The Israelites ask for a king (1 Samuel 8:4-22)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Seeing the unsuitability of Samuel’s sons, the Israelites ask him to “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” This request displeases Samuel (1 Sam. 8:4-6). Samuel warns the people that kings lay heavy burdens on a nation.

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and make his implements of war and the equipment of 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 orchards and give them to his courtiers. (1 Sam. 8:10-17)

In fact, the kings would be so rapacious that eventually the people would cry out to God to save them from the kings (1 Sam. 8:18).

God agrees that asking for a king is a bad idea because it amounts to a rejection of God himself, as king. Nonetheless, the Lord decides to allow the people to choose their form of government, and he tells Samuel, "Listen to 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" (1 Sam. 8:7). As biblical scholar John Goldingay notes, "God starts with his people where they are; if they cannot cope with his highest way, he carves out a lower one. When they do not respond to the spirit of Yahweh or when all sorts of spirits lead them into anarchy, he provides...the institutional safeguard of earthly rulers." Sometimes God permits institutions that are not part of his eternal purpose, and the monarch of Israel is one of the most glaring examples.

Both God and Samuel showed great humility, resilience, and grace in allowing Israel to make choices and mistakes, learning from the consequences. There are many institutional and workplace situations where leadership must adjust to people's poor choices, yet at the same time try to provide opportunities for growth and grace. Samuel's warning to Israel could easily serve as a warning to nations, businesses, churches, schools, and other organizations of today's world. In our fallen world, people abuse power, and we have to adjust while at the same time doing what we can to change things. Our aspiration is to love God and treat other people as God commands in the law given to Moses, which God’s people have had an extremely hard time doing in every age.