Israel demands to have a king like the nations that live around them. They complain about the injustice of Samuel’s sons (1 Sam. 8:4–5), but the underlying reason for their demand is their desire to have a military leader who will ensure national security (v. 20). The request is surprising because the Lord has demonstrated his capacity to protect his people by defeating the Philistines (1 Sam. 7). However, this is not the first time Israel has made such a request (Judg. 8:22).
Long before this the Lord anticipated that the people would make a request like this, and he made provision for it (Deut. 17:14–20). However, a close look at the Deuteronomic regulations indicates that the Lord did not intend to give Israel a king like other nations (see fuller discussion below, under “Theological Insights”). Yet here in 1 Samuel 8 he seems to accede to the people’s request as he instructs Samuel to give them what they demand (vv. 7–9, 22a). What is even more baffling is Samuel’s response. Rather than obeying the Lord, he sends the people home (v. 22b). The issue is left unresolved at the end of the chapter. Will the Lord actually give them what they want?
Royal prerogatives and the bureaucracy involved in a monarchy are explained by Samuel and attested by both archaeological and literary sources in the ancient world. A small portion of the remains of the palace of King Zimri-Lim of Mari, in modern Syria, is shown here (eighteenth century BC). Archaeologists have uncovered an elaborate structure with two large courtyards, which acted as welcoming halls, the king’s house, and the House of the Women. These contained the throne room, stores, second-floor royal apartments, servants’ quarters, kitchens, administrative offices, and bathrooms.
Historical and Cultural Background
Israel wants a king who will ensure social justice and national security (1 Sam. 8:4–5, 19). Ancient Near Eastern kings were responsible for providing both of these benefits. Yet there is a downside to kingship. A royal bureaucratic institution inevitably grows and needs to be subsidized by those whom it protects. As it gains more and more power, this royal bureaucracy can easily became oppressive. This is exactly the picture that Samuel paints for the people as he describes what the typical king will be like. Eventually they will view their king as a tyrant, not a protector. Too late they will discover that having a king like other nations is not as desirable as they expect it to be. Second-millennium BC evidence from Syria-Palestine, particularly the sites of Alalakh, Mari, and Ugarit, supports Samuel’s argument.
In this chapter kingship is presented in a negative light. The people’s demand to have a king like the surrounding nations displeases Samuel, and the Lord views it as a rejection of his authority. This raises at least two problems:
- From Israel’s perspective, the people do not view the request for a king as a rejection of the Lord. Like other nations, which claim that a god gives victory to their king, Israel wants a king who is supported by God and represents God in battle. So why does the Lord view their request as a rejection of his authority? It is obvious that Israel is dissatisfied with the arrangement under the judges, where God in response to a crisis raises up a leader who summons the people for war. There is no standing army or chariot force. By Samuel’s time they decide that they want what the other nations have. They are not asking for a king in place of God, but they do want to see tangible evidence of their military strength, able to be called upon immediately in a crisis and serve as a deterrent to foreign attack. But the Lord demands radical faith on Israel’s part that is counter to the cultural norm and expectation. The typical arrangement can too easily cause people to trust in the tangible, rather than in the God behind it. Earlier in Israel’s story we see God’s concern in this regard. He commands Joshua to burn the Canaanite chariots (Josh. 11:4–11); he makes Gideon dismantle the bulk of his army lest the people think they have defeated the Midianites by their own strength (Judg. 7:2). In Deuteronomy 17:14–20, which anticipates Israel’s request for a king like other nations, the Lord refuses to give them such a king. They may have a king, but he is not to build a chariot force, form political alliances through marriages, or accumulate wealth—all of which are typical of foreign kings, who count them as essential for national security. Moses tells Israel that they are not to fear when they see the chariotry and army of their enemies; they are to trust in the Lord to fight for them (Deut. 20:1–4). Joshua reminds them that the Lord has supernaturally annihilated the Egyptian chariots and horsemen and that the Lord, not the Israelites’ swords and bows, have defeated the Amorites (Josh. 24:6–7, 12).
- How does one harmonize this negative view of kingship with the epilogue of Judges, which views the institution positively? The narrator of Judges suggests that the moral anarchy of the period could have been avoided if Israel had only possessed a king (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). However, this does not mean that any king will do. The statement in Judges reflects the Deuteronomic ideal of a king who promotes the law by his teaching and example (Deut. 17:18–20). This will entail regulating the cult, ensuring social justice, and unifying the nation.11 As noted above, the Deuteronomic model of kingship differs in several respects from the cultural model of kingship that the people are demanding.
Israelite kingship may seem like a thing of the past for the exiles. After all, they are under the rule of a powerful empire. Yet the prophets have kept the hope of a future Davidic king before the people, and many must anticipate his arrival when they hear the predictions of Haggai (2:20–23) and Zechariah (12:8). However, this account (in 1 Sam. 8) reminds them that their future security will not be found in a human ruler like other nations have. To follow such a king will bring only oppression and enslavement. They must submit to God’s rule as King and look for his chosen human king in accord with the Davidic covenant (cf. Zech. 4:6).
Teaching the Text
- God’s people are prone to ignore his self-revelation, reject his authority, and conform to the thinking of the world around them. The Lord expects Israel to be distinct from the surrounding nations (Lev. 18:2–5; 19:2; 20:23–24, 26; Josh. 23:7–12) because he wants his people to be a model society that will be a beacon of justice and truth in the world (Deut. 4:5–8). But Israel is prone to reject the Lord’s authority and conform to the viewpoints and practices of the surrounding nations (Judg. 2:10–3:5), as illustrated by their request to have a king like the other nations. The New Testament also demands that God’s covenant community be distinct (see esp. 1 Pet. 2:9–10, as well as Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 1:4; 5:3; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 4:3–8; 1 Pet. 1:13–16).
- When God’s people decide to act self-destructively, he warns them of the consequences of their rebellion. God is the sovereign Creator and King of the world, but he has granted freedom to human beings and allows them to exercise that freedom within the limits of his sovereign rule and providence. When God’s people choose to act against his moral will, God warns them of the consequences of their behavior so that they have no excuse when those consequences materialize.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.