Acton Institute Powerblog

Israel Really Wants A King (Part I)

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I recently posted some thoughts at The Power Blog on “God’s Problem With Centralized Power”, which took a macro view of what I believe to be God’s clear disdain for mankind pursuing their own ends instead of His articulated purposes when it comes to how we organize ourselves communally. This time I want to highlight a specific, micro-level example of that same general idea.

The story of Israel’s demand for a king in I Samuel 8 contains so many relevant, interesting nuggets of insight that I’ve broken it into two parts. This first post will cover verses 1-9; the second one (on Monday) will explore verses 10-22.

When the elders of Israel come to Samuel on behalf of their people to ask for a king to lead them, the decentralized governing system of “judges” had largely been in place since the Hebrew people’s return from exile in Egypt (some 400 years). What the people were asking for was a massive break with a God-ordained system and time-tested tradition. It marks a major shift in the history of God’s chosen people and, truly, the history of God’s plan for salvation.

It’s also a stark reminder of how big of a deal sin is, and how the way we organize ourselves matters to our Creator.

In I Samuel 8:1-3 we read:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

The “judges” were a succession of God-appointed leaders, drawn from among the people of Israel, who were put in place to help coordinate and facilitate the “big picture” logistics that a collection of millions of people would need. This included, but was not limited to, leading the people militarily (aka “Commander-in-Chief”). They were also supposed to be God’s instruments of justice and help keep the people’s focus and allegiance first and foremost directed toward their Maker (and His laws).

The prophet Samuel was a good and honorable man who decided that he would try doing things a little differently than they had been done previously: he appointed his own sons as judges over the people. Not necessarily a horrible idea, except for the fact that his boys were rotten leaders and corrupt trolls. Their wickedness and poor leadership opened the door for the bigger, national sin Israel committed by rejecting God’s plan for their earthly leadership.

Sin complicates and distorts things. In a family, community, or even on a national level, the fallout from sin rarely occurs in a vacuum. There are ripple effects that affect even strangers’ lives.

But the problem here in the opening verses of I Samuel 8 is not the decentralized system God had designed, in which the bulk of day-to-day activities and decisions were handled by the tribes of Israel themselves. The problem is human error. The problem is the perversion of justice, which is always a temptation for those who lead, but easier to do when a handful of people possess more and more of a society’s power.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 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.”

Yahweh’s way wasn’t good enough for the Israelites any longer. They wanted a king, and notice the last part of their argument for one: “…to judge us like all the nations.”

In other words: “We don’t like that God expects more from us. We don’t like that we have to rely on neighboring tribes. We want someone to just take care of everything for us. We want to be like our neighbors.”

The Israelites, starting from a legitimate claim (i.e. the corrupt leadership of Samuel’s sons), decide they want to exchange the unique honor that comes with being the obedient “chosen” people of the God of the universe – a God who had brought them out of Egypt and had protected them for centuries with judges and local leaders – for status in the pagan world’s eyes. It was more important to them to be respected by the “world community” than it was to do the right thing, which in this case would have meant finding better leaders and being more actively engaged in the governing of their own society.

6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey 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. 8According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

I’m sure Samuel might have been personally offended by the peoples’ request, but God reminds Sammy that ultimately the tribes were rejecting Him. God also knew what His own plan for the salvation of mankind would look like, and that only One would ever truly be fit to rule as King.

(More on Monday!)

R.J. Moeller R.J. Moeller is a writer and podcast host for the American Enterprise Institute's "Values & Capitalism" project. He's also a regular contributor at and Originally from Chicago, he currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where he serves as a media consultant to nationally syndicated columnist and talk show host, Dennis Prager.


  • I find the tie between Israel’s call for a king and their rejection of decentralized gov’t is biblically irresponsible. We should note that during the time of Moses, you had a centralized gov’t where all of Israel was under one leader. The same can be said of Israel for most of the time of Samuel’s life. It wasn’t until he was old that he appointed judges. Thus the condition for having multiple judges was Samuel’s age. But also note that the judges Samuel appointed were his sons and they did not follow his example. They accepted bribes and did not promote justice. This was cited by the people as a reason for requesting a king.

    We could also note that the Biblical criticism of Israel prior to the Kingdom was that without a King, people did what they thought was right in their own eyes as opposed to following God’s Word (Judges 17:6 & 21:25). And when they asked for a King, it wasn’t a rejection of small government; it was a rejection of a large theocratic government. It wasn’t Samuel and small gov’t that was being rejected, it was God. And thus the rejection was not of a system but of a person.

    We can also compare Saul’s and David’s choice and tenure as king. Saul was picked using criteria that please people. David was picked according to what pleased God. Saul’s kingship was disastrous while David’s kingship was accepted by God despite its flaws.

    The interpretation in this post is simply politically motivated with no real concern for the text or for other parts of the Bible.

    There is another way to look at the Scriptures here and it is consistent with the rest of the Old testament. For it wasn’t the size of the gov’t or its centralization that caused a problem for Israel. Rather, it was the faithfulness of the king or the gov’t which determined Israel’s fortunes. Those kings who were faithful to God in worship and caring for those in need brought blessing to Israel and those who didn’t brought curses. The size and centralization of the gov’t did not play even an insignificant role in determining Israel’s standing before the Lord, it was the faithfulness of the gov’t because the people’s faithfulness followed that of the gov’t.

    Comparisons between OT Israel and now are difficult to make because God’s people were then a nation whereas now, each nation is a mix of God’s people and all others. However, one thing is for sure, when leaders take bribes and practice and promote injustice, a nation suffers. And in a democracy, that occurs not because of the size of the gov’t but because of the lack of participation by the people.

    • RJ Moeller

      Thanks for the feedback. Appreciate you taking the time to respond. I have more to say that addresses some of the points you raised, and it will be included in Part 2 on Monday. Have a great weekend!

      • I look forward to reading part 2. Take care.

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