In First Samuel, we see Israel transition from a system of Judges to a monarchy. Although the narrative does give us a close-up view of what got the nation to this point, it’s helpful to zoom out and examine the factors at play. Why would Israel prefer a system like the other nations? Let’s examine the 5 reasons Israel wanted Saul as king, according to the New American Commentary.


The Lord Gives Israel a King “Such as All Other Nations Have”

This second major section of 1, 2 Samuel details the outworking of one of the Torah’s most important predictions, the transfer of supreme social influence in Israelite culture from judges and Levites to kings. 1 Samuel 8:1-14:51 functions as a historical commentary on Deut 16:18-17:20 and provides insights into both the proximate and underlying causes for Israel’s immutable decision to be ruled by an earthly king. As presented in 1 Samuel 8, the following political, military, and spiritual factors underlay Israel’s demand for a leadership change:

1. The failure to establish a system producing an adequate number of qualified judges to lead Israel (8:3-5; cf. Deut 16:18).

In particular, the ability of the judgeship system to provide a system of succession failed. Four different judges were mentioned in the Bible as having sons who held positions of leadership following their fathers’ deaths. In three of the cases–Gideon’s, Eli’s, and Samuel’s–the sons were portrayed as unworthy successors. In the one instance where apparently successful succession did occur–Jair–it does not appear to have been carried on past one generation (Judg 10:4).

2. The desire of the people to have a national, rather than local or regional, government (cf. 8:4).

Samuel is the first judge in the Bible who was accorded truly national status; eleven times in the Hebrew Bible, Samuel is noted as leading, or at least being influential, throughout all Israel. Biblical narrative accounts give no suggestion that any of the judges prior to Samuel ministered to all Israel.

Samuel’s influence as both prophet and judge exceeded his regional boundaries, suggesting that he was a transitional figure, preparing Israel for more formal national leadership. His leadership over extensive regions indicates that Israel was moving away from the Torah ideal of numerous simultaneous judgeships (Deut 16:18). Likely this situation came about because of a lack of qualified candidates in many localities (cf. 8:2-3), reflective of the generally degraded state of Israelite society at that time. While exercising less control than a king, Samuel’s career seems a necessary event in preparing Israel for monarchy.

3. The perceived need for more human military leadership in armed conflicts against other nations (cf. 8:20).

Israel’s elders considered the tribes’ external military threats to be sufficiently serious to warrant a fundamental change in leadership style. It is reasonable to assume that economic considerations, especially the desire of wealthy Israelites to preserve their wealth from foreign confiscation, played a key role in the call for a strengthened military structure.

4. The desire of the people to have a form of national government that was “like the other nations” (cf. 8:5, 20).

The Torah had foreseen a day when Israel would desire a king “like the nations” (Deut 17:14) surrounding them, and in the latter part of Samuel’s career that day came. The Torah implicitly suggests this event would be undesirable, since Israel was to be fundamentally different from the other nations; the Lord was to be their king, with the nation set apart for service to their divine monarch.

5. The more fundamental reason for Israel desiring a king, however, was spiritual: they had rejected God as their king (8:7).

The Bible indicates that the concept of the Lord’s kingship over Israel was as old as the foundations of Israelite society, being traced to Moses (Deut 33:5) and acclaimed by non-Israelites (Num 23:21). Any attempt to have an earthly king to take the Lord’s rightful place (cf. 8:20) would end catastrophically.

Remarkably enough, the Lord honored the people’s request, giving them precisely what they requested–Saul, a king “such as all the other nations have” (cf. 8:5). Saul, son of Kish, was as physically impressive and spiritually blind as the pagans. Saul’s unfitness to lead the Lord’s people is foreshadowed in the opening narrative portrait of Israel’s first king (9:3-10:16). There Saul is depicted as a bad shepherd, a metaphorical image in Semitic societies of an incompetent or ruinous leader.

Saul’s spiritual incompetence

This dark hint is reinforced in the writer’s selection of narrative details that illustrate spiritual incompetence of almost legendary proportions. Because of his spiritual obtuseness, Saul was able to live within five miles of Samuel, the most significant spiritual figure since Moses, and yet be completely ignorant of the prophet-reformer’s existence. So complete was Saul’s darkness that he had to be told by his servant that a prophet could help him, and even then Saul assumed that prophets needed to be hired to perform their divine task. He displayed a fundamental ignorance of basic Torah regulations in such areas as diet and military conduct, and when he did institute Torah-based reforms, he exempted himself from them. His hypocrisy was most glaring when he attempted to justify his failure to destroy the Amalekites (15:9; Deut 25:19) and when he sought guidance from sources explicitly forbidden by the Torah (28:3-19; Deut 18:10-14).

Clearly deliberate parallels are established between Saul and Achish, the Philistine king of Gath, further reinforcing the notion that Saul was a king “such as all the other nations have”. Both were impressed with David and had him serve as a personal bodyguard; both believed David was a serious threat to Saul; and both misjudged David, though in opposite ways.

The biblical writer passes judgment on Saul for his failure to live up to fundamental Torah guidelines. But more importantly the writer faults Israel for desiring a king who was not “after God’s own heart,” that is, wholeheartedly devoted to God.


The New American Commentary

New American Commentary Israel Saul as King

Did the above commentary interest you? Believe it or not, that was jus the introduction to a section of even more commentary. Whether you’re looking for quick notes or a drawn-out explanation, the New American Commentary will equip you to understand the Word of God. Get your copy today!

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