Israel Seeks a King, 1-22

The prospect of monarchy had featured prominently in Israel’s past (Gen 17:6,16; 49:10; Ex 19:6; Num 24:17-19; Deut 17:14-20).  However, it had always been understood that any human king would rule under the sovereign authority of the Lord himself (Ex 15:6,18; Nu 23:21; Dt 33:5; Judg 5:3-5).

Chapters 8-12, although forming a literary unit, present the monarchy in both its negative (8:1–22;10:17–27; 11:12–12:25) and positive (9:1–10:16; 11:1–11) aspects.

8:1 In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel. 8:2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second son was Abijah. They were judges in Beer Sheba. 8:3 But his sons did not follow his ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice.

Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel – ‘Whether Samuel should have appointed his sons as judges in the first place is highly questionable, since judgeship was usually a divine charisma (cf. Jdg 2:16, 18; 3:10, 15; 6:12; 11:29; 13:25).’ (EBC)

‘Wayward sons in the Bible frequently bring ruin upon their fathers’ houses (e.g., Ham, Abimelech, Absalom)’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary).  Then it was the turn of Eli’s sons.  Although the sins of Samuel’s sons did not lead to their father’s downfall, they did contribute to a change of direction for the nation that would have far-reaching consequences.

‘History was repeating itself. The sins of Eli’s sons had brought about one major change in Israel; and now the sins of Samuel’s sons were the first step in an even greater change…One important difference is that Samuel’s sons were not under his direct supervision, for Beersheba lay far away to the south, and neither God nor man could blame him for their activities.’ (NBC)

8:4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. 8:5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.”

“You are old” – ‘The narrator’s neutral comment about Samuel’s age (8:1) becomes in their mouths crude and cruel ingratitude when addressed to the man whose intercession had kept the Philistines at bay for a generation (8:5).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

“Appoint over us a king to lead us” – The irony is that kingship was hereditary.  The families of Eli and Samuel had both shown that good fathers could be succeeded by evil sons.  The same can happen today.

“Just like all the other nations have” – In this way, they show their eagerness to reject their identification as the chosen people of the Lord.

In what ways do we fall prey to the customs and fashions of the world around us?  See Rom 12:1 – ‘Do not be conformed to this world.’

But there is no indication in Deut 17:14 that Israel’s desire for such a king was inherently wrong.  ‘Ironically, however, the rest of Deuteronomy 17 makes sure Israel will not have a king “like all the nations,” for he must be a man of Yahweh’s choosing (v. 15a), a brother Israelite, not a foreigner (v. 15b), without the customary royal perks—military machine, multiple wives, and massive wealth (vv. 16–17), and subservient to the rule of Yahweh’s law (vv. 18–20). So the fault (in 1 Sam. 8) was not in the fact of the request but in the motive for the request. It was not the request itself but what was behind the request that tainted it.’ (Davis)

8:6 But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD. 8:7 The LORD said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8:8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you. 8:9 So now do as they say. But seriously warn them and make them aware of the policies of the king who will rule over them.”

“It is me they have rejected as their king”Cf. Ex 16:8.  Israel already had a king – the Lord himself! So the elders’ request for a king was sinful, a denial of the faithfulness of the God who had led them safely thus far.  Yet God accepted that a visible human leader would be provided, even though, eventually, the kingship would bring much misery to the nation.

‘Samuel experiences what Moses, the prophets, and even Jesus experience: ‘We do not want this man to reign over us’ (Lk 19:14)’ (Hertzberg)

“…just as they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt until this very day” – Their request for a king is in line with a whole string of apostasies stretching back to the time of the Exodus. (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

Let us beware, lest in rejecting God’s representative we find ourselves rejecting God himself.

Pause and ponder

Dale Ralph Davis writes:

1. We have a tendency to assess our problems mechanically rather than spiritually. Our first impulse is to assume there is something wrong in our techniques. The need is for adjustment, not repentance; there is something wrong in the system that needs doctoring. How easy for even energetic evangelicals to look for a new gimmick rather than cry out for a new heart.
2. Instead of looking to God for help we are more interested in prescribing what form God’s help must take. Our attention is not on God’s deliverance in our troubles but on specifying the method by which he must bring that deliverance (therefore, we trust the method). We are not content with seeking a saving God but desire to direct how and when he will save.
3. Yahweh will sometimes give us our request to our own peril (8:7a, 9). God’s granting our request may not be a sign of his favor but of our obstinacy. Sometimes God’s greatest kindness is in not answering our prayers exactly as we desire (see Psalm 106:15).
4. In light of the current situation (8:1–3, 5a) and danger (cf. 12:12), Israel’s request for a king was perfectly rational; yet Yahweh viewed it as rejecting his kingship. Our proposals and solutions then can be completely reasonable, clearly logical, obviously plausible—and utterly godless.

8:10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 8:11 He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. 8:12 He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 8:13 He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 8:14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. 8:15 He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. 8:16 He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. 8:17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. 8:18 In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD won’t answer you in that day.”

This is an entirely negative picture of monarchy.

‘Samuel here paints a grim picture of the side-effects of monarchy…Samuel’s description of kingship in action draws attention to forced labour and conscription, heavy taxes and finally tyranny. So if Israel chose kingship, as they did, they would eventually have to pay a heavy price for the limited military benefits. They believed a king would give them such things as security, stability and success; Samuel warned them that kings were much more likely to take than to give. (Notice how often the verb take occurs in vs 11–17.)’ (NBC)

It has been pointed out that the description fits Solomon very well.  But it is likely that the excesses of kingship were evident long before his time:

‘Many scholars have argued that this litany of deprivations and persecutions actually reflects the hardships suffered under Solomon and that the passage is a late Deuteronomistic composition. Yet opposition to monarchy as such never again surfaces in Deuteronomistic writings. Moreover, the royal corruption depicted here matches that of Canaanite kings from as early as the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.). So it is more likely that this picture represents the view of those circles who, from the beginning, opposed monarchy, even if our text bears later Deuteronomistic markings.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘Various aspects of the “regulations” would be implemented by Saul (22:6–19) and Absalom (2 Sa 15:1–6)—although Solomon would become the most notable offender.’ (EBC)

“He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers” – The women will not be exempt.

‘Key words in the “regulations of the kingship” are “take” (vv. 11, 13–17) and “best” (vv. 14, 16)’ (EBC).  Samuel, on the other hand, declared that he had taken nothing (12:3f).

In short, Samuel warns the people that they will become slaves of their own king.

8:19 But the people refused to heed Samuel’s warning. Instead they said, “No! There will be a king over us! 8:20 We will be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”

‘With a king, Israel says, we will fit, we will belong, we will, at last, get up to speed. After all, this is the Iron Age, and we must have structures compatible with the demands of a new era.’ (Davis)

Davis notes that it belongs to the essence of holiness to be willing to be different to those around us?  Not, of course, different for its own sake, but for the sake of God and his kingdom.

8:21 So Samuel listened to everything the people said and then reported it to the LORD. 8:22 The LORD said to Samuel, “Do as they say and install a king over them.” Then Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Each of you go back to his own city.”

So the Lord decided to let the Israelites have it their own way.

‘Since Yahweh will sometimes give us our requests to our own peril (vv. 7, 9, 22), we should not be too upset if he does not give us what we wanted. How many mercies may hide there. His refusals are not indifference but may be kindness.’ (Davis)

‘First Samuel 8 is your mirror; it reveals Israel and you. How easily you misplace your trust; how ashamed you are to be different; how resistant to any word that does not agree with your opinion. There—you are revealed.’ (Davis)