The life of King Saul, which will be covered in the next several posts, demonstrates both the consequences of incomplete individual repentance and the very important points that people tend to put their nations and leaders in the place of God, and that, in matters of repentance and responsiveness to God, a nation's leaders tend to follow the people rather than lead the people.
Toward the end of the life of Samuel, the prophet and judge of Israel, the people came to him and asked him to appoint them a king. Their immediate provocation for doing this was that Samuel's sons, whom he had appointed as judges, did not follow his good example, but instead were corrupt. I Samuel 8:1-5. But their underlying desire was to be like all the nations around them, which also had hereditary kings, rather than divinely-appointed judges, leading them. "Make us a king to judge us like all the nations," they said. I Samuel 8:6.
But their wish to replace leaders directly appointed by God with hereditary kings was not the heart of the people’s sin. God had told Moses that, when He had settled them in the Promised Land, He would give them a king. That king was not to seek wealth, or wives, or power (many horses), but was to continually remind them of God and His Law. (Deuteronomy 17:14-18). God was always to lead Israel, and fight their battles—they were not to rely upon themselves or their king, but upon God.
But this was not the kind of king the people wanted. They wanted a king who would stand in the place of God for them. God told Samuel this, when he told God of the people’s request and protested it:
Listen to the voice of the people in all that they tell you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me as the king over them. 8 According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, in that they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so they also do to you. 9 Now therefore listen to their voice. However you shall protest solemnly to them, and shall show them the way of the king who will reign over them.
I Samuel 8:7b-9. Samuel then warned the people that their new king would treat them as his servants and oppress them, and the people reiterated their desire to have a king who would stand in the place of God for them, leading them and fighting their battles: “No; but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” I Samuel 8:19b-20.
God then gave the people the king they had requested, Saul son of Kish. On the day Saul was confirmed in front of all the people by lot and acknowledged as king, Samuel once again warned the people that “Yahweh, the God of Israel, says ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all the kingdoms that oppressed you.’ But you have today rejected your God, who himself saves you out of all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said to him, ‘No! Set a king over us.’” I Samuel 10:18-19.
This same warning was repeated sometime later, in I Samuel 12, after King Saul had won his first great victory against the Ammonites and the people came to acknowledge him as king. After reviewing the history of Israel after they came out of Egypt—a history filled with repeated cycles in which the people abandoned God and served idols, came under oppression of foreign enemies as chastisement, then turned to God again, cried out to Him, and He appointed a judge and deliverer for them—Samuel came to the crux of the matter:
When you saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, you said to me, “No, but a king shall reign over us;” when Yahweh your God was your king. 13 Now therefore see the king whom you have chosen, and whom you have asked for. Behold, Yahweh has set a king over you. 14 If you will fear Yahweh, and serve him, and listen to his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of Yahweh, then both you and also the king who reigns over you are followers of Yahweh your God. 15 But if you will not listen to Yahweh’s voice, but rebel against the commandment of Yahweh, then Yahweh’s hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.
I Samuel 12:12-15
God then sent a sign of his displeasure—a thunderstorm during wheat harvest, which was occurring that day—and the people, it says, greatly feared God and Samuel, and asked Samuel to pray to God asking Him to forgive their sin in asking for a king. Samuel said he would never stop praying for them, and that God would never give up on His people, but then warned them:
24 Only fear Yahweh, and serve him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. 25 But if you keep doing evil, you will be consumed, both you and your king.
I Samuel 12:24-25
In other words, in the things of God, a human king—even one God has appointed, like Saul—follows the people. The people, for the most part, do not follow the king. If the people follow God in truth with all their heart, so will the king, and things will be well. But if the people depart from God—as they had done in asking for Saul to be appointed as king in God’s place--both the king and the people will be swept away in evil.
Unfortunately, as will be seen in later postings, the people’s repentance at this time was incomplete, and King Saul’s incomplete repentance mirrored it, just as Samuel had warned.