Did God Intend for Israel to Have a King? (1 Samuel 8)

First Samuel 8 marks a significant transition in Israel’s history. Israel was formerly ruled by judges—the 12 judges in the Book of Judges and then Eli and Samuel (1 Samuel 4:18; 7:15-17). However, Israel rejected Samuel and demanded a king, making Samuel the last judge of Israel.

Israel’s Rebellion Against Yahweh

Samuel made a serious mistake when he made his wicked sons, Joel and Abijah, judges in Israel (1 Samuel 8:1). His sons “did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). Though Samuel is contrasted with Eli in other ways, Samuel and Eli both raised wicked sons. Joel and Abijah (Samuel’s sons) became like Hophni and Phinehas (Eli’s sons), who treated God’s offerings with contempt and were even having relations with the women who served at the entrance of the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:12-36). In chapter two, God rejected Eli as judge, but in chapter eight, Israel rejected Samuel as judge.

Israel had reason to be concerned over Samuel as judge because of his appointment of his rebellious sons as leaders in Israel. However, Israel sinned in their demand for a king. The elders of Israel came to Samuel at his home in Ramah and said, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:4-5). They did not consider the role of judge, which God had given Israel, to be enough for them.

Israel’s request for a king displeased Samuel (literally, it was “evil in the eyes of Samuel”), and he prayed to Yahweh (1 Samuel 8:6). Yahweh instructed Samuel to obey the people, “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). God’s words reveal that the primary problem was Israel, not Samuel.

God continued, “According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving others gods, so they are also doing to you” (1 Samuel 8:8). Israel had been a rebellious people throughout their history, constantly rejecting Yahweh and serving false gods. This was seen with the golden calf in Exodus, the wilderness wanderings in Numbers, and the rebellions throughout Judges. And now Israel rejected Yahweh by revolting against Samuel.

Yahweh’s Warning of a Tyrant-King

God first instructed Samuel to warn Israel of the ways of the king who would reign over them. The Hebrew word for the “ways” of the king is מִשְׁפַּ֣ט (mishpat), which is usually translated as “judgment” (1 Samuel 8:9, 11). (NET translates this “policies” and KJV “manner”). This forms a play on words, as the king’s judgments would be a judgment upon Israel from God.

The Hebrew for “take” (לקח, lakach) is used four times in this section (8:11, 13, 14, 16). A king would “take” their things—their sons and daughters, their produce, their servants, and their flock (1 Samuel 8:11-18). The king would be a tyrant. He would require a “tenth” (or “tithe”) of their goods, thus setting himself up as equal to God (1 Samuel 8:15, 17). Instead of “serving” Yahweh (1 Samuel 7:4), Israel would become “slaves” to their king (1 Samuel 8:17). (Both “serve” and “slave” come from the Hebrew word עבד, eved.) The people would cry out because of the king, but Yahweh would not answer them (1 Samuel 8:18).

However, the people did not listen and insisted on a king. The people “refused to obey the voice of Samuel” and said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Even though Yahweh was already judge and king of Israel and fought Israel’s battles, and even though a king would oppress them, Israel still demanded a king. God told Samuel to obey Israel and make them a king, and Samuel told the men of Israel to go to their cities (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel later anointed Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:1).

Why Was Israel’s Request for a King Sinful?

By demanding a king, Israel rejected Yahweh as king. But this raises a question—why was Israel’s request for a king sinful? Sometimes it is thought that the very concept of kingship in Israel was bad, but this does not fit with other texts of Scripture.

It seems certain that Yahweh would have given Israel a king at some point. He promised kingship to the patriarchs, saying that “kings” would come from them. God told Abraham:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you (Genesis 17:6).

I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her (Genesis 17:16).

God said to Jacob:

I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body (Genesis 35:11).

Furthermore, God gave instructions for a king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Of course, liberal scholars say this was written after the monarchy arose in Israel. This is an assumption that they make based on unbelieving presuppositions. Moreover, if this were the case, one would expect more specific (and negative) language in Deuteronomy 17 following that of 1 Samuel 8. Let us examine these instructions regarding kings:

When you come to the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set a king over you whom Yahweh your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).

God not only knew Israel would want a king, but He permitted it. God required that the king be an Israelite. This is followed by three important restrictions—the king must not acquire many horses, many wives, nor excessive silver and gold (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). Solomon violated all three of these prohibitions in 1 Kings 11:1-8, thus proving himself to be the paradigmatic bad king.

God also gave instructions that the king is to write out a copy of the law from the Levitical priests and read it all his days so that he may fear Yahweh and keep His commandments and thus continue long in his kingdom (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Samuel seems to have recounted this passage when he told the people how the kingship would function (literally “the judgment of the kingship”), which he wrote in a book and laid before Yahweh (1 Samuel 10:25).

Israel’s Sinful Motive

So kingship was not a bad thing, and it was expected that God would give Israel a king in due time. Thus the problem here was with the motive and the timing of Israel’s request. As for motive, Israel wanted a king in order to be “like all the nations.”

Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations (1 Samuel 8:5).

No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles (1 Samuel 8:19-20).

Deuteronomy 17:14 said Israel would have a king “like all the nations” surrounding Israel had a king. However, it did not say Israel was to have a king in order to to become like the nations. The emphasis in 1 Samuel 8 is on Israel’s desire to be like the other nations. This is most clear in 1 Samuel 8:20, where Israel says they will be like the nations in that their king may “judge” them and “fight” their battles.

Israel wanted a king to judge them, despite the fact that Yahweh was their judge. And Israel wanted a king to fight their battles, despite the fact that Yahweh fought their battles for them.

Israel already had a true Judge and King in Yahweh. Jephthah described Yahweh as “the judge” (Judges 11:27). And Scripture says throughout that it was Yahweh who “fought for Israel” and gave them victory in battle (Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:30; 3:22; 20:4; Joshua 10:14, 42; 23:3; Nehemiah 4:20). A good example of this comes from the Book of Joshua:

And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because Yahweh God of Israel fought for Israel (Joshua 10:42).

Making matters even worse, Yahweh had fought Israel’s battles under the leadership of Samuel! In just the prior chapter, Yahweh threw the Philistines into “confusion,” and they were defeated before Israel (1 Samuel 7:10). And “the hand of Yahweh was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” (1 Samuel 7:13). God brought Israel victory over the Philistines and peace between Israel and the Amorites, all under the judgeship of Samuel (1 Samuel 7:13-14). Yet this was not good enough for the people of Israel.

In his farewell speech, Samuel reveals that Israel demanded a king when Nahash (“serpent” in Hebrew) the king of the Ammonites came against them (1 Samuel 12:12). Saul, Israel’s first king, did in fact lead them in victory over Nahash (1 Samuel 11). Yet as Samuel says, Israel demanded a king “when Yahweh your God was your king” (1 Samuel 12:12). Instead of turning to the Lord, Israel traded Yahweh for an earthly king out of fear of the serpent. It was only after the fact that the people realized they had committed a great “evil” (1 Samuel 12:17, 19).

The Wrong Timing

Israel had sinful motives in demanding a king, as they wanted to be like the other nations instead of the holy (set apart) nation that Yahweh had made them (Exodus 19:6). However, there was also a problem with the timing of the king. God had always planned to send Israel a true King, the Lord Jesus Christ, at the proper time. But Israel lacked patience.

Israel’s sinful demand meant that the kingship would be a judgment on them for rejecting Yahweh. In asking for a king who would judge them, God gave Israel exactly what they asked for—an earthly king who would seek his own. And that is what we see in the history of Israel’s monarchy, as Israel’s kings were out for themselves. Outside of a few exceptions, Israel’s kings were wicked and oppressive. Even the ideal king, David, had his moral failings. In many ways, the monarchy was a judgment upon Israel.

Israel’s monarchy makes it even clearer that Israel needed Yahweh as king. Israel rejected Yahweh, and He gave them exactly what they asked for. However, Israel’s sinful motives and impatience were not outside of God’s sovereign control. God gave Israel the monarchy, and after the failings of Saul, He chose His own king, David, to lead Israel. God redeemed the monarchy and brought it into His covenant, seen in the promised Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:8-16). The king did in fact “save” Israel from their enemies (1 Samuel 9:16; 10:1; 2 Samuel 3:18). Then in due time, God sent the king He had planned to send all along, the greater David, to reign over Israel (Matthew 1:1; 22:42).

Yahweh came to earth in the form of a man, taking on human flesh. The Lord Jesus Christ is the true King of Israel. Yet like Samuel, He was rejected by His people, even to the point of crucifixion. But God used this rejection as the very means of salvation.

Jesus is not like the king that Israel wanted. He does not take from His own people, but gives them gifts, the greatest of which is eternal life. His battles do not involve earthly bloodshed, but are Spiritual victories over the hearts of His enemies. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and He did this by dying on a cross for our sin. Jesus is not like the kings of the nations. His reign is righteous, and we who trust in Him will enter into His eternal kingdom.

For further study on 1 and 2 Samuel, I strongly recommend A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel by Peter Leithart. Unlike many commentaries, this book is enjoyable to read straight through. Leithart is skilled at identifying themes and types throughout the Bible (though he makes some connections that may be a stretch).