(This devotion is day twenty-one of a 30-Day Thanksgiving Challenge. Each day includes a daily reading that will be accompanied by a post on this blog.)
Read 1 Samuel 8
I’m not afraid to admit; I’m a fan of country music. One song from the 90’s (the greatest musical decade) was “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks. The song reassures the heartbroken that sometimes not getting what you want, or not having your prayers answered, might be a gift. Garth’s lyrics tell the story of a married man going to his hometown football game and running into his high school flame. The future he once desired comes into mind and he’s struck by how much thankful he is he didn’t get what he wanted. He realizes what fell through and was disappointing and painful, became a blessing leading to something greater: his wife. The chorus says these famous words, and it helps if you read them with a bit of Garth Brooks twang.
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin to the man upstairs
And just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he doesn’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Today’s text takes us to another low-point and significant transition in Israel’s history. We learn that desires must submitted to God’s Word, rather than causing us to resist God’s Word. Wanting what God hasn’t (yet) given us can be dangerous. And demanding what God withholds or warns against is a recipe for disaster.
As you read 1 Samuel 8, you likely noticed the absence of any thanksgiving or gratitude language. While this passage isn’t about giving thanks, it teaches us about discontentment, covetousness, idolatry, and ingratitude. These choke out thankfulness. But if we see circumstances with a perspective that trusts the kindness and wisdom of God, we can rest in a God who knows our needs and knows how and when to give us what we need. If we believe this, and we trust in Him, we can give thanks, even in situations we’re less than thrilled about.
Prior to 1 Samuel 8, judges provided wisdom and promoted justice for Israel. God was their king. This set them apart from surrounding nations ruled by powerful earthly kings. God designed it this way. He wanted Israel to be different (set apart) in their total reliance on God. If Israel followed God alone as king, they would prosper and flourish, and other nations would be compelled by the power of their True King.
But Israel grew weary of God’s plans. As they look around and see the ways of their nations, they want the same thing. They wanted to be led by a visible, human king. Rather than live by faith in God, an earthly king would allow them to live by sight. They didn’t have to trust God if they can trust in a royal leader, living in a decked-out palace, with all the wealth and power that garners human respect.
As Israel grew covetous and jealous of other nations, discontentment about what God had given them soared. They questioned if God was looking out for them or withholding something good from them. Gratitude grew silent while grumbling spread. Eventually, they demand a king (8:5).
It’s not only that they’re swayed by the ways of the world rather than the ways of God—though this is a lesson to learn here—but it’s that they put something or someone in God’s place. That’s the very definition of idolatry. They look to an earthly king to do what only their heavenly King can do. They stop trusting in and seeking after God, and they trust in man.
To make matters worse, Samuel again warns Israel that this will not work out like they think (see 8:10-18). Idols never do. Israel thinks this will give them more power, and less fear of other nations, but it ends up stripping them of freedom. They think a king will provide security, and it leads to complete insecurity and instability. They think this will answer the longings of their heart and give them the life they dreamed of, but when they wake from the dream they realize in horror that this is not what they imagined, or wanted. Though they cry out for a king now, they will soon cry out because of their king (8:18).
This newfound desire, or idol, has such a grip on their hearts that it blinds them to alarm bells. They reject Samuel and God’s Word as they say double-down on their demands (see 8:19-20).
Part of what’s sad is Israel asks their replacement of God to do the very things God has promised to do, such as fight their battles (1 Samuel 8:20; Exodus 14:14). The very things they want, they can only have in God, and so in their ingratitude and idolatry they lose what they’re hoping for rather than gaining it.
Our Idols Deceive and Lie
Idolatry always works this way. The glimmer of that shiny object ends up being a hook snaring us. The things we think offer freedom, enslave us. They now cause stress, fear, and anxiety as they crumble and topple over. When we put something or someone in God’s place, it never follows through on what it offers and it always hollows and empties us.
As you scroll through social media, watch TV or movies, observe the life of coworkers or others at church, or notice magazine covers at the checkout line, are you tempted with envy or jealousy? Do you feel discontentment and covetousness rising in your heart like the tide? Are you believing the lie about the grass being greener anywhere but where God placed you?
These subtle expressions of disappointment have huge consequences, if left unchecked. Where ingratitude increases, idolatry slips in (see Romans 1:21-23). We no longer just wish things were a little different or a little better, but desire morphs into a demand, something we’ll sin to get or sin when we don’t get it. Rather than bringing our desires to God in hopes to receive them in His timing and plan, we pursue them apart from Him. We become like children unhappy with the “no” of their parents who now sneak around until they get what they want.
These signs and symptoms of growing ingratitude and increasing idolatry should alarm us. None of these things can give us what we think they can. The discontentment will only grow unless it’s fought with thanksgiving, trust, and rest in God.
1 Samuel 8 teaches us that cultivating gratitude and practicing thanksgiving protects our soul. If we’re not increasing in thankfulness, then ingratitude will swell. Worship will be pushed out by idolatry, and the results will be devastating.
Think about where you’re tempted to envy, jealousy, and idolatry. What steps do you need to take to avoid their snare? What lies are you believing and what promises and truths do you need to fight them with? Or to fight idolatry through gratitude, what good things God has done for you or given to you?
 Garth Brooks, “Unanswered Prayers,” 8/27/90. Written by Garth Brooks, Larry Bastian, and Pat Alger and recorded at Jack’s Tracks Recording Studio, Nashville, TN.