They knew they would need help. It was a sure thing that enemies would rise up against them as before. And when they did, the Israelites would need deliverance, which in the past had been coordinated through God’s prophet Samuel. But Samuel was now old and none of his corrupt sons would be a suitable successor. It was time for something different. The elders of Israel didn’t ignore Samuel’s role and act on their own, but sought to use it to get what they wanted from the Lord. “Appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have” (1Sa 8:5 NET), was their demand.
There’s a sad contrast between 1 Samuel 7 and 8. In chapter 7, the crisis of the Philistine invasion was met with Israel’s repentance and cry to the Lord for rescue. They were without a human king, but had both a faithful intercessor in Samuel and a faithful God, who indeed delivered them. They still had Samuel and still had the Lord, but now they wanted something else. They wanted God’s help on their terms, not His. “God, help us … and here’s how,” was essentially their request.
The demand exposed two sad realities, both of which we are often guilty. The first was that the Israelites wanted to be “just like all the other nations.” In their minds, having a king would make them fit in, belong, be up to date with the world around them. Theocracy was old-fashioned. It was time for monarchy. Is this not our sad tendency as well? We recognize that we need the Lord’s help in our lives, but we’d prefer to dictate the terms of His help in a way that will allow us to blend into the world rather than stand out as unique within it. “Lord, help us to be good Christians,” we pray. But we reserve the right to demand that this won’t mean looking, behaving or sounding too different. Yet God’s demand for His people today is to be distinct, holy (1Pe 1:16), as it was for Israel under the old covenant (Lev 19:2).
But the more egregious error of the Israelites’ demand for a king was that in doing so, they were rejecting God Himself. The Lord said to Samuel, “They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1Sa 8:7 KJV). Their fault lay not in the demand itself, but in the motive behind it. The pending shift from theocracy to monarchy mirrored a shift that had already occurred in their hearts. Their confidence was now in man and in princes rather than in the Lord (see Psa 118:8-9). Are we not guilty of this inclination also? Often we are more interested in prescribing what form God’s help must take rather than simply leaving the matter in His hands, allowing Him to act as He sees fit. When we do so, our trust is really in our ideas rather than in the Lord, and, like the Israelites in Samuel’s day, we reject God Himself.
Perhaps our cries to the Lord need some amending or paring down. Far better to pray, “God, help us,” followed by a period, and leave the “here’s how” to Him. Sovereigns order, servants obey. We’d be wise to remember where we belong in that sentence.