Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. (1 Samuel 8:4-7)
Samuel began his ministry with a denunciation of the sinfulness of the sons of the High Priest, Eli. Amongst the many transgressions of these wicked sons, perhaps the most poignant one was bringing the ark of covenant into battle with the Philistines (1 Sam. 4-6). Essentially, they wanted to pretend at piety, but their prior lifestyle showed them to be apostates of the worst kind.
Skipping forward, Samuel’s position as the highest leader of Israel is capped off in 1 Samuel 7 when it tells us of another battle with the Philistines: “And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel (1Sa 7:10).” This is followed by the intimation that Samuel’s sons were exhibiting corrupt behavior; and the people of Israel, not wanting a repeat of the defeat brought about by the wickedness of the sons of Eli, insist on having a visible King lead them in battle.
God the Warrior
Here’s the important thing to remember. From the conquering of Canaan under Joshua & Caleb, to the deliverances recorded in Judges, down to the account of this victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7, God is presented as fighting for His people. Despite their idolatry, God would always raise up a deliverer; but it was God who was viewed as the Warrior on behalf of His people (Deu. 1:30, 3:22, Ex. 14:14).
It strikes me that part of the Israelites desire for a king was in one sense a reaction to the immediate failures of Eli’s wicked sons, and the prospect of a seemingly similar failure on the part of Samuel’s sons. Either way, their response was not to turn to God in faith, entrusting themselves to His care. Rather, we are told–from the Lord Himself–that this act was an act of rejecting His reign (1 Sam. 8:7).
The Narrow Way
In an attempt to avoid a known evil (corrupt leaders, i.e. Eli’s sons & Samuel’s sons), they chose the unspeakably worse evil of rejecting God’s reign over them, choosing rather to place themselves entirely in the hands of fallen men. So, do not flee in fear from one temptation into the arms of another one; the most secure path is the narrow way of holiness and faith in Christ alone.