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1 Samuel 8:4-20 – Israel Demands a King


Samuel, God, and the people debate the advantages and disadvantages of having a king.


This crucial passage is introduced by the surprising notice that Samuel's sons are as corrupt as Eli's had been and are not worthy of carrying on the aging Samuel's leadership of the people (vv. 1-3). While introducing a note of skepticism regarding the value of a hereditary leadership, this background information both establishes continuity with the past and provides a reason for leaving it behind. Following this introduction, the paneled structure of the passage isolates the debate among Samuel, God, and the people for us:

A The people demand a king like the nations (vv. 4-5)
B Samuel prays to the Lord (v. 6)
C God tells Samuel to obey the people (vv. 7-9)
X The ways of the king (vv. 10-18)
A′ The people demand a king like the nations (vv. 19-20)
B′ Samuel prays to the Lord (v. 21)
C′ God tells Samuel to obey the people (v. 22)

In the first round of the debate, the people argue that they need a king--that is, a strong centralized form of government--like the other nations have. They are demanding a political paradigm shift away from the charismatic leadership of the judges, and possibly, even away from Samuel (vv. 4-5). Samuel, understandably, was "displeased" (literally: "it was evil in Samuel's eyes") with this and brought his case to the attention of the Lord (v. 6). Apparently, God is not surprised by the people's request since Samuel hears a detailed report of Israel's perpetual pattern of sin and rebellion stretching back to the exodus (v. 8). Theologically more striking is the announcement that the people have not rejected Samuel as judge, but God as king (v. 7). Nevertheless, God instructs Samuel to listen to the voice of (that is, "to obey") the people (v. 9a).

In the second round of the debate, the people reveal their hidden agenda in wanting a king like the nations: "that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles" (v. 20). Samuel is again mortified by their request and brings it to God (v. 21), who reiterates the command to obey the people with the specific addition of a command to "set a king over them" (v. 22).

The structure isolates two matters of crucial significance:
  • At the center of the repeated panels is a long listing of the "ways of the king" (vv. 10-18). God's acquiescence to the demands of the people came with the proviso that Samuel warn them about the dangers involved in having a king. These included: conscription into military service, forced labor, confiscation of property, taxes, and unauthorized use of property, even enslavement. The repeated use of the Hebrew word "take" (laqakh) is significant.
  • The chapter ends with Samuel sending the people home without complying with God's command to obey them and give them a king.

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to 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. 8Just as they have done to me,* from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle* and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Israel’s Request for a King Granted

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’

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