The Life And Times Of Samuel The Prophet
(1 Sam. 8)
WE have now to review the deeply affecting story of the rejection of Samuel by the people who, under God, were so greatly indebted to him. To him they owed their present political independence and deliverance from the yoke of the uncircumcised - we might almost say, the very continuance of their existence as a nation. Samuel has been called "the second founder of the nation," and he was indeed a very father to his country. He had served them many years, and well, and under his wise, paternal administration, Israel had come to be, if not a powerful people, at least, an orderly and peaceable one. They were well governed, and no doubt, prosperous. It was when "Jeshurun waxed fat" that he "kicked," and when "grown thick," he "rebelled against Jehovah " (Deut. 32: I5).
Samuel was not as one who, by some unexpected turn of fortune, had come suddenly into power; he was not the favoured creature of some revolution; he had been with them from a child, and "all Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord," for their guidance and blessing (chap. 3: 20). He had grown up before them, and his integrity and worth were known to all. On the death of Eli and his sons, we do not read of Samuel hurriedly seating himself in the saddle, as if eager to assume authority; no, he came into power slowly, and by no effort of his own, but by the exigencies of the hour. For twenty whole years after the fall of Eli's house he is content to remain in comparative obscurity, at the age when men are naturally most ambitious. Their rejection therefore of this one of the best of men, and most just administrator, was the more inexcusable. But such was Israel, and such is man in general everywhere, for the nation was but an example in miniature of the human race from Adam down to the last great day of Gog and Magog. The moral of the event is deeply instructive and humiliating, and we are led, in reviewing it, to exclaim with the psalmist, "Lord, what is man! "
"And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah they were judges in Beersheba. And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations" (vers. 1-5).
Samuel was old, they say; they could not say that he was too old to any longer serve them, or to correct the abuses of which they complained.
It is computed that he was not above sixty at the time - a really ripe age for the position he occupied, with all the varied and valuable experience his threescore years had brought him. He manifests ability to serve and act with vigour years after this - as witness his fearless reproof of Saul for his folly, and his hewing Agag to pieces. There is no sign of senility or decay even to the very end of his eventful life.
No, it was but a poor, miserable excuse, and instead of agreeing with the saying that "a poor excuse is better than none," we are inclined to declare that a poor excuse is really worse than none - especially such as Israel's elders here make before their honored Chief Justice. It were better to declare frankly that it was not with the administration itself that they were dissatisfied, but with the form of it. It would have been better to confess that they preferred being under a monarchy, as were the heathen nations around them, than have all their national matters referred to God through His prophet. Had they honestly done so at once, they would not have "added insult to injury" against Samuel. They might have spared their aged benefactor the humiliation of being compelled to vindicate himself before them, as he was forced later to do. They made his sons the ostensible cause of their discontent, while they must have known that bribery of courts was as common as could be in the Gentile kingdoms about them.
Samuel's sons, Joel and Abiah, must have been as mere novices in the practice of "graft." A kingly form of government was no remedy or safeguard against judicial bribery! Beersheba, too, lay at the extreme south of the land, in a quarter but thinly populated, where but the smallest proportion of the inhabitants could be affected by their bribery. Men are not so solicitous for the welfare of their neighbours as to concern themselves very deeply about the miscarriage of justice in some remote corner of the state. Yet we read, "All the elders gathered themselves together" - "elders," note, the "fathers of the nation" - form themselves into a delegation to present to their chief magistrate the nation's supposed grievances; it tells a sad tale of disaffection and rebellion against the rule of God!
Truly, the word is faithful: "Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment! " (Job 32: 9). Not only are "childhood and youth" vanity, with young manhood, but old age and gray hairs too. God must teach wisdom to all; and apart from this, "Man at his best estate is altogether vanity."
"But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord." It displeased him; not so much that he had been insulted personally (for a man of his spirit and piety could well bear with that), but because he saw in it rebellion against God, and knew the certain consequences that must come of it. He had, however, a sure resource - a refuge with which he was long familiar, and which had never failed him - he prayed." This was his comfort and consolation. His prayer is not given us, but the record of God's answer is:
"And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works that they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken Me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee " (vers. 7, 8).
He first of all sets the mind of Samuel at rest with the assurance that it was not for anything remiss in him that the people clamoured for a change, but it was He, Jehovah Himself, that they were dissatisfied with. Samuel's God has a gracious consideration for the sensitive, righteous soul of His servant.
The most upright of men will often suspect themselves; the most upright in heart are the more likely to question their own conduct and motives, and Samuel would be assured by this word from God that it was for no misconduct of his that the people were determined on the overthrow of his administration. "They have not rejected thee but Me," He says.
Doubtless they felt the restraints of God's holy law irksome, and as they had before gone after the gods of the nations because of the licence allowed in their worship, so now they desire a king "like the nations," that they might have "larger freedom," as they thought not for the practice of holiness, but for the gratification of their national vanity and political glory "a place in the sun," as it would be expressed today.
God rehearses before Samuel their conduct since their departure from Egypt. Rebellion was no new thing with them, nor was it the first time that they had manifested impudence before their superiors, as witness their behaviour before Moses and Aaron on more than one occasion.
It is a real pleasure to note that Samuel makes no complaint against the people, either to themselves, or before God. He stands, in this, in greater elevation of soul than his later successor, Elijah, who "made intercession against Israel," saying, " Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life.
Samuel's conduct in this is very beautiful, and well worthy of our imitation. The comparison does not make us think the less of Elijah, God forbid! but more of Samuel. No, it was not the spirit of Samuel to lodge complaints, or prefer charges against the people he so greatly loved, whose welfare he had so ardently desired, and for whom he had so patiently laboured. No, it is God who lays bare Israel's evil ways; it is the "Judge of all" who males the indictment; and He says to Samuel, "Now, therefore, hearken unto their voice howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them."
This word from God would surely be a relief to His distressed servant Samuel, for the responsibility of replying to the demand of the insistent elders was thus lifted from his shoulders. His position was a trying one; for if he flatly refused to grant them their request for a king, it might appear to them that he was unwilling to resign his authority, or he wished for his sons to succeed him in office; and if he had acceded to their demand, he might become an accessory to their sin, as did Aaron with this stiff-necked people, when they said, "Up, make us gods, which shall go before us," and like him, bring wrath upon himself and them for yielding to their sinful desire.
"The voice of the people" is the expression used by God; it has a familiar sound to our ears in these days of world-democracy. It is the "voice of the people" today that must be heard, and heeded. It is the "People's Party" in politics and in religion; it is the "People's Church;" yes, and "The voice of the people is the voice of God" we are confidently told. God does not tell us so, however, but rather the contrary; and where is His voice heard amidst all the clamour and Babel - confusion caused "by the voice of the people? "Today it is one thing, and tomorrow something else. Faith says "Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it " (Cant. 8: 13). All around is confusion, as at Ephesus, where "some cried one thing, and some another, for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together" (Acts 19: 32). And again, "They were instant with loud voices, requiring that lie might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed " (Luke 23: 23). So much for the much-lauded "voice of the people! "How very opposite to "the voice of God! "
Samuel, however, is told to hearken to their voice. They were thoroughly set in their determination to have a king in spite of anything God might have to say about it, so He let them have their way. It was as with the quails in the wilderness, "He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul" (Ps. 106: 15; 78: 29). "As sometimes He crosses us in love, so at the other time He gratifies us in wrath," Matthew Henry remarks.
"And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you," etc. (vers. 10-18).
Samuel gives them in detail a description of the king that should rule them. It was not God's ideal of what a king should be, but the manner of the king of their choice that would be given them as a punishment for their wilful rejection of God's rule through Samuel He would be a despot, fierce, cruel, a "raiser of taxes," a binder of burdens heavy and "grievous to be borne" upon the backs of the oppressed people. Without faith in God, he would be a pronounced militarist," taking the choicest of their young men to fill the ranks of his standing army, and require a tenth of all they produced for the support of all this pomp and empty show; for instead of using his hosts in defeating and driving out of the land the invading Philistines, they were occupied more in hunting David, the man of God's choice, "as one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains," or as David himself sarcastically puts it, "The king of Israel is come out to seek a flea!" (1 Sam. 26: 20). Dignified and important occupation, indeed, for "the king of Israel!"
"He will take, he will take," Samuel says repeatedly - six times in seven verses. And what did he give them in return? "He will give," Samuel says, not to them, but "to his officers and to his servants." To them it was given to pay and to yield up to his kingly requirements their "goodliest young men" and their "daughters;" the boys to be slaughtered by the uncircumcised Philistines through Saul's mismanagement, and "Zion's fair daughters" to slave it in his kitchens as "confectionaries, and cooks, and bakers." Yes, self-willed and misguided people they should find their king's yoke galling, and onerous in the extreme. "And," he concludes, if ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day." But all this has no effect upon the infatuated people, the warning is lost upon them, and they remain obdurate to the end.
"Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles " (vers. 19, 20).
They began with a request: "Make us a king;" and they finish by expressing their determination: "Nay, but we will have a king! That our king may fight our battles!" - as if a king with his crown in their midst would guarantee them victory! "O foolish people, and unwise;" - had they forgotten their great triumph over the Philistine hosts, when "the Lord thundered with a great thunder upon them and discomfited them, and they were smitten before Israel?" Was "the Lord of hosts" no longer sufficient for them? Ah, Him they could not see, but a king, decked in purple and gold lace and riding in a chariot, would be to them "a great sight to see to."
In the preceding chapter we are told "the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel" - His prophet among them. Did they think a king could do better for them? They later get their king, and it could then be said of them, as it was said to Asa, for his unbelief in God, "From henceforth thou shalt have wars" (2 Chron. 16: 9). "I will be thy king," God said to Israel, centuries later: "where is any other that may save thee in all thy cities? and thy judges of whom thou saidst, Give me a king and princes? I gave thee a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath" (Hos. 13: 10, 11).
It has been remarked that no judge of Israel was ever slain in battle; but the first king, king of their choice, died in ignominious defeat at the hands of the Philistines, who in the days of Samuel's administration dared not invade the land. Alas for Israel - "an increase of sinful men!" - to choose a man before God; and alas for the world, that they prefer the devil as their "prince" and "god," to Him who is both "Son of God" and "King of nations."
God, in the law, had made provision for a king with Israel (see Deut. 17 : 14-2o). Had they waited in faith, on the decease of Samuel God might have raised them up a king of His own providing, "a man after His own heart," David, a pattern prince, and type of Him who is both "King of Israel," and "Prince of peace." But no, they could not wait, they would not be advised, and so God gave them their desire.
But "sudden resolves and hasty desires make work for sore and leisurely repentance."
"And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king " (vers. 21, 22).
He listens to their defiant words, and then, like the man of prayer that he was, he tells them into the ears of God. Like the good king Hezekiah, who, when he had received from the messenger the written words of the Assyrian, went into the house of God, and there spread the letter before Him, so Samuel here pours out before Jehovah all the words of the obstinate people. He does not, like Moses, call them "rebels" (Num. 20: 10), but meekly holds his peace. And when Jehovah tells him for the third time to hearken to their voice, he, without a word of reproach, quietly dismisses the assembly.
Now Israel's days of peace and tranquillity are over, for many a long and sorrowful time, twenty years at least - some say forty. Well would it have been for them had they continued content with their simple, almost patriarchal, form of government. Their sudden swing-off into absolutism must have been a severe shock to them, no doubt, and greatly upset their mistaken notions of the advantages of monarchical rule. God "gave them up to their own hearts' lust," and for many sad and weary years they were made to smart for their obstinate folly and rebellion. They had to learn by bitter and painful experience the difference between God's beneficent rule and the service to a king. (See 2 Chron. 12 : 8.) The nation's brief experience of kingship under Abimelech should have taught them wisdom in the matter; so, too, Jotham's parable (Judges 9); but it is the same old, sad story - the incurable perversity of man's heart and averseness to God, until renewed by grace. Even then we hear a grieved apostle exclaim, - O foolish Galatians!" And again, "O ye Corinthians... ye are straitened in your own bowels!" Yes, "Lord, what is man!" To us who know the blessed Saviour, let there be but One, "the Man Christ Jesus." Amen and amen!
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