As Moses prepared the Israelites to enter the Promised Land he prophesied that they would ask for a king, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me” (Dt. 17:14). He did not condemn the desire that he knew they would have, but he did give them some warnings: The king must be an Israelite, not a foreigner. He shall also not multiply horses, wives, and gold for himself (cf. Dt. 17:15-17).
Now, fast-forward two hundred years to the end of the period of the Judges. During those years the Israelites repeatedly completed a cycle of sin and repentance: worship false idols, succumb to foreign powers, beg God for deliverance, God delivers them through a judge, things are good, and then they turn to false idols again. After completing this cycle many times they began looking for change. Samuel, who was a good judge, was old and his sons were proving to be unfit successors, so the people asked Samuel to anoint a king for them. Samuel was insulted by the petition, but God said to him, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). The period of Judges was supposed to teach the Israelites that they were to rely on God alone. He was their king, but they rejected Him.
They didn’t learn the lesson, so God agreed to give them a king like other nations, and He told Samuel to give them this warning:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam 8:11-18).
Even after this dreadful warning the people respond, “No! But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). They weren’t supposed to be like all the nations. They were supposed to be unique, God’s chosen people, and He was to go before them in battle.
God, however, gave his people free will and He respects that freedom even when He knows it leads to destruction. God gave them their king like other nations. Saul was chosen and anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel (cf. 1 Sam 10:1). The name “Saul” is interesting. It’s primary meaning is as a verb “to ask or to beg” (sha’al), so Saul is God’s answer to the begging of the Israelites for a king like other nations. However, it is also a noun that means “grave, pit, or hell” (she’ol). God gave them what they begged for, but in granting their request they entered a type of hell.
It wasn’t long before Saul turned from the ways of the Lord and the Lord rejected Saul (cf. 1 Sam 15). Samuel then anointed David as king and soon there was a civil war. Eventually, the kingdom was united under David, and God made a covenant with him: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Sam 7:12-13).
God’s promise, however, isn’t to be understood in human terms. If it were, then it would have been broken within one generation. King Solomon, David’s heir, is usually remembered for his wisdom, but many people forget that he turned away from the path of wisdom. Do you remember those warnings given by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy? “He must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold.(Dt. 17:16-17). Solomon disobeyed these warnings. He had 1400 chariots and 12000 horsemen, he loved many foreign women including the daughter of Pharaoh and he made an alliance with Egypt, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and he worshiped false gods (cf. 1 Kings 10:23-11:8). It’s hard to imagine someone more fully contradicting a command. In response to Solomon’s turning away from Him, God said, “Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant” (1 Kings 11:11). After Solomon’s death the kingdom immediately divided into the northern tribes, Israel, and the southern tribes, Judah, and it was never reunited.
Within 200 years Israel was conquered and went into exile in Assyria. 80 years later, Judah was exiled to Babylon. The earthly kingdom was destroyed; however, the people maintained hope. We see in the writings of the prophets that the Lord was purifying his people. He called them to repentance and He gave them new hope: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Is 11:1). Judah returned from exile and the people began to rebuild. They rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, but they did not have a king, and they waited for 400 years until an angel appeared to some shepherds in Bethlehem and declared, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).
Did they learn the lesson? Have we learned the lesson? Do we profess Christ our King with our lips and then turn to money, pleasure, entertainment, praises, etc. for our salvation? We live in the “scientific” age, so perhaps we could do a scientific measure of where we believe our salvation comes from? Add up the minutes in a day that are explicitly given to God. How many other things get more time than those we give to Him? If I am feeling depressed, where do I turn for consolation? If I am glad, where do I turn to give thanks? If I am angry, where do I turn for justice? If I am tempted, where do I turn for strength? If I am afraid, where do I turn for courage? If I have doubts, where do I turn for answers? If He is not king of every part of our life, then He is not our king.
Who then is your king?