A request formed through Spiritual Blindness
1 Kings 12:1-19
Israel request a new political system, where the real problem was their own unfaithfulness
In this series of blogs we are looking at the events leading up to the division of the kingdom of Israel under the rulership of Rehoboam. In the first blog it was discussed how God is the rightful ruler of the whole universe. The fullness of redemption is the restoration of humanity under the liberating rulership of God. In Genesis 12 God promised to Abraham that His offspring will become a great nation through whom all nations were going to be blessed. God chose the offspring of Abraham to be the vehicle of restoration to all nations. In the second blog we looked at the fractious unification of tribal Israel into a kingdom. Collectively all the tribes experienced God’s miraculous saving acts. Consequently worshiping God united Israel into a covenant community, while idolatry divided the nation among their tribal fault lines. In this blog we will look at the occasion where the elders of the tribes demanded that an aging Samuel appoint a king to rule over them (1 Sam. 8).
As discussed in a prior blog there were economic, social, military and moral benefits for Israel to move towards monarchal statehood. When the kingdom in Israel became a political fact it solidified a shared redemptive history, which led to a cohesive national religious conviction and produced institutional unity[i]. Gideon in rejecting the offered kingship maintained that God was the true king of Israel (Jdg. 8:23). From the time of Moses, God’s theocratic rule was expressed through His prophetic spokesperson. God ruled Israel directly as their King in a very concrete way through leaders that He chose, directed and empowered. God’s mediated rule led Israel into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. The tribes digressed from the lofty accomplishments of Joshua[ii] through moral erosion, societal inequality and political frailty. Rulership under the judges could not produce political, cultural or religious harmony among the twelve tribes[iii]. Circumstances for Israel grew worse with atrocious leaders such as Jephthah or tragic leaders such as Samson failing to effectively lead the nation into covenantal splendour. A civil war between the tribes ensued (Jdg. 17-21) in the midst of increasing foreign oppression[iv]. A national low point was the recorded leadership corruption in 1 Samuel 4-7 where the Ark of the Covenant was used as a good luck charm instead of the respected holy symbol of God’s presence. Israel was defeated and the Philistines captured the very symbol of God’s glory amongst His people. This event caused the religious and political establishments of Israel to disintegrate[v].
The tribal elders approached Samuel to enforce their solution: the appointment of a king. Samuel was a pioneering judge, whose leadership produced national stability. Although like Gideon and Eli, his descendants through depravity, greed and perversion of authority proved themselves undeserving of establishing a heredity leadership. A casual reading of the historical account can be befuddling since passages in 1 Samuel (9; 10:1-17; 11) and the Royal Psalms portrays the king as “chosen, adopted, anointed and appointed” by God himself[vi]. However, it “displeased Samuel” (1 Sam. 8:6) to establish a constitutional monarchy under God with the Torah as its founding document[vii]. God himself described the request by the elders as a rejection of Him as King of Israel (1 Sam. 8:7). 1 Samuel (8; 12; 13; 15) is interspersed with prophetical warnings against human kings who would reign in opposition to God[viii]. The prophet warned that the freedom, stability and prosperity that the elders wanted to gain through the institution of a king would lead to military draft, servitude, the confiscation of property, taxation and the loss of personal liberty[ix]. Samuel foresaw that their own king would become their enemy (1 Sam. 8:17) and exploit the people in ways similar to the tyrants they seek protection from. These seeming conflicting narratives leaves the sincere reader perplexed as to whether it was a good thing for the elders to ask for a king or not.
The prophet Hosea looked back at this recorded event and in hindsight described how the people requested God to give them “a king and princes” (Hos. 10:13), but that God conceded to their request in His “anger” (Hos. 13:11). God promised Abraham that kings would come from his descendants. How then is the request by Israel for a king wrong? The Davidic covenant gave humanity a kingly Messiah. Is the very institution of kingship then wrong? The establishment of a kingdom was part of God’s plan as can be seen in 1 Samuel 12:13 where He chose and instituted Saul as king. The concern God had with Israel’s request was not the existence of a king over Israel, but the reason behind their request and the type of kingship they were requesting. Israel was to be established in the “manner” of God’s Kingdom rather than the “manner of the king”. They were to be a covenant keeping people who were ruled by God. In 1 Samuel 8:7-8 God stated clearly that He kept His covenant promises of provision and protection, but it was Israel who rebelled against God as King. Through this act of rebellion they broke covenant with Him[x]. Israel looked for a political solution to something which at its very core was a heart issue.
In the beginning of the Book of Judges there was an awareness that the nation did what was evil in the eyes of the LORD (Jdg. 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:; 10:6; 13:1). In fact Judges 10:16 states that the LORD’s soul became short with Israel’s wearisome efforts[xi]. Later in the book of Judges the incorporation of cultic practices from neighbouring nations and the moral decay experienced were ascribed to Israel not having a king (Jdg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). They looked for a social and political solution, while the real problem was their failure to take spiritual responsibility for their own actions[xii]. For Israel the king’s responsibility was to oppose their persistent idolatry, syncretism and their proclivity for covenant breaking. The king had an obligation to save Israel from their own inclination towards hara-kiri as mirrored in their conceited and stubborn behaviour. The book of Judges showed Israel’s lack of growth into a covenant community and detailed how the promised blessings of Deuteronomy slowly morphed into the warned-of curses for unfaithfulness. They did what was right in their own eyes; this self-opinionated righteousness is the direct cause of foreign oppression and social injustices[xiii]. Israel placed their hope in governmental- and social reform instead of dealing with their sin issue.
This spiritual blindness was reflected in the way that Saul (the first king) is described. Saul was depicted as being spiritually blind. He was as spiritually insensitive as the whole nation (1 Sam. 9:3-10:16). Saul was portrayed as a bad shepherd; the very heart of Godly leadership is a shepherd’s heart. He lived about 8 kilometres from one of the greatest prophets and judges in Israel’s history and he has never heard of him. He needed to be told that there was a great prophet in the area. His approach towards Samuel was ill-informed as reflected in the fact that he assumed that Samuel was a diviner for hire. When he became king he did not know what the Torah’s military and dietary instructions were (1 Sam. 13; 15) and he obtained guidance from prohibited sources (1 Sam. 28). Saul’s spiritual blindness also stretched to his treatment of David, who was described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). His treatment of David reflected the actions of Achish (1 Sam. 27) the Philistine king of Goth[xiv]. Where Israel and their king were to be a kingdom of priests to all nations (Ex. 19:6), their behaviour through their own spiritual blindness reflected that of other nations around them. Their hardened hearts which God describes as a rejection of His mediated rule (1 Sam. 8:7-8), was therefore the first problem with Israel requesting a King.
[i] (Griffiths 1967:43)
[ii] (Stone 2005:603)
[iii] (Heim 2005:610)
[iv] (Stone 2005:603)
[v] (Arnold 2005:866)
[vi] (Peter 1981:9)
[vii] (Bakon 2016:43-49)
[viii] (Peter 1981:10)
[ix] (Kaiser et al. 1996:203)
[x] (Bergen 1996:112)
[xi] (Stone 2005:603)
[xii] (Bergen 1996:201)
[xiii] (Stone 2005:603)
[xiv] (Bergen 1996:113)
Arnold, BT 2005. “Books of Samuel.” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by BT Arnold and HGM Williamson. Downers Groveer: InterVarsity Press.
Bakon, S. 2016. “From Judges to Monarchy.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 44 no 1:45-49.
Bergen, RD. 1996. The American Commentary: 1,2 Samuel. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group.
Griffiths, WR. 1967. “Covenant and Charisma as related to the Establishment and Dissolution of the United Monarchy of Israel.” Iliff Review 24 no 3 Fall 1967:43-50.
Heim, KM 2005. “Kings and Kingship.” Pp. 610-622 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Arnold BT and Williamson HGM. Downer Groves: InterVarsity Press.
Kaiser, WC, PH Davids, FF Bruce, and MT Brauch. 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Peter, CB. 1981. “Anti-Monarchic tradition in the Old Testament and the question of Diakonia.” M.Th., Theology, Senate of Serampore College, Kolkata.
Stone, LG 2005. “Book of Judges.” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by TA Arnold and HGM Williamson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.