Israel Requests a King
1 Samuel 8 - 12
In this article, we’ll examine the Israeli people’s request for a king as recorded in chapter 8-12 of the 1st book of Samuel. To provide a brief historical background, Israel entered the Promised Land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua about 1404 BC. Over the next couple of decades the Israelites conquered and settled parts of the land, but after Joshua’s death (~1375 BC), they became assimilated in the customs of the surrounding nations, even worshipping many of their foreign gods. Thus began one of the darker eras in ancient Israel’s history as chronicled in the book of the Judges. For the next three hundred years or so, they experienced a cycle of oppression, calling out to God who raised up a judge (military leader) to deliver them, the people falling away from God, and then the cycle repeating itself and deteriorating with each repetition.
This brings us to the book of Samuel. The first seven chapters give an account of the prophet-priest Samuel (born about 1100 BC) as Israel’s last judge. We now come to our subject matter, as chapter 8 opens with Samuel, now grown old, appointing his sons to be the next judges, but they are rejected by the people who ask Samuel to appoint a king to lead them instead.
So, as we begin considering the people’s request for a human king, we observe a theological tension playing out in chapters 8-12 where God commands Samuel to give the people a king, yet the people’s request is considered a rejection of God’s rule over them. So, we must ask “Was this request appalling to the Lord or was this God’s plan all along?”
To address this apparent conflict, we must understand the purpose of a king in the context of God’s covenant with Israel. We’ve already mentioned that God had made provisions for a human king in his dealings with Moses (Dt 17:14-20). Israel’s king was not to have autonomous authority, but was to be subject to God and His prophets (10:25). Rather than abolish the theocracy, he was to uphold it and preserve the covenants.
We now look at the motivation behind the peoples request for a king. In considering their request request in light of God’s purpose for the nation, we can identify two major conflicts. The first involved Israel’s primary motivation for making the request, “to be like other nations”. In contrast, God’s intention was for Israel to be holy or set apart (ie different) from other nations. The second variance was the identity of the king himself. The people wanted a human judge and military leader, but God is the ultimate righteous judge who had always fought their battles for them. Ultimately the people took the short-sighted route, choosing a human ruler who was capable of failure over the all-powerful God.
In reading 1Samuel 8-12, we find a fairly balanced view of both positive and negative aspects regarding the human kingship. Therefore, in taking this view along with the aforementioned into consideration, I think we can deduce that it was the people’s motivation behind the people’s request for a king that was objectionable to God, rather than the request itself. I also believe we can offer a few more facts to support this conclusion.
First, God had previously promised Abraham and Sarah that kings would be among their descendants (Gen 17:6,16). Next, we note that God used the monarchy to bring about the coming of the Messiah along with the establishment of His eternal kingdom through David’s dynasty (2Sam 7:8-16, Rev 11:15).
Finally, we note a similar tension between the Mosaic and the Davidic covenants. While the Mosaic covenant left room for no king but God, or at least a human king completely obedient to God and the law, who was to be an instrument of God’s rule. The Davidic covenant however, promised a line of kings as descendants of David. Ultimately, Jesus harmonizes and fulfills both the covenants, being God Himself and perfectly obedient to the Father (Php 2:5-8), and a human descendant of David (Mt 1:1).
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