In this chapter the people of Israel ask Samuel to select for them a king.
This chapter is quite literally where the Judges cycle ends and where the kingdom period begins. Everything that we have read up to this point in 1 Samuel has been providing us the context about Samuel’s life and the state of the nation, such that the nation would desire to have a king and such that Samuel would be available to provide one. The people give us three reasons why they want a king. The first is the corruption of Samuel’s sons. The second is that they want to be like all the other nations around them. The third is that they want a king to lead them and to “fight our battles.”
The corruption of Samuel’s sons is something I really wonder about. How does someone whose life is marked by such righteousness have sons who “accepted bribes and perverted justice”? What happened in their lives and in their hearts, such that they did not walk in Samuel’s ways? I think this is really challenging, especially for parents, because it’s hard to imagine people who walk closer to the LORD than Samuel. But I don’t know; we aren’t given any details or explanation of his sons lives, so it’s difficult to say anything about them. This isn’t the only time in Israel’s history that a righteous leader had corrupt or idolatrous children. It’s something that has frequently bothered me. Intellectually, I believe that everyone has a choice to follow the LORD or not, but from a practical standpoint I know how powerful of an influence parents have on the formation of their children. How is it possible that so many righteous leaders could have children who strayed so far from their path? I don’t have answers, I only have questions.
The second point, that Israel wishes to be like the nations around them, has been a pervasive issue through much of the OT. In Deut 20:18, Moses threatened Israel that they should not allow the nations in the promised land to survive, because they would teach Israel to worship other gods and in doing so, to sin. Other parts of the OT warn Israel against intermarrying with the other nations of the promised land, because of this same issue. In general, the LORD (through Moses) expresses a concern that Israel would seek to adopt the culture and religion of the nations around them and through that to be immersed in the idolatry and “detestable practices” of those nations. Verse 5 of this chapter says very specifically that they want a king “such as all the other nations have.” Verse 20 says “Then we will be like all the other nations”. Having a king is just one aspect that Israel is seeking to adopt. We have seen elsewhere that Israel has been worshiping “foreign gods” and “ashtoreths”, wooden poles that are dedicated to Ashurah, a fertility goddess. In all of these ways, Israel is threatened by a sort of cultural extinction if they intermarry and adopt the customs of the nations around them.
The last point is that they want a king to lead them in battle and fight on their behalf. In essence, they want a king to protect and guide them, to help them to feel safe, like having a parent to watch over them. Their request displeases Samuel because the Israelites are implicitly rejecting the LORD when they ask for a king. The LORD is supposed to be their king, leading them in battle, guiding and protecting them. By asking for a physical king, they are “rejecting me as their king” (v. 7).
It’s a little hard to understand this criticism of Israel's behavior, because in Deuteronomy Moses implies that Israel will eventually have a king. Deut 17 even lays out the process for how to select a king, and laws that should govern the hypothetical king’s behavior. It’s strange to think of Moses explaining laws governing the kingship if here, the LORD and Samuel are rebuking Israel for requesting a king as such. It seems contradictory.
Clearly Moses was anticipating they would ask for a king. Perhaps the passage in Deut 17 is not meant to condone this, but just to anticipate their request and govern the eventual kingship. I'm not sure.
Another plausible suggestion I’ve heard is that the LORD wanted to give them a king eventually, but not at this time. Or perhaps the LORD would tell them when to get a king, and that time is not now.
Certainly Samuel thinks it’s a bad idea, but this is the event that takes us out of the Judges cycle. I personally would hypothesize that Israel as a nation is getting battle-weary from their many defeats and oppression at the hands of other nations, and that’s why they are asking for a king. They expect that somehow, having a king will keep them from the cyclical tragedies that have been striking their nation every 20-40 years. If they understood that the root cause of all their problems is disobedience to the LORD, they would know that having a king is going to change nothing. However, they prefer to follow a man that they can see to a God that they cannot. Even though the leadership of God will always be superior, they desire something visible and tangible to make them feel safe, rather than the invisible God to help them to actually be safe.
In the end, the LORD commands Samuel to give them a king, but after all of Samuel’s warnings it is hard to see how this can end well.