The judge who anointed the first two kings of Israel, God, and the people debate the advantages and disadvantages of having a king.
This crucial passage is introduced by the surprising notice that Samuel’s sons are as corrupt as Eli’s had been and are not worthy of carrying on the aging Samuel’s leadership of the people (vv. 1-3). While introducing a note of skepticism regarding the value of a hereditary leadership, this background information both establishes continuity with the past and provides a reason for leaving it behind. Following this introduction, the paneled structure of the passage isolates the debate among Samuel, God, and the people for us:
A The people demand a king like the nations (vv. 4-5)
B Samuel prays to the Lord (v. 6)
C God tells Samuel to obey the people (vv. 7-9)
X The ways of the king (vv. 10-18)
A′ The people demand a king like the nations (vv. 19-20)
B′ Samuel prays to the Lord (v. 21)
C′ God tells Samuel to obey the people (v. 22)
In the first round of the debate, the people argue that they need a king–that is, a strong centralized form of government–like the other nations have. They are demanding a political paradigm shift away from the charismatic leadership of the judges, and possibly, even away from Samuel (vv. 4-5). Samuel, understandably, was “displeased” (literally: “it was evil in Samuel’s eyes”) with this and brought his case to the attention of the Lord (v. 6). Apparently, God is not surprised by the people’s request since Samuel hears a detailed report of Israel’s perpetual pattern of sin and rebellion stretching back to the exodus (v. 8). Theologically more striking is the announcement that the people have not rejected Samuel as judge, but God as king (v. 7). Nevertheless, God instructs Samuel to listen to the voice of (that is, “to obey”) the people (v. 9a).
In the second round of the debate, the people reveal their hidden agenda in wanting a king like the nations: “that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (v. 20). Samuel is again mortified by their request and brings it to God (v. 21), who reiterates the command to obey the people with the specific addition of a command to “set a king over them” (v. 22).
The structure isolates two matters of crucial significance:
- At the center of the repeated panels is a long listing of the “ways of the king” (vv. 10-18). God’s acquiescence to the demands of the people came with the proviso that Samuel warn them about the dangers involved in having a king. These included: conscription into military service, forced labor, confiscation of property, taxes, and unauthorized use of property, even enslavement. The repeated use of the Hebrew word “take” (laqakh) is significant.
- The chapter ends with Samuel sending the people home without complying with God’s command to obey them and give them a king.