5.6 1 Samuel -- Foundation of the Monarchy
It was out of this failure, the lack of a suitable candidate to succeed Samuel, that the demand for a king was made by the elders. Samuel opposed the idea, but prayed about it, and God responded:
"Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Sam 8:7).
This was a very important moment in Jewish history, it was the proverbial fork in the road. And God allowed the Israelites to choose their own path. This itself was a new thing. Until this point in their history, Israel was not allowed any self-determination. For example, their refusal to enter the Promised Land under Moses was met with drastic punishment. All along, God hand-picked their judges and left Israel with only one decision to make: either obey or rebel. Here, though, He was giving Israel the power to choose their future, even though He knew they would make a bad choice. He even told them what the consequences of living under a king would be. Ultimately,
"you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day" (1 Sam 8:18).
But we should not blame the Israelites for making a stupid choice. After all, according to the myths of Western political theory, self-determination is the root of national identity and social amity. Of course it is a myth, even though a prevailing one today. Can anyone point to a single major modern nation whose citizens are satisfied with their elected government for more than a couple years running? Israel was the first nation in history to exercise the "right" of self-determination and to reap the resulting disappointments. The wonder is that 3000 years later, the myth still evokes such uncritical devotion.
What is unstated in 1 Sam 8 is the realization that God did have a plan! He was not caught unprepared by Samuel's old age. He had a candidate waiting in the wings -- not Samuel's sons, but some anonymous man or woman that He had prepared and was ready to raise up as the next leader. But the people did not want His choice. They specifically asked for a king "such as all the other nations have" (1 Sam 8:5).
Here is the primary failure of Israel -- the failure of vision. As we said in the Pentateuch, "Israel did not get the picture at all." Instead of drawing their identity from God and being content with His rule over their lives, they looked with envy at their enemies. They saw the hierarchy, the honors given to commanders, the special robes and funny hats of the Great Ones, the palaces and estates, the jeweled nobelwomen -- and they felt cheap and rustic by comparison. Israel didn't have any nobility, nor any government to speak of. Samuel would come around once every few months to resolve disputes, but he had no entourage. Daily life was ruled by local elders, who were, well, old, nothing more. They certainly weren't special. Israel's armies were made up of farmers with sticks (the Philistines had a monopoly on iron). They had no permanent soldiers with metal helmets and swords, no chariots. Israel believed that the nation was in disorder because it was not ruled by a king; the real problem was that it was no longer ruled by the Word of God. Many peoples later in history have made the same mistake.
This is the age-old temptation of God's people, to pledge nominal allegiance to God's values, but to set heart and eye on the world around them. God's purpose was precisely opposite that of the people of Israel: He wanted to make them distinctive from the rest of humanity, and He wanted to make them dependent on Himself for their survival. The Israelites, on the other hand, wanted to look and act like their neighbors and enemies, and they wanted to be self-reliant. Specifically, they wanted to sever the cord between obedience and consequences. They were tired of the familiar pattern of disobedience to God leading directly to subjection under hostile foreigners. If they were powerful like their foes, with a king and an army, they could stand against them with or without the help of God:
"No!" they said. "We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Sam 8:19-20).
In a sense, Israel here entered its teenage years. "I want to do it myself," she proclaimed, "I don't want your help." The Law and the Judges had been like a restrictive cocoon around the infant nation. She had been subject to a strict regimen, which accomplished both identity formation and protection. But just as the teenager judges herself by her peers, Israel's standard was not the approval of her divine parent, but that of the surrounding nations. "You aren't like them!" God insisted, "You are My child, and that makes you different." But what teenager in any generation is ever content with her parents' opinion of her, and with their values? So Israel replied, "It is time for me to make my own choices."
But God kept Israel on a tether. He allowed the people to have a king, yet He Himself selected that king.