I preface this post: I am not a Biblical scholar. My interpretation is based on a reasonable, but limited understanding of the Bible. If you are looking for Biblically sound theology, look elsewhere – although I welcome comments pointing out my errors.
1 Samuel 8
1 When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. 2 The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. 4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
The system that the Israelite’s lived under at the time was one of judges – judges appointed over the ten, then the hundred, then the thousand. There was no sovereign, other than God. They maintained their identity with their tribes, each with certain unique characteristics and mores. God provided the law, and the purpose of the formal governance was to adjudicate any dispute or issues between members of the community. For those who mock the idea of tribal justice, it seems this is exactly the system God set up for His chosen people.
The people found Samuel’s sons to be corrupt. They did not find these to be fair judges – they “accepted bribes and perverted justice.” Certainly the position of judge offered the means for disreputable individuals to gain advantage. Now instead of dealing with the root of the problem – remove these two sons from office – the people decided they want to replace adjudicating power with monopoly power, the power of the king, as if this somehow would solve the problem of corrupt man.
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.
The people certainly were rejecting God in the role of supreme, but they were also rejecting Samuel’s sons. Presumably Samuel could have resolved this issue by removing his sons from such powerful positions and replace them with individuals of better moral character. If there was reason why Samuel did not choose this option, I am not aware of it. God could also have suggested it – His reasons I will not question! Perhaps God felt that if the people could not see the simple solution of free men – replacing Samuel’s sons – they were already committed to having a king instead of any other solution. In other words, they had already mentally and philosophically given up their freedom. Asking for a king was only the end of this journey, not the beginning.
9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
In these verses, God is pointing out the claims on the physical body the king will make: sons will be forced into military service, some will produce weapons of war; others will harvest grains. The daughters will work in the king’s household. They will be fed and clothed, but they will not have a choice about performing in service to the king.
14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
Here, God is adding the fact that the king will lay a tax. He will take the best, and he will take ten percent, which appears to be God’s threshold for falling into slavery! My, how far we have fallen.
18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
The people are looking for a king to fight their battles. It seems the people of Israel felt they could make a trade – give up a little freedom in exchange for security. Every time people have made this trade, or allowed it to be made for them, they have lost both freedom and security. Handing over just a little bit of freedom to a monopolist power for the sake of security has always and everywhere led to the diminishment of security and ever-eroding freedom.
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”
It strikes me that God was against this idea of installing a king despite the knowledge He certainly had of the character and capabilities of some of the men to come.
Acts 13:22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
1 Kings 4:29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.
David was a man after God’s own heart. He would do everything God wanted him to do. Solomon had great, God-given wisdom and insight. If you were looking for references for men who were to be given such authority, a recommendation like these from God Himself would be hard to top. Such men would seem ideal to take the awesome power of king.
Even with this foreknowledge, God felt having a king was a bad idea. It is a powerful statement: God knew that the problem of giving sovereign power to a man was that NO man – no matter how capable or well-intentioned – is worthy or trustworthy to hold such power. It is a lesson for those who continually plea that we only have to elect the right person to office, or appoint the right central bank chairman, or just find individuals who care about the people, etc.
If God knew that He couldn’t find a man worthy of such a role despite having two such candidates waiting in the future, it seems rather arrogant for man to believe it is possible to do so.