Two things Samuel here aims at:—
I. To convince the people of their sin in desiring a king. They were now rejoicing before God in and with their king (1 Sam. 11:15), and offering to God the sacrifices of praise, which they hoped God would accept; and this perhaps made them think that there was no harm in their asking a king, but really they had done well in it. Therefore Samuel here charges it upon them as their sin, as wickedness, great wickedness in the sight of the Lord. Note, Though we meet with prosperity and success in a way of sin, yet we must not therefore think the more favourably of it. They have a king, and if they conduct themselves well their king may be a very great blessing to them, and yet Samuel will have them perceive and see that their wickedness was great in asking a king. We must never think well of that which God in his law frowns upon, though in his providence he may seem to smile upon it. Observe,
1. The expressions of God’s displeasure against them for asking a king. At Samuel’s word, God sent prodigious thunder and rain upon them, at a season of the year when, in that country, the like was never seen or known before, 1 Sam. 12:16-18. Thunder and rain have natural causes and sometimes terrible effects. But Samuel made it to appear that this was designed by the almighty power of God on purpose to convince them that they had done very wickedly in asking a king; not only by its coming in an unusual time, in wheat-harvest, and this on a fair clear day, when there appeared not to the eye any signs of a storm, but by his giving notice of it before. Had there happened to be thunder and rain at the time when he was speaking to them, he might have improved it for their awakening and conviction, as we may in a like case; but, to make it no less than a miracle, before it came, (1.) He spoke to them of it (1 Sam. 12:16, 17): Stand and see this great thing. He had before told them to stand and hear (1 Sam. 12:7); but, because he did not see that his reasoning with them affected them (so stupid were they and unthinking), now he bids them stand and see. If what he said in a still small voice did not reach their hearts, nor his doctrine which dropped as the dew, they shall hear God speaking to them in dreadful claps of thunder and the great rain of his strength. He appealed to this as a sign: “I will call upon the Lord, and he will send thunder, will send it just now, to confirm the word of his servant, and to make you see that I spoke truly when I told you that God was angry with you for asking a king.” And the event proved him a true prophet; the sign and wonder came to pass. (2.) He spoke to God for it. Samuel called unto the Lord, and, in answer to his prayer, even while he was yet speaking, the Lord sent thunder and rain. By this Samuel made it to appear, not only what a powerful influence God has upon this earth, that he could, of a sudden, when natural causes did not work towards it, produce this dreadful rain and thunder, and bring them out of his treasures (Ps. 135:7), but also what a powerful interest he had in heaven, that God would thus hearken to the voice of a man (Josh. 10:14) and answer him in the secret place of thunder, Ps. 81:7. Samuel, that son of prayer, was still famous for success in prayer. Now by this extraordinary thunder and rain sent on this occasion, [1.] God testified his displeasure against them in the same way in which he had formerly testified it, and at the prayer of Samuel too, against the Philistines. The Lord discomfited them with a great thunder, 1 Sam. 7:10. Now that Israel rebelled, and vexed his Holy Spirit, he turned to be their enemy, and fought against them with the same weapons which, not long before, had been employed against their adversaries, Isa. 63:10. [2.] He showed them their folly in desiring a king to save them, rather than God or Samuel, promising themselves more from an arm of flesh than from the arm of God or from the power of prayer. Could their king thunder with a voice like God? Job 40:9. Could their prince command such forces as the prophet could by his prayers? [3.] He intimated to them that how serene and prosperous soever their condition seemed to be now that they had a king, like the weather in wheat-harvest, yet, if God pleased, he could soon change the face of their heavens, and persecute them with his tempest, as the Psalmist speaks.
2. The impressions which this made upon the people. It startled them very much, as well it might. (1.) They greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. Though when they had a king they were ready to think they must fear him only, God made them know that he is greatly to be feared and his prophets for his sake. Now they were rejoicing in their king, God taught them to rejoice with trembling. (2.) They owned their sin and folly in desiring a king: We have added to all our sins this evil, 1 Sam. 12:19. Some people will not be brought to a sight of their sins by any gentler methods than storms and thunders. Samuel did not extort this confession from them till the matter was settled and the king confirmed, lest it should look as if he designed by it rather to establish himself in the government than to bring them to repentance. Now that they were flattering themselves in their own eyes, their iniquity was found to be hateful, Ps. 36:2. (3.) They earnestly begged Samuel’s prayers (1 Sam. 12:19): Pray for thy servants, that we die not. They were apprehensive of their danger from the wrath of God, and could not expect that he should hear their prayers for themselves, and therefore they entreat Samuel to pray for them. Now they see their need of him whom awhile ago they slighted. Thus many that will not have Christ to reign over them would yet be glad to have him intercede for them, to turn away the wrath of God. And the time may come when those that have despised and ridiculed praying people will value their prayers, and desire a share in them. “Pray” (say they) “to the Lord thy God; we know not how to call him ours, but, if thou hast any interest in him, improve it for us.”
1. He would not that the terrors of the Lord should frighten them from him, for they were intended to frighten them to him (1 Sam. 12:20): “Fear not; though you have done all this wickedness, and though God is angry with you for it, yet do not therefore abandon his service, nor turn from following him.” Fear not, that is, “despair not, fear not with amazement, the weather will clear up after the storm. Fear not; for, though God will frown upon his people, yet he will not forsake them (1 Sam. 12:22) for his great name’s sake; do not you forsake him then.” Every transgression in the covenant, though it displease the Lord, yet does not throw us out of covenant, and therefore God’s just rebukes must not drive us from our hope in his mercy. The fixedness of God’s choice is owing to the freeness of it; we may therefore hope he will not forsake his people, because it has pleased him to make them his people. Had he chosen them for their good merits, we might fear he would cast them off for their bad merits; but, choosing them for his name’s sake, for his name’s sake he will not leave them.
2. He cautions them against idolatry: “Turn not aside from God and the worship of him” (1 Sam. 12:20, 21); “for if you turn aside from God, whatever you turn aside to, you will find it is a vain thing, that can never answer your expectations, but will certainly deceive you if you trust to it; it is a broken reed, a broken cistern.” Idols could not profit those that sought to them in their wants, nor deliver those that sought to them in their straits, for they were vain, and not what they pretended to be. An idol is nothing in the world, 1 Cor. 8:4.
3. He comforts them with an assurance that he would continue his care and concern for them, 1 Sam. 12:23. They desired him to pray for them, 1 Sam. 12:19. He might have said, “Go to Saul, the king that you have put in my room,” and get him to pray for you; but so far is he from upbraiding them with their disrespect to him that he promised them much more than they asked. (1.) They asked it of him as a favour; he promised it as a duty, and startles at the thought of neglecting it. Pray for you! says he, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in not doing it. Note, It is a sin against God not to pray for the Israel of God, especially for those of them that are under our charge: and good men are afraid of the guilt of omissions. (2.) They asked him to pray for them at this time, and upon this occasion, but he promised to continue his prayers for them and to cease as long as he lived. Our rule is to pray without ceasing; we sin if we restrain prayer in general, and in particular if we cease praying for the church. (3.) They asked him only to pray for them, but he promised to do more for them, not only to pray for them, but to teach them; though they were not willing to be under his government as a judge, he would not therefore deny them his instructions as a prophet. And they might be sure he would teach them no other than the good and the right way: and the right way is certainly the good way: the way of duty is the way of pleasure and profit.
4. He concludes with an earnest exhortation to practical religion and serious godliness, 1 Sam. 12:24, 25. The great duty here pressed upon us is to fear the Lord. He had said (1 Sam. 12:20), “Fear not with a slavish fear,” but here, “Fear the Lord, with a filial fear.” As the fruit and evidence of this, serve him in the duties of religious worship and of a godly conversation, in truth and sincerity, and not in show and profession only, with your heart, and with all your heart, not dissembling, not dividing. And two things he urges by way of motive:—(1.) That they were bound in gratitude to serve God, considering what great things he had done for them, to engage them for ever to his service. (2.) That they were bound in interest to serve him, considering what great things he would do against them if they should still do wickedly: “You shall be destroyed by the judgments of God, both you and your king whom you are so proud of and expect so much from, and who will be a blessing to you if you keep in with God.” Thus, as a faithful watchman, he gave them warning, and so delivered his own soul.