed, the people did desire to be like the pagan nations around them.
God’s response to His people’s mutiny may seem surprising at first: He told Samuel to give the people what they demanded. Why did He do this? Because He is a loving Father who knows that sometimes His children need to fail to learn. And fail they would. Think about the kings that would arise.
Saul looked the part but stumbled out of the gate and his reign faltered. David acted the part mostly, but he too sinned grievously. Solomon had the wisdom needed for the part, but that wisdom did not prevent him from pursuing fame, fortune, and women. God’s warnings here in 1 Sam. 8 came largely to pass during Solomon’s reign. Solomon’s sin would also lead to the kingdom being torn in two, prompting a string of mostly evil kings who led God’s people farther and farther from Him, all the way into foreign bondage.
God’s people surely had a difficult lesson to learn through failure, but it is a lesson that would be learned. Each king proved God’s words to be true. And each king heightened the people’s awareness that they needed a different leader, a better leader. They needed the leader God had promised, the perfect King Jesus.
This is the greatest fault under which humanity labors, that after sinning they take refuge in excuses rather than prostrate themselves with repentant confession.” — Cassiodorus (c. 490-583) 
Preschool Tip: Like the Israelites in this session’s story, preschoolers struggle with selfishness, a selfishness many of us never grow out of. Use this week’s session to connect with their hearts about the dangers of selfishness—how it hurts others, but also how in the end it hurts them. Connect with ways that they manifest selfishness—such as hogging toys—and be sure to address this from a gospel lens rather than a behavior modification lens. God calls on us to live selflessly, not to earn His favor, but because of His favor and example in Jesus Christ, the perfect model of selflessness.
Kids Tip: Help your kids know that this week’s session undergirds many of the sessions that will follow. Remember that we are sharing the one story of Scripture with our kids, not stories in isolation. This is a great example of the need, and benefit, of doing that. As each king fails, we have the opportunity to point back to this session, and this session’s Christ Connection more explicitly, to show God is faithful.
 Cassiodorus, Exposition of the Psalms, 140.4, quoted in Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, ed. John R. Franke, vol. IV in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament [Wordsearch].