The immense gathering of Israelites at Mizpeh in the autumn of the year had resulted in many thousands repenting and pledging themselves to greater obedience to God (I Sam. 7:6). It was the season of the Feast of Tabernacles.
As soon as it was over the news came that a Philistine army was approaching. The people fell into a state of panic. They pleaded with Samuel to ask God to spare them from their enemies (vs. 7-8).
After Samuel had made certain that the Philistine army was indeed near at hand, he had a lamb prepared for a burnt offering to God. Samuel officiated at the ceremony. He had God’s authorization to do so because the priesthood at that time had passed from Eli to himself.
(Although Samuel was not of the priesthood family, he was a Levite. He had been consecrated to God’s service as a nazarite and trained in the priesthood by Eli (Num. 6:16; I Sam. 11:1, 18, 26; 3:1) until a worthy descendant of Aaron could be trained in the responsibilities of the priesthood Samuel served as priest, as well as prophet. Thus is was proper for him to make this offering.)
As the lamb seethed on the altar, Samuel prayed fervently
“God of Israel, deliver your people here at Mizpeh from their enemies!” he cried. “You have seen and heard how they have come to admit and repent of their wrong ways. You have promised to protect the repentant and the obedient. Now I claim that promise of protection for these people, and commit their lives into your merciful hands!”
Even before Samuel had finished praying, the Philistine army swept into the Mizpeh areas intending to set upon the thousands of families camped there. Although many of the Israelite men were armed, they weren’t organized or prepared to meet an onslaught by so many well-trained and determined enemy troops.
Just before the Philistine army came into view, the sky clouded over with alarming rapidity. The clouds were low, very dark and swirled about in a most unusual manner. As the attackers came almost within reach of the outermost tents pitched around Mizpeh, great bolts of lightning forked down from the brooding overcast, striking directly into the foremost ranks of the Philistines (I Sam. 7:9-10)!
As the thunder roared, an earthquake shook the ground around the Philistines and threw their whole army into disordered confusion. Scorched and blasted bodies were tossed in all direction. Those near the front ranks who witnessed the blinding slaughter cringed back in stark fear, then turned to collide with and trample the troops behind them. This set off a disrupting chain reaction that carried all the way to the soldiers in the near ranks. What had been a confident advance was turned to swift retreat, to the awesome roar of ear-splitting thunder!
This sudden turn of events was the cue for the armed Israelite men to act. Quickly banding together, they set out in swift pursuit of the fleeing Philistines. Those who had no weapon picked up weapons that were dropped by dying or fleeing Philistines. The enemy soldiers had just gone through a long, fast march, and were easily overtaken. In their state of fatigue they were no match for the Israelites. Not very many Philistines escaped the lighting – or the swords, spears and arrows of the pursuers.
Shortly after the battle, Samuel had a large stone pillar set up at the site of the conflict, which was a few miles north of Jerusalem. It was a monument to commemorate the help God had given them that day (I Sam. 7:11-12).
This was the turning point in the struggle of Israel against Philistia. The Philistines had long since captured Israelite towns from Ekron to Gath, a distance of about 15 miles in an area not far from the coast. Israel at last took the towns back. At the same time hostilities ceased with the Arameans to the east. They dwelt in the old land of the Amorites, whom Moses destroyed. The Arameans came to be known at this time in history by the name Amorites, because they dwelt in the land of the uprooted Amorites (vs. 14, last part).
All this was a reward from God because most of Israel had turned away from worshiping the idols of surrounding nations.
Samuel was the spiritual advisor to Israel for the rest of his long life – about 50 years. He didn’t return to Shiloh because God had forsaken the city and the tabernacle (Ps. 78:55-64).
Samuel chose to live at Ramah, six or seven miles north of Jerusalem. There he built an altar to be used for sacrifices to God.
Every year Samuel moved his quarters for a time to the cities of Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpeh. This made it more convenient for people to contact him for matters of spiritual judgment (I Sam 7:15-17).
After many years of such activity, Samuel began to feel the strain. Gradually he delegated more and more of his duties to his two sons, Joel and Abiah. He spent most of his time at Ramah, while his sons took over a large part of his work by establishing quarters in Beer-Sheba in the territory of Simeon to the south.
Although Samuel had carefully reared his sons in the right way, and felt that they were prepared to be assistant judges because of their ample training and ability, matters didn’t work out as he expected. Out from under the watchful eye of their father, the two men began to take advantage of their positions by secretly taking bribes for judging some cases unfairly (I Sam. 8:1-3).
This corrupt practice was carried on for only a few years. While Joel and Abiah were becoming increasingly greedy and wealthy, a growing number of Israelites were unnecessarily suffering in one way or another because of injustice. Samuel had no knowledge of what was going on, or he would have acted at once to remove his sons and make amends for their unfair deeds.
One day a group of the leading men of Israel came to Ramah to talk to Samuel, who had no idea of their intention.
“We are here to protest the conduct of your sons at Beer-Sheba,” one elder explained. “We want no more of them. Instead of helping people, they have been harmful!”
“Sirs, I don’t know what you are talking about,” Samuel said in a puzzled tone. “Please explain what my sons have done.”
“It would take days to tell of their wrongdoings,” another elder observed. “We have found they aren’t honest and just, as you are. If you were twenty or thirty years younger, we might be satisfied with you as our leader. But we need someone else –someone who can be more than a judge to Israel. We want the kind of leader that other nations have – a king” (I Sam. 8:4-5).
Samuel could scarcely believe what he had heard. This sudden demand for a change in form of government was so startling that he forgot for the time being about the accusations against his sons. He carefully scanned the faces of those before him. It wasn’t difficult to tell by their serious expressions that they were quite determined.
“Please excuse me a few minutes, gentlemen,” he said. “I shall return shortly.” He went at once to a private room to pray. He realized that he needed God’s advice on how to answer the elders.
“What must I say to these men?” Samuel earnestly asked God. ‘If I say that I will have no part in helping them with their impudent request, they will surely turn against me. If I so much as think of agreeing to the demands, that would be against your will.
“Don’t be too upset over this,” God answered Samuel, though the Bible doesn’t explain how he communicated with him. “The elders and the people they represent do indeed want a king. It isn’t that they don’t want you as their leader. It’s because they don’t want me, their Creator, to rule over them. Ever since I brought the Israelites up from the land of Egypt, they have rejected me again and again by rejecting the men I have chosen as leaders. During the past several years most of Israel has turned back to me in some degree. Now they are again going back to the ways of the pagan nations about them. You haven’t known it, but your sons have given them cause to protest. They are using this as a reason for rejecting my government and demanding a change to a man-made form of government. If they insist on a king, that’s what they deserve. Tell them they can have one. At the same time warn them what they can expect if a king is to rule them” (I Sam. 8:6-9).
Samuel was most unhappy to hear about his sons’ conduct and about the direction Israel was once more taking. As he had promised, he went back a little later to confront the Israelite leaders.
“I have taken your request to God,” Samuel addressed them. “He isn’t pleased with what you are asking, so He has decided to grant you something that in the long run won’t really please you - a king!”
Feeble grins broke out on the faces of only a few of the elders. Samuel’s manner of describing their so-called victory didn’t seem to inspire cheerfulness in most of them.
“Now let me tell you what you can expect if a king is made the head of Israel,” Samuel continued in an ominous tone. “In the first place, he will draft your young men into a great standing army. A king chooses whom he pleases for what he pleases. Many of your sons who are trained toward being master craftsman in various pursuits will be forced into lesser careers in the bloody art of war. At the same time, many who have lesser ability will become military leaders.
“He will also take your young women to be bakers, cooks, maids, housecleaners, dishwashers and for every service for which a king and his princes and underlings have a need. Besides, he will choose your best fields, vineyards and orchards to take from you to give to those in high offices under him. He will demand a tenth of what all farmers and wage earners produce. He will take your servants and your animals if they are to his liking. Even some of you may become his lowliest servants. In time many will cry out in despair because the king had taken so much from them. In that day God will do nothing to help you because of the choice that you are now making’ (I Sam. 8:10-18).
There was silence among the elders following Samuel’s warning. Then the men began to talk in subdued voices among themselves. After a period of discussion, a spokesman approached Samuel.
“We have considered all you have told us,” he said to Samuel, “but we can’t believe that any king of Israel would ever do as you have pointed out. You can’t convince us that we won’t be better off with a leader like the ones other nations have – one who is able to preserve order as well as successfully fight our battles.”
Samuel sorrowfully surveyed the men before him. He knew that Israel would soon face her enemies, who were beginning again to make attacks at the borders. This was one of the reasons why the elders wanted a fight leader. There was no need for a massive fighting force for the Israelites as long as they obeyed God, but they inclined to go their own ways and now looked to an army for protection. It is the same way in present-day Israel.
“Sirs, you will soon learn what will be done to carry out your unusual request,” Samuel told the assembled leaders. “I trust you all will return safely to your various cities” (I Sam. 8:19-22).
Shortly afterward, in the territory of Benjamin, an ordinary event took place that had a great bearing on Israel’s future. There a man by the name of Kish, who owned a farm and raised fine donkeys, discovered that his mare donkeys and their colts had disappeared from his grazing fields. Fences around farms weren’t common in those time – except for low stone walls around some of their vineyards, gardens and fields. Livestock often roved far away, sometimes to be recovered only after searching for them a long time.
Realizing that his missing animals might be in some distant area, Kish decided to send his son Saul after them. The stock raiser was a large and powerful man, but his son was even larger. Young Saul had developed a strong physique in his years of labor on his father’s farm, and towered to a height of about seven feet! Kish knew that if his son found that someone had stolen the donkeys, he wouldn’t have too much trouble convincing the thief to give them back.
“Take provisions for a few days for both yourself and one of our servants,” Kish told Saul. “Bring the animals back even if you have to search behind every hill in the high country of Ephraim” (I Sam. 9:1-3).
Setting out with donkeys, Saul and the servant zig-zagged north through the territory of Benjamin and into Ephraim. Then they turned back southeast to pursue a circular course through the rugged Mt. Ephraim and Benjamin area into the northern region of Judah.
“We shouldn’t waste any more time,” Saul told his servant. “We have covered many miles and have been gone over two days and have accomplished nothing. By now my father is probably much more concerned about us than he is about the donkeys. We should return home at once. Later we can look for the animals in other directions.”
“I have a suggestion sir,” the servant said. “We are very near the city where lives the man of God who is Israel’s prophet. If we were to visit him, he might be able to tell us where the donkeys are.”
“Do you mean Samuel?” Saul asked. “Should we bother the leader of most of Israel with a matter such as ours? Besides, we have nothing to bring him as a gift. Even all our food is gone.”
“Perhaps we have enough money to give him,” the servant suggested.
There was little need for the two men to be carrying much money with them, inasmuch as they had brought what they considered sufficient provisions. All they could come up with was a quarter shekel, which would be equal to about fifteen or twenty cents. But it had good value in those times. Saul decided that it would suffice as a token of respect, and they set out to try to find Samuel (I Sam. 9:4-10).
Just outside the city they met some young women carrying water from a well. From them they learned that Samuel lived most of the time outside of town, but that he would soon be arriving to officiate at a special sacrifice that was to take place that day.
The day before this took place, God had spoken again to Samuel, informing him that about twenty-four hours later He would send him a young Benjamite to be the new leader of Israel and a staunch captain against the Philistines.
“You won’t recognize him when you see him,” God explained, “but I will let you know who he is.”
As Saul and his servant came into the city, they noted that other people were hurrying to the place where the special sacrifice was to be made. Among them was a well-dressed, elderly man with a friendly but dignified appearance.
Samuel turned to look. When he saw the young giant striding along behind him, he stopped and regarded him with unusual interest, wondering if he could be the one God revealed he was to meet. At the same instant he heard a voice. “This is the one who will soon reign over my people,” the voice spoke. “Anoint him captain of Israel as soon as you have the opportunity to be alone with him” (I Sam. 9:11-17)!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.