- It’s important to note that the existence of an Israelite king was not a problem.
- It was part of God’s covenant promise to Abraham: Gen 17:6, 16; 35:11.
- This promise was elaborated in Jacob’s blessing of Judah: Gen 49:10
- It was prophesied: Num 24:7, 17
- It was provided for in the Mosaic covenant: Dt 17:14-20
- The book of Judges closed by noting that Israel needed a king: Jdgs 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25
- Hannah sang of the coming king: 1 Sam. 2:10
- Deuteronomy 17:14-20 provides the divine legislation for Israel’s institution of a king:
- They may establish a king when they have conquered and are dwelling in the land.
- At this point they will say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me.” This could be read in a neutral sense: “like all the nations that are around me [have].” Or it could mean, “[so that may be] like all the nations that are around me.” See Block, Deuteronomy, NIVAC, 417.
- Yhwh permits a king, but he immediately sets up requirements of the king to foreclose the second possibility: having a king so that they will be like all the nations around them.
- Requirements of selection:
- Must be chosen by Yhwh
- Must be Israelite (“from among your brothers”)
- Must be male (“from among your brothers”)
- Must not acquire many horses, especially not from Egypt.
- Must not acquire many wives.
- Must not acquire excessive silver and gold.
- Write for himself a copy of this Law under the oversight of the Levitical priests
- Keep that book of the Law with him
- Read the Law all the days of his life so that he learns to fear Yhwh his God
- Keep the Law
- Not have his heart lifted up above his brothers.
- Evaluation of Israel’s demand for a king
- The people saw a real failure in Samuel’s sons when he tried to set up a dynasty of judges.
- The elders used the language of Deuteronomy in their request for a king: “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” The question is whether they are using it in a neutral sense or to mean that they want to be like the nations.
- Yhwh interprets the request: they are rejecting him as king in their request for a king. This means that the king they are asking for is not a Dt 17 kind of king, since that king ruled in submission to God’s law. Verse 7.
- Yhwh interprets this in line with their rebellion since they came up from Egypt. Verse 8.
- Samuel is to do what they ask, but he is to warn solemnly warn them about the “justice” of the king who will rule over them. Verse 9.
- Verses 11-17 describe this king’s conception of justice:
- Take sons and daughters to serve him in the court, military, fields, and household.
- Take the best of the fields, vineyards, and orchards to himself.
- Take male and female servants
- Take livestock and flocks
- They will become his slaves
- When they cry out against this “justice” Yhwh won’t hear them.
- Conclusion: this does not mean that kingship itself would be characterized by these kinds of things or that kingship itself is bad. What is bad are kings who do not rule in submission to God.
- Further evidence that the people were looking for a king that would enable them to continue to live like the nations:
- They insist they will have this king even after they are warned. Verse 19.
- They specifically want the king to fight their battles. But we know from Judges that they are needing to fight these battles because they are living like the Canaanites and God is bringing enemies against them. Their request for a king is thus a request to be able to continue in their sin while mitigating the consequences.
- This is reinforced in 10:17-19 where Samuel recalls how Yhwh has had repeatedly delivered them. But they have rejected God and wanted a king to displace God for that role.
- After Saul is chosen by Yhwh, Samuel told the people of God’s expectations for just rule by the king. 10:25.
- In his farewell address, Samuel attests to Yhwh’s continued deliverance of Israel when they repented of the sins that led them to come under attack (12:6-11). Thus their request for a king to fight their battles was a rejection of God (12:12). God have them a king of the kind they requested. (12:13). But both they and the king still have a chance to fear, serve, and obey God (12:14). If they don’t they will continue to fall under the curses of Mosaic covenant (12:15).
- Samuel identifies their request for Saul to have been evil. (But this does not mean that the request for a God-fearing king from God-fearing motives would have been evil.) His solution is not to get rid of the king but to fear and to serve Yhwh wholeheartedly.
I recently read Jerry Hwang’s article, “Yahweh’s Poetic Mishpat in Israel’s Kingship: A Reassessment of 1 Samuel 8-12,” Westminster Theological Journal 73, no. 2 (Winter 2011): 341-61.
Hwang has some helpful individual exegetical comments, while other exegetical claims seem unlikely. I think if he argued that Saul was given to Israel as judgment because they were rejecting God as king, he would have a good case. However, he wanted too much to maintain a dialectic between so-called pro-monarchical passages and anti-monarchical passages, which led him to be too negative toward kingship as a whole (even while granting that God would use it for a redemptive purpose).
Perhaps the most interesting part of the article was his treatment of 1 Samuel 8:9. The NASB adjusted for Hwang’s interpretation would read:
1 Samuel 8:7–9—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. “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. “Now then, listen to their voice; surely, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the judgment of the king who will reign over them.”
Here are other translations:
AV 1873Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
NKJVNow therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”
ESVNow then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
NIVNow listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
NASB95“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.”
LSB“So now, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly testify to them and tell them of the custom of the king who will reign over them.”
HCSBListen to them, but you must solemnly warn them and tell them about the rights of the king who will rule over them.”
CSBListen to them, but solemnly warn them and tell them about the customary rights of the king who will reign over them.”
Steinmann: Now listen to them. Yet be sure to warn them and tell them the rights of the king who will reign over them.”
Hoffner: Now then, obey their voice; but make sure to give them solemn warning and inform them of the prerogatives of the king who will reign over them.”
Firth: But now, listen to their voice. However, you shall surely testify against them, and declare to them the ‘justice‘ of the king who will reign over them.”
I think Hwang may be correct that אַ֗ךְ should be translated “surely” and that what follows is a statement of judgment. However, I don’t think that translating מִשְׁפַּ֣ט as judgment works because it won’t work in the parallel in 1 Samuel 10:25.
I prefer Firth’s translation. In 1 Sam 8:9, 11 Samuel was warning Israel about the kind of “justice” they would receive from the kind of king they were asking for (not a king under Yhwh, but a king in place of Yhwh).
The wording of 1 Sam 10:25 intentionally links back to 8:9. There Israel was warned about the way the kind of king they were asking for would think of “justice.” Here Samuel set out before the people Yhwh’s conception of justice that the king should adhere to. Since the idea of a king is not the problem, the people (and Saul) could still change course and fear and submit to God with a king. This is what Samuel in chapter 10 and 12 (see esp. vv. 14-15, 20-25) is seeking to encourage the people to do.