There is this theory that elders with positional authority are the equivalent of a king — and God is opposed to our having a king.
(1Sa 8:6a NET) But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.”
This is a narrative that many of us learned in childhood. And it sure seems that God was opposed to the anointing of a king. But there is considerable biblical evidence to the contrary, and so we need to take, I think, a more nuanced view. Let’s begin in Deuteronomy –
(Deu 17:14-20 ESV) 14 “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”
This passage hardly fits the usual interpretation of the anointing of Saul. After all, God could not have been more plain that a king would be permitted — provided the king is sufficiently humble and true to the Torah.
Now, during the exodus from Egypt, God appointed Moses to lead the people — and he had very obvious positional authority. When Israel entered the Promised Land, the authority of Moses was passed to Joshua, who led Israel in a series of military campaigns to conquer the land.
After Joshua’s death, Israel was led by a series of “judges,” whom God raised up as needed. However, some truly awful things happened at that time.
(Jdg 17:4-6 ESV) 4 So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took 200 pieces of silver and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a carved image and a metal image. And it was in the house of Micah. 5 And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and household gods, and ordained one of his sons, who became his priest. 6 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
A woman made silver idols and ordained her son a priest. And the author of Judges blames this sin on “there was no king in Israel.” As a result, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In context, this is not praise for Western radical individualism. It’s a commentary on the bad things that happen when there is no leader in authority.
Next, the author of Judges tells us –
(Jdg 18:1 ESV) In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the people of Dan was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in, for until then no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them.
The author goes on to explain how this resulted in the founding of the city of Dan, which contained silver idolatrous images and a false priest. We next read –
(Jdg 19:1 ESV) In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.
This introduces the dreadful story of a raped and murdered concubine, considered such an atrocity that the other 11 tribes nearly exterminated the tribe of Benjamin because she was raped and killed by Benjaminites. The story (and the book of Judges) concludes
(Jdg 21:25 ESV) 25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Clearly, the author of Judges is explaining the necessity for a king — a position entirely consistent with Deuteronomy 17.
In 1 Samuel 1 and 2, Hannah, a barren woman, is finally given a child by God — Samuel. In gratitude, she dedicates Samuel to the priesthood, with a prayer. She says,
(1Sa 2:10b ESV) “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
Hannah is inspired to prophesy that Samuel will bring a king to the people, who will be exalted by God. It’s a true prophecy. Indeed, it’s the theme of the book.
Samuel became judge of Israel following Eli. The sons of both Eli and Samuel proved to be corrupt, leading the elders of Israel to ask for king. Samuel did not want to appoint a king, but God said,
(1Sa 8:7-9 ESV) 7 And 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. 8 According 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. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
Obviously, God himself is not pleased with the hearts of the people. He sees their request for a king as a rejection of God as king. Samuel then warned the people that a king would tax them and conscript them into service, but they insisted on having a king anyway.
(1Sa 8:19-20 ESV) 19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
As a result, Samuel anointed Saul as king. And he did fight the people’s battles, and greatly extended the borders of Israel — defeating the Amalekites and pushing the Philistines back. It’s really hard to argue against the anointing of Saul in military terms. He finally allowed Israel to expand beyond the infertile hill country and enjoy the Promised Land.
Saul, however, proved to be rebellious — sinning against the commands of God and ultimately being rejected by God. As a result, God had Samuel anoint David as king.
David was anointed years before Saul left the throne. Why? Evidently, God wanted to anoint David just as soon as he was old enough, to indicate his dissatisfaction with Saul and the special nature of his relationship with David.
Shortly thereafter, God made a covenant with David –
(2Sa 7:11b-16 ESV) “Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”
God’s covenant with David set the direction of the biblical narrative until the end of time. The Messianic overtones are obvious. God ultimately sent his Son to become the final king in the line of David — the Messiah — to rule God’s kingdom. In Ezekiel 34, Jesus is even called “David.”
It seems hard to argue that the line of David is entirely against the will of God, when God sent his Son to earth to be a king in the line of David! Indeed, God quite literally chooses to save the world by establishing Jesus as a king, sitting on the throne of David. How can David’s throne possibly be illegitimate?
Commentators understandably struggle with this question. After all, if this were a lesson on the over-arching narrative of scripture, we might say that God always intended for Jesus to appear as the Messiah in the lineage of David to sit on his throne. But how does this make sense if God was opposed to there being a king at all? If God was adamantly opposed to Israel having a king, how does the throne of David become such a key part of God’s cosmic plan?
As a result, most commentators conclude that God was not so much displeased with the idea of monarchy — an idea that he made permanent, even eternal — but with the idea of Israel picking a king based on their own standards. See, for example, Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), page 208.
Saul was tall and a great warrior — very popular — but not a man after God’s own heart. It’s almost as though God chose for Israel the man they wanted to demonstrate the futility of Israel making its own choices, and then chose David as a boy, someone no man would consider kingly at all, to demonstrate God’s own wisdom and the necessity of God choosing the king by God’s own standards in God’s own time.
As a result, I find myself unpersuaded that it’s somehow wrong to want a leader with authority. David was such a leader, and clearly approved by God as such. So was Moses. So was Joshua. So were each of the judges.
Of course, today, we should want no king other than Jesus. But we should gladly submit to those whom Jesus selects to serve as leaders under him within the Kingdom by action of his Holy Spirit.
Just as Israel was bound to submit to David’s officers, we must submit to whomever Jesus grants leadership authority by the Spirit.
We should not ask for a king like Saul — who looks and acts like a worldly king. Rather, we should trust the judgment of God, who selects men like David, who don’t look like kings but who have God’s own heart.
David certainly was a man of authority and a great leader, but he was also a man fully submitted to God. He was far from perfect. He was not the ideal king in every way. But his heart qualified him as king, and so God anointed him as king.