January 19, 2018

Prophets, Priests, & Kings: The History of Israel’s Monarchy (Part 1)

Transition to Monarchy, 1 Sam 1-8

Layton Talbert

All Scripture,” Paul asserted (at a time when most of it was Old Testament), “is profitable” to instruct and equip the New Testament believer (2 Timothy 3:16–17). “For whatsoever things were written aforetime,” he elsewhere explained, “were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). “They are,” in fact, “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world [ages] are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

Why should the Christian be conversant in the history of Israel? The short answer is that it forms a large part of God’s revelation to man — not only the reliable revelation of a record of ancient history, but a timeless revelation of human nature and experience, and of God Himself. Paul argued, under inspiration, that God has preserved the record of His dealings with His ancient people for the instruction, edification, exhortation, and warning of His contemporary people in any given age. Need we any further incentive?

But the Old Testament can be difficult, its customs foreign, its chronology confusing, its language sometimes strange, its names nearly unpronounceable, and its point often obscure. Perhaps this is nowhere truer than in the historical narratives recounting the rise and fall of Israel’s monarchy. Hopefully the forthcoming series will help overcome some of these hurdles.

The Historical Setting

Chronologically, 1 Samuel actually opens in the midst of Judges 13:1, after the birth of Samson (Jud. 13) but prior to the judgeship of Samson (Judges 14–16; ca. 1104–1084 B.C.). The birth of Samuel probably occurred about 1124–1115 B.C.

Here is the historical setting in outline form:

Samuel Ministers at the Tabernacle (2–3)

  • Hannah’s song after the birth and dedication of Samuel (2:1–11)
  • Priest Eli’s evil sons described (2:12–17)
    Contrast with Samuel (2:18–21)
  • Priest Eli rebukes his sons (2:22–25)
    Contrast with Samuel (2:26)
  • Man of God warns Eli of judgment on his sons and his house (2:27–36)
    Contrast with Samuel (3:1a)
  • God’s first communication to Samuel: Judgment on Eli’s sons and house (3:1b–18)
    Contrast with Samuel (3:19–4:1a)

Humiliation of Israel (4–6)

  • Philistines defeat Israel at Aphek (1104 B.C.): Ark captured, Eli’s sons slain (4:1b–11)
  • Eli dies, Ichabod born (4:12–22)
  • Ark in Philistia (5:1–12)
  • Ark returned to Israel (6:1–21)
    [20–year judgeship of Samson begins about this time]

Rise & Judgeship of Samuel (7)

  • Ark remains in Kiriath-jearim 20 years [Samson’s Judgeship, 1104–1084 B.C.] (7:1–2)
  • Samuel calls Israel to repent and return to the Lord (7:3–6)
  • Israel (God) defeats Philistines at Mizpeh [1084 B.C.] (7:7–12)
  • 40-year Philistine oppression ends (7:13–14; cf. Jud. 13:1)
  • Samuel judges Israel [1084–1051 B.C.] (7:15–17)

Israel Demands a King (8)

  • Samuel appoints his sons as judges (8:1–2), but they are corrupt (8:3)
  • Elders of Israel request Samuel to appoint a king (8:4–5)
  • Samuel prays and God answers (8:6–9)
  • Samuel warns of the nature of kingship (8:10–18)
  • Israel insists on a king anyway (8:19–20)
  • Samuel again confers with God and concedes (8:21–22)

Conditions Moving Israel Toward Monarchy

  • Corruption of Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah
  • Tribal disunity, lack of national solidarity, displayed in Judges
  • Spiritual degeneration evidenced in Judges
  • Continuing threat from surrounding nations
    • Philistines (west)
    • Ammonites (east)
    • Arameans (north)
  • Previous expressions of desire for monarchy (Jud. 8:22; Jud. 9)

Differences Between “King” and “Judge”

  • National leadership and identity, as opposed to tribal/regional leadership of judges
  • Undisputed and supreme authority (1 Sam. 8:11–14, 16, 17)
  • Ability to tax (8:15, 17)
  • Legislative ability
  • Dynastic succession

Factors in Israel’s Desire for a Monarchy

  • Recognition of Samuel’s stature and authority (8:4)
  • Realization of Samuel’s eventual departure (8:5)
  • Rejection of Samuel’s corrupt sons (8:5)
  • Request for his replacement with “a king to judge” (8:5, 20)
  • Desire to be “like all the nations” (8:5, 20)
  • Desire for military unity and security (8:20)
  • Unwillingness to heed God’s warning or to request/wait on God’s timing (8:19–20)

The Concept of a Jewish Monarchy

Monarchy was not, in itself, anti-theocratic or non-theocratic. (Note: Theocracy means government by God.)

Some have asserted that by insisting on a monarchy, Israel was trading a higher form of government — a theocracy — for a lower form — a monarchy (e.g., Leon Wood, The United Monarchy, 21, 28; Charles Pfeiffer, Outline of OT History, 60). This overstates the case and overlooks some important points. The theocracy of Israel was never a direct rule of God without any human intermediary. “The theocracy has always been mediated through an appointed human agent [Moses, Joshua, and the judges]. The monarchy, therefore, is neither nontheocratic nor antitheocratic. … [M]onarchy itself no more violates the theocratic principle than judgeship” (Motyer, “OT History,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, I, 267). However, Israel’s request was motivated by an “antitheocratic spirit” (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 190; 1 Sam. 8:7).

Theocratic judgeship prepared the people for theocratic monarchy.

The “judgeship was designed to lead [Israel] to monarchy” (Motyer, ibid.). As the history of the judges progresses, the Book of Judges sounds an insistent theme, significant for its four-fold repetition: “there was no king in Israel (but every man did that which was right in his own eyes)” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; cf. Ruth 1:1). In the context of spiritual idolatry, religious confusion, moral degradation, tribal disunity, and civil strife, the repeated appearance of this theme — clearly a negative comment — implies a growing need for a national leader to correct these ills and sets the stage for the events early in 1 Samuel.

Monarchy was long anticipated and planned for by God Himself.

“Kingship, far from being antithetical to the purposes of God for Israel, was fundamental to His salvific design” (Merrill, 190). From the promise that Abraham would father kings (Gen. 17:6, 16), to the reaffirmation of the same promise to Jacob (Gen. 35:11), to the prophetic reference to Judah’s scepter (Gen. 49:10), to the Mosaic regulations for kingship (Deut. 17:14–20), the progression of revelation up to this point in history indicates that monarchy was always a goal toward which God was moving His people. Even the prophetic prayer of Hannah after the birth and dedication of Samuel makes a clear reference to a coming monarchy (1 Sam. 2:10). The Messianic significance of David and his line is hardly a sudden and unplanned development in the plan of God. Monarchy was coming, but timing is as integral to God’s will as the event itself.

Israel’s monarchy was unique among the nations.

“Although one of the motivations in the demand for a king was conformity to the customs of neighboring peoples, kingship in Israel was unique in the ancient world. … The law of God was higher than any man, and the king was expected to respect and obey it. [Note Samuel’s warning to people and king alike, 1 Sam. 12.] This was not only a pious idealism but a practical reality. When Saul presumed to offer sacrifice, when David took Uriah’s wife, and when Ahab seized Naboth’s vineyard, judgment was pronounced and executed. The marvel is not that kings in Israel sinned, but that they recognized the right of a Nathan to point the finger of accusation and say, ‘Thou art the man!’” (Pfeiffer, ibid.).

In other words, the theocracy was still fully intact; it simply functioned in a different form. God never relinquished His right to rule over His people and continued to choose and anoint, establish and remove Israel’s kings. Evidence of the ongoing theocracy permeates the records of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.


The undisputed wrongness of Israel’s demand for a king does not mean that monarchy itself was wrong or sinful, even for them. The Scripture itself reveals a clear undercurrent that God’s intent all along was to institute a monarchy. The wrongness of Israel’s demand at that time lay in the fact that (1) it was a demand, not a request, which refused to consider any alternative or objections to the contrary; (2) it was motivated by the desire to be like the other nations, when their distinctiveness from the nations was God’s intent and ought to have been their glory and ambition; and, (3) it refused to consider that timing is an integral a part of God’s will. (Only 10 years after Saul became king [1051 B.C.], David was born!) Even though what we want or pursue may be reasonable, arguably necessary, and even, in the end, God’s will, we — like Israel — can by our attitude rebel against God’s rule over our affairs and His right to choose the timing. When we do, we may get not only what we want, but more than we bargained for.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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