Social changes wrought by Israel's monarchy
The Israelites' reasons for wanting a king, given in 1 Samuel 8, verses 1 to 4, do not tell the whole story and the events of the next few chapters reveal the real motives behind their demands. It is not just Samuel's age and the corruption of his sons which prompt the Israelites to demand a king. From chapter 12, we learn that the military threat posed by Nahash, the king of Ammon, is perhaps the fundamental reason the Israelites want a king. The Ark of God is out of commission (after the failure of Israel's "rabbit's foot theology"), Samuel is soon to die, and the Israelites want a king in whom they can place their trust. We should note that Israel once again sins in rejecting the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their real King for, when He delivered them from Egyptian bondage and gave them His law, He first established Himself as their King. In a very real sense, the contest with Pharaoh was between one King and another. It is after the Israelites cross the Red Sea that they first realize this, expressing the fact in their hymn of praise:
16 "Terror and dread fall upon them; By the greatness of Thine arm they are motionless as stone; Until Thy people pass over, O Lord, Until the people pass over whom Thou hast purchased. 17 "Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established. 18 "The Lord shall reign forever and ever" (Exodus 15:16-181, emphasis mine).
God is the One who promises to "go before" (and behind) His people, as a king would do (cf. Exodus 23:23; Isaiah 45:2; 52:12). Old Testament scholars have noted that the giving of the Law, as the establishment of a covenant between God and Israel in Exodus through Deuteronomy, follows the same form of treaties or covenants made between ancient kings and their subjects in that day. The people of that day would immediately recognize the implication - that God is establishing the covenant basis for His rule as King over Israel. This is more clearly indicated in Deuteronomy 33:1-52 (cf. Exodus 19:3-6; Leviticus 20:26; 25:23):
1 Now this is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the sons of Israel before his death. 2 And he said, "The Lord came from Sinai, And dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, And He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; At His right hand there was flashing lightning for them. 3 "Indeed, He loves the people; All Thy holy ones are in Thy hand, And they followed in Thy steps; Everyone receives of Thy words. 4 "Moses charged us with a law, A possession for the assembly of Jacob. 5 "And He was king in Jeshurun, When the heads of the people were gathered, The tribes of Israel together." (emphasis mine)
In Psalm 74:12-152, Asaph looks upon God's actions during the exodus as evidence that God is King of Israel:
12 Yet God is my king from of old, Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.13 Thou didst divide the sea by Thy strength; Thou didst break the heads of the sea monsters in the waters. 14 Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan; Thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 Thou didst break open springs and torrents; Thou didst dry up ever-flowing streams (cf. Psalm 47:2-3).
Secondly, after He delivers the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, God prepares them for the fact that they will have a king. In Genesis 49:8-12, it is clear that a descendant of Judah will rule over Israel. In the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:15-19, a similar prediction is made of one of Jacob's descendants ruling and defeating the enemies of the people of God. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God indicates that there will be a time when Israel will ask for a king and 1 Samuel 8 is a very literal fulfilment of this prophecy. The emphasis here in chapter 8 is not the evil of Israel's rejection of God and their idolatry (though this is pointed out); the emphasis is upon the high cost of a king (v 10-18). In our chapter, we know that Israel's demand for a king is idolatry of the same kind Israel has practiced since the Exodus (8:7-9). We know that when Samuel speaks to the people, he tells them "all the words of the Lord" (v 10), but what is written and preserved for us is the content of verses 10-18, which is a detailed description of the costs of a kingship - the emphasis of Samuel's words in this chapter.3
When the people demanded a king, Samuel gave them solemn warning regarding what they could expect (I Samuel 8:11-17):
He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; ... And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; . . . and to reap his harvest... And he will take your daughters to be ... cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.
I am reminded me of a statement made by a Christian queuing for a roller-coaster ride at an expensive entertainment park. After enduring a long wait and considering the high price paid for tickets, he remarked to his family, "This ride is just like sin . . . the price is high and the ride is short!" This is the way Samuel wants the Israelites to think about having a king. The price is going to be very high but the Israelites do not see it this way, because they are more than willing to pay the price Samuel spells out. Again, the Israelites action reflects the way fallible human beings think we need to install safeguards to avoid having to trust in God. Israel had never fully learnt to trust God and we know that they had learnt that the price for being subject to their surrounding enemies was very high, as we can see from Judges 6:1-62:
1 Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hands of Midian seven years. 2 And the power of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves the dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites would come up with the Amalekites and the sons of the east and go against them. 4 So they would camp against them and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel as well as no sheep, ox, or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, they would come in like locusts for number, both they and their camels were innumerable; and they came into the land to devastate it. 6 So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried to the Lord.
To the Israelites, the price they will pay for their king is judged as far less than they will pay for being subject to other nations. What they do not understand is that God will protect them at no cost, if they simply repent of their sins, cry out for deliverance, and serve Him with their whole heart. This is the price they consider to be too high - but they also do not want to give up their foreign deities and serve God alone. They do not want God as their King and so they seek to replace both God and Samuel by having a king like the nations.
But the simple fact is that when Israel pays the high price for a king, they really get very little in return. The Israelites assume that their king will make their decisions (judgments) for them, tell them what to do, and fight their battles for them. A review of Deuteronomy 28-32 should remind the Israelites that it is not their king who brings them peace and prosperity; it is their God. It is not their king who is worthy of their faith and trust and obedience alone; it is God. They look to a king to do for them what only God can do, with or without a king. They are willing to pay a high price for something which is not really worth it.
Sin is like this, and Satan always seeks to sell us on sin in a way that makes a crooked second-hand car salesman weep with envy. Satan always seeks to maximize our estimation of the benefits of sin, and just as busily engages in attempting to convince us that the price of sin is minimal. In the Garden of Eden, Satan deceived Eve into believing that she could actually become like God, and that partaking of the forbidden fruit would not really result in death. When we choose sin, we do so believing Satan's lie. We think we can "use" sin, while retaining full control over it. The reality is that sin quickly gains control over us, and we become its slaves. Whenever we are tempted and contemplate choosing the path of sin, we need to remember what the Bible teaches us about the economics of sin: the price is too high, and the ride is all too short. Sin does not pay.
Why then, even after Samuel warns the Israelites about the high cost of kingship, do the Israelites reject his warning and demand to have their king? Why are men willing to pay such a high price for so little? I believe the answer is clearly implied in our text: men loathe grace. It is detestable and loathsome, because it is charity. Grace does not bolster our pride; it produces humility. When we pay for something (by works or money), we think we own it. We think that when we pay for something we are in control. When we receive grace, we are not in control. God is in control. Grace is sovereignly bestowed, and so we cannot dictate how and when God will grant it to us; we cannot control its benefits. But good old fashioned work (we falsely suppose) obliges God to bless us. When we do the right things, God must respond predictably. We are in control and God becomes our servant. And so men would rather pay - and pay greatly - to maintain their pride and sense of control. This is why men prefer idols to God, even if they have to carry them. They believe that serving idols keeps them in control of their "god." How foolish we are.
We need to learn another lesson that Israel also had to learn from repeated errors - God sometimes gives us the thing we want and even demand, even though it will prove to be painful to us. We can think back to such examples as the passage in the Psalms which speaks of the Israelites' complaining because they have no meat, prompting God to give them enough to fill their stomachs full (Psalm 106:152), but we read: "So He gave them their request, But sent a wasting disease among them." In spite of Samuel's solemn warning from God, the people cried even louder for a king (v19), saying, ""Nay, but we will have a king over us." So the Lord said unto Samuel (v22), "Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king." With the establishment of the monarchy, a totally new system developed in Israel. First, there was dynastic succession. Prior to this, God raised up judges whenever Israel was ready for a deliverer. Under the monarchy, the crown would pass from father to son to grandson. Each reigning monarch expected to have a descendent in perpetuity on the throne. Second, there was centralization of power as indicated in the words of Samuel. The king would do what he wanted, when he wanted, and would have the military power to back up his decisions. Third, a privileged class would develop, somewhat like the caste system in India. They included both peasants who tithed the land, and merchants in the cities. There would also be the courtiers, relatives, and friends of the king. These people would have special privileges and the king would look to them for counsel. We have seen the corresponding corruption affect monarchies the world over, through thousands years of history, as a result of putting men and women in a position that should be God's alone.
(Continued on page 543)