Samuel was aging. The elders in Israel saw that Samuel’s sons were not like him. They demanded a king to lead them. They wanted a leader. They wanted to be like other nations. First Samuel 8:5 records their request: “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
Samuel inquired of God. God told him to warn the people: it would not go well for them, and they would be subjected and conscripted. The elders and people would not listen to Samuel’s warning and insisted that they wanted a king.
God’s instruction to Samuel is both surprising and perplexing, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
When the Israelites exited Egypt, God chose for them to be a theocratic nation. He chose a servant leader, Moses, who was a shepherd of the people and God’s prophet. Moses was not a king, and he was not a military leader.
God brought his people to Sinai. There he met with his servant Moses and gave the people instructions for living. At Sinai, the nomadic Israelites were organized. The Torah contains 613 guidelines. We call them laws, and some were. But more importantly, those laws were instructions for life. At least, those were the major laws within the 613.
There were other important, but minor, laws. While the major laws focused on living obediently with their God, the minor laws focused on living in shalom with each other. As the nomadic people came together and in closer quarters, laws were given to insure that they would respect each other and not be abusive; laws were given to protect them from the spread of disease; laws were given to pertaining to sanitation and food preservation. All of these together were God’s instructions to move his people from informal tribal society to a chosen and unified nation.
One of the mysteries of the Bible is how God has chosen to be in relation with his children. God clearly directed his chosen people and gave them a guide for living. Along the Israelite journey, disobedience was dealt with severely. Three thousand were killed at Sinai after the golden calf incident. The Israelites were left to wander in the desert for 40 years to learn obedience. Even Moses was punished for striking a rock instead of speaking to it. The harsh punishments that followed disobedience only make sense when we understand that God was teaching his children how to live obediently with him.
And yet, they never learned. Each turn from disobedience to obedience was temporary. Disobedience returned throughout the biblical story. We shouldn’t really be surprised. That is our story, and the story of the human condition, in each generation.
The fledgling nation did eventually cross the Jordan and inherit the Promised Land. For his faults, Moses led them well. He turned the reins over to Joshua, who also led well. But Joshua failed, too. He didn’t wipe out the pagans and idolaters from the land.
The tribes of Israel also knew tribalism better than unified nationhood. The period of the judges was chaotic. Israel was a mess, with highs and lows and a lack of leadership.
At the end of the period of the judges, good prophet Samuel led. But even he was unable to prepare the next generation to lead for God. Rather than seeking a leader for God, the elders of Israel chose poorly. They looked at the nations around them and said, we want to be like them.
Their decision had a permanent and tragic consequence. God desired for his people to follow his perfect ways. His people were choosing to be led by flawed humans instead. It would not end well.
Are you called to lead? The question for each of us who answers yes to that question is this: will you choose to lead for God, or will you choose to lead for yourself?
There is little that is new under the sun.
(this devotional is the first in a series of four devotionals which could be called: We Three Kings)
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services