by Kelsey Hency
Recently a prominent businessman in London fielded a question about the queen’s tax-payer-funded personal budget. This financially savvy Englishman said, “Give her whatever she wants. She is the Queen of England.” Whether Ancient Israelite hypnotized by a chariot riding Philistine king or modern “commoner” transfixed with the televised wedding of an English prince, we find ourselves smitten with royalty. Israel was propelled by an infatuation with a monarchy from the time of intermittent judges into the world of consistent kings. The book of I Samuel depicts a people so taken with the idea of kingship that they would readily trade Yahweh for an Israelite sitting on the throne over them.
Each story in 1 Samuel acts as a brick paving the road to an established monarchy. Many of those bricks we know well—the anointing of a young David, his victory over Goliath, and the endearing friendship between David and Jonathan. Each individual story provides a glimpse into the future life and character of Christ. These bricks lie within the greater path that leads first to kingship for Israel and then to Christ himself.
Israel’s quest for kingship takes place in the time of the Judges. The book of Judges ends ominously, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). “Those days” were not good days for God’s people. This declaration leaves no room to believe a kingless Israel will one day flourish. They certainly haven’t. They clearly won’t. The Israelites continuously replayed a cycle of destruction that left them in dire need of someone to guide them into restoration.
Thus the book begins with the birth of a leader—Israel’s last judge. Hannah, a barren woman living among a floundering nation desperately in need of saving, gives birth to a son, Samuel. In her song of praise she declares (decades before the monarchy) that the Lord will strengthen and exalt his king (1 Sam 2:10). From the beginning we get hints of where the story of 1 Samuel will end. Victorious kingship waits for Israel! But as Hannah’s own story fades into her son’s story, the cycle of the judges repeats once more. Samuel leads the people in obedience but their faithfulness does not last.
In fact, when the day arrived for Samuel to exit the scene, Israel turns from God completely instead of trusting that God would continue to lead them. The elders look warily at Samuel’s corrupt sons and say to him, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5b). Unable to see how they would flourish without Samuel, Israel looks to their godless neighbors instead of Yahweh. The ancient version of “keeping up with the Joneses” enchants the Israelites.
If the Israelites had wanted a king who would draw the nation closer to God, they probably wouldn’t have asked for a king at all. Throughout their history God had provided prophets, priests and judges to execute his governance over Israel, but with every leader Israel failed to grasp the opportunity to grow in faithfulness. Despite God’s appointed means of leadership, they rarely acted like God’s chosen people. They consistently looked like everyone else. With their demand for a king “like all the nations” the last declaration in Judges stings fresh once again; for on that day not even God ruled as king in Israel.
Israel did not want a king who would reign under God but a king who would reign in place of God.
Grieved by their request but obedient to Yahweh, Samuel anoints Saul as Israel’s first king. He gathers the people to affirm Saul and recounts story after story of God’s faithful record as judge and defender. Hearing Samuel’s argument for God’s kingship, Israel realizes what Samuel knew from the outset—they had committed a grievous sin by asking for a king. Smitten with the world around them, Israel had forsaken God as their rightful and perfect king. Terrified of the consequences of their treason, Israel pleads with Samuel to intercede on their behalf.
In the face of such blatant sin what will God do? Israel’s request justifies judgment from God. But God does not exercise judgment. Instead, the gospel plot thickens as Samuel responds to the trembling nation saying, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil.”
Wait … this doesn’t seem to make sense. Shouldn’t Israel fear the Lord’s response? God’s people had forsaken him and turned their back on him as king. They had gathered together that day because a human king now sat on the throne! God’s justice likely meant death. Even Israel knows this. They beg Samuel to pray that they won’t die for their rebellion.
But Samuel explains the reason Israel could have hope instead of fear, “For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Sam 12:22). God looked upon disobedient Israel and chose to exercise mercy over judgment. When God could have chosen to forsake his people, he promises instead to draw them near.
Throughout the rest of Israel’s history they would experience the consequences of forcing the establishment of a monarchy. But at all times hope envelops the struggles of Israel. What they meant for evil, God meant for good.
The rejection of God as the king of Israel brought about the royal institution from which the lineage of Jesus emerges, the line of David. In the rest of I Samuel and continuing through 2 Samuel we see a fallible David abide in God, and his commitment makes him the king after God’s own heart—the model of a king who reigns under God, not in place of him.
Through the line of David a future king would come. A king, fully God and fully man, would ascend to the throne of Israel and the whole world. He would prove himself the only sufficient king as he unwaveringly abides in God. This king completely returns Yahweh to the throne. One day he would willingly give his life for his subjects. His very death would atone for the sins of the world, including Israel’s sin of asking for a king like the other nations.
All four gospels record Pilate asking Jesus the same question before his crucifixion, “Are you the king of the Jews?” All four times Jesus responds, “You have said so.” Ultimately Jesus sits on David’s throne as the eternal sovereign. Through Jesus, God fulfills his promise to reconcile—his promise to make a people for himself.
I Samuel shows us that despite astonishing sin, despite treason, despite impending consequences of rebellion, God remains faithful to save—faithful to make for himself a people for the sake of his name. Reuben Hunter, the pastor of Trinity West in London sums up the mercies of God in I Samuel well, “God’s kindness proves greater than our stupidity.” The apostle Paul would phrase it a little differently, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20b).