I Samuel 8: Israel Asks for a King
Samuel has been ruling over Israel, as their judge. He has been travelling around the nation, hearing their cases, and God has made him successful in this. In this passage, Samuel has two sons—Joel and Abijah—and, since he has grown old, he appoints these sons to succeed him, and judge Israel. Unfortunately, his sons do not “walk in his ways” (verse 3); they accept bribes, and dishonestly gain from their positions.
So the elders of Israel come up with a solution: they approach Samuel and demand that he appoint a king over them, “such as the other nations have” (verse 5). This displeases Samuel, and he prays to the LORD about it, but the LORD tells Samuel that it’s not him the people have rejected, it’s God Himself, whom they have rejected as their king. Just as they have continually forsaken Him, ever since the time that they left Egypt, so they’re doing again in rejecting Samuel. God tells Samuel to listen to the people, but, to first warn them of what their new king will do to them.
So Samuel does:
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (verses 10–18)
But the people don’t listen to Samuel. They still want a king over them, so that they can be like all the other nations (verse 20). Samuel repeats this to the LORD, and He tells Samuel again to listen to the people, and give them a king. So Samuel dismisses the people, to go back home.
We’ll see in the next passage who Samuel (on behalf of God) appoints.
In a sense, the people asking for a king is something that is to be expected. God even gave the Israelites rules for how a king was to behave, in Deuteronomy 17:14–20. I think the main issue with this request, however, is not so much that Israel wants a king, it is—as usual—a matter of their heart.
Why do they want a king? So that they can be like the other nations—but Israel is not supposed to be like the other nations, they’re supposed to be a nation set apart for God. This is a rejection of God as their king. Israel was meant to be a theocracy, and they want to turn it into a monarchy. They talk about wanting to have a king who will lead them and fight their battles, but that’s what they’re supposed to be trusting God to do.
This whole thing was sparked because Samuel’s sons didn’t lead the people rightly, as Samuel had done. (“Samuel was a good leader, his sons are not; we need a better system than this.”) But don’t the people realize that the same thing is going to happen with their kings?!? Even when they find a good king, it doesn’t mean that the king’s successors will also be good. But with the case of kings, the people will have even less ability to reject a bad king!