By Mark Mayberry
Let us consider the circumstances that resulted in Israel’s demand, “Give us a king!” This ultimatum was rooted in failure and faithlessness. Yet, we must also remember that leadership in Israel was a matter of prophecy and principle.
Prophecies of Leadership
The Bible contains various prophecies relating to rule and kingship. God said to Abraham, “I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you” (Gen. 17:1-8, esp. vs. 6). This pledge was repeated concerning Sarah: “I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:15-16).
After Jacob returned to Canaan, the Lord appeared unto the patriarch, changing his name from Jacob (i.e., he who supplants) to Israel (i.e., he who strives with God), repeating the promises previously given to Abraham, specifying, “A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you” (Gen. 35:9-12).
Near the end of his life, Jacob summoned his twelve sons, saying, “Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come.” In particular, he prophesied that Judah would enjoy regal rights: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:8-12).
Principles of Leadership
Near the end of his life, Moses spoke of the principles that should govern Israel and its future kings (Deut. 17:14-20). Positively stated, the people of Israel must follow a king whom the Lord chooses (vs. 15a). He shall write a copy of the law, and it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear and obey the Lord his God (vs. 18-20). Negatively stated, Israel’s king must not be a foreigner but rather an Israelite (vs. 15b). Shunning prideful self-reliance and entangling external alliances, he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt (vs. 16). Avoiding carnality and covetousness, he shall not multiply wives for himself, nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself (vs. 17).
Perversions of Leadership
Israel’s plea for a king grew out of the moral failure of Samuel’s sons, who walked not in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain, taking bribes and perverting justice (1 Sam. 8:1-5; 10:17-19).
This demand involved a rejection, not just of Samuel’s sons, but of Jehovah God Himself. God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:6-9). A similar spirit was evidenced when the congregation murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness (Exod. 16:1-8; Num. 16:8-11). So likewise, those who reject the gospel message disregard, not just man below but God above (Luke 10:16; 1 Thess. 4:1-8).
This travesty occurred because of Israel’s shameful desire to be like the surrounding nations (1 Sam. 8:19-20). In the Christian era, discipleship demands distinctiveness: We must not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Avoiding all that is corrupt and unclean, let us come out and be separate (2 Cor. 6:14-18).
Israel’s action illustrates the proverbial saying, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” In the division of the 1850s, poor congregational singing resulted in a demand for instrumental music. In the division of the 1950s, a failure of the church to accomplish its God-given mission led to the widespread promotion of institutionalism. The proper solution involves growing in faith, developing our talents, implementing God’s plan, not setting aside the divine pattern in favor of some unscriptural human arrangement.
This example also reminds us of the law of unintended consequences. In other words, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might just get it!” The people of Israel wanted a king who would go out before them with pomp and circumstance, and fight their battles. In other words, they wanted someone else to do things for them. Instead, what they got was high taxes, heavy burdens, and harsh servitude (1 Sam. 8:10-22; cf. 1 Kings 12:1-15).
Biblical prophecies regarding reign and rule ultimately point to Jesus Christ, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9). He exemplifies the qualities of a true and just leader. Let us beware of the dual dangers that beset failed leaders, careless neglect on one hand, overbearing oppressiveness on the other (Heb. 13:15-21; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Those who serve in positions of oversight should follow His example (John 10:11-15; 1 Pet. 2:21-25).