But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be 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 8:19-20
It wasn’t wrong for Israel to desire a king. The request they made to Samuel to give them such a ruler was not in itself sinful. In fact, centuries before, Moses had anticipated this day, and God had prescribed the exact way in which this kingly rule should be put in place (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The issue was not the request but the people’s motivation: they wished to “be like all the nations” around them. And that was a problem because they were not like those nations: they were God’s people, His “treasured possession among all peoples … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). By refusing to be different from those around them, they were essentially refusing to be God’s people.
There are many points of overlap between Israel’s request for a king in order to be like the surrounding nations and the warnings that Paul gave in his epistle to the church at Rome. Paul wrote concerning the danger of being swallowed up by the surrounding culture: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The Living Bible translates this verse afresh: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but be a new and different person with a fresh newness in all you do and think.”
Paul cautioned the church in this way because he understood the pressure for the believers in 1st-century Rome to accommodate themselves to the lifestyle and the values of the pagan world around them. We face the same challenge in our day. Therefore, we ought not to be surprised when back to the 11th century BC we find the Israelites struggling with the same temptation—and we hear the same kind of warning being sounded.
What about us? Do we live with an evident newness of life? Do we expect to be different from the world around us in how we think and what we say and the way we live, or are we busy trying to fit in with our neighbors? Are our churches copying the cultural customs, expectations, and behaviors of those around us, or are they filled with a marked vibrancy that only comes as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work and inspiration?
Where are you most tempted to be indistinguishable from those around you? That is the place where you have the opportunity to resist the pressure to adapt to the world and compromise your distinctiveness. That is the place where you have the opportunity to allow yourself to be molded by God alone and to live in a way that is different—pleasing to Him and intriguing to others.