Saul had been chosen by God as king but only he and Samuel were aware of it. In order to proceed with a public ceremony Samuel called for a meeting of the people in Mizpah. This is stage two in Saul’s rise to the throne; previously the Lord had identified Saul to Samuel as the next king; stage three would be victory over an enemy invasion (11:1-11) and stage four would be a further national gathering at Gilgal (11:12–12:25).
In verses 18 and 19 Samuel addresses the people and once more reminds them of their sin in desiring a king. Note that he places their rebellion not against the perceived need of the times, which was what had motivated their desire for a king, but against the redemption from Egypt that they as a nation had known. This is a reminder that redemption is a lens through which we are to scan the situation we face.
They had been slaves in Egypt and it was only the power of the Lord that could have rescued them. But they were redeemed in order to be devoted to the Lord. Redemption was with a view to establishing a relationship in which the Lord would be the Master and the people his servants. But Israel had turned its back on that relationship when they wished to have a king. Their sin was compounded because it was the rejection of a Redeemer of which they were guilty. In a real sense this is what makes sins of God’s people so heinous. It is the refusal to obey the One who has done so much for them.
Their sin is repeatedly mentioned in order for them to repent of it. This too is a reminder of God’s ways with his people. He never turns a blind eye to it and he never removes its consequences until his people confess their sins and repent of it. But there is no evidence that they saw any need for repentance. I suppose they could look back on the day’s event and regard it as God confirming their choice. But the reality was that they were entering into a period of judgment that would last as long as Saul ruled. Thankfully, God’s mercies would also be revealed during that period.
Mizpah had been a place where communal repentance had taken place some years before (1 Sam. 7). But on this occasion there was no repentance. The place of previous blessing had become a place where the people covered their sin with a religious veneer but with no reality.