When faced with a difficult problem or situation, where do we turn for a solution? To whom or to what do we appeal in times of great need? Concerning the world today, the Lord has said, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world” (D&C 1:16).
In the waning days of Samuel’s service as Israel’s prophet and judge, the people had a perplexing dilemma. Their desires and choice on that occasion laid the foundation for their eventual captivity and scattering throughout the nations of the earth. The results of their choice teach us lessons that are relevant for our day.
The Israelites had been free from the rule of an earthly king since their bondage in Egypt. Israel had made a covenant with Jehovah that He would be their God and they would be His people (see Lev. 26:12). Their sovereign was a heavenly king—Jehovah, who is Jesus Christ—who had brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground, enabled them to conquer the land of Canaan, and preserved them as a nation by calling to leadership a series of judges.
Righteous Hannah had prophesied as she dedicated her young child to service at the Lord’s tabernacle under Eli, “The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10). Her words looked forward to a time when Jesus Christ would rule Israel as judge, king, and Messiah, the anointed one, a concept also taught by Book of Mormon prophets (see 2 Ne. 6:14; 2 Ne. 10:14; 2 Ne. 21:1–6). But that time was not yet. The Lord called Samuel to be both prophet and judge over all Israel.
During Samuel’s ministry, the ark of God, once lost in battle to the Philistines, was returned to the tabernacle (see 1 Sam. 4–6), the Lord subdued their enemies (see 1 Sam. 7:9–14), and “the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only” (1 Sam. 7:4). “All Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:20).
As Samuel grew old, a problem arose. As was the custom, he made his two sons judges over Israel. However, “his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Sam. 8:3). This was a distressful situation for the people and their leaders. To whom or what could they appeal for a resolution? They turned to Samuel and demanded, “Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5).
Samuel was “displeased” by their petition, but not because monarchy is an inherently evil form of government. We know from King Mosiah that “if it were possible that [we] could have just men to be [our] kings, … then it would be expedient that [we] should always have kings to rule over [us]” (Mosiah 29:13). What displeased Samuel was why Israel wanted a king: “That we may also be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20).
They had set their hearts on an earthly king to lead them in battle and give them a sense of national identity, security, and unity. Their request reflected a lack of faith and trust in their covenant relationship with the Lord. Did they think the Lord was not king enough? He had never broken His promise to be their protector, if they would but believe in Him, and had repeatedly demonstrated His power for their sakes, including giving them a recent victory over the Philistines!
Israel also wanted an earthly king so they could be like the kingdoms around them, whose leaders exhibited an image of magnificence and ceremonious style. Israel wanted a celebrity king who would be a showpiece for their vanity and worldliness, power and grandeur. Through Samuel, the Lord warned the people that such a king would come at a high cost: he would draft their sons to plant his fields and make war for his selfish ambitions, he would make their daughters menial laborers in his kitchens for his parties, and he would tax everything they owned to support himself and his friends (see 1 Sam. 8:11–17). Finally, the Lord promised them that if they persisted in desiring an earthly king instead of Him, He would not hear them in the day of their oppression and misery, a principle reinforced in modern scripture: “They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble” (D&C 101:7).
In an act of great selfishness and pride, the people refused to obey the Lord and his prophet. They wanted to be like everyone else. They wanted a king the world could admire rather than the unseen King who could only be known by faith. “Hearken unto their voice,” said the Lord to Samuel, “and make them a king” (1 Sam. 8:22).
Thus Israel changed its form of government, a change that lasted until their scattering more than 400 years later. The Lord revealed to Samuel that Saul was to be their first king (see 1 Sam. 9). Samuel anointed Saul and the Lord gave him a new heart (see 1 Sam. 10), for clearly the Lord wanted His people to have righteous, inspired kings.
More than 40 kings ruled over the Israelites, some over a united kingdom, but most over a divided people living in two different kingdoms. The legacies of their kings are for the most part a fulfillment of the Lord’s warning words to Samuel. Even those kings whose hearts were pure at one point in their lives, such as Saul, David, and Solomon, succumbed to idolatry, gross sin, and wickedness.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the modern covenant people of the Lord and are subject to many different political systems throughout the world. Spiritually, members of the Church have prophets who warn and counsel against those influences and practices that will harm us and bring us into bondage (see, for example, For the Strength of Youth). These warnings are given to help us avoid the attitudes and habits that make us like the rest of the world. For example, after citing some problems that beset families today, such as drugs, alcohol, harsh language, and child and spouse abuse, President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “I lift a warning voice to our people. We have moved too far toward the mainstream of society.”1 We have been repeatedly counseled against adopting the philosophies of the world and participating in its fads and styles. Our prophets plead for us to keep the Sabbath day holy, shun inappropriate media, and avoid debt. Too many ignore the counsel because being acceptable to the world seems more attractive and “fun” than being acceptable to the Lord.
In times of personal crisis, some turn first to “the arm of flesh” (see D&C 1:19–20), reaching out for comfort from a worldly “king,” such as misguided friends and leaders, food, drugs, or pornography. These may lead to some social, emotional, or financial successes but eventually end in bondage to sin and the loss of what is more important in life. If we ignore these warnings in order to be like the world, we will suffer the same consequences as ancient Israel: we will lose our sons and daughters, lose the possessions we covet, and become slaves to our new “king.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The devil has no power over us only as we permit him.”2 The scriptures repeatedly promise that those who look to the Lord can be spared unnecessary trials and suffering and receive great blessings (see Alma 38:5). If we will but come to Christ that He may be our king, casting our burdens upon Him, He will fight our battles and give us rest (see Matt. 11:28–30; D&C 98:33–38; D&C 105:14). This does not mean that we should just sit back and let Him do everything. We must live in such a way that we may find favor in His sight (1 Ne. 17:35). Our interest must be in pleasing Him, not the world.
The prophet Nephi understood the nature of the relationship that must exist between us and the Lord in order to retain Him as our king. “The tender mercies of the Lord,” he said, “are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Ne. 1:20).