1 Samuel 12:19-25
19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. 22 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. 23 Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. 24 Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. 25 But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”
Our passage today comes at the end of the account of the beginning of the monarchy in Israel (1 Samuel 8–12). About 400 years have passed since Israel left Egypt, and Israel was led by prophets and judges, but not by kings. That changed about 1050 B.C. when Saul became the first king of Israel. The establishment of the monarchy was a significant event in the history of Israel, and the Scriptures give us a fairly detailed account about how it came to pass.
The most striking thing about the account is that it is clearly portrayed as part of the spiritual decline of the nation. God is not pleased with the people’s demand for a king. Ever since Israel had left Egypt (8:8), they have spiraled downward in their relationship with God. And our passage today indicates that the beginning of the monarchy was another part of that spiritual regression. But why? What was wrong with the demand for a king?
To see what is going on in this passage, we need to get a bigger picture of Israel’s history to this point.
The books of Samuel and Kings continue the account of the history of Israel. Beginning with the exodus from Egypt, this history is a story of how God brought redemption to his people. This theme is not relegated to the exodus account only. It is clear when we read the book of Joshua that God continues to save his people by empowering them to overthrow the Canaanites and to take possession of the land. So Jericho falls to Israel not because of military prowess but because God delivered Jericho into the hand of Israel (Josh 6:2). In spite of the fact that Joshua was the identified leader in Israel, it was clear that God was the savior.
13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
The book of Joshua gives way to the book of Judges where we repeatedly read of Israel’s moral failures. Following Joshua’s death, there was no one individual appointed by God to lead his people. Before long we read that “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Consequently, the people rebelled against the God who had saved them repeatedly. But God did not abandon his people. What we find in the book of Judges are several cycles of rebellion, divine punishment, and deliverance.
11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. 16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:11-19)
Now there are several things we might say in comment about the book of Judges. Obviously God is seen to be almost ridiculously gracious. We might expect at any time that God will finally be done with these rebellious people. But though they keep rebelling, even after they are delivered, God continues to pursue them. On the human side we might observe how stubborn Israel is. The progression is downward, away from God and not toward him. And I think we would be right to conclude that such is the nature of all of us. Left to ourselves, we will wander away from God in spite of all that he does to rescue us.
But there seems to be something bigger taking place here. This is not just an account of God’s graciousness toward stubborn and rebellious people. This is an account of God’s story of redemption. In other words, the story of the exodus from Egypt continues on in Joshua and in Judges. God continues to save his people. Who rescued Israel from Egypt? Not Moses, but God. Who brought Israel into the promised land by delivering their enemies over to them? Not Joshua, but God. And who is the savior in the book of Judges?
Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. (Judges 2:18)
So the overarching story-line from the exodus from Egypt through the book of Judges has been that God is the savior of his people. God used different means to do so, but he wants to be seen by his people as their savior.
Here then we find what is so wrong with Israel’s request for a king. It is not that God disapproved of there ever being a monarchy. Provisions were made in the Law for just such a thing (Gen 17:6; Deut 17:14-20). The reason why this request is viewed as evil is because of the motive behind the request. Two motivations are stated in 1 Samuel 8:20.
God had chosen Israel as his people in order to be their Savior. But Israel wanted to be like the other nations. They did not want to be different. The kings of the other nations were often considered to be gods themselves. So these nations had an identifiable head, a god that they could touch. Israel was no longer content with a representative leader or judge. They wanted a king other than Yahweh. Their request was not a rection of Samuel’s leadership over Israel. It was a rejection of God’s headship over Israel (1 Sam 8:7).
Let’s clarify why this demand for a king was also a rejection of Yahweh as king. The people did not demand a king only because they wanted to be like the other nations, but also because they wanted a king who would “judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam 8:20). In other words, they wanted a human king who would be their savior. This was the real motive behind the demand. Israel no longer wanted to trust God to be their savior; they wanted to trust another king. God noted that this was what was happening.
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ 19 But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ (1 Samuel 10:18-19)
The reason why Israel’s request for a king is seen to be a great wickedness is because it was an expression of faith in someone other than God himself. Again we read, in 1 Samuel 12:12, “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the LORD your God was your king.” This sounds like treason! Israel has rejected God in favor of another king. Israel has turned to another deliverer in the face of an external threat. Israel wanted a king because they did not trust Yahweh. They were looking elsewhere for salvation.
This was not the first time this had happened in Israel’s history. When Moses went up on a mountain to receive God’s law, the people got weary of waiting for him to return. They said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exo 32:1). Aaron made a golden calf and the people worshipped it and declared the idols to be the gods that brought them out of Egypt. Without the presence of Moses to remind them of God’s presence, the people demanded something else that was tangible upon which they could put their trust.
This is the essence of idolatry, trusting in something or someone other than God to be your savior. By “savior” I mean that which is your source of confidence and satisfaction. Everyone has a savior. The question is whether or not that savior can actually deliver on what you are trusting it for.
The connection between idolatry and Israel’s demand for a king is explicit in 1 Samuel 12:21. Samuel warns the people to “not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty.” Emptiness is the way Isaiah describes idols in Isaiah 41:29: “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.” This warning was delivered to God’s people because they were teetering on the precipice of idolatry. God knows that the only satisfaction for the human heart is himself; nothing else can profit or deliver.
I find it instructive that this admonition regarding idolatry was delivered to God’s people. These were not pagans to whom Samuel was speaking. Those who have experienced God’s power are just as capable of turning to idols as anyone.
So again I emphasize: Everyone has a savior. The question is whether or not that savior can actually deliver. This is what it means to receive Christ as one’s Savior. It means to see Christ as the only satisfier of the heart. It means turning away from idols and to Christ (1 Thess 1:9).
How do I know if I have an idol as my savior? Ask yourself, how satisfied are you with God? Is he fulfilling the deepest needs of your heart? Or are you supplementing your faith in him with a million other things that only disappoint? Many people today are turning to all kinds of things for satisfaction, all the while claiming to be trusting in God. God’s people need to constantly evaluate who their savior is.
Now admittedly, this is not an easy thing to discern in our lives. Because many of our idols are good things that otherwise we would not need to abstain from if they were not our functional savior. Israel was allowed to have their king; the monarchy was not idolatrous in itself. It will take a great deal of evaluation and repentance for us to rid the idols from our lives.
Samuel’s admonition to the people of God to not turn aside from following him is propped up on the promise of 1 Samuel 12:22. In other words, Samuel does not just hope the Israelites will listen to his plea for obedience; he explains to them why their obedience to God is worth it. God, he says, is not like the empty things that cannot profit or deliver. Instead, “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.” So Israel can trust God because he will not disappoint them. He will not abandon them. He will maintain his covenant loyalty to them, so that they will not have to fear that this God will fail to come through on their salvation.
How do we know that God will not fail to deliver, that he will be eternally satisfying to us who trust him? Samuel tells us that God will not forsake his people, “for his great name’s sake.” The word forsake means to give up something, to not be bothered with it any more. Samuel said God will not do that to his people because doing so will jeopardize the greatness of his name. And God will not let his name be tarnished. So the prophet assures us that trusting God for one’s eternal satisfaction will not disappoint based upon the certainty that God will not give up on his people lest his own name—his own glory—be diminished.
But why would it be devastating to God’s glory if he gave up on his people? After all, we are talking about people who are not worthy of God’s everlasting joy. They are a rebellious—even idolatrous—people who are worthy only of God’s wrath. So we might even say that it would seem to glorify God more if he did give up on people like this. And what about us? Are we any different? Are we the people of God who love him always and perfectly with all our hearts and souls and minds? Or do we get entangled with other saviors, too? We are very much like these Israelites and so the question is, why doesn’t God give up on them or us?
The answer is here in the text. See it at the end of verse 22. “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.” It does not say God will not forsake his people because we will never forsake him. The reason why God will not give up on us is because it was his pleasure to take us as a people for himself in the first place. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us and made us his own. And now, for the sake of his glorious name, he will bring to completion and full satisfaction all of those that he has chosen to be his people.
But let’s be clear that God does not do this without any concern for how we respond to him. God chooses a people for himself in spite of their sin, but he is not passive toward it. In verses 17-19 we read that God sent a thunderstorm, which, occurring as an answer to Samuel’s petition and coming early in the dry season, was designed to reveal to the people the extent of their wickedness. And it achieved the desired effect. “And all the people said to Samuel, ‘Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king” (v. 19). Samuel’s response to their repentance is quite interesting, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil” (v. 20). How can it be that we do not need to fear when our wickedness is exposed? Because when God grants repentance it is a sign of his mercy toward you. So Samuel continues, “Do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart” (v. 20). If we refuse to repent but continue down our idolatrous ways, the threat of verse 25 remains. “If you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”
God will not forsake his people because he has shown the initiative in making them his people. This does not mean his people reciprocate perfectly his love and devotion. But it does mean that God does not give up on them but continues to grant them repentance so that they will not ultimately turn away from him.
Practically for us, then, we need ways to stay satisfied in God so that we do not turn to other things to be our functional saviors. How can we enjoy the provisions of God without turning away from God? In other words, how can we have our king without rejecting God as our king?
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
This is what Israel knew they needed, too. “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king” (v. 19). Graciously, God has provided means for us to live. There are four of them in this text.
The rest of the books of Samuel and Kings will continue to show God’s amazing grace in bringing redemption to his people who continue to rebel against him. May we be stunned into obedience and devotion to Christ by what we see of him.