Third Sunday after Pentecost

Fear is a great strategy that the evil one uses to try to undermine trust

Snake in dimly lit foliage
Photo by David Jdt on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 9, 2024

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

So many questions! How is it that the Lord of the Universe relents to the people of ancient Israel’s desire to be like other nations and have a king?

Textual horizons

Taking a look first at the bigger picture—the narrative’s context—there is a key theological framework for this text, and actually for the whole of 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings. Writing after the fall of Israel (722/721 BCE) and Judah/Jerusalem (587/586 BCE), the author(s) laid out a theme of “reversal of fortune,” first seen in Hannah’ song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10.1 The standpoint of the author(s) is grounded in the theology of the book of Deuteronomy, which is why scholars call the author(s) “the Deuteronomist.”

The theology of the books of the “Deuteronomistic History”2 makes a claim that the fall of Israel and Judah is related to covenantal disobedience. This standpoint from Babylonian exile is a way to make sense of how the Divine Warrior3 did not rescue them this time, as YHWH Sabaoth had done in the narratives of Joshua and Judges. The consequence for disobedience was exile—though this tough love was held in tension with the promise that David’s throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:11–16), as well as with the prophetic oracles elsewhere that a remnant would return.

Thus, the author’s agenda is to teach that those who are faithful to YHWH will be lifted up, while those who are disobedient will be brought low—in other words, the reversal of fortune. This motif is repeated throughout the four books.

Now, enter the reversals of fortune that set the stage for King Saul.

While Samuel is an exemplar of faithfulness, his sons, Joel and Abijah, are the opposite, seeking selfish gains that pervert justice (1 Samuel 8:3). With just concern, the elders of all Israel come to Samuel and plead for their society, seeking to avoid the injustices evidenced in the heirs apparent. Then the people command (imperative form of “put/place/appoint”) Samuel to give them a king, which was an “evil” thing to Samuel (verse 6; New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition says that “the thing displeased Samuel”). Samuel relays “the words of YHWH to the people” (verse 10), warning them of the power of a king over them.

While it seems that God’s warning centers on issues of conscription and taxes, the real issue is in whom the people of God will trust. The red thread of this text—and the whole Bible—is that YHWH is to be the sole relationship in whom to put one’s trust. If the people of God do not trust YHWH, there will be consequences—conscription and taxes are the light version, and exile is the heavy version—which would be understood by the first hearers of this text, who were probably in the Babylonian exile.

God relents and allows the installation of King Saul (1 Samuel 11:15), which unleashes one of the clearest reversal-of-fortune narratives in 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings. (Stay tuned!)

Homiletic horizons

Who—or what—do we trust? Our dominant cultures and the wiles of the evil one are masterful at helping us misplace trust.

It would be easy to look for misguided aspects in these texts. The people seem (1) envious of other nations around them with a king. They see the selfish injustices of Joel and Abijah, so (2) they respond from their own understanding and command Samuel to appoint them a king. But do not stop with the low-hanging fruit in this (or any) text!

First, the people want to put their trust in an earthly king. God’s relenting to the people’s desire for a king will allow—if not challenge—the people to demonstrate the core of their trust. Will it be placed upon political leaders? Or will their trust rightly remain in the God of covenantal promise, deliverance, and blessing?

More importantly, there is an underlying issue of fear. The elders are afraid that they will be stuck with Joel and Abijah, though clearly YHWH knew that Samuel’s sons were unfit for leadership of God’s people. Fear is a great strategy that the evil one uses to try to undermine trust. This is not just Old Testament stories from the past; it is the story of our lives today. Fear gets a foothold because the people do not trust YHWH to rule as their true sovereign. In this text, the people did not trust YHWH to manage the ruling over them.

Remember that these texts are from the perspective of the people of God in the Babylonian exile (when these texts were compiled and edited). This perspective is also clearly seen in the Psalms, which also had some development during the exile.4 Many Psalms—including Psalm 138 in this group of lectionary readings—recognize the reality of misplaced trust and its consequences, such that they repeatedly recognize that YHWH alone is king (ruler, sovereign, or monarch in inclusive language).

Often good things—justice, civil society, security, et cetera—become lesser gods. Indeed, while these good things are important, they can subtly misalign our trust. Ultimately, our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” (hymn lyrics by Edward Mote).


  1. Mark Throntveit, “Enter the Bible — Books: 1 Samuel,” n.d., (accessed February 1, 2020).
  2. Sandra L. Richter, “Deuteronomistic History,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 219–30.
  3. C. L. Seow, “Hosts, Lord of,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 306. “From the start, the epithet YHWH Sebaʾot is understood in military terms—at least in part.” See also L. Daniel Hawk, “Joshua, Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 568.
  4. The final form of the Psalms came later, though scholars have different approaches for determining an estimated date.