Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel (vv. 4-6).
The reason for Samuel’s displeasure at the elders’ request is not immediately apparent, although it appears he takes the request as a personal rejection. It is unlikely he is displeased for his sons’ sake. The elders’ delegation made a formal request to Samuel, acting evidently on behalf of the people who echo their words to him in verses 19-20, and reject his counsel. The elders and the people want a king to judge them “like all the nations.” Up to this point, Samuel has been a judge who has also acted, to some extent at least, like a king. By dint of his prophetic persona he has united Israel after the disastrous war between the tribes, and facilitated the campaign that overthrew the Philistine oppression. But Samuel was not a military judge as some of the former judges had been, but a prophetic-judge; a king would unify sacred and military powers in a single figure (Murphy, 65).
Samuel’s displeasure is validated by the Lord’s response to his prayer; God, too, is less than pleased with this proposal, and God, too, understands this request in terms of personal rejection: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 8).
Here, perhaps, we see the significance of the ark narratives of chapters five and six. The ark does not simply represent the divine presence with Israel, but houses that presence. God is present with Israel but not controlled by them. God is supreme over the foreign gods and powers and vanquishes them in contest. God goes into exile for his people and returns to them. Yet God is present amongst his people in a highly symbolic and non-governmental way. What does it mean, then, for God to be King if he is not king in a literal and earthly sense? God does not exercise direct executive or judicial authority, but guides, protects and rescues his people through the judges and other intermediaries he establishes on their behalf.
“Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge…” (Judges 2:18). The ad hoc and charismatic nature of leadership in the pre-monarchical era required the people to look to God in dependence and trust for their preservation and deliverance. To live in and experience the blessings of the covenant required covenantal faithfulness on their part. By calling for a king, however, the Israelites were falling away from this primary relation and dependence by which they were constituted, identified and distinguished. Instead they sought to be like the other nations with a king who would represent them and fight for them. A standing army is easier to trust than a “God-in-a-box,” and a more secure arrangement than the ad hoc judges who arose from time to time to bring deliverance. Now the king will become the locus of their unity and identity as a people rather than God. But this visible means of security will come at a cost: the people are trading freedom for security and conformity to the surrounding world.
Samuel warns the people in great detail what will transpire under a monarchical system. They will give their sons and their daughters, their lands, harvests, and livestock for the king’s maintenance and for that of his retinue. In choosing a king they are also choosing a burgeoning bureaucracy and the taxation to support it. “You shall be his slaves, and in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves” (vv. 17-18). Samuel warns that in this turn from trust in God to becoming like the nations, the tribes of Israel will get what they want but they will not want what they get.