What do you do when people turn against you? What do you do when circumstances do not go your way? What do you do when you get frustrated about the tasks that you have been assigned or the people who have been entrusted to your care?
That is precisely the situation in which Samuel found himself (cf. 1 Samuel 8.) This hero of Israel’s Scriptures had been dedicated to the Lord’s service by his mother Hannah (see 1 Samuel 1-3 and last week’s blog). He grew up surrounded by the institutions, practices, and people of Israel’s worship, and in his adult years, he became Israel’s military leader, religious guide, and supreme judicial authority.
An Unwelcome Request
As the end of his life drew near, he appointed his sons to help him carry out his duties. Unfortunately, his sons did not discharge their responsibilities in a way that honored God and was fair to God’s people. So, the leaders of the various Israelite clans joined together to do something that, at first blush, might seem rather logical. They asked Samuel to appoint a king.
Perhaps Samuel should not have been surprised by this request. Perhaps he should have been more sensitive to the havoc that his sons’ misdeeds were causing (after all, he had witnessed firsthand the carnage brought on by the misbehavior of Eli’s sons), and perhaps he should have been more sympathetic to Israel’s desire for long-term national security.
But that is not how Samuel reacted. He was angered, and perhaps a little hurt, by Israel’s request. So what did he do in this moment of anger and pain? He did something that might surprise those of us who have been in a similar situation. He turned to God in prayer.
Like others that we read about in the pages of Scripture, Samuel had to face his disappointment, anger, and shame head on. He had to take it to the only One who could really do something about it. Moreover, Samuel had a very real-world decision to make. Should he, in fact, grant the request of Israel’s elders, or should he reject their request? And if he should do the latter, how should he go about explaining his decision to a group of people who are likely to take matters into their own hands?
God’s Surprising Response: Guidance in a Delicate Political Situation
Samuel needed God’s guidance, and he needed God’s emotional support. He gets both—but perhaps in a way that he does not expect. And, in the process, we see God’s wisdom once again on display.
You see, God tells Samuel to actually give them what they want. We will come back to this part of the story in a moment, but first we need to talk about God’s reasoning for granting their request. With insight that not even a prophet like Samuel would have, God accurately diagnoses the real problem. Israel has not rejected Samuel, as he (and perhaps even the narrator) suspects. Rather, they have rejected God.
In other words, the corruption of Samuel’s sons, while certainly an issue that needed to be dealt with, was not the main issue motivating the request. Whether they knew it or not, Israel’s elders were motivated by a desire to have the kind of military security and national identity that they saw—or thought they saw—in other nations. The problem, of course, is that, in so doing, they committed a sin that amounted to idolatry. They forsook the only real source of security, God, for a finite and fallible means of exercising power.
Moreover, they were throwing away a precious gift. The system of government that they had inherited from their ancestors (and that, to an extent, had been codified in the Mosaic law) was messy, and it had permitted no small amount of injustice (cf. Judges 21:25). But it also gave them the precious gift of liberty. In language borrowed from Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, the people were “citizens,” not “subjects.” They had real social and political standing, which meant that they also had real agency. They could do what they needed to do to ensure the welfare of their families, the productivity of their communities, and the health of their nation. Israel’s leaders were throwing all of this away by asking for a king.
So, if all of this is true, then why does God grant Israel’s request? I think that it is because God knew how stubborn they were. It would be better if God chose their king for them than if they chose a king for themselves. God may have also known that to deny them a king now would be to exclude the prophetic office from Israel’s public life and perhaps even to make the prophets enemies of whatever monarchy was created. God seems to have always wanted there to be a balance of powers, and by allowing the prophet Samuel to anoint a king, it was possible to give the office of prophet a role in Israel’s political life. At least God would have (ideally) a voice at the table.
God’s Surprising Response: Comfort for a Wounded Ego
But how is any of this comforting for Samuel? After all, he is the one who has to go out there, tell the Israelites all the reasons that they do not need a king, and experience their rejection all over again. And what about the fact that the Israelites do seem to have a legitimate complaint, at least as far as Samuel’s sons go?
As strange as it may seem to us, God is saying to Samuel that this problem is not on him. It is just part of the job of leading God’s people. That could well have been disconcerting to Samuel; it would have been to me. But it was also comforting. It not only communicated to Samuel that God did not blame him for what was happening, but it also reminded Samuel that he was not alone. Others (think especially Moses) had carried the burden of leading this unruly people, and Samuel could look to them, and especially to God, for understanding and encouragement.
Learning from Samuel’s Example
It can be difficult to come to God with our complaints, especially when the complaints are about the work that God has given us to do. Sometimes God responds by commanding us to stop complaining. But sometimes God responds with empathy and wisdom. In either case, His response is good, both for us and for those we lead.
One of the many mistakes that I have made in my own prayer life is presuming that I knew ahead of time how God would respond. Most often, my presumption was negative. In other words, I assumed that God would give me a swift kick in the backside and tell me to stop complaining. This only engendered bitterness towards God. Instead, I need to bring my frustrations before the Lord without trying to predict how He will react. And then I need to respond with humble gratitude for whatever response I receive.