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Israel Asks For a King: Part I

My recent piece on the trouble with centralized power (“From Babel to Babylon”) took, historically speaking, a “macro” view of what I believe to be God’s clear disdain for mankind pursuing their own ends instead of His articulated purposes when it comes to how we organize ourselves communally. This time I want to highlight a specific, micro-level example of that same general idea.

The story of Israel’s demand for a king in I Samuel 8 contains so many relevant, interesting nuggets of insight and wisdom that I’ve broken my thoughts into two parts. The first will cover verses 1-9; the second verses 10-22.

Although this particular segment of Scripture may seem like any other collection of 22 verses in the middle of a largely historical section of the Bible, nothing could be further from the truth. When the elders of Israel come to Samuel on behalf of their people to ask for a king to lead them, the decentralized governing system of “judges” had been in place since the Hebrew people’s return from exile in Egypt (some 400 years). What the people were asking for was a massive break with a God-ordained system and time-tested tradition. It marks a major shift in the history of God’s chosen people and, truly, the history of God’s plan for salvation.

It’s also a stark reminder of how big of a deal sin is, and how the way we organize ourselves matters to our Creator.

In I Samuel 8:1-3 we read:

1When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

The “judges” were a succession of God-appointed leaders, drawn from among the people of Israel, who were put in place to help coordinate and facilitate the “big picture” logistics that a collection of millions of people realistically need help coordinating and facilitating. This included, but was not limited to, leading the people militarily (aka “Commander-in-Chief”). They were also supposed to be God’s instruments of justice and help keep the people’s focus and allegiance first and foremost directed toward their Maker (and His laws).

The prophet Samuel was a good, honest, and honorable man who decided that he would try doing things a little different than they had been done up to this point: he appointed his own sons as judges over the people. Not necessarily a horrible idea, except for the fact that his boys were rotten leaders and corrupt bums. Their wickedness and poor leadership opened the door for the bigger, national sin Israel committed by rejecting God’s plan for their earthly leadership.

Sin complicates and distorts things. In a family, community, or even on a national level, the fallout from sin rarely occurs in a vacuum. There are ripple effects that affect even strangers’ lives.

But the problem here in the opening verses of I Samuel 8 is not the decentralized system God had designed, in which the bulk of day-to-day activities and decisions were handled by the tribes of Israel themselves. The problem is human error. The problem is the perversion of justice, which is always a temptation for those who lead, but easier to do when a handful of people possess more and more of a society’s power.

4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5and said to him, “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.”

The people of Israel at least had the good sense to recognize Samuel as one who spoke with the authority of Yahweh, but that wasn’t enough for them. Yahweh’s way wasn’t enough for them. They wanted a king, and notice the last part of their argument for one: “…to judge us like all the nations.”

In other words: “We don’t like having to be different. We want to be like our neighbors.”

The Israelites, starting from a legitimate claim (i.e. the corrupt leadership of Samuel’s sons), decide they want to exchange the unique glory that comes with being the obedient “chosen” people of the God of the universe – a God who had brought them out of Egypt and had protected them for centuries with judges and local leaders – for status in the pagan world’s eyes. It was more important to them to be respected by the “world community” than it was to do the right thing, which in this case would have meant finding better leaders and being more actively engaged in the governing of their own society.

6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8According 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 other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

I’m sure Samuel, as their long-time devout leader, was personally hurt by this rejection of his authority, but he also knew that there was more to it than that. What these people were asking for, despite seemingly being little more than a request for a change in the structure of how their government was run, revealed a spiritual problem. This is confirmed by God himself in verse 7.

Yahweh goes on to recall the repeated backslides into sin His people were guilty of over the past 400 years. He knows that their request will lead to increased wickedness, suffering, and injustice. But, like any loving parent, God also knows that sometimes the best thing to do for a petulant child is to let their sinful wishes play themselves out. God’s ultimate plan here is to bring the only one ever worthy to be a king – Jesus of Nazareth – through the Davidic line that would be established after Israel’s first king (Saul) turns out to be an unmitigated disaster.

God knew the peoples’ hearts. He knew they, like the people who congregated at Babel back in Genesis 11, had selfish, sinful, and unholy motivations behind their actions. He knew where monarchies, oligarchies, and politburos would lead.

And on that note – next week we’ll move to verses 10-22 and the details of God’s warning about what having a king will mean to the people of Israel.