When the prophet Samuel was old, he tried to appoint his sons to succeed him as leaders over Israel. But the Israelites were not willing to follow his sons, and they requested that he appoint a king.
Samuel was troubled. He didn’t think it wise to give one person that much power, and he thought it would reduce Israel’s allegiance to God. But when he approached God in prayer to express these concerns, he received an unexpected answer:
Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.1 Samuel 8:7-9, italics added
After explaining the burdens a king would impose upon them and failing to persuade them, Samuel approached the Lord again. “Hearken unto their voice,” God said, “and make them a king” (1 Samuel 8:22).
Why would God give the people something that wasn’t good for them? Maybe it’s because we learn by making decisions and experiencing the consequences of those decisions. Maybe it’s because a decision which was imposed upon them was unlikely to be sustainable; they had to own it. At God’s direction, Samuel deferred to their collective desire.
That is the only place where the phrase “the voice of the people” appears in the King James Version of the Bible. But it appears 24 times in the Book of Mormon. For example:
- Zeniff was appointed king by the voice of the people (Mosiah 7:9).
- His grandson, Limhi, requested suggestions from his people about how to escape from bondage (Mosiah 22:1).
- King Mosiah abolished the monarchy, declaring that decisions ought to be made by the combined voice of the people, not by a single individual (Mosiah 29:26). Thereafter, government leaders were selected and important questions were settled by the people collectively. (See Alma 2:3-7, Alma 4:16, Alma 27:21-22, Alma 46:34, Alma 51:7, 15-16, Helaman 1:5-13, Helaman 2:2.)
- This system worked reasonably well, except for a few instances in which groups of people refused to accept the voice of the people. (See, for example Alma 2, Alma 51, Helaman 1.)
When King Mosiah established the system of judges, he warned the people that, if they were going to be self-governing, then their government would be a reflection of their own collective morality:
It is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law — to do your business by the voice of the people.
And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you.Mosiah 29:26-27
Many years later, Mormon lamented the degradation of the people, as evidenced by the degradation of their government:
As their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted.Helaman 5:2
I see the following principles in these passages:
- When we are part of a community, whether it be a team at work, a city, a church, or a family, we need to respect the combined wishes of that community.
- We are more likely to make wise decisions if we make them together, provided that we are all trying to do what is right and good.
- God is willing to work with us even though our desires are imperfect. He will allow us to make choices and will help us through the consequences of those choices.
Let me clarify that this does not mean that we should allow our peers to unduly influence our individual decisions. It is important to stand up for what is right, even when it isn’t popular. But we can often accommodate the preferences of the people around us without compromising our personal integrity and convictions.
Today, I will strive to be open to “the voice of the people.” I will listen to the opinions and preferences of others and strive to be respectful of those opinions, just as God taught Samuel to be respectful of the desires of the Israelites.
It’s possible the concept of not overriding the voice of the people has to do with the sanctity of agency. If “the people” are seen as in individual organism, the majority opinion can’t be overridden without disrupting agency. It’s unsettling because opposing opinions are often so hard to fathom by those whose experience has lead to a differing conclusion. Maybe that’s where faith, courage, patience, and other gospel principles come into play. The power of example is the only thing we have to change hearts that doesn’t override agency. It’s still scary to watch “the people” go in directions we know or feel to be perilous.
Excellent thoughts. I think that’s the hard part: figuring out how much we are able to adapt to suboptimal consensus views vs. when we need to take a stand. My impression is that we can be patient with suboptimal outcomes more often than we think.
Just want to commend and thank Paul for the time and heart that goes unto these thoughtful posts. I always feel inspired by them. You have many more “likes” than appears 😊
Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts.