6. Give Us a King! (1 Samuel 8:1-22)
As I read chapter 8 of 1 Samuel, I am reminded of an amusing sequence of events in the life of Jacob, described in Genesis 30 and 31. Jacob flees to Paddan-aram, partly to find a wife from among his relatives and partly to flee from the anger of his brother, Esau. Jacob has no money to pay the dowry for a wife, and so he ends up working for Laban, his father-in-law, for 14 years to pay the dowry fee for his two wives, Leah and Rachel. After his 14 years of labor for Laban is fulfilled, Jacob and Laban negotiate a new “contract, establishing Jacob’s wages for his future labors. They agree that Jacob’s wages will be all of the striped, spotted, and speckled goats, and all of the black lambs. This will start with a flock from which all such cattle have been removed.
Jacob is not content to settle for the few rare instances in which such a goat or lamb will be born, so he sets out to manipulate matters so the odds will be more in his favor. He bases his entire operation upon the premise that the color of the offspring of Laban’s flocks can be influenced by the environment in which the offspring are conceived and carried. And so Jacob busies himself with peeling poles. Peeling the bark off of the poles exposes white stripes on the poles. These stripped poles are then placed wherever the flocks eat, water, and breed.
It really seems to work! Jacob’s flocks are growing, while Laban’s flocks are not. Jacob works harder and harder at his project, prospering all the time. Jacob seems to sincerely believe God is blessing his “pole-peeling” efforts. Laban and his sons notice, and they do not like it at all. Jacob sees and hears the anger of Laban’s sons. God instructs Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of his fathers. As Jacob sets out to convince his wives that they must leave this place, he tells of a dream God has given him. In the dream, Jacob sees a flock of goats in the time of mating and notices that the males which mate are striped, speckled and mottled. The angel of God calls this to his attention, telling him that it is He who has brought about Jacob’s prosperity with his flocks.
I wonder how long it takes for this to dawn on Jacob. The prosperity of Jacob’s flocks had nothing to do with the poles he peeled and carefully placed by those which were breeding and carrying offspring. The offspring of Laban’s flocks are striped, speckled, and mottled because God caused the striped, speckled, and mottled males to mate. Jacob’s prosperity is not the work of his own hands; in fact, all of his pole-peeling has been a waste of time. Jacob prospers because God causes him to prosper, and this God does by causing the striped, speckled, and mottled males to mate more than the others.
It is not surprising that God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. This man, Jacob, is to become the forefather of the nation Israel. More than this, Israel, Jacob’s namesake, will prove to be just like their forefather. They too will try their hand at various forms of “pole-peeling” in an effort to manipulate the blessings of God and bring prosperity on themselves.
In the early chapters of 1 Samuel, the Israelites think they can employ the Ark of God in their “pole-peeling.” After suffering defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites bring out the Ark and take it into battle with them, certain this will bring victory. As we know, it does not. Now in chapter 8, it is not the Ark but a king in whom the Israelites will place their trust and hope. The Israelites’ desire for a king is but another chapter in their long history of “pole-peeling.” Let us give attention to the critical changes this chapter brings about in Israel’s history, being eager to learn the lessons which Israel was so slow in learning.
Before beginning our exposition of 1 Samuel 8, several very important observations should be made as they bear heavily on the way we understand and apply our text.
First, God becomes Israel’s king at the Exodus. When God delivers the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and gives them His law, He establishes Himself as their King. In a very real sense, the contest with Pharaoh is between one King and another. It is after the Israelites cross the Red Sea that they first realize this, expressing the fact in their hymn of praise:
16 “Terror and dread fall upon them; By the greatness of Thine arm they are motionless as stone; Until Thy people pass over, O LORD, Until the people pass over whom Thou hast purchased. 17 “Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O LORD, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established. 18 “The LORD shall reign24 forever and ever” (Exodus 15:16-18, emphasis mine).
God is the One who promises to “go before” (and behind) His people, as a king would do (see Exodus 23:23; Isaiah 45:2; 52:12). Old Testament scholars have noted that the giving of the Law, as the establishment of a covenant between God and Israel in Exodus through Deuteronomy, follows the same form of treaties or covenants made between ancient kings and their subjects in that day. The people of that day would immediately recognize the implication – that God is establishing the covenant basis for His rule as King over Israel. This is more clearly indicated elsewhere.
1 Now this is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the sons of Israel before his death. 2 And he said, “The LORD came from Sinai, And dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, And He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; At His right hand there was flashing lightning for them. 3 “Indeed, He loves the people; All Thy holy ones are in Thy hand, And they followed in Thy steps; Everyone receives of Thy words. 4 “Moses charged us with a law, A possession for the assembly of Jacob. 5 “And He was king in Jeshurun, When the heads of the people were gathered, The tribes of Israel together (Deuteronomy 33:1-5, emphasis mine; see also Exodus 19:3-6; Leviticus 20:26; 25:23).
In Psalm 74, Asaph looks upon God’s actions during the exodus as evidence that God is King of Israel:
12 Yet God is my king from of old, Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.13 Thou didst divide the sea by Thy strength; Thou didst break the heads of the sea monsters in the waters. 14 Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan; Thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 Thou didst break open springs and torrents; Thou didst dry up ever-flowing streams (Psalm 74:12-15; see also Psalm 47:2-3).
Second, after He delivers the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, God prepares them for the fact that they will have a king. In Genesis 49:8-12, it is clear that a descendant of Judah will rule over Israel. In the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:15-19, a similar prediction is made of one of Jacob’s descendants ruling and defeating the enemies of the people of God. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God indicates that there will be a time when Israel will ask for a king. More will be said about this prophecy later, but it should be pointed out here that 1 Samuel 8 is a very literal fulfillment of the prophecy of Deuteronomy 17:14.
Third, this is the first of three times in 1 Samuel when God speaks to the Israelites through Samuel concerning the evil of demanding a king (see also 10:17-19; 12:6-18). Chapter 8 is the first account of Israel’s demand for a king, of the response of Samuel and of God, and of the admonition Samuel gives to the people. But let us bear in mind that this matter will also be taken up in chapters 10 and 12. To understand 1 Samuel 8, we must study it in the light of chapters 10 and 12.
Fourth, the emphasis here in chapter 8 is not the evil of Israel’s rejection of God and their idolatry (though this is pointed out); the emphasis is upon the high cost of a king (verses 10-18). The “principle of proportion”25 is always an important clue to the meaning and interpretation of a text. In our chapter, we know that Israel’s demand for a king is idolatry, idolatry of the same kind Israel has practiced since the exodus (8:7-9). We know that when Samuel speaks to the people, he tells them “all the words of the LORD” (verse 10), but what is written and preserved for us is the content of verses 10-18, which is a detailed description of the costs of a kingship. The cost of kingship is the emphasis of Samuel’s words in this chapter.
Fifth, the demand for a king does not come from the elders of Israel alone (verse 4) but from all the people (see verses 7, 10, 19, 21-22). At first glance, it seems as though only the elders26 of Israel are demanding a king. As the chapter unfolds, it is very clear that all of the people of Israel are behind this movement to have a king. This indicates to me that Israel is functioning here somewhat as a democracy. Their elders are not leading, as much as they are representing the people.
Sixth, note that as we move from chapter 7 to chapter 8, we move from the beginning of Samuel’s “rule” as judge in chapter 7 to the apparent “end” of his rule in chapter 8. The great bulk of Samuel’s ministry is passed over in 1 Samuel. This may be because the author wants us to see more clearly the contrast between the way Samuel’s “rule” began and the way the people want it to end. Samuel is, indeed, the last of a dying breed – the judges. But let us remember what the author of the Book of Judges says at the beginning of his work:
16 Then the LORD raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. 17 And yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do as their fathers. 18 And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:16-19, emphasis mine).
What fascinates me is that in the “good old days” of the judges, the people of God followed the Lord during the lifetime of the judge. Only after the judge died did Israel turn away from God and act corruptly. But in Samuel’s case, he is not dead at all. He is simply getting old and has partially retired. Already they are eager to be rid of him. This is amazing.
Seventh, our text in no way suggests that Samuel is another Eli, a weak and pathetic leader. There is no greater judge in all of Israel’s history than Samuel. Samuel often speaks to the Israelites for God. No prophecy of Eli is recorded. In fact, Eli receives his revelations second-hand (see 2:27-36; 3:1-18). Samuel is a great man of prayer (see 7:5; 8:6, 21; 15:11). We do not read of Eli’s prayers. Samuel is a decisive leader, who acts where Saul would not (1 Samuel 15:32-33). Eli could not be called decisive, and some may not even call him a leader. Samuel is instrumental in the military defeat of the Philistines (7:13), but Eli is associated with a period of military defeat (compare 4:9 and 7:13-14). Samuel is a man of great personal integrity (see 12:1-5), while the same cannot be said for Eli, who seems to have gotten fat off the meats his sons wrongly acquire (see 2:29). Samuel’s death is the occasion for national mourning (25:1; 28:3), but this is not so with Eli’s death (4:12-22). Let us allow the Scriptures themselves to sum up the life of Samuel:
18 And there had not been celebrated a Passover like it in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet; nor had any of the kings of Israel celebrated such a Passover as Josiah did with the priests, the Levites, all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:18).
6 Moses and Aaron were among His priests, And Samuel was among those who called on His name; They called upon the LORD, and He answered them (Psalm 99:6).
1 Then the LORD said to me, “Even though Moses and Samuel were to stand before Me, My heart would not be with this people; send them away from My presence and let them go! (Jeremiah 15:1)
32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets (Hebrews 11:32).
The simple fact is that Samuel is the greatest judge of all time. During the period of his service, Israel reaches one of its spiritual “high water marks.” No rebuke of Samuel is found in 1 Samuel, either as a prophet or as a father.
Eighth, the Israelites’ reasons for wanting a king in verses 1-4 do not tell the whole story, revealed as the events of the next few chapters are described. It is not just Samuel’s age and the corruption of his sons which prompt the Israelites to demand a king. From chapter 12, we learn that the military threat posed by Nahash, the king of Ammon, is perhaps the fundamental reason the Israelites want a king. The Ark of God is out of commission, Samuel is soon to be, and the Israelites want a king in whom they can place their trust.
A King is Demanded
1 And it came about when Samuel was old that he appointed his sons judges over Israel. 2 Now the name of his first-born was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judging in Beersheba. 3 His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.27 4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; 5 and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.”
The bulk of Samuel’s life and ministry is passed over until chapter 8 where we find him as a man getting up in his years, perhaps looking toward retirement. His two sons are appointed by Samuel as judges “for Israel,”28 stationed in the frontier town of Beersheba. I do not think Samuel named his sons as his replacement nor that he can do so. Samuel is not only a priest and a judge, he is also a prophet. We have no indication that God thus gifted his sons, so how can either or both replace their father? Like other elders and leaders in the nation, they can serve as judges. But the sphere of their ministry and authority is limited, and when it becomes obvious that these two have become corrupt, the inference may be drawn that Samuel deals with the problem. Nothing more is said of their corruption or their ministry. In chapter 12, Samuel speaks of his sons as being with the people (verse 2). Samuel claims to have done the people no injustice and to have been guilty of no corruption, a fact which the people affirm. How can he speak thus if he has not dealt with the corruption of his own sons? Samuel’s two sons are not godly men like their father; they do not “walk in his ways.”
Things are not as they appear or as the elders represent them, however. They seem to suggest that Samuel is “as good as dead,” that his leadership is over. Our text indicates otherwise. He has a number of years of ministry left. I believe we can safely say that the years Samuel leads the nation after chapter 8 are more significant that the many years he led them prior to this (the very years the author chose not to include in his account). Furthermore, the threat Samuel’s sons pose is exaggerated. Samuel’s sons are not his replacement, and they do not have that great a role to play in the nation’s future. I do not think the elders or the people are as concerned with the leaders they see before them as they are with the unknown leaders they do not see. Who will lead the people after Samuel? They want to have a man in place. So they demand -- not request -- a king like all the nations have.
If anything, the solution the elders propose is foolish. Think of the folly of their logic, which goes something like this:
“Samuel, you are getting old, and your sons (who surely will replace you) are corrupt. We cannot have a bright future if our leaders are corrupt. Let’s establish a whole new order and have a king, like the other nations. And let this king judge us. And let there be a dynasty, so that his sons will rule in his place after his death.”
Samuel’s role as judge is not a dynasty. God raised up judges; He did not create a dynasty of judges, whose sons replace them. If Samuel’s sons are corrupt, they can be set aside, as they are. But to propose a dynasty is to call for a system in which the king’s sons will rule in his place, whether they are wicked or righteous. The cure is worse than the problem!
It appears that the elders and the nation are not seeking a radical change but recommending a refinement of the current system, an administrative “tune up.” They want justice. They want a judge who settles their legal questions. They simply want a king to be their judge, rather than having a judge like Samuel. It sounds good, but it is not a simple change at all. They want to completely overhaul the system of justice for Israel. They want to be rid of this system of judges and be ruled and judged in the same manner the nations around them are judged. They don’t want to be a distinct nation, set apart from the nations around them. They are not simply attempting to fire Samuel as their judge; they are seeking to fire God as their King. God makes this clear in the following verses.
The Response of Samuel and God
6 But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “ Give us a king to judge us. “And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. 8 “Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day -- in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods -- so they are doing to you also. 9 “Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.”
Samuel is not at all pleased with the elders’ proposal. While it is true that they are seeking his replacement, I do not think Samuel’s displeasure is because he takes this personally and responds defensively. Literally, the text tells us that this is “evil in the sight of Samuel.” Simply put, Samuel knows that their request is wrong and that is it sinful.
Samuel’s response further confirms his godly character. He does not pop off, scorching the elders with his disapproval and anger. He goes to God in prayer, as he is inclined to do. God’s response to Samuel’s prayer confirms Samuel’s assessment of the situation, with a further twist. Samuel is being rejected by the people; there is little question that this is true. As a godly man, Samuel may agonize over whether this is due to some failure on his part. God informs Samuel that ultimately it is He, not Samuel, whom they are rejecting. God’s rejection by Israel is certainly not God’s fault, so why should Samuel agonize over his rejection? If Samuel is being rejected for the same reasons God is, then Samuel should take this as a compliment.
As noted earlier, God becomes Israel’s King at the exodus. Now, God reminds Samuel that Israel’s current rejection of Him is not something new, but rather one more instance in a rather constant succession of rejections, beginning at the time of the exodus (verse 8). This rejection of God as King for a king “like the nations” is nothing less than idolatry. The king they want is really their “god,” a matter taken up more fully later. Having exposed the roots of this present proposition, God goes on to instruct Samuel to listen to the people and give them their way (verse 9a). Although Samuel is to grant the people their request, he is also to indicate to them the “procedure29 of the king who “will reign over them” (verse 9b).
The Custom (Cost) of a King
10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked of him a king. 11 And he said, “This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. 12 “And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 “He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 “And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. 15 “And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. 16 “He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. 17 “He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. 18 “Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (emphasis mine).
The words recorded in verses 10-18 are not the sum total of all Samuel says to the people on this occasion. They are what the author wished to emphasize for us, the reader. Verse 10 indicates to us that Samuel “spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked of him a king.” Samuel thus tells the people what God tells him in verses 7-9, and perhaps other words God speaks which are not recorded in our text. But the author wants us to focus upon the words recorded in verses 10-18. This appears to be the heart of this text -- or at least a very significant part of Samuel’s message to the Israelites who demand a king.
Our Lord had many would-be “volunteers” who offered to become His followers. To such persons, our Lord’s response was one of caution. Jesus cautioned those who offered to follow Him to “count the cost” (see Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-35). Samuel does the same thing here in our text. He urges the Israelites to “count the cost” of having a king. The essence of Samuel’s words to the people can be summed up with one phrase: “He will take. . . .”
Israel is demanding a very expensive kind of government. Samuel seeks to spell out the cost of kingship, and it is amazingly expensive. In order for us to appreciate the high cost of having a king, we must first refresh our memories on how things worked under the rule of judges. In the Book of Judges we see that there is no king, no palace, no standing army. When Israel is attacked, a volunteer army is assembled. In part, this army is supplied by the families of those who fight (see 1 Samuel 17:17-22). There is no “administration” of counselors, advisors, servants and staff, who support and facilitate the king’s reign. In short, the system is informal, ad hoc, and very inexpensive. With God as their King, it works, as we can see in the Book of Judges and in 1 Samuel 7, for example.
In contrast to a “low budget” system as a means of ruling a nation, what the Israelites are demanding is very costly. To have a king who will go before them and lead them to war is to have a standing army. Once Israel is ruled by a king, life on the farm will never be the same. The king will draft their sons into military service, driving his chariots or serving as a horseman, or as one of the infantry. Some will be drafted as officers. A standing army must also have supplies. Israelite sons will be used to plant and harvest crops and build and maintain military equipment (not to mention all of the non-military supplies required). It is not just the young men whom the king will draft into his service. The Israelites’ daughters, who once sat or served at their fathers’ table, will now serve the king’s table. They will be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.
The high cost of a king includes the loss of sons and daughters to the king’s service. But the price tag is much larger than this. The king will consume a large quantity of food, very fine food. This will require the king to assess a tax upon all that is grown in Israel. The best of their grain will go to the king, along with the finest of their vineyards and groves. A good portion of the fine things an Israelite farm family once enjoyed will now be consumed by the king’s servants. The king’s servants will need to live also, and the people will pick up the tab for this as well. A tenth of their seed and vines will enable the king’s servants to plant their fields (on land the king takes from the people).
The king will need a staff to serve him, and so he will take the best Israel has to offer for male and female servants. Of course the king will require livestock, and donkeys to plow the king’s fields, all of which the people will supply. In short, when the people are granted a king, it is to rule over them, and rule he will. These people who have known such freedom will now become slaves of the king. And when they finally realize what they have gotten themselves into, it will be too late to change the course of history. The Israelites will someday cry out to God because of the oppression of their own king, but God will not be willing to hear their outcry, for they are going into this slavery with their eyes wide open.
The Israelites Get What They Want
19 Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles. “ 21 Now after Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the LORD'S hearing. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice, and appoint them a king.” So Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”
The nation Israel wants a king, and with it Samuel warns that they will get big government with a very large price tag. This does not matter. The people are determined to have their king. The people (not just the elders) refuse to listen to Samuel or heed his warnings. They insist on having their king, but now they are more honest as to what they expect the king to do for them. They want a king to judge them and go before them in battle. In truth, they want a king to do their judging and their fighting for them.
Samuel listens to all the people have to say, and then he goes to the LORD to repeat all these words to Him (verse 21). This is a most interesting statement. We are not at all surprised to read that Samuel goes to the people telling them all that the LORD has said to him (verse 10). But why does Samuel feel it necessary to tell God all that the people say to him?30 Does God not hear what the people are saying? Of course He does. Why do we need to pray, since God already knows our needs (see Matthew 6:32)? It is not that God needs to hear us so that He can be informed; it is that we need God. We need to share our burdens with Him. Samuel tells God everything the people say, not because God needs to be informed, but because Samuel needs intimacy with God.
In answer to Samuel’s prayer, God once again instructs him to give the people what they demand. And so, not knowing who this king will be, Samuel sends the Israelites to their homes until the time when God will indicate the identity of their new king (verse 22).
I have strongly emphasized the evil and folly of Israel’s demand to have a king. Some may wish to protest by pointing to the text in Deuteronomy 17. Didn’t God say it would be all right for Israel to have a king? If it was prophesied that the Israelites would demand a king, then why does God come down so hard on them when they do so? Let us take a look at this text in Deuteronomy:
14 “When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,' 15 you shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman. 16 “Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, 'You shall never again return that way.' 17 “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself. 18 “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 “And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left; in order that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
This text is a prophecy, and we can see that it is exactly fulfilled when the Israelites demanded a king, just like the nations. The fact that something is prophesied is not proof that what is foretold is something good and righteous. The betrayal of Judas is foretold, as well as Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. This does not mean that Judas, or the unbelieving Israelites, were right to do what they did. It only means that God wants us to know it was a part of His eternal plan.
I suggest that while God foretells the events described in 1 Samuel 8 in Deuteronomy, there is much more than a prophecy here. If Deuteronomy 17:14 is a prophecy of Israel’s demand for a king, the remaining verses in the chapter are God’s instructions, intended to prevent this king from being like the kings of the nations. The instructions God sets down through Moses are what makes His king distinct from the nations.
The king must be an Israelite. The king is not to be popularly chosen but divinely designated and installed. God’s king must not multiply horses or wives. This is what pagan kings do because it gives them military and political power. God’s king is not to trust in his own resources, his own strength, but in God. I believe this is the reason David’s numbering of the Israelite troops is so evil and results in such severe discipline (see 1 Chronicles 21). David appears to be puffed up with pride and numbering his troops gives him a sense of power. So God deals severely with him and his people for this sin. The king must not be intent upon amassing wealth and riches, for here too is power. The king is to trust and obey God and challenge the nation Israel to do likewise.
David is this kind of king as he stands before Goliath, but years of power and prosperity bring many trials into David’s life. In the final analysis, Israel’s finest kings fall far short of the standards set down by God in Deuteronomy 17. The failure of both David and Solomon in these areas is self-evident. In the end, there is only one person who has ever met these qualifications, our Lord Jesus Christ. He was rich, but He became poor on our behalf. He did not have or employ earthly power to establish His kingdom. He certainly did not multiply military might or wives. And so it is that Christ and Christ alone is fit to be God’s King, to reign on the earth forever and ever.
11 And I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” 13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” 14 And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:11-14).
The main lesson this text teaches us is what might be called “the economics of sin.” If I am right in my assessment of this text, the major emphasis falls upon the high cost of kingship, especially when compared to the minimal price of rule by judges. It is true that the Israelites are wrong in demanding a king because they really want to replace God with a human idol. But setting aside the moral and biblical problems associated with their demand for a king, there is also a very clear economic problem. In the simplest of terms, being ruled by a king is not worth the price.
Recently I was with my wife Jeannette in Des Moines, Iowa, at a state celebration on the capital grounds. We were with our friend, Brenda Smith, who reminded me of a statement I made years ago while at Six Flags (an entertainment park near Dallas, Texas). When considering the long wait and the price we paid for our tickets, I remarked to those friends with us, “This ride is just like sin . . . the price is high and the ride is short!” That is exactly the way Samuel wants the Israelites to think about having a king. The price is going to be very high.
The Israelites do not see it this way, because they are more than willing to pay the price Samuel spells out. I think I can understand why. The price for being subject to their surrounding enemies is very high, as we see from Judges 6:
1 Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD gave them into the hands of Midian seven years. 2 And the power of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves the dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites would come up with the Amalekites and the sons of the east and go against them. 4 So they would camp against them and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel as well as no sheep, ox, or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, they would come in like locusts for number, both they and their camels were innumerable; and they came into the land to devastate it. 6 So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried to the LORD (Judges 6:1-6).
To the Israelites, the price they will pay for their king is judged as far less than they will pay for being subject to other nations. What they do not understand is that God will protect them at no cost, if they simply repent of their sins, cry out for deliverance, and serve Him with their whole heart. I fear this is the price they consider to be too high. They do not want to give up their foreign deities. They do not want to serve God alone. They do not want God as their King. And so they seek to replace both God and Samuel by having a king like the nations.
In discussing this text, a friend of mine remarked something like this: “If you’re shopping for a god, 10% isn’t a bad price.” He’s right. If you get a real “God” out of the deal, it would be a bargain. The simple fact is that when Israel pays the high price for a king, they really get very little in return. The Israelites assume that their king will make their decisions (judgments) for them, tell them what to do, and fight their battles for them. A review of Deuteronomy 28-32 should remind the Israelites that it is not their king who brings them peace and prosperity; it is their God. It is not their king who is worthy of their faith and trust and obedience (alone); it is God. They look to a king to do for them what only God can do, with or without a king. They are willing to pay a high price for something which is not really worth it.
Sin is like this, and Satan always seeks to sell us on sin in a way that makes a crooked used car salesman weep with envy. Satan always seeks to maximize our estimation of the benefits of sin, and just as busily engages in attempting to convince us that the price of sin is minimal. In the Garden of Eden, Satan deceived Eve into believing that she could actually become like God, and that partaking of the forbidden fruit would not really result in death. When we choose sin, we do so believing Satan’s lie. We think we can “use” sin, while retaining full control over it. The reality is that sin quickly gains control over us, and we become its slaves. Whenever we are tempted and contemplate choosing the path of sin, let us remember what the Bible teaches us about the economics of sin: the price is too high, and the ride is all too short. Sin does not pay.
Why then, even after Samuel warns the Israelites about the high cost of kingship, do the Israelites reject his warning and demand to have their king? Why are men willing to pay such a high price for so little? I think I know the answer, and I believe it is clearly implied in our text. Men loathe grace. It is detestable and loathsome, because it is charity. Grace does not bolster our pride; it produces humility. When we pay for something (by works or money), we think we own it. We think that when we pay for something we are in control. When we receive grace, we are not in control. God is in control. Grace is sovereignly bestowed, and so we cannot dictate how and when God will grant it to us; we cannot control its benefits. But good old fashioned work (we falsely suppose) obliges God to bless us. When we do the right things, God must respond predictably. We are in control. God becomes our servant. And so men would rather pay – and pay greatly –to maintain their pride and sense of control. This is why men prefer idols to God, even if they have to carry them. They believe that serving idols keeps them in control of their “god.” How foolish.
I find it interesting that the Israelites want a man to make their god. It will never work, and the price for trying will be great. God’s way is to make God a man, a God-man, to save man from his sins and to rule over the earth as God’s King, the promised Messiah. This promised King who was prophesied to be both God and man is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.
We should learn one last lesson from this text: God sometimes gives us the thing we want and even demand, even though it will prove to be painful to us. I am reminded of that passage in the Psalms which speaks of the Israelites’ complaining because they have no meat, prompting God to give them their bellies full. It goes this way:
15 So He gave them their request, But sent a wasting disease among them (Psalm 106:15, NASB).
15 And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul (KJV).
There is a persistence in prayer and petition which is not an evidence of faith, but evidence of lustful greed. There is a perseverance in prayer which is not pious at all. It is possible that if we persist in asking for that which is not best, God may give it to us. It will be painful if this happens, but in giving us what we so desperately want, God disciplines us so that we learn to leave these things in His hands. In biblical terms, we must focus on seeking God first, and trust Him to add all those things He deems best for us (see Matthew 6:33). Let us be cautious that our requests to God are not demands. Let us learn from the Israelites of old so that we need not walk the path they had to walk.
24 The word “reign” here is the verb form of the term rendered “king” often employed elsewhere in the Old Testament.
25 The “principle of proportion” is simply the observation we make concerning how much space and time the author devotes to a certain subject. In chapter 8, three verses are used to describe Israel’s idolatry in asking for a king; nine verses are used to describe the high cost of having a king.
26 From Exodus 18 and Numbers 11, it seems that the elders of Israel have considerable judging responsibilities themselves. Were they here trying to shrug off their responsibilities and hand them over to a king?
27 Every job has its own dangers, its own temptations. Eli’s sons, as priests, are tempted by immorality and by their appetites. The sons of Samuel are judges and are thus tempted by bribes to corrupt justice. See also Luke 3:12-14. One could also go further and say that every spiritual gift has its own temptations (see Romans 12:8).
28 Unfortunately, many translations render this, “judges over Israel.” I believe the NIV has it right. Joel and Abijah are not designated as Samuel’s replacements (at least not yet), but are more like interns, serving as judges for Israel in the nation’s southern-most town, a town where they cannot do much damage if they fail.
29 The term rendered “procedure” here is built on the same consonants which are the basis for the verb “to judge” and for the noun “judgment(s).” At least it appears to be a play on words. “Do you want a king to judge you? Then I will declare to you the custom or procedure [same word, essentially] of the king who will rule.”