1 Samuel 8, if read as an anti-monarchical text, stands essentially alone, which is why it is so often cited by republicans. The rest of Scripture speaks of kings as a normal part of God's creation design. This is an indicator that perhaps today's conventional interpretation of 1 Samuel 8 is incorrect.
A different reading — where the prophecy of 1 Samuel 8 concerns not "kings" in general but "the king who will rule over you" — rolls far more neatly into the rest of biblical revelation, not to mention the tradition of the Church, East and West, for the great majority of its history.
Taking this as a warning against kings in general is difficult to canonically sustain. Genesis 49, which Samuel surely knew, spoke of a king from the house of Judah which would rule the nations. Numbers 24 speaks of him again. Moses is said in Deuteronomy 33 to have "become king in Jeshurun", and literary clues in the text link Moses as a royal figure to the Judahite king whom God will "bring in" to His people. Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:10 prophesies that the Lord will "give strength to His king."
Samuel expects his audience to understand that they have sinned in asking for a king. But how were they supposed to know that kings were not part of God's creation design when their own scriptures spoke of their future king and the mother of the prophet speaking sang of the king whom the Lord would anoint and save?
Theologically, this also raises problems. The central image which dominates the work of Jesus as messiah is that of the King. Jesus is the heir to David's throne, to whom was promised the world as an inheritance. He is crowned at His ascension and given dominion over all creation. Yet, the anti-monarchical reading of 1 Samuel 8 suggests that the very notion of a king is far from God's mind. Why, if this was so, is this so central to the Christology of the Bible? Why use an image which is apparently intrinsically corrupt?
Perhaps, one might argue, kings are corrupt because the Lord alone is king — and to crown a human being is to usurp the Lord's position. But this isn't the way the Bible understands the royalty of God in Christ. Rather than being an office which excludes others, the kingship of Jesus is that which adopts others into His royal family. All of us, scripture says, are anointed as priests and kings through adoption into Christ. And the Old Testament itself spoke of a human king to come from the line of Judah — should the people have simply deduced that this entailed the divinity of the king? Perhaps, but not likely.
The most significant problem for this reading is that Deuteronomy 17 makes provisions for monarchy. It is given alongside the provisions for the priestly and prophetic orders. This was the covenant that God made with Israel. How could they be expected to think that they, in fact, were really not supposed to crown a king as Deuteronomy 17 provided for, and that it was just a concession to their weakness? One certainly cannot get this from the text of scripture itself. 1 Samuel 8, if read as an anti-monarchical text, stands essentially alone, which is why it is so often cited by republicans. The rest of Scripture speaks of kings as a normal part of God's creation design. Canonically speaking, this is an indicator that perhaps today's conventional interpretation of 1 Samuel 8 is incorrect.
In fact, I think that the proper interpretation is quite simple. Nowhere does Samuel speak of a "king" in the abstract, referring to the institution.
(1 Samuel 8:9-11) "Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them." So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you...
The prophecy does not concern "kings." Rather, it concerns the "ways of the king who shall reign over them."
In other words, this is not about kings per se — it is about the specific king who will be crowned on account of Israel's request. The prophecy and curse contains similarities with an event in Judges 2. There, the Angel of the Lord (who in Samuel is said to have the royal characteristic of "discerning between good and evil), who is the personal manifestation of the Lord as King over Israel, pronounces a curse on Israel for their failure to complete the conquest of the land and root out idolatry. Compare:
(Judges 2:1-2) Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, "I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.' But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done?
(1 Samuel 8:7-8) And the Lord said to Samuel, "Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.
Because of their failure, the Lord stated that "I will not drive them out before you." The procession of the ark of the covenant into battle is an image of the Lord Almighty, enthroned as king on His footstool, personally riding into battle with Israel's armies. Conquest is a royal task, by which the king takes dominion over the land. David, Cyrus, Darius, Nebuchadnezzar — their royal legitimacy is rooted in their victories and conquests. This is key, because it links the kingship of the Lord, which Israel is said to have rejected in 1 Samuel 8, with the conquest of the land.
The Lord was meant to lead His armies into battle and smash the Canaanites, conquering the entire land and giving Israel sabbatical rest. This is where we understand why Israel sinned in asking for a king in 1 Samuel 8. Deuteronomy 17:14 tells the people exactly when they can crown their king: "When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it." Sabbath rest comes at the conclusion of victory and conquest. God rests at the end of His creation of the world, where He, in a manner of speaking, "conquers" the unformed material by shaping it into His world. Adam is called to "conquer" the earth by continuing to shape and cultivate that world. Pagan creation stories betray a memory of this when they describe the origin of the world in terms of a great battle.
The Lord "rests" upon His royal throne after winning victories. Israel was meant to rest in the land with a king sitting on the throne once they had conquered the land as the Lord commanded. Trying to steal sabbatical rest before you have done your work produces misery and pain. Samuel condemned Israel because they had not accomplished the task God set out for them before the coming of the king. This is one reason that the book of Samuel is centered on a series of great battles. And 2 Samuel reveals the climax of this story: King David at last leads Israel to final victory, extending the borders of the land to the originally appointed boundaries, and coming to sit on his throne in Jerusalem over a United Kingdom, with the Lord processing enthroned before him in the ark of the covenant.
We are told in 2 Samuel 7:1 — immediately after David has been enthroned over all Israel as the Lord is enthroned on the Zion tabernacle — that God gave him "rest" from all his enemies. It is in this context that God cuts a covenant with David and promises him a royal bloodline which will endure unto all ages. Had Israel been obedient to God and not requested a king until the time when they were given rest from their enemies, it would likely be at this point where David was actually anointed, crowned, and enthroned. Because of Israel's sin, the people had to endure bloodshed and civil war to get to the true king, but as Samuel had promised, even their punishment would ultimately be redeemed and blessed. The king who was meant to be the gift after the land had been fully subdued was used as a divine instrument for its subduction.
This reading — where the prophecy of 1 Samuel 8 concerns not "kings" in general but "the king who will rule over you" — rolls far more neatly into the rest of biblical revelation, not to mention the tradition of the Church, East and West, for the great majority of its history.
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