Theology 101

What Happened When Israel Demanded a King?

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After a tumultuous period in Israel’s history, when they were freed from Egypt and wandered in the desert, they settled into the promised land under the theocratic rule of God administered by various judges. We examined this period in my previous post. The people of Israel were not happy with this arrangement, however, and asked God for a king.

As we shall see, the entire history of the attempt to centralize government in Israel under a king is fraught with ambiguities and outright negativity.

The First King of Israel: King above God

It is evident from the beginning that Israel’s desire for a “king” to “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19) is a call for a kind of security and showiness that God’s rule has not given and that Samuel warns against. Samuel appears to characterize Israel’s attitude in terms of covetousness, when he says to Saul, the man who would become the first king of Israel, “to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you” (1 Sam 9:20).

Here is the beginning of a “fall” sequence for Israel, where a supposed “good” is obtained in a way that dishonors man’s relationship to God. Samuel’s warnings about the king go unheeded: his “ways” will be to “take” (used 6 times) what he desires for his own use. Samuel warns that the people will one day “cry” (similar to their “cry” in Egypt against Pharaoh) to God for relief from this oppression, and he will not hear (1 Sam 8:18), for it will be “the king you have chosen.”

The tone is now set for what follows. Samuel steadfastly seeks to communicate the true position of Saul as the new, anointed leader of Israel. From here on the situation is tenuous at best, for the people have “rejected” their God who “saves” (1 Sam 10:19). Saul’s career is marked by capricious and rebellious moments and ends in the clutches of witchcraft and suicidal depression, a man rejected by God in favor of another. Dynastic succession is specifically denied to Saul’s line because of his usurpation of priestly duties, as God seeks “a man after his own heart” to be “prince” over Israel.

The ambiguity of Saul’s situation is further emphasized by the interposition within the narrative of God’s conversations with Samuel on the subject of “regret” over the installation of Saul (1 Sam 15:11, 29, 35). Samuel is clearly “angry” (v. 11) over the change of direction indicated by God’s “regret.” After all, had not Samuel himself sought to forestall this scenario and been overruled by God? No wonder he “cried out” all night!

Nevertheless, does God not know this all along, and is it not his immutable nature not to “change his mind” (1 Sam 15:29)? Despite the conundrum, the episode closes with Samuel’s “mourning” for Saul and a reaffirmation of God’s “regret” (1 Sam 15:35).

The Second King of Israel: God above King

The narrative continues, without apparent pause, as Samuel once again becomes the messenger of God on a mission for the right king. Samuel is told once again that Saul is “rejected” and that Yahweh has “chosen” a king (1 Sam 16:1), in contrast to “[giving] them a king.” (1 Sam 8:22).

The resolution of ambiguity and tension over Israel’s true kingship is surely being conveyed in the term “prince” to refer to the human personage from the perspective of God at David’s full accession to leadership at Hebron (2 Sam 5:2, ESV). This terminology defines the ideal human “king” as clearly subservient to God, his prophets, and his priests.

Despite his great sin and failures as leader, David personifies this ideal as he is brought up short by the ill-advised first attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6 vs. 1 Chr 15) and then forbidden to build the central shrine (2 Sam 7). His respect for the prophetic word and the priestly institution contrasts sharply with that of Saul.

Even in his tragic sin and subsequent exposure and humiliation, David exemplifies the limitation of monarchy under God (2 Sam 12:13; 15:25, 26). The well-known promise(s) of 2 Samuel 7 continues the same theme of David as shepherd and prince (v. 8), with the addition of “servant.”

But there is clearly a distant, even eternal horizon involved here, even though Solomon’s reign and mission are in the foreground. To that third king’s rule, I will turn in my next post.

Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the IFWE research paper, God and Government: A Biblical Perspective (The Bible and Limited Government) by Dr. Tom Pratt. Read the full paper here.

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