THE RISE OF THE MONARCHY: THE BOOK OF 1 SAMUEL
A) Samuel: Samuel was the last of the judges (7:15), and the book of 1 Samuel provides an account of the transition between the judges and the monarchy. God had raised up Samuel when Eli's sons proved themselves to be worthless men (2:29,34; 3:13).1 Samuel's ministry as a judge seems to have mostly consisted in instructing Israel in God's Word and devoting himself to prayer for them (3:21; 12:23; cf. Acts 6:4). Samuel was faithful to his calling, and when he became old, he appointed his sons to be judges after him. But when it was clear that his sons didn't walk in his ways, all the elders of Israel approached Samuel and asked him to appoint a king over them to be their judge (8:1-5). Samuel brings the matter to God in prayer, and the Lord tells Samuel to listen to their voice; but the Lord also tells Samuel that in asking for a king, “they have rejected Me from being king over them.” (8:7). God was not against the monarchy per se; indeed, He's the One who had been orchestrating it. He had promised Abraham that kings would come forth from him (Genesis 17:6,16; cf. 35:11). He had given specific instructions for establishing the monarchy in Deuteronomy 17. And, as we've seen, the whole book of Judges is devoted to showing that what Israel needed most was a king. So, it seems, the problem wasn't so much with what Israel wanted—but why it is they wanted it: They were asking Samuel for a king, “that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (8:20). They wanted a king to be more (not less) like the pagan nations around them. And they wanted a king that they could see with their eyes when they went to battle. God had been their king. But I guess having a king they could see was easier than trusting the One they couldn't. Israel wanted a king for all the wrong reasons. And God would give them a king. But He would do it for His own purposes: God would use the monarchy to bless and renew them.2
B) Saul: Israel wanted a king who would look good and fight their battles for them. So, that's exactly what God gave them when He hand-picked their first king, Saul. This seems to be implied even in the meaning of his name. In the Hebrew, Saul means “asked for.” Things didn't go well under Saul. And it's as though God was saying: “This is what you asked for.” Saul was exactly what Israel wanted in a king: he was “a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people.” (1 Samuel 9:2).3 Saul was a natural-born leader; he checked all the boxes. But it wasn't long before he stopped listening to God. Saul “rejected the word of the Lord”, and the Lord rejected him as king (15:23). Turns out, God wanted to teach His people some lessons about leadership, and they would have to learn the hard way. Because the fact was, Israel never needed a natural-born leader. And they didn't need a king who was handsome, mighty, and tall. Other nations may have sought for kings by these standards. But God's people were to be different; and as such they needed a different sort of king. Saul had the face and build of a Hollywood star and he knew how to lead an army. But what Israel needed wasn't a military expert or a celebrity superstar. They needed a man after God's own heart.4
C) David: It wasn't long after Saul had been crowned king that God sent Samuel on a mission to find his replacement. The Lord tells Samuel: “Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for Myself among his sons.” (1 Samuel 16:1). Some of this might sound familiar, because this was the same Jesse from Bethlehem who is mentioned at the end of the book of Ruth. Jesse was the son of Obed (Ruth 4:17,22); and Obed, if you remember, was the adopted grandson of Naomi whom Ruth had born to Boaz. God had done wonderful things in the town of Bethlehem many years before, and He was about to do wonderful things there once again.
But no one had expected the one God had chosen as king: “When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, 'Surely the Lord's anointed is before Him.' But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Jesse had brought seven sons, but God had chosen the one left behind to babysit the sheep. When David is brought in, the Lord tells Samuel to anoint him. And when he does, “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (1 Samuel 16:13). Significantly, we're also told in the next verse that “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul. . .” In this we see that God's special anointing for leading His people had been taken away from Saul and given to David.5 But though David was now anointed as the new king, it would be years before he'd actually reign. And though he had been entrusted with a unique privilege, that also meant he'd have to undergo unique preparation. David would have had no way of knowing it at the time, but his path to the throne would be one of hardships, tears, and trials. He would have to spend the next several years of his life in exile, running from Saul in the wilderness. For David, suffering would come before glory; a cross before the crown.
There's so much we learn from David, the man after God's heart: his life is an example for us; his sin is a warning to us; his sufferings are an encouragement to us. But most of all, as we'll see, David's life and kingship are meant to point us to another King who would come after him and through his line. It's true, as we said, that many years before David, God had done wonderful things in the little town of Bethlehem. But many years after David, the Lord would do wonders there once again. Another king would arise from Bethlehem. God had sent Samuel, the last of the judges, to anoint Israel's new king. But later, He would send John, the last of the prophets, to anoint Israel's true and everlasting King. David reigned for a time as king over Israel; but the Lord Jesus is the One God has appointed to reign over all as King of kings forever. But Jesus' kingship would also be patterned after David's: Before glory there would have to be suffering; before the crown there would have to be the cross.6
1 It's noteworthy that it wasn't just Eli's sons who went astray. Later we come to learn that Samuel's sons “turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Samuel 8:3). Later still, we find David's sons Absalom and Amnon turning away from the Lord; even Solomon falls into idolatry. Why is this such a pattern? It may be that all these men allowed their ministries to become idols. Perhaps they elevated their work to a place it was never meant to hold at the expense of their families. These were also men in prominent positions; so even greater care is needed to shepherd our families in such cases.
2 Howard Jr. says: “Early in 1 Samuel, the elders of Israel came together to ask Samuel to appoint a king over Israel (1 Samuel 8). The problem with this request was not that God was against the kingship per se. The opposite was actually the case: God was for it. He had promised kings to Abraham from the beginning (Genesis 17:6,16; 35:11), and He had spoken of kings as His blessings upon the people several times since (see especially Genesis 49:8-12; Numbers 24:7,17). . .The problem with the request for kingship in 1 Samuel 8 was the motivations behind it. The people wanted a king to rule over them 'like all the nations' (1 Samuel 8:5,20). First Samuel 8:20 goes beyond this and reveals the Israelites' true agenda in asking for this king: 'Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles' (italics added). This desire flew in the face of the injunctions in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. . .and it was couched in terms of the common ancient Near Eastern conception of a king as one who would fight the nation's battles and receive the glory for it. . . In effect, this desire served to 'depose' the Lord as Israel's king, for He had been the one who had delivered Israel time and time again. . .Thus, the problem with Israel's request for a king was not that God did not ever want Israel to have a human king. Indeed, kingship was part of His plan from the beginning. However, a proper kingship, in which God retained His supreme place over Israel as its God and its warrior, was not what Israel actually asked for when it requested a king, and that was the reason for the verdicts about its sinfulness.” (An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, pp159-60).
3 It's clear from 1 Samuel 8:20 (see above) that Israel wanted their king to be a qualified military expert. It's not as clear that Israel was asking for their king to be strong and tall, since the statement in 1 Samuel 9:2 is more of a description of Saul than a demand of the people. But if we compare other Scriptures, I believe we find that this was simply an assumed qualification of the king. This is hinted at in 1 Samuel 10:23-24; but we see it most clearly when Samuel is called upon to go to Bethlehem to anoint the new king. When Samuel begins to look at Jesse's sons, we read: “When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, 'Surely the Lord's anointed is before Him.' But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” (1 Samuel 16:6-7 ). It's implied here that the assumption was the king should look a certain way.
4 One common question that arises as we talk about God's rejection of Saul's kingship is: How can it be that God “regretted” (ESV) or “repented” (KJV) of making Saul king in 1 Samuel 15:11? The Hebrew word here is nakham, and it's translated in three different ways in Scripture: 1) “ 'relent' or 'change one's mind'. . . 2) or 'have pity or compassion'. . . 3) as well as 'be sorry' or 'have regret'.” (ESV Study Bible, 1 Samuel 15:29). Here it's used in the third sense: the Lord is sorry; saddened; grieved: “[In 15:11], as in Genesis 6:6, the Lord 'regrets' a decision. This means that God feels genuine sorrow when contemplating Saul's sin. But it does not mean that God thinks his decision to make Saul king was a mistake in the overall course of his plans for history (cf. Isaiah 46:9-10).” (ESV Study Bible, 1 Samuel 15:11). And again: “The Hebrew word can mean repenting of one's own sins (impossible for God); finding comfort (inappropriate in this context); or here, God feeling sorrow over man's sins (Isaiah 63:10) and reversing His former course of action (2 Samuel 24:16; Jonah 4:2) in appointing Saul as king, just as He had grieved over the sin of mankind and reversed His act of creating them by destroying them with the flood (Genesis 6:5-7).” (Reformation Heritage Study Bible). Another question is how do we understand this in light of the fact that 1 Samuel 15:29 uses the same word in saying that the Lord “will not. . .change His mind”? How can verse 11 tell us God “repented” but verse 29 tells us that God does not “repent”? Again, the same Hebrew word can be used in different ways in Scripture: “the term as used in 1 Samuel 15:11,35 describes God's own feeling of sorrow or regret that Saul had turned out as he did. . .while in verse 29 God will not regret or change his mind concerning a decision once he has made it.” (ESV Study Bible). And again: “There is no contradiction between this statement and the notices in verses 11 and 35 that the Lord was 'grieved' for having made Saul king, even though 'grieved' translates the same Hebrew word as is here rendered 'change his mind.' The point in this verse, as in Numbers 23:19, is that when the Lord makes a pronouncement intended to be final, he cannot, like a human being, be talked out of it.” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible on 15:29). A third question that arises as we think about Saul is: What happened to him? How did a man who seemed so humble at the beginning end up so arrogant and self-seeking in the end? And what are we to make of him? This is a great question, and an important one. We'll come back to answer it in more depth later in this lesson. But in general, we must understand Saul's life as a warning. He does seem to have such a promising start (we see this especially in 1 Samuel 10); and that's the very thing that makes his sudden decline so shocking. He falls terribly; and in such a way that he never recovers (so at least it seems). Saul is given as a warning to us, and I think we are to understand his life as a whole in a way similar to the warning spoken to us in Hebrews 12:16-17: “[See to it] that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.”
5 It's important that we don't misunderstand or misinterpret the events of 1 Samuel 16:13-14. The ESV Study Bible rightly notes on verse 14: “The Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul as soon as the Lord's Spirit came upon David to anoint him for kingship (see v13). This statement is not relevant to the issue of whether people can lose their salvation; it is not describing the Holy Spirit's role in individual regeneration in a NT sense. Rather, in light of verse 13, it should be seen as being about gaining or losing the Spirit's empowering for the role of king (see 10:1,6,10; 11:6; 16:13; and perhaps Psalm 51:11). From this point to the end of his life, Saul will continually make futile attempts to govern without the empowering of the Holy Spirit.”
6 There are indeed several similarities between the lives and ministries of Samuel and John the Baptist. Another similarity is that just like Samuel's mother, Hannah, John's mother Elizabeth was also barren until the Lord opened up her womb to give her a very special son whom He had set apart for a very special task. Also, just as Samuel had not expected whom it was that God had chosen of Jesse's sons, so John the Baptist tells us twice that he at first “did not recognize” Jesus as the Messiah until the Lord revealed it to him (John 1:31,33). And just as the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David after being anointed by Samuel, so too the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon Christ after being baptized by John (Matthew 3:16-17).