Then Samuel said to the people… ‘Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your ancestors… If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.’
1 Samuel 12:6-7 & 14-15
Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel calls the people to covenant faithfulness at the dawn of a new era in their history – the transition to Saul’s kingship. Again, like Moses and Joshua, his instruction is informed by the biblical story to this point. How will the monarchy relate to what has gone before?
Samuel begins by ensuring his own integrity is not under dispute, and the people happily agree that he had neither cheated or oppressed them. But he goes on to show that the Lord, likewise, has been faithful to them in his ‘righteous acts’.
His historical sketch begins with God’s liberation of the people from Egypt, through Moses and Aaron. It takes in the period of the judges, as Samuel makes it clear that the Lord repeatedly raised up leaders to deliver them when they rebelled against God and fell into enemy hands. In the context of the people wanting a king ‘such as all the other nations have’ (1 Samuel 8:5), the clear upshot of Samuel’s telling of their story is that God himself, as ruler over all, has consistently provided leaders to rescue his people in times of need. The ongoing problem, it appears, is not the system of leadership per se so much as their constant turning away from God.
Even now, notwithstanding their request for a ruler, God remains committed to Israel. But the king will not guarantee their future success. That will be down to their ongoing trust in, and obedience to, God whose covenant still stands – for the king as well as the people. Kingship will be allowed, but both leader and people are to serve the one who is Lord of all.
As it turns out, later generations would come to know that kings do not and cannot save. And the biblical story anticipates the need for a ruler who would reign forever, who would bring about a salvation that Israel’s king could never achieve. Now, as then, as 1 Samuel 12:22 makes clear, the basis for our confidence and delight in serving God is his saving grace towards us: ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.’