Did Israel Dishonor God by Demanding to Have a King?

Did Israel Dishonor God by Demanding to Have a King?
“The Anointing of Saul,” Painter of Hungary (mid 18th cent), Old Hungarian Collection, Museum of Fine Arts

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on February 23, 2024, which can be found here.

Q. Did Israel dishonor God by demanding to have a king instead of trusting God alone as their King?

A. This question, which arises from a riveting story in 1 Samuel 8, has important implications for us as Christians.

In that famous story, the elders of Israel approach the aging Samuel and insist, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (v. 5). Understandably, Samuel takes their demand personally, interpreting it as a rejection of his leadership. But when he inquires of the Lord, he is told to accommodate their request since “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 7). It sounds like they should have been content with God alone as their King instead of insisting that a human king reign over them.

If we begin earlier in the biblical story, however, we learn that God’s plans for Israel actually included the office of kingship. For example, God had promised kings to Abraham (Gen 17:6, 16) and a kingly scepter that would not depart from Judah (Gen 49:8-12). Later on, the Lord even spells out the criteria for the ideal king: he must be chosen by the Lord; he must be a brother Israelite rather than a foreigner; he must practice restraint in war horses, wives, and wealth; and he must lead God’s people in doing the will of the Lord according to the Torah (Deut 17:14-20). A few books later, we hear the sad refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25), leading us to infer that things might be different if Israel had a king and if they did what was right in his eyes (assuming, of course, that they have the right kind of king!). The Ruth story which follows ends with a subtle hint that such a king might somehow be connected with David (Ruth 4:17-22). (And who might that be, we muse?)

Clearly, then, Israel’s desire for a king was not in itself displeasing to the Lord. It was his will for the Israelites to have both a heavenly (divine) King and an earthly (human) king; the two are not mutually exclusive. But, as the story reveals, this is not exactly what the leaders of Israel had in mind.

First, the Israelites had the wrong motive. Israel wanted a king for all the wrong reasons––so that they might be like all the surrounding nations, not merely in having a king but by means of having a king (1 Sam 8:5, 19-20). In other words, the problem goes deeper than the Israelites looking around, seeing that all their neighbors had kings, and concluding that it would be a good idea if they had a governance similar to others. Kingship was the rule of the day, apparently with God’s approval (Deut 17:14-15). Rather, by means of having a king, Israel eyes the prospect of becoming like its neighbors. The Israelites’ urge to conform entails the underlying hope that a king will enable them to be just like everyone else––no longer the distinctive, separated community of God’s people fulfilling their covenant vocation in the world, but blended into the cultural patterns of those all around.

Second, and related, Israel had the wrong kind of man in mind. They write their own profile of what they seek in a king, and his job description has nothing at all to do with what the Lord had detailed in the Torah. They demand a leader who will facilitate their conformity to the world of the surrounding nations, governing by standards respectable in the eyes of their neighbors, leading them in the manner that other kings lead their nations––everything but what the LORD had in mind for Israel’s king!

Therein lies the problem with Israel’s demand—not merely its insistence on having a human king (God wanted that), but the motive behind that desire and the misguided conception of what such a king should be and do.

Earlier, I suggested that this question has important implications for us. First, it is possible for God’s people to want a good thing, even something God approves––leadership, for example––but define its function and measure its performance in ways that God does not, in ways that arise from our own criteria or from the ideals set forth in the surrounding culture.

Second, the impulse to conform to those around us, say, in the pursuit of relevance, can actually render us irrelevant by compromising the only thing that makes us special—our distinctive identity as God’s people—in which case we cease to have anything relevant to offer the world from which we have been graciously delivered. Third, it is not God’s will to govern his people “all by himself,” but to do so through duly authorized individuals who “stand in” for God—in persona Christi, we might say. This assumes, of course, that leaders are chosen by God, not by popular demand. Finally, God’s people and their leaders may want something so badly that God, against his own better judgment, sometimes lets them have what they want, with dreadful consequences––a reminder to be careful what we wish for by aligning our desires with God’s. Only he knows what is best for us.