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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

1 Samuel 8

Verses 1-22

The Demand for a King (8:1-22)

At this point the demand for a king is first clearly heard. We have two conflicting traditions. The first, recorded in this chapter and in 1 Samuel 10:17-27; 1 Samuel 12:1-25, is critical of the monarchy, regarding it as contrary to the divine will for Israel and the result of the worldly desire of Israel to be like other peoples. The second, recorded in chapter 9, ascribes the kingship directly to the divine initiative and regards the monarchy as under the divine blessing. In one tradition, Samuel is represented as reluctantly granting a kingship to which he is opposed, and in the other, as actively giving the divine support to the project. The two cannot be reconciled, and it is generally believed that the first tradition, enshrined in the chapter now being considered, was a later one, reflecting many years of disappointing experience of the monarchy and embodying the teaching of prophets like Hosea, who regarded the kingship as a manifestation of the divine wrath (Hosea 13:11). Actually the two traditions are historically valuable. They show us the presence of both pro- and anti-monarchical elements in Israel. We may note that the opposition to the monarchy comes out in the stories of Saul and not in the stories of David, and further that intense opposition to the monarchy, as with Hosea, appears to have emerged more in the Northern Kingdom where the Davidic line of monarchy was not retained. It seems clear that there was a genuine prophetic opposition to the monarchy, and the so-called "late" tradition may preserve a genuine memory of some misgiving in Samuel himself. Its picture of Samuel does not represent him as entirely opposed to the monarchy, and, reading between the lines, we sense a tension in the prophet’s own thought. Thus the story records the fact that Samuel was angry with God when the Lord announced that he had cast off Saul, almost as if Samuel really had hopes that the monarchy would succeed (1 Samuel 15:10-11). Furthermore, the prophet is presented as anointing David without any apparent opposition to the idea of kingship (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Evidently genuine tradition is preserved here, however it may have been shaped by a later intense opposition to the monarchy.

The maladministration of justice by Samuel’s sons is cited as the occasion for a popular demand for a king. Evidently Samuel had handed on his governmental activity to his family. The tradition preserving this statement is prophetic and thus would be strongly against injustice of rulers; yet it strangely ignores the unjust sons of Samuel and condemns the people for making a way of escape. We can understand this if the popular demand was later seen as a rejection of God’s direct kingship. As men became disillusioned with the monarchy, the thought of the king as God’s vicegerent, a very extension of the Lord’s own personal being, might have been accompanied by misgivings. Indeed, as we have suggested, even in Samuel’s mind misgiving may have been present. However, Samuel’s speech, describing what a king would be like, savors of long experience of the monarchy with its inevitable adjuncts of forced labor, taxation, and military conscription. The speech may well reflect the attitude of the Deuteronomic editors, for Deuteronomy 17:14-20 offers a somewhat similar critical catalogue of regal rights. The statement of verses 11-18 offers a valuable summary of the place and rights of the kingship in Israel.

Despite the divine opposition expressed through the prophet, the popular demand persisted, and Samuel was told to seek a king. The people describe the task of the king more in terms of military leadership than in terms of civil administration and justice.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Samuel 8". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-samuel-8.html.