1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15
Chapter 7 told us that Samuel served as a judge over Israel “all the days of his life” (7:15). A judge was more than a person who presided over a courtroom. He was a ruler who governed and led militarily. Judges in Israel were typically rulers over regions rather than the whole nation. Samuel has been an exception. His mandate has been national (3:20; 4:1; 7:3).
When the Philistines were preparing to attack Israel, the people of Israel asked Samuel to ask the Lord to help. Samuel did so, and “Yahweh answered him” (7:9)—”thundered with a great thunder on that day on the Philistines, and confused them; and they were struck down before Israel. The men of Israel went out of Mizpah, and pursued the Philistines, and struck them, until they came under Beth Kar” (7:10-11). The result was that “the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even to Gath; and Israel recovered its border out of the hand of the Philistines. There was peace between Israel and the Amorites” (7:14a).
Chapter 7, then, demonstrates that the people of Israel are in good hands with the Lord and a faithful judge. No king is needed. But “we are more apt to leave God’s ways during times of well-being than in time of need. Prosperity seems to be a more fertile breeding ground for discontent and sin than does poverty” (Peterson, 55).
1 SAMUEL 8:1-3. SAMUEL’S SONS PERVERTED JUSTICE
1 It happened, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. 2Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abijah: they were judges in Beersheba. 3His sons didn’t walk in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted justice.
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but they constitute an essential introduction, establishing several key points:
First, Samuel, the undisputed leader of Israel, has grown old. Years have passed since the victory at Mizpah, and the people’s memory of that battle has dimmed. More to the point, Samuel is old and won’t be able to provide leadership much longer. He may have already have lost vigor and no longer be exercising effective leadership.
Second, Samuel has appointed his sons, Joel and Abijah, judges in Beer-Sheba, the southern portion of the nation. The idea seems to be that they can cut their leadership teeth in that sparsely populated place, so that they will be ready to assume Samuel’s position when Samuel dies. That would be unusual, because the office of judge is not usually hereditary. The Lord usually raises up judges in response to particular needs.
Third, even though Samuel’s sons have Godly names (Joel means “Yahweh is God”; Abijah means “My father is Yahweh”), they have failed to follow Samuel’s example of faithful leadership. They have ruled selfishly and unethically, taking bribes and perverting justice. We are reminded of the sons of Eli, the priest, who were also selfish and unethical—even treating the temple offerings with contempt (2:11ff.)
A major difference is that the Lord cut off Eli and his entire family because Eli failed to rein in his sons (2:31). There is no such threat implied in Samuel’s case—possibly because the sins of Eli’s sons, who profaned holy offerings, were even greater than the sins of Samuel’s sons.
But there is little doubt that Samuel intends his sons to succeed him, and there is no doubt that they are unworthy to do so. Samuel, however, seems blind to their sins. It is no wonder, then, that the elders of Israel gather together to resolve the leadership problems posed by Samuel’s old age and his sons’ sinful ways.
1 SAMUEL 8:4-6a. MAKE US A KING TO JUDGE US, LIKE ALL THE NATIONS
4Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah; 5and they said to him, “Behold, you are old, and your sons don’t walk in your ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations (Hebrew: goy·im).” 6aBut the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.”
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah“ (v. 4). The elders of Israel are men who, because of age and good reputation, are local leaders. A gathering of elders represents substantial authority that Samuel cannot ignore. While he is not subject to their authority, their collective opinion carries weight.
As noted above, these elders are concerned about leadership succession. Samuel has grown old, and his sons have proven unfit.
Ramah is located about 5 miles (8 km) north of Jerusalem. It was the home of Samuel’s parents (1:19; 2:11), and Samuel has made it his home as well (7:17).
“Behold, you are old, and your sons don’t walk in your ways“ (v. 5a). The elders lay out the issue plainly. Samuel is old, and his sons are unfit to inherit his mantle.
“now make us a king to judge us“ (v. 5b). Samuel has long ruled over Israel, and has appointed judges over particular regions. Now these elders want him to appoint a king for the nation. They expect a king to lead the army in battle against enemies of Israel as well as exercising the more mundane chores of day-to-day rule.
Interestingly enough, the book of Deuteronomy gives Israel the right to have a king, as long as they choose a king from among themselves rather than a foreign king (Deuteronomy 17:14-15). However, the elders of Israel fail to cite this provision when they speak to Samuel about a king. This leads scholars to suspect that those verses were added to Deuteronomy later.
But the same passage that permits Israel to have a king places prohibitions on the king to prevent some of the abuses that Samuel will outline for these elders in verses 11-17. The king is not to acquire many horses or wives—nor is he to acquire great quantities of silver and gold—nor is he to exalt himself above the people (Deuteronomy 17:16-20). But human nature being what it is, these rules will more often than not go unobserved.
“like all the nations“ (goy·im) (v. 5c). This is the problem. Israel has long been unlike other nations—distinctive in many ways. Other nations (goy·im—a word that is often translated Gentiles) worship many gods or gods of wood and stone. Israel worships just one God, and that God is Yahweh. Yahweh has served as their king, leading them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. Yahweh has given them a set of laws that define their national identity, distinct from their neighbors. Unlike the men of other nations, Jewish men bear the mark of circumcision. Unlike other peoples, Israelites observe dietary laws as outlined in the Torah. Unlike other nations, Israel observes the sabbath to keep it holy. In these and many other ways Israel is unlike its neighbors. Their distinctiveness was part of the Lord’s plan for them. The Lord created them as “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But now these Israelite elders are asking to be “like all the nations.”
“But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us‘” (v. 6a). A more literal translation would be that this thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes.
It seems likely that Samuel’s displeasure is prompted at least in part by personal considerations. He has been the ruler in Israel for many years—for most of his life. The elders’ request tells him that they have reservations about his leadership. Perhaps they are concerned only for the future, given Samuel’s age. But it is also possible that Samuel has become less vigorous as he has aged, and the elders are dissatisfied with the way he has managed Israel’s affairs in recent years. More explicitly, the elders have surfaced the unhappy situation regarding Samuel’s sons, who have demonstrated themselves to be unfit to inherit Samuel’s mantle. Samuel is surely aware of his sons’ sins, but he would nevertheless find it difficult to accept public confrontation on this issue by this convocation of elders.
It seems likely that Samuel’s displeasure is also prompted by theological considerations. Yahweh has been Israel’s king. Why would these elders want to promote a human into that role—to displace Yahweh as king? Why would they want to be like other nations, when the Lord has created them as a distinctive people?
1 SAMUEL 8:6b-9. LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE—AND PROTEST SOLEMNLY
6bSamuel prayed to Yahweh. 7Yahweh said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they tell you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not be king over them.8According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, in that they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also to you. 9Now therefore listen to their voice: however you shall protest solemnly to them, and shall show them the way(Hebrew: mis·pat) of the king who shall reign over them.”
“Samuel prayed to Yahweh” (v. 6b). Samuel was displeased by the request of the elders, but there is no suggestion here that he responded angrily. Instead, he turns to the Lord for guidance—a tribute to his lifelong habit of following the Lord’s leadership.
“Yahweh said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they tell you‘” (v. 7a). The Lord’s response to Samuel is surprising. Instead of telling Samuel to reject the request of the elders—or to punish them for their impudence—the Lord tells Samuel to listen to them. The implication is that the Lord intends for Samuel to do more than just listen. He is to comply with their request. He is to allow them to have their king.
This is, in part, a graceful note. The Lord could have struck these elders dead for attempting to do away with Israel’s distinctiveness—a distinctiveness based on their relationship to the Lord and their adherence to Torah law. But the Lord, in this case, takes a very different tack. He is willing to give them what they want—but this is tough love, nevertheless, because they will learn soon enough that there is both good and bad in having a king. As time progresses, their kings will become evil and corrupt. Israel will suffer mightily at the hands of their kings.
“for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not be king over them“(v. 7b). The Lord reassures Samuel that the elders are, in fact, rebelling against the Lord. They want to put a human king in the divine king’s place. “The issue is idolatry (like other nations) and apostasy (only God is king), not personal affront” (Birch).
“According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, in that they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also to you“ (v. 8). The record of Israel’s grumbling and unfaithfulness is far too lengthy to catalog in detail here. It began even before they crossed the Red Sea when they complained to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). After crossing the Red Sea, they complained, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). Then they said, “We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). Then they failed to follow Moses’ instructions not to hoard manna (Exodus 16:20). Then “the people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” (Exodus 17:2). And then there is the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32).
“Now therefore listen to their voice: however you shall protest solemnly to them, and shall show them the way (mis·pat) of the king who shall reign over them“ (v. 9). The elders have named their poison, and the Lord is willing to allow them to drink it—but first, he directs Samuel to warn them of the consequences that they can expect to face.
The Hebrew word mis·pat is usually translated justice, but there are other possibilities. In this context, the sense is that Israel can expect the king to exercise authority in ways that they will find unpleasant.
1 SAMUEL 8:10-18. THIS WILL BE THE WAY OF THE KING
10Samuel told all the words of Yahweh to the people who asked of him a king. 11He said, “This will be the way (Hebrew: mis·pat) of the king who shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them to him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint them to him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and he will assign some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. 14He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive groves, even their best, and give them to his servants. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male servants, and your female servants, and your best young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take the tenth of your flocks: and you shall be his servants. 18You shall cry out in that day because of your king whom you shall have chosen you; and Yahweh will not answer you in that day.”
“Samuel told all the words of Yahweh to the people who asked of him a king“ (v. 10). Samuel is a prophet (3:20), and the task of a prophet is to proclaim the message that the Lord gives him. Samuel does that faithfully here. That must mean that he tells the elders that they can have a king if they continue to press for one—but that they need first to listen to the consequences that they will suffer as a result of their decision.
“He said, ‘This will be the way (mis·pat) of the king who shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them to him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots‘” (v. 11). The first consequence of enthroning a human king will be the institution of a military draft. These elders can expect to see their sons and grandsons drafted into service as charioteers and horsemen—cavalry—shock troops to break through the heaviest defenses of the enemy. They can also expect to see their sons drafted into service to run before the king’s chariots—to serve as infantry to complement the cavalry—to serve as scouts and bodyguards. Solomon will have “forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen” (1 Kings 4:26).
“and he will appoint them to him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties“ (v. 12a). This is typical structuring for large organizations, military or otherwise. Modern armies are composed of divisions (about 15,000 soldiers, commanded by a Major General), which are composed of brigades (3,000 soldiers commanded by a Colonel), which are composed of battalions (800 soldiers commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel), which are composed of companies (200 soldiers commanded by a Captain), which are composed of platoons (50 soldiers commanded by a Lieutenant), which are composed of squads (a dozen soldiers led by a Sergeant). Nobody can exercise effective control of a large organization without structured leadership down to grassroots level.
This mention of “captains of thousands, and captains of fifties” hints at the scale of the army that these elders can expect the king to muster. There will be officers of various ranks—people who will command respect and good pay. To be effective, they will have to live disciplined lives and risk their lives in battle. If the king is a good king, he will insure that these officers do not abuse their power—but, as Israel will see as time passes, the ratio of bad to good kings will be quite high.
All this is sobering. With Yahweh at its helm, Gideon defeated the Midianite army with a band of only three hundred soldiers (Judges 11). Will Israel be better off with a king at its helm and a large standing army?
Some scholars have proposed that this account was written after Solomon’s reign as negative commentary on that reign. However, Samuel’s insights on the excesses of monarchy could easily have come from observing the excesses of foreign monarchs.
“and he will assign some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots“ (v. 12b). It takes enormous quantities of food, clothing, equipment, and weaponry to maintain a large military force. The king will employ thousands of people to raise and prepare the food—and to manufacture the equipment and weaponry.
“He will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers“ (v. 13). Not only will the king employ Israel’s sons as soldiers and farmers and manufacturers of weapons, but he will also employ Israel’s daughters to feed the palace staff and to provide luxurious service to the king and his courtiers.
“He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive groves, even their best, and give them to his servants“ (v. 14). As noted above, the king cannot exercise power alone. He will need officials, both military and civilian, to advise him and to carry out his policies. He will enlist Israel’s best and brightest to serve in these positions and will reward them richly for their service (and to insure their future loyalty). The money will come from the pockets of ordinary citizens—through taxes, if the king acts legally, or expropriation if he doesn’t.
“He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers” (v. 15). One-tenth is a tithe—the amount prescribed by the Torah to be given to the Lord (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; 26:12-15). Samuel isn’t suggesting that the king will divert the Lord’s tithe to the king’s purposes. He is saying that the king will exact a tithe for his purposes over and above the tithe required by the Lord.
Even though the king is not likely to rob the Lord’s coffers, there is something disquieting about the prospect of the king setting himself up as Yahweh’s equal—deserving of the same tithe.
“He will take your male servants, and your female servants, and your best young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks“ (vv. 16-17a). Not only will the king demand sons, daughters, land, and a tithe, he will also expropriate the best of their living property—slaves and livestock.
“and you shall be his servants“ (v. 17b). Israel endured hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. Now Samuel warns them that they are about to subject themselves to a new kind of slavery (although the Hebrew word here can mean servants or vassals rather than slaves). Whether servants or slaves, they will not enjoy the freedom under a king that they have enjoyed under the Lord’s leadership.
The people will see these demands come to pass to some extent under Saul’s reign and David’s. They will see them come to pass fully during Solomon’s reign. “Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty measures of fine flour, and sixty measures of meal, ten head of fat cattle, and twenty head of cattle out of the pastures, and one hundred sheep, besides harts, and gazelles, and roebucks, and fattened fowl” (1 Kings 4:22-23). Solomon will support seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Imagine the cost. Imagine how many people are required to transport, prepare, and serve this quantity of food.
When Solomon dies, the people of Israel will say to Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make you the grievous service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us, lighter, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). But Rehoboam will ignore the wise advice of his more mature counselors (who tell Rehoboam to “speak good words to them”—1 Kings 12:7), and will take the advice of his hotheaded younger counselors. He will answer, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14).
As a result, Israel will go into rebellion (1 Kings 12:17-19). Jeroboam will set up a kingdom composed of the ten northern tribes, and the nation will be split until Assyria brings an end to the northern tribes.
“You shall cry out in that day because of your king whom you shall have chosen you; and Yahweh will not answer you in that day“ (v. 18). When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt they cried out to the Lord, and the Lord answered and delivered them (Exodus 3:7). When they faced subsequent challenges and cried out for help, the Lord responded (Judges 3:9, 15; 6:6-7; 10:10). However, because they prefer a king to the Lord, the Lord will not answer their plea for deliverance from their king.
Samuel has warned the people, as the Lord told him to do. It seems odd, however, that he proposes no alternative to their kingly scheme.
1 SAMUEL 8:19-20. BUT THE PEOPLE REFUSED TO LISTEN TO SAMUEL
19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No; but we will have a king over us, 20that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.”
“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No; but we will have a king over us‘” (v. 19). Samuel is a prophet who is telling the people what the Lord has told him to say. Therefore, when the people refuse to listen to Samuel, they are de facto refusing to listen to the Lord. It is the Lord’s warning that they are disregarding. They have made up their minds that they want a king, and are not open to hearing facts or opinions that would lead them in a different direction. They are afraid and want security. They have determined that a king will provide security. Nothing that Samuel can say will divert them from their determination to have a king—and the security that they believe a king will give them.
“The narrator’s portrayal of Israel’s rejection of Samuel’s warnings is reminiscent of the Torah language depicting Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to submit to Moses; both ‘did not hear'” (Bergen, 118).
“that we also may be like all the nations“ (v. 20a). Once again, this is the problem. These elders want to do away with that which makes them the distinctive people of God. They want to be like other nations—nations that do not know Yahweh.
“and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles“ (v. 20b). This is what they hope to accomplish. They want a king to govern and to fight their battles. They are looking for a savior—someone who will organize them both domestically and internationally—someone who will give them a strong economy and a strong military. Sound familiar!
But, as the people will discover over time, there are good kings and bad—but all will be flawed.
1 SAMUEL 11:14-15. THEY MADE SAUL KING IN GILGAL
14Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there.” 15All the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before Yahweh in Gilgal; and there they offered sacrifices of peace offerings before Yahweh; and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.
In the intervening chapters, the Lord chose Saul to be king and Samuel anointed Saul and proclaimed him king (chapters 9-10)—but “certain worthless fellows said, “How shall this man save us?” They despised him (Saul), and brought him no present. But he held his peace” (10:27).
Shortly thereafter, the Ammonites sought to shame and intimidate the people of Jabesh-gilead. When Saul learned of it, he became very angry. He cut a yoke of oxen into pieces and sent them throughout Israel by messengers who proclaimed, “Whoever doesn’t come forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen” (11:7). The people of Israel responded, and Saul defeated the Ammonites decisively. The people who followed Saul proposed killing the worthless fellows who had refused to honor Saul earlier, but Saul responded graciously, “There shall not a man be put to death this day; for today Yahweh has worked deliverance in Israel” (11:13).
“Then Samuel said to the people, ‘Come, and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there‘”(v. 14). Gilgal is near Jericho, about 6 miles (10 k) west of the Jordan River and 12 miles (20 k) north of the Dead Sea. It is where the people of Israel encamped when they first entered the Promised Land (Joshua 4:19). After anointing Saul (9:27ff), Samuel had Saul go to Gilgal to wait there until Samuel came to him (10:8). Now Samuel chooses Gilgal as the place to renew Saul’s kingship.
“All the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before Yahweh in Gilgal“ (v. 15a). Some scholars interpret “they made Saul king before Yahweh,” to mean that this ceremony constitutes “a renewal of allegiance to the kingship of Yahweh” (Tsumura, 312; see also Baldwin, 98) rather than a rebellion against Yahweh. However, this seems improbable, given the Lord’s words in verse 7.
“There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly” (v. 15b). The people are celebrating their victory over the Ammonites, and also the accession of Saul to the throne. They wanted a king. Now they have one.
These peace offerings would be eaten by the people as part of their celebration.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bergin, Robert D., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel, Vol. 7 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers- Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: I and II Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Cartledge, Tony W., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Samuel (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Evans, Mary J., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Gehrke, Ralph David, Concordia Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968)
Holbert, John C., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Klein, Ralph W., Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Samuel, Vol. 10 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)