Everybody’s favorite king in the Bible is David, of course; but you really can’t understand David—who he was, what he was, where he fits in the middle of things—without understanding a man named Saul. David was not the first king of Israel. He was the second. He followed on the heels of a man who was a failure, in the simplest terms. Why he was a failure, how he became a failure, how his life played out is of singular interest. And it is in that life and in those events that some principles that I think are among the most important that you will ever learn in your life can be illustrated.
The last verse in the Book of Judges says this:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Virtually every time I have heard that scripture cited it is cited in a negative sense. It is cited as though the absence of a king in Israel allowed anarchy. Since every man was able to do what was right in his own eyes, the people inevitably went out and did what was wrong. I have long felt that there was a problem, though, with that interpretation, and I’ll explain what I mean. The fact that there was no king in Israel was precisely what God wanted. This is overlooked by many people. He never intended for Israel to have a king. What he wanted them to have was maximum freedom. If you read it this way:
In those days, there was no dictator in Israel. Every man was free to do the right thing as he saw it, does that sound different to you? Because, in truth, that is the sense of this verse. That’s a different view.
During the period of Judges, Israel had enormous freedom, not just religious freedom. There was very little government, as such. And what government there was, was family. It was patriarchal. We would use the word tribal, but I don’t think that really conveys the circumstances of family in Israel—the greater family, when heads of families governed their own families. Families stayed close to each other. The transportation that we have today makes it possible for people to be worlds away. In those days, people didn’t move that far. A big move was a mile down the road; it was not that big a deal. Families were close. The abuses that would call for the police today were handled then by two big, burly brothers. You follow me? You just enforced it yourself. You went and made things right with your neighbor yourself. You did what you needed to do. You didn’t need a king, didn’t need a police force; families took those things in their own hands.
Protection from external enemies—that is, from the nations round-about them—was provided by God as long as Israel trusted him and obeyed. You didn’t have to worry about a standing army. Every man sat under his own vine and his own fig tree (a condition, by the way, which prefigures the millennium). The trouble in the period of Judges (and there was plenty of it) was not because of their lack of government. It was because they forgot God. If you doubt that just read the book of Judges. Go back through it again and look for what the Bible says is the cause for their continued difficulties, troubles, and trials. It’s a story of them forgetting God and him raising up a judge and performing miracles to deliver them and then them coming back to God. And then them forgetting God again and Him selling then to their enemies. Let them have them again. If you don’t want God in your life God won’t be in your life. He’ll go somewhere else and be somewhere else.
Samuel was the last great judge. He was not a Levite, not a priest. His birth was a miracle. God spoke with him as a child; and worked with him, led him all of his life. Ironically though, it was a weakness of Samuel that led to the appointment of the first king and the confusion that arose as a result; and a great deal of the wrong things that happened in Israel subsequent to that time grew out of this. It was inevitable, I suppose, but it nevertheless was a weakness of his. The story begins in 1st Samuel, the 8th chapter. All the way back here begins the tragic story of King Saul.