The first book of Samuel dedicates ample space to the origins of the Israelite monarchy. The crucial part of this story shows the prophet Samuel in action. He is already old. He has given his whole life to sustain Israel’s obedience to God’s law, administering that law to the benefit of the tribes, of families, and of individuals.
One day, the elders come to him and ask him to choose a king who could take their place and take on their responsibilities. They think according to a political and worldly criterion: Israel wants to have a leader that represents power and glory, like all the other peoples. They want to adapt themselves to the context; they can’t support the weight of their unique privilege to live in true contact with the real and living God. The proposal was displeasing to the eyes of Samuel, reads the text. Meditating on this scene, we can share in his surprise. How is it possible that, despite having had countless proofs of God’s closeness, these elders don’t see that the true greatness of the people they lead lies in that very closeness?
Samuel’s reaction to this disappointment is to seek out silence. He leaves the elders, with all their human aspirations of national glory, and he turns to God in prayer. He receives an unexpected answer: “Listen to whatever the people say. You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king.” It is a phrase both severe and condescending at the same time. God shows Himself to be open to accepting the new proposal, even though it was inspired by a worldly criterion, but also invites the elders to consider the consequences: the weight of the royal court will be grave, their patriarchal authority will be limited, and the law regarding private property will undergo restrictions. They will have to pay taxes, follow orders, respect new laws. The palace will demand people and resources to sustain wars as well as the luxurious lifestyle of the king’s ministers and their families. In short, this is the message that God sends to the people: “When you have a king: you yourselves will become his slaves. On that day you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.”
Despite the clear presentation of what will happen, the elders insist with Samuel, repeating their motivation: “No! There must be a king over us. We too must be like all the nations.” The prophet accepts this “No!” and brings their concerns to the Lord, despite feeling that they are far from the logic of God. But the Lord advises him again: “Listen to them! Appoint a king to rule over them.”
This scene, so full of tension, shows us the mystery of God’s action in history. God appropriates a request that expresses insubordination and vanity. The people’s desires will be fulfilled, and this will not fail to provide Israel with abundant opportunities to repent. At the same time, bowing to the will of men, God extracts from their short-sightedness and their sin a new resource to bring His plan of salvation to fulfillment. The first king of Israel will be Saul and after him, instead of his heir, David, God’s chosen one, will take the throne. From the line of David will come Jesus, the true King, in whose hands God will place all of His power and glory. At that point, God makes the path demanded by the people in a moment of resistance and rebellion into something that is totally His.
But to carry out His plas, God leans on the obedience of His prophet. Let’s give a last look at this man and the trial that he has to go through. Samuel feels rejected personally: “You’re old,” the elders say to him with hostility. Rejecting him, they also reject what he represents: that long series of charismatic figures, called judges, who until that moment had been entrusted by God to lead His people. Despite this rejection, Samuel obeys his Lord. He embraces the change that is imposed on him by a historical moment that he can’t make sense of, and thus becomes an instrument of the newness that God is already preparing. This time, the contribution that is asked of him is a blind faith, but it is precisely for this that God treats him with a special tenderness. It can be hard to accept the flexibility of God! And now the tone becomes tender, almost a consolation for the sacrifice asked of him: “Listen to them! Appoint a king to rule over them.” As if to say: “Let them do it, don’t sadden yourself too much. They don’t know what they’re really asking for, and they will bear the burden of their stubbornness. And you, too, Samuel, cannot now imagine the full trajectory of my decision. I ask you only to offer in obedience your disappointment in your people and yourself.” And thus, the results of God’s action will infinitely surpass both the worldly images of the elders and those of the devout religiosity of the prophet.
We, too, looking at the events happening among the people of God that cause us sadness, regret, and disappointment, have to learn to find in them the presence of God’s inscrutable thought. Sometimes God creates new spaces using the limits and sins of men. He knows how to redeem the incredulity and meanness with which many oppose Him, using them mysteriously in service of a greater good. But He always needs to leverage the faith of the few, seeking them and calling on them in every age, drawing them into a special relationship with Himself.