The more I contemplate Israel’s request for a king (1 Sam. 8), the more impressed I am with the idea that it is one of the major turning points in Israel’s history, or the story of the Bible as a whole.
The opening chapters of 1 Samuel should be read with its time period in mind. The period of the Judges was coming to an end. Samuel happened to be the last judge in Israel and, apparently, the first of her prophets (Acts 3:24). The time of the Judges is described with the last line of the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
When Israel demands a king, there is corrupt in Israel’s leadership. Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli, are described as “worthless men. They did not know the Lord.” They would take the choicest pieces of meat sacrificed to the Lord to fatten themselves (1 Sam 2:12-17). They would “lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:22).
Samuel’s sons were not much better. “…his sons did not walk in his ways but turned after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (8:3).
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.
Samuel tells them what their request will entail ( 8:10-18). These kings “will take your sons,” and “will take your daughters,” and “will take the best of your fields and vineyards,” and “will take the tenth of your grain…” and “will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men,” and “will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (8:11, 113, 14, 15, 16, 17). “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (8:18).
Some of you may recall the word of the Lord concerning Israel’s kings in Deuteronomy. The Lord foretold of the day they would request a king (Deut. 17:14-17). The Lord grants them permission:
you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you.
And, He warns Israel that the king is not to place his confidence in horses, or to return to Egypt for help. He is not to acquire many wives, nor acquire excessive silver and gold—all things in which men place their trust.
But something is obviously wrong with Israel’s request for a king. The primary issue centers on Israel’s rejection of God from being king over them (8:7). Their rejection of Him is emphasized a couple of times in the chapters that follow. For example, when Saul is anointed at Mizpah, Samuel says,
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ but today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us’ (10:18-19).
In Samuel’s farewell address, he reminds the people of his own integrity. He contrasts his work as a prophet with the work of a king, claiming never to have exploited the people. He rehearses Israel’s history with them, and exhorts them, in spite of their evil, not to turn aside from following YHWH. Toward the end of his speech, he says,
Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the Lord, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking for yourselves a king. So Samuel called upon the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel (12:17-18).
A contrasting story to the one recorded in 1 Samuel 8 is a story found in Judges 7. Gideon was one of the “judges” of Israel. The Lord worked through Gideon not with the initial 32,000 troops he marshaled to his side, but with 300 men. The Lord explains why he whittled down the size of his troops so drastically:
The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’ (Judges 7:2).
Because of Gideon’s success, Israel invites him and his sons to rule over them:
Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you’ (Judges 8:22, 23).
Gideon was wise. Israel, in the days of Samuel, was foolish when they insisted on a king to rule over them so they might be like the nations around them.
Israel distrusted the leadership capability of Samuel’s sons. I would have as well, but their mistake in asking Samuel to appoint a king over them was in rejecting God from being their king.
This is such a huge mistake at so many different levels that Hosea, in the context of God’s judgment against Israel, the northern tribes, he writes,
Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities?
Where are all your rulers—
those of whom you said,
“Give me a king and princes”?
I gave you a king in my anger,
and I took him away in my wrath (Hosea 13:10, 11).
Israel’s problem was, in part, the leadership of her kings. This is the message of 1 & 2 Kings. When coupled with the books of Samuel, the message is clear. Israel’s kings led the way to corruption.
Israel’s history under her kings, sets us up for the coronation and rule of the King of God’s own selection, Jesus Christ. There was a time when they wanted to take Jesus by force and make Him king.
After the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6), the people “saw the sign that he had done,” and said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (an allusion to Deut. 18:15-22). John writes,
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself (John 6:15).
Why did Jesus withdraw again to the mountain by himself? If the emphasis in John is on Jesus being a king, why not make this His moment? Or, why not in His temptation in the wilderness fall down and worship the devil (Matt. 4:9), and have all the kingdoms of the world and their glory become His (Matt. 4:7-11). Answer: it would not have accomplished God’s will in God’s way.
The information in this article is intended to supplement the material found in Turning Points: Pivotal Moments in God’s Story, and in particular, the two chapters titled “Give Us a King.”