1. Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel.
Samuel had judged Israel for many years now, and perhaps he started thinking of retirement, or at least who was going to take over the work when he died. He was probably nearing sixty years old at this time. He decides to prepare his sons to take over his task and to make them judges over Israel. This was the way families typically worked, with the sons following in their father’s footsteps to take over his family business. This was not the way the judgeship worked, however, and this attempt by Samuel is no more successful than when others tried the same thing. The judges of Israel were to be chosen by God. Those chosen by Samuel simply did not work out.
2. The name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba.
Samuel gave his boys Godly names. His firstborn he called Joel, which means “Jehovah is God.” The second he named Abijah, which means “Jehovah is father.” He set them up to judge in the far south, in the town of Beersheba. Beersheba means “Well of the Oath,” and was so named because this was where Abraham and Abimelech, father-king of the Philistines, had made an oath together. Abimelech feared Abraham because of his great power and wealth that God had given him, so he asked Abraham to swear not to deal falsely with him or his posterity. Abimelech’s servants, however, had stolen this well from Abraham, who had digged it, so Abraham also swore to Abimelech that he had dug the well. From then on, this well became known as the Well of the Oath, and the town that grew up there was named after the well.
Now at this time this oath was far in the past, as was the friendship between Israel and the Philistines. The town did still belong to the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants. It had taken on a new signification by the days of Samuel, however. Though the boundaries of Israel as set forth by God extended all the way down to the river of Egypt in the south, in reality the town of Beersheba was the furthest south of any town of significance in Israel. Thus the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba” became a phrase that meant “all of Israel from north to south.” We have seen that Samuel judged Israel in the central part of the land. It seems, then, that he set his sons up in the far south, probably to act as his agents there and to learn the art of judging, while he remained centrally located and continued to judge Israel from his usual places.
3. But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice.
Sadly, whatever Samuel’s hopes for the outcome of this plan, they did not come to pass. His sons, far south and out of his immediate oversight, are quickly corrupted. They do not walk in the righteous ways of their father. They do not live the Godly kind of lifestyle that he did. Instead, they prove to be corrupt rulers. They turn aside from proper governing to seek money gotten by dishonest means. They prove themselves ready to receive bribes in order to twist justice to favor the one who bribed them. The result is that they pervert justice, caring not about what is right, but rather about what benefits them.
It is sad to see that the sons of Godly Samuel, a man who served God so whole-heartedly, did in fact turn out in such a disappointing way. We cannot help but remember Eli, another unsuccessful father we have seen in the book of Samuel, and wonder if perhaps Samuel learned his fathering skills from him! Yet at least we can say that Samuel did not let his sons do so much wickedness against Yahweh as Eli did without restraining them.
4. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,
All the elders of Israel gather together to come and make their complaint to Samuel at Ramah, where he was judging. The “elders” here is a word which means old men, but also representative men. Cities had their elders, as did tribes. What the qualifications were for an elder is uncertain. Certainly the fact that the word means both elder and “older” would lead us to believe they were usually older men, but I do not think this was the important qualification. Probably what was really necessary was that their fathers were either dead or retired, so that they were the elders or patriarchs of their own families. Surely, if they were not even the representatives of their own families, then they could not represent Israel otherwise. Beyond that, they probably had to have the confidence of their people. Sometimes perhaps they were born into a family that had acted as elders for generations, and sometimes they were chosen to the position personally for the confidence their fellow citizens placed in them. They probably included representatives of tribes, representatives of sub-tribes or large and important families within the tribes, and representatives of important cities or towns. But at any rate, it was the representative men who came to Samuel at Ramah.
5. and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
They accuse Samuel of being old. Since they were “elders” and Samuel was probably around sixty years old, as we said above, it is clear that “elder” did not necessarily mean they were extremely old. Then, they point out that his sons do not walk in his ways. This was true, but really it was just an excuse for what they wanted to demand next.
They reveal their real goal to Samuel. They don’t want to just have a judge like Samuel over them anymore. They want to be like other nations. They want to have a king. This seems rather insulting to Samuel, the faithful judge who had ruled them honestly for so many years and saved them from their enemies, the Philistines. Yet this was also a most insulting demand to a Person much more important than Samuel, the One Who was already their King. For the judge, as important as he was, was not the true Ruler of Israel. Judges were given to Israel by God, their true King. Israel already had a King, and a far greater and grander King than any other nation had or could hope to have. Why, then, would they reject such a King, and ask for a mere human king to rule over them instead?
There could be several reasons for their asking this. One thing to realize is that, while God is a very good King if you are honest and good and want nothing more than what is due to you, He must not seem such a good King to one who wants to use his power or position to curry political favor, or to gain an unfair advantage, or to manipulate the system to get what he wants. Such a man would find God a King Who was entirely inflexible and unable to be manipulated. He did not care about powerful men’s favors, nor about political wheeling and dealing. Yet a human king might well care about such things. A human king might well be manipulated. So it could well be that the dishonest or power-hungry men among them chafed under a God they could not manipulate or control, and therefore they wanted a human king who could be manipulated to do what they wanted! Indeed, wicked and sinful men would never find God a satisfactory ruler.
Yet there was more to their demand than this. Though they do not admit what was pushing them to desire this change, God knows what is in their hearts, and Samuel reveals to them that God knows in I Samuel 12:12. He tells them, “And when you saw that Nahash 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.” It seems these elders saw Nahash king of the Ammonites, an ambitious and brash young man recently come to the throne, and they realized that he would try to expand his territory and get glory for himself by attacking Israel. They were afraid of this powerful young king.
Now their fear was not good. They should have relied upon God to help them. But there was probably also another factor working here. As long as Israel had no strong, central government, there was no standing army. Whenever one tribe got attacked by a neighboring nation, there was no central authority to demand that the other tribes raise troops to come and meet the threat. Sometimes, several tribes would get attacked, and find that their brother tribes would hang back from helping them. Now the responsibility for this was directly upon the elders of these tribes…in other words, these very men. The task of raising up troops and stirring them up for battle whenever it was necessary was directly theirs. And yet it seems that this was a responsibility that these men did not want. If they had a king with central control over all the tribes, and even a standing army, he could worry about raising troops and meeting any threat when it came. The task and responsibility of fighting would be his, and no longer theirs. Therefore, it seems these men were motivated out of fear, as well as a reluctance to take the responsibility that was theirs. Not a good combination, but something that has motivated many men in many different situations down through the ages!
Now the reality was that God had anticipated that Israel would do this. In fact, He had given commands as to how it was to be done, as we read in Deuteronomy 17:14-15.
14. “When you come to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ 15. you shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.
So it was not forbidden for Israel to have a king. Yet it would have been far better if they had let God decide if they should have a king or not, rather than demanding one of Him. As we noted, this was an insult to the One Who already was their king. He may have planned to raise them up a human king eventually, but they did not wait for His time.
6. But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD.
Samuel probably rightfully felt rejected by this demand the people made. After all, he had been their judge, their God-given ruler, and now they are slighting him by asking for this. Yet in his displeasure He sought the LORD, which was surely the right thing to do!
7. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.
Jehovah replies to Samuel, and instructs him to listen to the people and grant their request. Yet he reassures Samuel that he, at least, should not take this request personally. What the people really had done was reject Jehovah, their true King, not just Samuel, His representative. What Israel had was a theocracy, and God was the true ruler over them. He would tell Samuel what to do, and Samuel would do it. So for the elders to ask for a king went far beyond slighting Samuel. What they really had done was rejected Jehovah as their ruler!
8. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also.
Yahweh assures Samuel that this is the same kind of thing the people of Israel have been doing ever since the day He brought them up out of Egypt. Samuel has not been around all this time, but Yahweh has, and He knows it. This is the attitude that has led them to forsake Yahweh and serve other gods. Now, they are doing the same kind of thing, in rejecting Him as being their King, and asking for another king instead. Samuel should not take this personally. They are just doing to him what they have been doing all along.
9. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”
The LORD therefore orders Samuel to listen to the people and to do what they want. However, Samuel is to solemnly forewarn them what this will mean. Apparently, the LORD is going to give them the kind of king they desire. Yet He knows how this king will treat them, and the way he will behave. Indeed, this is no big surprise. The people of Israel have not experienced a true king since the time they came out of Egypt, so they are unfamiliar with the ways of kings. They are used to the freedom they have enjoyed for many centuries. Yet now the LORD wants Samuel to warn them just how it is that a king will treat them.
10. So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who asked him for a king.
Samuel repeats Jehovah’s words to them. Notice that they were God’s words in Samuel’s mouth! This is how all Scripture is given, by the direct inspiration of God through His chosen mouthpiece, the prophet.
11. And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots.
So Samuel begins the warning Yahweh is giving to the people about the way a king will treat them. First, he assures them that the king will draft their sons into service. Some of them he will make his chariot drivers, others his horsemen, and still others as footmen to run before his chariots. It is the way of kings to draft able-bodied men into their armies. Yet Israel for many years has not had a king, and the only one who had real authority over his sons was their father. He could decide if his family would go to war or stay behind. Yet now, the father will have no choice. His sons, the very ones who were supposed to be working in his business and learning his trade to carry it on in the next generation, will be taken away from him to fight in the wars of the king. This alone will be very grievous to the fathers in Israel at that time!
12. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
The king will also appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties of soldiers. Until this time, the tribes have more or less had their autonomy, and have had the ability to choose their own leaders. Now, this privilege will be taken away from them by the king, and he will choose leaders as he sees fit. Moreover, it is not just to the army he will draft men. He will also draft men to plow his own ground and reap his own harvest. Thus the fathers in Israel will see their sons, the ones who should be helping them plow their fields and reap their harvest, plowing the king’s fields and reaping his harvest instead. They will be short-handed, while the king makes use of their family members as his own employees. Moreover, it will not just be the farmers who lose out, but also the craftsmen, for he will take some of their sons as well to be his manufacturers, to make weapons of war for his armies and equipment for his chariots. These are ways he will make them serve.
13. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.
Moreover, it is not just their sons that they will have taken from them by the king, but their daughters also will be drafted as his servants. These would have worked for their father until they were married, and then they would have fetched him a bridal price when he gave them away to husbands. Of course, they would have been replaced as his workers by the daughters-in-law his sons would get and bring into his house and into his family business. Yet now, the king will draft these into his service, and the fathers will get nothing for the loss of them. He will use some of them to make ointments or perfumes, others to cook food, and others to bake cakes.
14. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants.
Up to this time, a man’s land in Israel was his own, and none in Israel could take it away from them. Yet not so once they have a king. The king will tax away the best of their lands for himself, both of their fields for grain, their vineyards for grapes and wine, and their olive groves for olives and oil, and will grant these lands to his own servants as he sees fit.
15. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants.
Moreover the king will demand a tithe of them as a tax beyond the tithe they were commanded to give by the law of Moses. He will tithe their grain and their wine and oil, and will use this tenth he has taxed from them to feed his army and servants.
16. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work.
It is not just their sons and daughters he will take in the draft, but also their household servants, both male and female. The finest of the young men in their employ he will take, not those who might be less useful or more expendable. He will also take from their animals, taking their donkeys, that reliable beast of burden, and putting them to his own work.
17. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants.
He will take a tithe of all their sheep as well, taking them to use their wool for his own clothing and their meat for his own food. So finally, all the men of Israel will end up being his slaves, for there will be nothing they will be able to do to stop him from taking whatever he wants from them as he sees fit. For those who had for hundreds of years enjoyed the benefits of being a free people, this will be a difficult burden to bear indeed.
18. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”
When they see all these things taking place, these men will regret choosing a human king to rule over themselves, and will cry out to the LORD in their misery and their slavery. Yet the LORD will not hear their cry in that day. Their freedom will be gone, and they will have to live with a king for the rest of the life of their nation.
19. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us,
The people reject the warning of Jehovah. They have their minds made up, and this warning, as dire as it was, fails to sway them. It is obvious that they never considered this warning, nor what this would really be like when the things Samuel explained to them would take place. We know they were afraid of Nahash the Ammonite king, and fear is a great motivator. People acting out of fear often act foolishly. They are also stubborn. They have decided they want a king like the nations around them, and nothing will satisfy them until this is done.
These people are very human, I suppose, in not listening to God’s warning. We are usually more afraid of things we have experienced or understand than of things we have never gone through personally. Israel had experienced oppression from others nations, and understood it very well. Yet it had been hundreds of years since they had experienced what it is like to be oppressed by your own government, and so this fear must not have seemed very real or important to them. Their fathers who were oppressed by Pharaoh in Egypt might well have explained to them this fear, but it was long since they had left Egypt, and none of those fathers were left alive. Thus, the warnings about the oppressions of a tyrannical king fall from their ears like water from a duck’s back. They do not care about such suffering as they have never experienced. They have made up their minds, and nothing but getting their own way will satisfy them.
20. that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
The people repeat their reasons for insisting on a king, avoiding once again admitting their fear of Nahash which was largely motivating this. They want to be like the nations around them. They want the king to judge them, rather than Jehovah and His judge. They want the king to fight their wars for them. Foolish people! From where did they think this king would get his soldiers? From thin air?
21. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the hearing of the LORD.
Samuel again acts as the go-between, taking the words of the people back to Yahweh.
22. So the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed their voice, and make them a king.”
And Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Every man go to his city.”
So the LORD instructs Samuel to do as the people want, and to make them a king. The way Samuel goes about this seems strange at first, however. Instead of doing something about appointing a king right then, Samuel dismisses the representatives of Israel to their cities. Clearly, they must wait, howbeit impatiently, until the LORD makes His choice of a king clear.