And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
1 Samuel 8:7, NIV
This is one of the saddest places in the history of the children of Israel. They rejected God as their King in favor of a mere mortal. From that moment on, Israel was never the same. Even though Israel had been whining and questioning God since they were in Egypt, they never all-out rejected God’s sovereignty. What finally pushed them over the edge?
This newest installment in Israel’s saga seems to have started with a war with the Philistines. In one of the battles, the giants had beaten them and killed 4,000 Israelites. In response to their defeat, they decided to take the Ark of the Covenant into their next battle in hopes that it would help them defeat the Philistines.
However, because the Philistines were so afraid of the reputation of Israel’s God, they fought even harder and ended up defeating Israel again, killing 30,000 Israelites, including two sons of the prophet Eli. Upon hearing the news, an overweight Eli collapsed and died from his injuries. In addition, Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law died in childbirth right after naming her son Ichabod (which means “Where is the glory?”). For she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God has been captured.” (4:22).
Is that what happened? Or was it because the Philistines had more faith in the ability of the God of Israel than the Israelites? Maybe in their fear of God, the Philistines took the battle more seriously and stepped up their game.
After the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, it went on a seven-month tour in their land. Its first stop was in Ashdod, where it destroyed a god named Dagon and plagued its citizens with tumors. Then it was sent to Gath, where the plague of tumors continued. Then, the Philistines tried to send it to Ekron, but they were smart enough to point out that it needed to be sent back to Israel.
Finally, Philistine put together a guilt offering and sent the ark to Beth-shemesh, where it killed 70 for looking into the ark. The people of Beth-shemesh sent word to Kiriath-jearim to come to get it, where it stayed for 20 years. During those 20 years, Israel mourned because it seemed that the Lord had abandoned them. We all know that God never left them, but that’s what they thought.
In all of this, the prophet Samuel rose to prominence. Samuel said to the people, “If you want to return to the Lord with all your hearts, get rid of your foreign gods and your images of Ashtoreth. Turn your hearts to the Lord and obey him alone; then he will rescue you from the Philistines.” The fact that Samuel had to tell them to do that points to the fact that the issue was with Israel’s heart, not God. So once again, “the Israelites got rid of their images of Baal and Ashtoreth and worshiped only the Lord.” (7:3-4). It worked and the people defeated the Philistines. They were back in business. Israel was doing well under Samuel’s rule.
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons to be judges over Israel. Big mistake. They were nothing like their father. They allowed their greed for money to control them as they accepted bribes and perverted justice. That’s when Israel snapped and asked for a king. But why?
There is no indication that they were at war or had recently lost a war. There is no indication that God had reneged on the covenant. There seemed to be no present danger. They simply cited the corruption of Samuel’s sons. So why the shift and why the request?
God responded to Samuel, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you (8:7-8, NIV).
So, if they had put the other gods away, what gods were they serving now?
The answer is in Israel’s request. They were looking at Samuel’s sons when they should have been looking at God. The country was prosperous, but they were still stuck on looking like the other nations around them, another form of idolatry also known as the sin of comparison. God had shown them time and time again that with God you can’t fail. Just reviewing the history of when the ark was stolen should have been enough to turn their eyes back to God. God took care of business by protecting and returning the ark without any help from Israel. Yet, Israel thought a human could protect them better and they were determined to do what it took to get that human being into position, including giving up their rights.
Now, fast forward to today. What is God saying to us?
Have we given up on God because of past hurt and pain? Have we given up on God in favor of man because we are looking for easy or quick fixes? Are we trying to do for ourselves that which only God can do for us?
If not individually, look at society. Where does the country that has “in God we trust” on its money, stand with God? Are we looking to God or looking to human leaders? Have we sold our souls to leaders who promise things they can’t deliver? Are we looking at the shiny object on a platform instead of looking to God’s eternal light? Are we begging for a king when we need the King? Are we looking for a savior when we have the Savior? Do we still trust God or, are we simply trading in the greatness of God to be mediocre, mere mortals relying on mere mortals?
Believers, even when things are darkest in our lives and our world, even when we don’t know what to do or how to do it, the fact remains, the greatness of God’s love, grace, mercy, protection, restoration, and presence is available to us. We must continue to have faith in God.