How disappointing for God. He had chosen this nation, and had a special relationship with them, promising nothing but blessings galore (Deuteronomy 28), if only they would obey Him. He always intended to lead them personally, through one judge as His liaison. He knew they wouldn’t be faithful to Him, but I doubt that made it any less heartbreaking when time and time again, the people abandoned Him and worshipped false gods. He was covenant-bound to withdraw from them when this happened, leaving them open to the enemy to steal, kill, and destroy. When they’d had enough finally, the people would cry out and God would send the deliverer who was to be their next judge—whoever was the best option He had at the time.
Samuel had been one of the good judges, and perhaps it wouldn’t have ended as it did if his sons had been like him. It is strange that Samuel thought his sons would succeed him though, since God’s judges were never meant to be a dynasty. Presumably Samuel also knew of his son’s shortcomings.
It’s very clear in this story that God didn’t think a king was a good idea, and took it as a personal rejection (Hosea 13:11). Yet He granted what the people wanted anyway. It’s interesting how often in Old Testament stories God gives the people what they demand, even though He knows it isn’t for the best. God chose to make creatures with free will, and because of it, God rarely gets His first choice. I’m thinking of the story of Balaam: God told him not to go with Balak’s messengers the first two times he asked. Balaam should have left it at that, instead of pressing God to give in! But, Balaam wanted financial gain, just as the Israelites wanted to govern themselves rather than having to rely on God. Moses also permitted divorce, even though Jesus said that wasn’t God’s first choice either (Matthew 19:8). God gave the people what they asked for, consequences and all.
At the same time, I have to wonder whether the Israelites’ desire for a king was somehow premature. Saul reigned for forty years, Acts 13:21, and David began to rule when he was thirty years old, just after Saul’s death, 2 Samuel 5:4. That means David wasn’t even born until the tenth year of Saul’s reign, though God began to look for a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) in the second year of Saul’s reign. Saul’s beginning was certainly less than illustrious, and we can see seeds of the cause of his downfall, insecurity and fear of man, from the very beginning. It almost seems like Saul was just a placeholder, until David was old enough to be anointed and trained up in the “school of hard knocks,” as it were, to become ready for the throne.
That said, it’s interesting how God used natural circumstances (Saul’s father lost his donkeys and had sent him and a servant to look for them) to bring Saul and Samuel together. Samuel’s prophetic insight to set aside the best cut of meat, expecting Saul to show up the next day, surely primed Saul to accept Samuel’s proclamation that he would become king. God knew that a man like Saul wouldn’t just believe such a word; he would need to be convinced. Then Samuel gave him a number of other confirmatory events to look for in the subsequent seven days, so that he would be ready for the big “reveal” of the man God had anointed a week later. Unfortunately, Samuel’s presentation fell flat when their new king was literally hiding among the baggage. Presumably his absurd behavior was why some of the men of Israel despised him. Shortly after this, God used an attack from their enemies as a means to galvanize Israel to fight under Saul’s leadership (1 Samuel 11). Thus Saul redeemed himself, earning a new and better coronation.
Yet only a year later, in the second year of Saul’s reign, Saul disobeyed God for the first time, causing God to proclaim through Samuel that God would take the kingdom away from Saul and give it to a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). A decade or so later, after Saul again disobeyed, God formally rejected Saul as king. Saul’s response to this was interesting: he asked Samuel to at least continue to honor him before the people (1 Samuel 15:30), indicating what really mattered to him. He wanted the honor and respect of men, not God (Proverbs 29:25). This was exactly why God chose David instead.
I couldn’t help wondering, in the quiet of night, whether it was all my fault.
The Lord had never told me that the position of judge should be hereditary, nor had it ever been so in Israel’s history. Yet I’d had it in my mind since my sons were born that as soon as they were old enough, they could share my load. I suppose I had this idea because Eli had practically raised me, and the priesthood was hereditary.
Eli’s sons had turned out poorly too, though. I don’t know why I thought that would be a good model to follow.
Yes, I did know. I had wanted to believe it.
I wanted the latter part of my life to be easier than the first part had been, but I also had a romanticized ideal of sharing what mattered most to me with Joel and Abijah. I was so focused on this goal that I failed to see—I refused to see—the men my sons had become, just as Eli had done. The elders of Israel all assembled before me one day and shouted their accusations from all directions.
“Look, you’re an old man, and your sons aren’t following in your footsteps!” one called.
Old? I winced inwardly. I was barely sixty—but I was certainly tired, after forty-eight years of ministry. I felt old.
“They cheat us!” another of the elders cried. “They’ll rule in favor of whoever bribes them the most!”
These words struck me like a blow. I’d seen this tendency in my sons from their youths. I didn’t think either of them had ever heard from the Lord. Secretly I had worried that they did not truly fear Him, but I’d hidden those fears even from myself. Now, here was the proof.
“Appoint a king to rule us, just like every other nation!”
I cannot vouch for my expression when I heard this demand. I was not a man given to tears, but after all I had done for them—after devoting forty-eight years to judging these people, delivering them from the Philistines and bringing them back to true worship of the Lord, they had rejected me. Their words felt like a personal betrayal.
“I will bring your request before the Lord,” was all I could manage before I retreated from them, slamming the door to my home in their faces.
I’d continued in prayer from then until now, on my knees in the temple before the Lord. It was now past midnight, but the Lord never spoke according to my timeline.
“Go ahead and do what they’re asking,” came the Lord’s whisper at last. “They are not rejecting you. They are rejecting Me as their King.”
I swallowed, somehow both saddened and soothed to hear that the Lord felt exactly as I did.
“From the day I brought them out of Egypt until this very day they’ve been behaving like this, leaving Me for other gods. And now they’re doing it to you.”
I nodded. “I know they have, Lord,” I murmured, “they are a stubborn people. I don’t know what they think a king is going to do for them that a judge won’t do.” But as soon as I’d said this, I realized I did know. The judge acted in the position of Moses, constantly returning for the Lord’s direction before every decision, both militarily and in government. The king would not be in such communion. He would do as he thought best, without need to consult the Lord. He would be dependent upon human wisdom, though—and because of this, he would probably be even more prone to corruption than my sons were.
“Let them have their own way,” the Lord said. “But warn them of what they’re in for. Tell them what they’re likely to get from a king.” I knew enough of how kings of neighboring nations behaved to be able to guess what He meant, but He gave me a vision of it anyway.
When the Lord’s vision finished, I rose, feeling desolate. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was now sharing in the Lord’s own heartbreak, or because my own vision for the latter part of my life had been destroyed, or because I had been forced to confront my sons’ corruption. I splashed water on my face and went to my own home, walking the dark, empty streets illuminated only by moonlight. I always imagined that the Lord Himself walked beside me on these moonlit strolls. Tonight, I needed the company.
The next morning I sent for Joel and Abijah. I told them first what the people had said, so that they could get their own initial outrage out of the way before they encountered the news publicly. It went precisely as I had imagined it would. Joel sulked and turned stony and silent. Abijah threw a fit, shouting, throwing, and breaking things.
“What are we supposed to do now, then?” he demanded. “You raised us to be Israel’s judges!”
“That was my own fault,” I sighed heavily. “You both have other skills—Joel, you have some knowledge as a farmer, and Abijah, you can work for your brother—”
“Work for my brother?” Abijah ranted, “it’s his fault the elders of Israel rejected us! He’s the cheater!”
Joel leapt to his feet, and the boys almost came to blows in a pattern they had repeated hundreds of times since they were children. I always inserted myself between them to force them apart, if I was present at the time. If not, someone got bloody. I played my role again now, but felt too tired to engage with their accusations.
“The elders will assemble to hear the word of the Lord in one hour,” I told them. “It would be seemly if you were both present and in one piece. If you are not… well. That will be your choice.” Then I turned and walked away, ignoring their shouts and protests.
My sons did not appear with the elders in front of the temple an hour later, to my sorrow but not to my surprise. To do so would have required a measure of humility I knew they did not possess. If they had, we might not be in this situation in the first place.
“This is the way the kind of king you desire would operate,” I called out to the people in warning once they quieted down. “He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer.”
The elders in the front row cried out, “We will have a king to rule us!” Another voice rose above the clamor of agreement, adding, “Then we’ll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles!”
My heart felt so heavy. Didn’t they know that until now, God had fought their battles for them? Yet they wanted a leader they could see.
Do as they say, I heard the Lord whisper to me. Make them a king.
I took a deep breath and cried, “The Lord has heard you! Go home, each of you to your own city.”
They dispersed slowly, and I stood there on the temple steps until the last of them had gone. Last of all, I wandered away.
“Who, Lord?” I asked aloud once I was alone. “What man is there in Israel whom You would trust with such power?”
I heard no response that day, nor the next, nor the day after that. This silence, I knew, and the wait, were the very reasons why the people wanted a king in the first place. Hearing from the Lord was unpredictable. His timing was His own. I knew enough of Him to wait in peace, but the elders tended to fret in the silence, wanting to take matters into their own hands. A king would do just that.
About a week later, the Lord finally spoke to me.
“This time tomorrow, I’m sending a man from the land of Benjamin to meet you. You’re to anoint him as commander over my people Israel. He will free my people from Philistine oppression. I have heard their cries for help.”
“Huh,” I replied aloud. “Benjamin?” It was the smallest of the tribes, ever since the concubine incident several generations earlier which had almost wiped them out. I’d have expected the Lord’s anointed to come from any tribe but that one.
The next day was a local sacrifice in the land of Zuph, where I lived. Tradition held that I should go and bless the people’s sacrifice to the Lord so that they could eat of it. Since the Lord had told me I would meet His anointed before the sacrifice would occur, I told the people to set aside the best portion of the sacrifice and give it the following day to the one I indicated to them. The day of the sacrifice, I went my way up to the high place, and stopped just as I exited the city. Two men approached: one was clearly a servant, and the other was a sight to behold. He was taller than any man of Israel I had ever seen, powerfully built, and had a head of thick dark hair and a full beard. He practically radiated with health and beauty.
He’s the one, the man I told you about, the Lord said to me. He is the man who will reign over my people.
Though I had previously been heartbroken when the people asked for a king, I’d gotten used to the idea in the intervening week of silence from the Lord. Now, the moment I beheld this incredible specimen of a man, I felt a throb of pride, almost as if he were my son.
The man approached me directly. “Pardon me, but can you tell me where the Seer lives?”
“I’m the Seer,” I told him. “Accompany me to the shrine and eat with me. In the morning I’ll tell you all about what’s on your mind, and send you on your way.” Then in a flash of insight, the Lord revealed to me why they were here and what concerned them. “By the way, your lost donkeys—the ones you’ve been hunting for the last three days—have been found, so don’t worry about them. At this moment, Israel’s future is in your hands.”
The magnificent man looked thunderstruck. “But I’m only a Benjaminite, from the smallest of Israel’s tribes, and from the most insignificant clan in the tribe at that,” he stammered. I was struck by the strange contrast between his looks and his manner. “Why are you talking to me like this?”
I regarded him, but despite the temptation to reveal all now, I obeyed the prompting of the Lord.
“I will tell you in the morning,” I reiterated, and let the way to the high place for the feast.
When we arrived and found that all the people were already assembled, I gestured for the man, whose name turned out to be Saul, and his servant to take their seats among the people. I noticed how the people stared at him in awe, yet Saul did not seem to notice. Presumably he’d grown used to the stares over a lifetime.
I pulled the cook aside and whispered, “Bring the choice cut I pointed out to you, the one I told you to reserve.”
The cook looked slightly bemused, but did as I had asked, and brought out the thigh, placing it before Saul.
“This meal was kept aside just for you,” I announced to Saul, loudly enough that all who were assembled could hear. “Eat! It was especially prepared for this time and occasion with these guests.”
Saul looked terribly embarrassed, but after a feeble protest or two, he eventually did as I had bid him. The rest of us took our portions of the sacrifice from what was left. We all ate and drank merrily before the Lord, and then Saul and his servant returned with me back to my house. I prepared a bed for them in the top of the house cooled by the breeze, and slept little that night myself.
At daybreak I called to Saul, “Get up and I’ll send you off.” I offered them breakfast, and walked with them to the outskirts of the city, but then at last told Saul, “Tell your servant to go on ahead of us. You stay with me for a bit. I have a word of God to give you.”
After my promise the day before, and also my strange behavior at the feast, Saul had evidently been expecting this. He simply nodded to his servant, who sped up while we hung back.
When the servant was far enough ahead that Saul and I were alone, I withdrew from my cloak a flask of anointing oil, and gestured for Saul to kneel before me. He did so, and I poured the oil over his thick black hair until it ran down his beard. He looked astonished, as I took his face in my hands, kissing him on both cheeks.
“Do you see what this means?” I proclaimed, “God has anointed you commander over his people. This sign will confirm God’s anointing of you as king over his inheritance: After you leave me today, as you get closer to your home country of Benjamin, you’ll meet two men near Rachel’s Tomb. They’ll say, ‘The donkeys you went to look for are found. Your father has forgotten about the donkeys and is worried about you, wringing his hands—quite beside himself!’ Leaving there, you’ll arrive at the Oak of Tabor. There you’ll meet three men going up to worship God at Bethel. One will be carrying three young goats, another carrying three sacks of bread, and the third a jug of wine. They’ll say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept. Next, you’ll come to Gibeah of God, where there’s a Philistine garrison. As you approach the town, you’ll run into a bunch of prophets coming down from the high place, playing harps and tambourines, flutes and drums. And they’ll be prophesying. Before you know it, the Spirit of God will come on you and you’ll be prophesying right along with them. And you’ll be transformed into a new person! When these confirming signs are accomplished, you’ll know that you’re ready: Whatever job you’re given to do, do it. God is with you! Now, go down to Gilgal and I will follow. I’ll come down and join you in worship by sacrificing burnt offerings and peace offerings. Wait seven days. Then I’ll come and tell you what to do next.”
Saul stared at me in mute amazement as I said all of this; I could almost see his brain spinning as he tried to process all that I had said. I gestured for Saul to rise to his feet, which he did as if in a daze. I marveled once again, now that he was right next to me, at what a tower of a man he was. Then I patted him on the back to give him the indication to get going and to catch up with his servant.
Seven days later, I called all the people together at Mizpah. I was excited: today was to be the great day of the Lord’s unveiling of the people’s king. My sons, once again, were conspicuously absent—sulking, no doubt—but I did not let this bother me. I wondered if, after the Spirit of the Lord had come upon Saul, I would even recognize him as the timid man I had met on the road.
When all the people were assembled, I stood up and spoke to all of them as I had weeks ago spoken to the elders.
“This is God’s personal message to you: ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt. I delivered you from Egyptian oppression—yes, from all the bullying governments that made your life miserable. And now you want nothing to do with your God, the very God who has a history of getting you out of troubles of all sorts. And now you say, ‘No! We want a king; give us a king!’ Well, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get! Present yourselves formally before God, ranked in tribes and families.”
I wanted to maximize the impact of this ceremony—not just announce Saul as the king, but to really give the moment the build-up it deserved. When I chose the tribe of Benjamin, I heard the whispers. They were my own reaction, and Saul’s as well. I waited for the whispers to subside, and then announced, “Tribe of Benjamin, now arrange yourselves by families!” They did so, and I frowned—Saul was a head taller than all the men of Israel. I should have been able to spot him easily. Where was he? Yet I felt the Lord lead me to the family of Matri, so I chose them. The men of the family came forward, and I scanned the lot of them, searching for the face I expected.
“Saul, son of Kish, is the man!” I cried out, with rather less impact than I had hoped. “But where is he?”
I felt the Lord draw my attention to a pile of baggage brought by their tribe, since they had to come from all over Israel for this ceremony. I heard the Lord say to me, he’s right over there—hidden in that pile of baggage.
I felt a wave of—dread? embarrassment?—but I walked toward the pile of baggage with my head held high, gesturing for some of Saul’s own family to help me move the bags one by one. I uncovered Saul’s chagrined face, which was bright red, as well it should be.
“Get up,” I hissed. “Fortunately for you, not everyone in Israel has a good view of this ridiculousness!”
Saul crawled out from under the pile in which he’d been hiding, and brushed himself off. I pulled him up to the raised area from which I had been speaking, and added under my breath, “Head high, and for goodness’ sake, try to look like a king!” Then I cried to the people, trusting that Saul’s extraordinary looks would be the first thing they would notice, “Take a good look at whom God has chosen: the best! No one like him in the whole country!”
“Long live the king!” the people cried out, their voices joining together and rising in a crescendo. “Long live the king!”
That was a good start. I hoped it meant the story of the baggage wouldn’t spread, but as I left, I overheard the whispers.
“Deliverer? Don’t make me laugh!”
“How can this man save us? He hid himself at his own coronation!”
“What a marvelous leader he must be!”
I closed my eyes but chose not to rebuke them on Saul’s behalf. He would have to do that himself.
He was Israel’s leader now, after all—not me.