These chapters recall themes established in the initial scenes of 1 Samuel: the relationship between the ark of the covenant and the Lord’s presence and concerns about who would provide leadership for Israel. Despite the fact that the Philistines had captured the ark, the Lord was yet with His people. But they were dissatisfied with God’s reign and implored Samuel to give them a human king so that they could be like their pagan neighbors.
After the events in 1 Samuel 1-4, Israel may have doubted the potency of the Lord’s presence in the ark of the covenant (1 Sam 4:1-11). The Philistines’ urgent desire to be rid of the ark showed that the Lord was yet present between the cherubim (1 Sam 5:1-6:18). The Philistines felt so threatened that they “summoned the priests and the diviners and pleaded, ‘What should we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we can send it back to its place’” (1 Sam 6:1-2). These pagans surmised that the Lord of Israel was a God like theirs and formulated a plan for returning the ark to Israel (1 Sam 6:3-12).
When the Israelites witnessed the ark, “they were overjoyed to see it’ (1 Sam 6:13). Yet when the men of Bethshemesh “looked inside the ark” (1 Sam 6:19), despising God’s holiness, the Lord struck them with a plague. Samuel implored the people to rid themselves of idolatry, saying, “Dedicate yourselves to the LORD, and worship only Him. Then He will rescue you from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam 7:3). When the Philistines heard that the return of the ark had caused a revival to break out amongst Israel at Mizpah, they marched up to attack. Although Israel was fearful, Samuel’s petition prevailed and “the LORD thundered loudly against the Philistines that day and threw them into such confusion that they fled before Israel” (1 Sam 7:10).
Samuel’s ardent spiritual leadership in Israel declined as he aged (1 Sam 8:1-5). This sad resemblance to the family of Eli had a devastating effect upon the people of God and the author notes that, “All the elders of Israel gathered together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not follow your example. Therefore, appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:4-5). But the Lord consoled Samuel saying, “They have not rejected you; they have rejected Me as their king. They are doing the same thing to you that they have done to Me, since the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, abandoning Me and worshiping other gods” (1 Sam 8:7-8). Samuel warned the people that if they thus rejected the Lord, they should be aware of the way that a king might abuse them (1 Sam 8:9-17).
Despite Samuel’s warnings, the people stubbornly replied, “We must have a king over us. Then we’ll be like all the other nations: our king will judge us, go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). The whole of 1 Samuel 9 and most of 1 Samuel 10 detail how Saul was chosen as king. The author did not hide the fact that Israel’s desire to be like their neighbors was rooted in their dissatisfaction with the Lord.
Israel longed for a human king, and a human king they got. Saul’s reign followed the pattern Samuel predicted and the people suffered for it. While David and Solomon would eventually display divine characteristics in their respective reigns, in the storyline of Scripture only Jesus Christ provides the kind of protection and significance that Israel longed for in the latter days of Samuel. The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that her Son would sit on the throne of David (Luke 1:32) and the wise men from the east inquired of Herod where the king of the Jews would be born (Matt 2:2). Throughout His life, Jesus demonstrated that He was a different kind of king. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, as He told Pilate just before Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified (John 18:36). Ultimately, Israel’s idolatry led them to reject God’s rule over them. Perhaps that is why John, after writing in detail about Jesus Christ in 1 John 5, writes, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).