The transition from prophet and judge Samuel to King Saul was an awkward moment. Moses had warned centuries earlier what would happen if Israel decided to enthrone a human monarch. Now, after decades of what they will admit was just and wise leadership by Samuel, Israelites demand a king so that they may be like the nations around them. We might imagine Samuel would be hurt by this demand, and that he might stalk off into an angry retirement, refusing to help the new king who replaced him as leader of Israel. Samuel, however, did not relinquish his role of spiritual leader even as he surrendered his political role.
In 1 Samuel 12, the aging prophet asks his countrymen, “Whose animals have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? Have I accepted a bribe?” He offers restitution if he has committed any of those offenses. His fellow Israelites will admit that he has sinned against them in none of those ways. He has been an exemplary leader. The prophet then notes that it is the time for the wheat harvest, a time when it typically did not rain, and he “calls for fire.” In his prayer, the prophet calls for God to send thunder and rain, which at this time of year would have the same ruinous effect on the harvest. The prayer and the thunder and rain that followed it caused the people to be “in awe of the LORD and of Samuel” (1 Samuel 12:18). Realizing that they had rejected a divinely appointed leader in Samuel by pleading for a king, they ask Samuel to perform one of the duties of a prophet, to pray for them to God so that God would not destroy them for their sins.
Samuel answers, “Do not be afraid…You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart” (1 Samuel 12:20). In rejecting Samuel as prophet-judge, they had rejected God as king. Samuel tells them that the remedy for their sin is to serve God whole-heartedly from this time forward. They cannot undo what they have done. Consequences of sin often remain even after repentance. In this scenario, Israelites offer to turn back from the move to monarchy, yet Samuel rejects their offer. They have repented, but he does not allow them the option of restitution. Instead, from this point onward, they must “serve the LORD with all [their] heart.” The prophet zeroes in on one potential obstacle to spiritual success: “Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless” (1 Samuel 12:21).
Samuel will not rule Israel, but he does not abdicate his role as spiritual leader. He assures Israel that God has not rejected his people. Rather than retreat bitterly, he asserts that he will continue to perform his prophetic function in two ways: He will pray and he will teach. Prophets prayed for the people of God. Samuel pledges:
“For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. But be sure to fear the LORD and to serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away” (1 Samuel 12:22-25).
Note the implication that the prophet would sin if he failed to pray for God’s people. Samuel also links the “way that is good and right” to teaching. Once more the necessary linkage for successful communication emerges: talking to God (prayer) and listening to God (learning the way that is good and right from teaching of God’s Word). The prophet must pray and teach; the people must learn and act righteously. Praying teachers and leaders of God people (including Jesus, Peter, John, and Paul) appear throughout the New Testament. A faithful leader will pray for God’s people.