(1 Samuel 8:1-22) Israel desires an earthly King. The Elders bring the Bequest to Samuel. The Eternal sees fit to Grant their Request.
EXCURSUS D: ON THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE MONARCHY IN ISRAEL (1 Samuel 8).
It is an error to see in the foundation of the Hebrew monarchy by Samuel in the person of King Saul merely a vain-glorious popular demand, merely a desire to emulate other nations in their pomp in circumstance of war, merely a wish to be free from the grave moral restraints of an austere Republican government, with an Invisible and Almighty Chief presiding over it.
Samuel, with all the passions of a father and prejudices of a Republican chieftain, at first resisted the popular request, but subsequently, influenced by nobler, more far-sighted considerations, yielded to it, and even furthered it with all his great power and the influence of his lofty character. The popular request—although many earthly feelings and passions influenced the people’s prayer to their prophet-judge for an earthly king—was really suggested by the Spirit of the Eternal who had chosen Israel. Such an undivided and firmly established human authority within the chosen people was now indispensable to their progress. Roughly speaking, Israel, since it left Egypt and the degrading slavery to the Pharaohs, had gone through four phases: the first, the severe education under Moses in the Desert; the second, the period of the conquest and the age immediately succeeding it, when the people worshipped the Eternal, who had done such great things for them, with a fervour of enthusiastic gratitude; the third, the so-called age of the Judges, a period when the memory of the God-Friend was growing fainter and fainter, when the wish to live the life He loved was gradually dying out of Israel. They were becoming like the peoples who lived around them, and were gradually falling into subjection to the more warlike and stronger of their idol-worshipping neighbours. From this impending decay and ruin they were rescued by the splendid patriotism and the fervent religious zeal of Samuel, under whose wise rule Israel as a nation once more returned to the pure holy worship of the Eternal; this was the fourth phase of the national life. But in order to weld the once more faithful yet divided and ill-organised tribes into one great nation, the establishment of an earthly monarchy was indispensable. It was, indeed, no new thought; the great Hebrew lawgiver, who drew his wisdom direct from communing with the Most High, had spoken of it as of something which would in the coming ages be absolutely necessary for the progress and development of the nation. And now the time was ripe for it, and the same Being who watched over Israel with a Father’s intense love put into the hearts of the elders of the people the desire for a king, and into their mouths the words with which they approached with their request His prophet and servant, Samuel the judge and seer.
We have seen how quickly that true patriot stamped down his first repugnance to a change which would alter the whole constitution of the people for whom he had done and suffered such great things, which would virtually set him aside as ruler and judge, and for ever destroy the natural hopes he had entertained of transmitting his nobly earned honours and power to his own house.
The seer laid the matter in prayer before his Master, and from Him received direct instructions how he should proceed. What entire trust must the Eternal have placed in this great prophet-judge to confide to him tie momentous task of establishing a permanent monarchy in Israel, knowing that the first step in the establishment of such a monarchy must be Samuel’s own voluntary abdication of rank and power! But the Master knew His servant.
The old man quietly accepted what must have been to him a painful, saddening mission. Acting under the Divine direction, he set out before the chiefs of the tribes a picture of the new burdens and duties which the sovereignty, if established, would require them to take upon themselves. As soon as he had received their solemn acceptance of these new and altered conditions—in other words, as soon as he had received from the elders of the people an expression of their general willingness to exchange their old republican freedom for the comparative servitude which subjects of a powerful sovereign, especially in the East, must endure—he proceeded with all solemnity to the choice of a king for Israel. It has been well pointed out by Dean Payne Smith that the last three chapters of the Book of Judges, immediately preceding in the Hebrew the Books of Samuel (the insertion of the Book of Ruth in this place being a modern attempt at chronological arrangement), seems intended to point out the grave necessity of a king for the well-being of the Hebrew commonwealth. They relate the history of a fearful crime, punished with equally fearful cruelty, and, as the Dean observes, what makes it more remarkable is that it took place in the days of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron. (See the chronological statement, Judges 20:28, which shows that these awful scenes of national sin and vengeance probably took place within twenty years of the death of Joshua, that is, at a time when the public morality still stood high, and the religion of the Eternal still had a mighty influence over the people.) In the period of the later judges disorders were far more common in Israel than even in the days of Phinehas.
The lofty ideal which the teaching of Moses proposed to Israel and which, during its long chequered story, raised it high above all the other nations of the world, was that Israel should consider itself the peculiar kingdom of the Eternal King. And at first under men like Moses and Joshua, no earthly representative of the heavenly Sovereign was necessary. The people lived and worked as ever in the presence of the Most High; but in the very next generation, as we have seen, the invisible Sovereign began to be forgotten, and to each succeeding age the glorious Presence was still less of a reality. The people in the days of Samuel, led by the Spirit of God, demanded that to the theocracy the monarchy should be added, not in any way to subvert it, but, as Ewald happily phrases it, to share its task, and to supply the want which it could not satisfy. The earthly king was to be the chosen of the Eternal, the anointed of the invisible Friend. He was to be the visible image on earth, the vice-gerent of the invisible King of Israel, reigning in heaven. He was to be no absolute sovereign, reigning for his own pleasure and according to the dictates of his own will, like other monarchs of the world, but was to enter into the mind and spirit of the Eternal King, of whom he was the visible representative on earth. “We know with sufficient certainty that every king of Israel, immediately upon his accession, was pledged to the existing fundamental laws of the kingdom; in token of which he was required, when the crown was placed on his head to lay above it a written copy of the Law, and with these sacred emblems to show himself to the people before he could be anointed.”
Nor were these noble hopes and lofty aspirations entirely disappointed. It is true that none of the anointed kings of Israel fulfilled the grand ideal of the people, yet there sat on that strange throne, hallowed by such awful memories of Divine glory, “men”—to quote the great historian Ewald’s words—“in whom many forms of royal and manly excellence were exemplified, and whose like would be vainly sought among other nations in those early times. Here only in all antiquity was the true ideal of monarchy persistently aimed at.” Indeed, all history might be searched in vain for sovereigns uniting so many splendid qualities as did David and Solomon, Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah.
Nor, again, was the change to human kings reigning as vice-gerents of the Eternal King, politically speaking, a disappointment. From the hour when the patriot-statesman Samuel poured the anointing oil on the head of the young king Saul, the nation gradually rose in importance.
In, comparatively speaking, a very few years from the time when it had to fight with doubtful success for very existence with those warlike Phœnician peoples who dwelt, “a long thin line,” along the sea-washed coasts of Syria and Canaan, Israel, under the iron sceptre of David, and the golden sceptre of Solomon, rose to the position of one of the foremost nations of the East. It shared with Assyria and Egypt the chief place among Oriental nations; indeed, for a time, under the wise and splendid rule of David and his son Solomon, it even overshadowed those two historic powers. Though Israel declined from its great power and influence with strange, sad rapidity, it lasted sufficiently long to stamp its influence for ever on well-nigh all future religious worship, true and false, on the art and literature of the future leading peoples in the far Western, as well as in Eastern lands.
The following little table, showing the events in the life of Samuel, will assist the student of the Bible story:—
1st period, 12 years 2 period about 15 to 20 years.
The child life in the Tabernacle service, under the guardianship of Eli. The boy is called by the holy Voice to be a prophet; Josephus states that this happened in his twelfth year. The boy-prophet remains in Shiloh The people gradually come to the knowledge that a new prophet had risen up among them. He stays with Eli until his death, after the disastrous battle of Aphek and the capture of the Ark. Shiloh was probably destroyed by the Philistines after the battle of Aphek.
3rd period, 20 year.
He works unweariedly up and down among the people, and rouses them to renounce idolatry, and under the Eternal’s protection to win their freedom.
4th period, probably nearly 20 years. 5th period.
Samuel judges Israel, now a free nation, again. The Eternal God-Friend acknowledged by the people as King. Samuel the seer and judge and Saul the king govern Israel.
(2) They were judges in Beer-sheba.—It was natural that the father, as the infirmities of old age were beginning to make his toilsome life more burden some, should turn to his sons, and endeavour to train them up to share in his high duties, but beyond the natural regret of a father that the honours and dignities he had himself so hardly won should pass from his house for ever, no murmur seems to have escaped Samuel’s lips when the will of the Eternal was made known to him; and the aged prophet, forgetting he had sons and a house which bore his name, was the principal agent in the establishment of the king, in whom all the powers of the judge were to be merged. It is probable that at the time when old age was beginning to enfeeble the strength of Samuel, and many of the duties devolved upon his worthless sons, the Philistines recovered much of their lost power over the southern districts of Israel. The names of these sons are especially significant of the holy atmosphere their father lived in. Joel signifies Jehovah is God; and Abiah, Jehovah a Father. But the glorious traditions of Samuel were quickly forgotten by these unworthy men who called him father. Josephus supplements the Biblical record by stating that while one of these sons remained in Beer-sheba, the other “judged” in the north of the land.
But what confidence must this assembly of elders have reposed in their aged judge to have used such a plea—his own growing infirmity and the unworthiness of his own sons, whom he had himself appointed to high offices! The elders of the people knew Samuel, the man of God, would do what was right and just—would give them the wisest counsel, utterly regardless of any private interest or feeling. The result justified their perfect confidence.
The displeasure of the prophet-judge was very natural. He felt—this we see from the comforting words his Master addressed to him (see 1 Samuel 8:7)—that the people, notwithstanding the vast claims he possessed to their gratitude, craved another and a different ruler, and were dissatisfied with his government. Samuel too was conscious that Israel by its request declined the direct sovereignty of the Eternal. The change to an earthly sovereign had been foreseen, foretold, even arranged for, by Moses, but, in spite of all this, to one like Samuel it was very bitter. It seemed to remove the people from that solitary platform which they alone among nations had been allowed to occupy. They had found by sad experience, as Moses,—“their Rabbi,” as the old teachers loved to style him—had predicted, that such a form of government was, alas! unsuited to them, and that they must descend here to the level of ordinary peoples. But though all this was undisputably true, it was very bitter for the hero patriot to give up for ever the splendid Hebrew ideal that his people were the subjects of the Eternal King, ruled directly by Him.
In this whole transaction of the appointment of an earthly king in Israel, we must not forget that although under the present circumstances of Israel it was the best course to pursue, and, as such, received the Divine sanction, yet it was giving up the old grand ideal of a nation dwelling on earth ruled over directly by a King whose throne and home were in the eternal heavens. The glorious hope had to be given up, because Israel had been tried and found unworthy to share in the undreamed-of blessings of such a Government.
He will take your sons.—Here follows a graphic picture of the changed life of the people under a despotic monarch. They must be prepared, must those elders, for a court—a gorgeous court such as they had heard of, and perhaps some of them had seen on the banks of the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Tigris; all that was best and choicest in Israel would be summoned there. The old pastoral life would disappear; the dwelling under their own vines and fig-trees would give place to a very different way of living; the pleasures and vices of a gay and brilliant city life would allure the sons and daughters. and tempt them from the old simple way of living, dear to so many in Israel. War, too, on a scale they hitherto had never dreamed of, would be their portion—all these heavy burdens would become the heritage of Israel if they chose to imitate in their government the nations of the world. Had they thought of all this when they asked for a king?
But no prayers then availed; one wicked dynasty succeeded another, until the cup of iniquity was filled, and Israel carried away captive for ever out of their fair land.
So now, with the self-same words with which He had spoken to the seer when at the first he laid the petition of Israel before the eternal throne, He finally directs Samuel respecting the course of action he was to pursue on this momentous occasion.
The men of Israel.—That is, to the elders. The words which follow, “Go ye every man unto his city,” show that these elders were in truth a representative body, drawn from the chief centres of the land.
Attention has already been drawn to the perfect trust which the Eternal must have placed in Samuel the judge, seeing that He entrusted him with all the arrangements connected with this vital change in the Hebrew constitution, although his own downfall from power was necessarily involved in it. The confidence of the God-Friend of Israel in their upright judge was evidently shared in by the people. It was to their ruler, to the earthly head of their republic, that they in the first instance carried, through their representative chiefs, their request, which in other words said, “Let kings for the future, and not judges like yourself, rule over us.” The elders of Israel seem to have listened respectfully to the urgent remonstrances of their great judge, and to have deliberated carefully over them, and then, still respectfully, but firmly, to have reiterated their first request, which asked for a king instead of a judge. Again they watched him go alone into the presence of the Eternal, and after the seer’s solitary prayer, the “elders,” at the bidding of their judge, dispersed quietly, each one journeying to his own city. They loved and trusted the patriot Samuel, and though they were ready to depose him, they waited till he should give them a sign.