I have been surprised by what I have found in this chapter, and it is obvious that these reflections are only a beginning of the matter. There is much to ponder here.
My initial reflections centred on Samuel’s failure with respect to his sons, and the Israelites’ desire to be “like the nations.” Yet the chapter plays a critical role in the transition to a monarchical state. Hitherto the tribes have been a loose confederacy; God has been present amongst his people with the Ark being the symbol of this presence; and national leadership has been charismatic and ad hoc. Murphy notes that in tribal societies the extended family largely rules itself, is the centre of economic activity, as well as the transmitter of moral norms and identity.
What distinguishes tribal segmentary society from monarchy is not the hereditary principle, which is common to both, but that in a monarchy authority is imposed on kinship groups from without. What Samuel foresees is not just the emergence of monarchy but Israel’s coming to be a state. He pictures the state as substituting its powers for those of the family. … he is depicting the replacement of a brotherhood ethos with the authority of the state (Murphy, 62).
Introduction of the monarchy and its statutory powers will undermine familial and fraternal love as the basis of culture and society. Not only is the demand for a king a falling away from the covenantal relation between God and his people, but the familial and covenantal relations amongst the people are threatened by the rise of power relations and law. As previously noted, the people will trade valuable freedoms for visible security and accommodation to the nations, but in so doing will become “slaves” to a new bureaucratic order, and find themselves taxed and conscripted to pay for this privilege.
That the elders approach Samuel to make a king indicates not simply the esteem in which he is held, but the kind of authority he has attained amongst the tribes. As a prophet-judge, he represents God to the people, and the enactment of the divine will amongst them. By establishing the royal office he will provide legitimisation for the monarchy, and indirectly, indicate the divine approval of it. It is clear, however, that God’s approval for this development is conceded. God merely allows the people a king rather than commanding them to take this step. God grants the peoples’ request—against his primary will and against their best interests. God’s accession to their request is therefore in the realm of God’s permissive will.
In itself this is hardly surprising. Although human society without some form of government is virtually inconceivable, nowhere in scripture does God commend one form of government as the divine preference and command. Rather, it seems that the mode of government falls within the scope of humanity’s discretion. If this is true of church government in the New Testament, it is also true, it seems, of government in human society more generally. In this passage at least, it is apparent that the divine providence that not rule in such a way that the divine will is completely fulfilled in every detail. Rather, God gives ‘space’ to his people to make their own decisions and take their own actions within the limited sphere of their existence and responsibility—even when those decisions and actions are contrary to his express will. With this gift of freedom, of course, is also the realisation of responsibility for our use of it.
Nonetheless scripture is also realistic: all human government occurs within the context and arena of human fallenness; there is no perfect government and no perfect system of government. It may be that some governments and systems are better than others, and in this respect scripture has much to say, as I observed in my previous post on this chapter. But as Karl Barth noted in his second commentary on Romans, the divine Krisis falls on every human work. Even the revolutionary who is so disturbed by the evil of the present system can only install another system subject to the same evil impulses. Only the true and ultimate Revolution—the kingdom of God—will introduce the true order of justice and peace. In the meanwhile it is salutary for both revolutionary and reactionary to remember this, and to recall that their every effort can only be provisional at best, and that the best that they can hope for, is that their political work might bear true witness to the coming kingdom.