Unity in a decision by leaders of his people does not always mean that God has originated it. The elders of Israel here had assessed the situation. It was obvious that Samuel’s sons were unfit to rule; the threat of foreign armies was real; the problem was obvious enough and they had an agreed solution – one which did not come from God! So there can be unity that is wrong as well as unity that is right.
The basic problem with many of the Israelites here was that they had not experienced God’s deliverance from the Philistines nor his blessing at Mizpah, experiences that had been known by previous generations. But the elders, who would have lived through those days, should have recalled these events, so it is an appalling lapse on their part.
The people of Israel were guilty of several mistakes and it is helpful for us to identify them. First, they did not realise that the presence of sin in the leadership (Samuel’s sons) of the people of God does not justify a worldly solution. Instead of wanting a king who was like the rulers of the surrounding nations they should have waited on God asking him to give them the king he had promised. In Deuteronomy 17:14-17, the Lord describes the kind of king he intended for his people. But they assessed things from a worldly point of view and concluded that what they needed was a strong king who would defend them from their enemies whereas God intended that they should have a godly king, who lived according to the word of God.
Second, their response was a rejection of God. Because they had ignored the description that God had given they were guilty of rejecting him; by ignoring his word they indicated that they did not want God to rule over them. Their action was a continuation of the attitude that had marked Israel almost from the beginning. But there was a new dimension to their rebellion because if they set up a hereditary kingship it would mean that God would no longer be regarded as the One who would send them deliverers. They were in effect saying that they no longer wanted rulers like Samuel whom God had sent. What they wanted was their own choice of government and defence.
Third, choosing a worldly way will result in insensitivity to the warnings of God. The Lord agreed to give them their desire but insisted that Samuel detail what the worldly king would demand, and how different would his demands be compared to the description of the king God wanted to give them. When the Israelites heard from Samuel the demands that their king would make, they persevered in their rebellion. Instead of repenting at their folly, they hardened their hearts and the warning of God fell on deaf ears.
Here we have an example of God giving to people what they want, although he gives it as an act of sovereign judgment and not of mercy. Hosea reminded the people of his day, in reference to Saul, that God gave them a king in his anger and took him away in his wrath (Hos. 13:10, 11). God can give in judgment what the people desire; they can persist in disobedience even although God’s word warns them of the consequences.