Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 2)

In my last post, I gave an overview of two passages in 1 and 2 Samuel that apparently give very different depictions of kingship. This post is going to look at the apparently anti-monarchy passages, and the next will look at the pro-monarchy ones.

In 1Samuel 8 two major objections to kingship appear. The first is the idea that appointing a human king constitutes rejecting the kingship of God over Israel. The second is in Samuel’s account of what kings will do; his account makes monarchy sound inherently oppressive.

Some scholars see these passages as expressions of “direct theocracy” – the view that only God has the right to govern Israel. This ends up as a kind of religiously motivated anarchism and means that having a human monarch is idolatry. I disagree that these passages actually require direct theocracy, though they would be consistent with it. I think there is a precise reason why asking for a king at this point in Israel’s history was a sin, but this reason does not invalidate all monarchy, much less all government.

1 Samuel 8 simply states that the Israelites have rejected God as their king, but in chapter 12, Samuel gives a farewell speech that fleshes out his objections in more detail. This speech starts with Samuel asking Israel whether he has been unjust as their leader. (They confirm that he hasn’t.) This in itself suggests that Samuel doesn’t have a problem with all government; after all he himself is a government leader, a judge. There’s something about kings, as opposed to judges, that he objects to.

Samuel then goes into an account of Israel’s history. As usual, the account starts with the Exodus, the point when God delivered Israel from oppression in Egypt. But most of Samuel’s speech is focused on Israel’s immediate past, the period of the judges. Samuel’s description of this period mirrors what you see in the book Judges. Israel is caught in a cycle: they turn away from God by worshipping other gods instead, so God sends other nations to oppress them, which leads Israel to repent and ask God for help, and then God sends a judge to save them. But once Israel is saved, they turn away from God again.

Eventually the pattern changes: “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king.” (1 Sam 12:12). Israel was once again in the “oppression” part of the cycle, but instead of repenting, they asked for a king. Kings in the ancient world were military leaders, so a good king would presumably be able to drive out the oppressors. And unlike judges (who are also military leaders) kings set up dynasties. That means there would be a leader to protect Israel even after the king’s death. From a human perspective, kingship would be a way out of the political troubles the people have been having.

But Samuel is looking from God’s perspective and realizes that the problem is idolatry. The Israelites are appointing a king in part to avoid dealing with the sin of worshipping other gods (see v.10). And it is this reluctance that creates the problem. Not all kings are idols, but the Israelites were looking for one who would replace God as their savior and who would enable their idolatry of Baal and the other Canaanite gods.

There’s an application here for us, too. Remember, kings were anointed, and the word “messiah” means “anointed one.” The Israelites’ problem was that they wanted a messiah who would save them from the consequences of their sin without calling them to repent. This kind of messiah is proclaimed in many churches today.

Back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warned the Israelites that the king would take their sons for his army, their daughters, their crops, their animals and their servants. This sounds like horrible oppression, and that could be what it’s describing. But some of it is simple necessity. If the king is going to lead an army, he needs soldiers, who would be the sons of the Israelites. If he’s going to set up law courts and build a palace and do all the other things kings do, he needs money and labor. It seems like money wasn’t used widely in Israel at this time, so taking crops and property from the Israelites could be Samuel’s snarky way of describing taxes. My libertarian friends would like Samuel.

Even if this is the case, it highlights the folly of trusting a human deliverer more than God. A human king needs to take from the people to do what God could have done without their help. In fact, the story of Gideon shows that God can use a small army as easily as a large one. Moreover, there is a real possibility that Israel’s king could become just as oppressive as the nations they want him to save them from.

Thus, the problem with kingship in 1 Samuel 8 isn’t monarchy as a form of government. Instead it’s the view that a human king can save people from God’s judgment without their repentance. Next time, I’ll look at 2 Samuel 7 to see what kind of kingship the Bible does approve of.


  1. This reminds me of Ps. 146, which also warns against trusting even well-meaning princes to provide justice for the oppressed rather than trusting in God.

  2. Great insight into why they want a king to begin with, and how this is an example of wanting salvation without repentance.