As an armchair student of history and politics, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly an electorate can turn against a popular leader. After leading Great Britain to victory in World War II Winston Churchill's party was defeated in parliamentary elections. George Bush I had astronomically high approval ratings after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, only to fail to receive 40% of the vote a year and a half later.
The story of Samuel follows this same pattern. Samuel was selected by God to be a prophet to Israel, and he was held in great respect by the people. As First Samuel 7 explains, Samuel confronted the people with their sins, they repented, and then God led them to victory over the Philistines. Samuel commemorated this great triumph with a memorial stone, "Ebenezer," which means "stone of help." This was to remind Israel that "the Lord has helped us."
But the nation quickly forgot. In the very next chapter they demanded a new leader, and a new form of leadership. They wanted a king. God had indicated that some day the nation would be led by a king (Gen. 17:6; 49:10; Deut. 17:14-20), so this request in and of itself was not sinful. What made it sinful was the motive for the request. Israel wanted a king who would "go out before us and fight our battles" (8:20). Samuel's style of leadership was not flashy. He did not mount a white stallion and lead a dramatic charge. The victory in chapter seven occurred as Samuel offered a burnt offering (7:10). Was he successful? Of course - through the Lord's help. Was this enough for Israel? No.
The Israelites had a propensity for rejecting godly, faithful, successful leaders. As Stephen's speech in Acts 7 damningly reminded the Jewish leadership, this is what Israel did to Joseph, to Moses, and ultimately to Jesus.
The great lesson for all of us is to look beyond style and consider the substance of leaders. As Israel will soon learn in First Samuel, having a big, strapping, impressive man as king is not all that it is cracked up to be. What matters is character and competence.