Today we are beginning an extended sermon series called “The United Church - A Study of Ancient Israel”. We will be reading and discussing those parts of the Old Testament that deal with the united nation of Israel. This portion of Israel’s history is documented in 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. Other books written during this period include Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. We will examine each of these texts to varying degrees during the coming months. My hope is that this study will be a tremendous blessing to our church.
While the New Testament Church is distinctly different than Old Testament Israel, they both share a similar purpose. God chose the children of Israel to serve as His representatives on the earth. They were to spread the message of God to all of the nations around them. Their story is told in Old Testament. Unfortunately, on the whole Israel failed to accomplish this task and ultimately rejected their Messiah. Thus, God established the Church to continue the work of spreading the gospel. This is the story of the New Testament. Today, the Church still strives to accomplish this grand mission. Rather than ignoring the Old Testament, Christians should learn from the successes and failures of ancient Israel as they seek to win this lost world to Jesus. It is for this reason that I equate the Church and ancient Israel in the title of this study.
Following the conquest of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, the children of Israel settled in Canaan. For about 350 years they existed as a loosely connected federation of tribes. The tribes often cooperated with each other against common enemies. During this time, regional judges governed the people as needed. Whenever oppression sprang up in a particular area, God would raise up a judge to deliver His children. Some of the more well-known judges include Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. There was no unified nation of Israel as of yet, but rather 12 distinct tribes that took care of themselves for the most part.
Samuel is generally considered to be the last of the judges. He was also a prophet and priest. Following his lead, the people of Israel were able to overcome the Philistines and enjoy a period of lasting peace. However, they were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their form of government. Change was coming. The era of tribal judges was ending and a new period in Israel’s history was about to begin...
I. ISRAEL’S DEMAND (1 Samuel 8:1-9)
Samuel had grown old and was seeking to pass his authority as judge on to his 2 sons - Joel and Abijah. For a brief time, they presided among the tribe of Judah in the city of Beersheba. Unfortunately, both of them were exceedingly wicked and corrupt. They sought their own personal gain and did not follow the ways of their father. Their misdeeds contributed to the people’s growing desire for a change.
Representatives from the various tribes of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah, a city in the land of Benjamin where his parents were from. They pointed out that Samuel had grown too old to judge and that his sons were too dishonest. The delegation wanted to do away with judges altogether and unite all of the tribes to form a single nation. To this end, they demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. The children of Israel wished to be like the other nations around them, a monarchy under the headship of a strong centralized king.
Hearing their request, Samuel became very upset. He turned to the LORD and prayed about what he should do. Samuel couldn’t help but to take this personally, seeing that the children of Israel wished to replace him and his sons as their leaders. But it was far worse than that. God responded to Samuel’s prayers by saying that the people had in fact rejected Him as their Divine King, preferring instead to follow a human leader. Though He had been faithful to His children for centuries, this was yet another example of their rebellion against God.
The children of Israel wanted to be like everyone else - like the other nations around them. They didn’t want to be different or set apart. They didn’t trust that God alone would lead and sustain them. Rather, they wanted a human king that would make the nation strong and powerful. In the same way, many churches today seek to be just like the world around them. In some places Christianity has become so compromised that it is almost indistinguishable from the culture. Increasingly, churches are rejecting the headship of Christ and their unique and distinctive calling in Him. The church should not look like this lost world, but should stand in stark contrast to it.
II. SAMUEL’S WARNING (1 Samuel 8:10-18)
God instructed Samuel to deliver a strong warning to the children of Israel regarding the behavior of kings. Samuel told them that a king would conscript their young men into military service and appoint officers over them. He would compel others to build and fashion weapons of war. He would enlist many workers to plow his fields and to reap his harvest so that the royal provisions would always be plentiful. He would take their daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers in the palace. He would seize the best of their servants for himself, to use for his own benefit, leaving them with lesser quality help.
Samuel went on to say that a king would surely implement taxes. He would take from them the best portions of their annual harvest - a tenth of their produce from the fields, the vineyards, and the orchards. He would take from their donkeys and flocks as well. All of this would be used to sustain and grow his personal kingdom, not necessarily the nation itself. Samuel warned that in time the people would grow weary of their king and would cry out against him, but that in that day God would not listen.
God spoke through Samuel to caution His children about the numerous dangers of a human king. Modern equivalencies are still evident today among those nations that exercise strong centralized authority. The warning isn’t necessarily against any particular form of government, but rather against concentrating too much power into the hands of a few. This is why broadly dispersed local control is always preferable to national government, which should be kept relatively small and strictly limited. As the saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
III. GOD’S CONCESSION (1 Samuel 8:19-22)
The people refused to heed Samuel’s stern warning. They repeated their desire to become like the other nations. They insisted upon crowning a king to rule over them who would assemble an army to fight on their behalf. Samuel was still troubled by their request and again turned to the LORD in prayer. Despite His reservations, God granted their petition and told Samuel to appoint a king over all of Israel. Samuel shared God’s decision with the delegation of elders, and then dismissed them to return to their homes. In the days that followed, he began the search for their new king.
People are free to make their own decisions - even Israel. It was not God’s idea to establish the united nation, but rather it was theirs. Nor was it His idea for them to govern themselves like all of the other nations. In fact, the text suggests that He was somewhat leary of it. Fortunately, the LORD knows the thoughts of men even before they act and is able to incorporate all of their decisions into the grand scheme of His sovereign will. So, even though it was originally founded on misguided human pretenses, God still blesses the nation of Israel and allows it to play a prominent role in His master plan for humanity.
After more than 3 centuries of tribal governance, the fundamental structure of Israel was about to undergo a major change. The elders had all agreed and the initial groundwork had been laid to consolidate the tribes into a single nation. The boundaries that once divided their various inheritances would soon be dissolved. The newly united state would be ruled by a single king who’d exercise authority over all of Israel.
The era that was about to begin has frequently been called “The Golden Age of Israel”. Over the course of the next 120 years, the nation of Israel would rise in power, prominence, and prosperity. It would move from a position of relative obscurity to one of world-wide acclaim. It would become the envy of many other kingdoms and nations. It would change from a state of perpetual warfare to one of prolonged peace, and from poverty to abundant wealth.
From a worldly perspective, I can understand why some would consider these to be the greatest years in the history of Israel. Still, we must always remember that God measures success differently than the world does. The nation of Israel was founded upon a rejection of God as its Divine King and the natural desire to be like everyone else. As it grew in fame and notoriety, Israel inevitably became less and less dependent upon the LORD. We must be careful not to always equate material success and/or renown for the blessings of God - they may not be. Sometimes these things actually draw us away from Him. That said, I personally disagree with the notion that these were “The Golden Years of Israel."
Next week we will talk about about Samuel’s search to find Israel’s first king. Who would he be? Would God, though having be rejected by His people again, remain faithful to Israel and help Samuel in this all-important search? I hope you can join us as we explore these questions. Until then, may God bless you.