by Mark Masucci
It’s the time of year when SBSs are studying the books of Samuels – Chronicles. Questions that typically arise are, “Did Yahweh intend to give Israel a king?” Or, “Was the monarchy a mistake?” Or, “Was the monarchy part of God’s plan for Israel?” Some interpreters conclude that the monarchy was never Yahweh’s intention for Israel. This conclusion is usually based on two passages, Gideon’s speech in Judges 8 and Samuel’s remarks in 1 Samuel 8. I would like to argue that the monarchy, that is, that Israel was to have a king, was always part of Yahweh’s plan for Israel, and that this has implications for an interpretation of Jesus.
Let’s begin our study in Genesis. In Genesis 1:28-30 God blessed humanity and commissioned them to have dominion over creation. They were to be God’s vice-regents. He is still King of Creation, they simply rule (steward) creation for him. This is important because it tells us that God is not threatened that he could lose his “kingship” if there exists a human being (or two in this case) who rule for him. In other words, He is still recognized as King even though a human being acted as vice-regent.
The promise to Abraham was that he would be a great nation and get the land of Canaan. Over the years Yahweh expanded the promise giving Abraham more details. In chapter 17 Abraham is told that, “…kings shall come forth from you.” Israel will get kings from the line of Abraham. It is part of the plan to make them a great nation and inherit the land.
Near the end of Jacob’s life he called his sons together to bless them. To Judah he said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” The promise is that from Judah a king will emerge. Yes, this promise/prophecy has its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, but did it mean nothing for Israel prior to the coming of Messiah? We will look at that in a moment.
Similarly, Balaam gave a prophecy regarding a king to come out of Israel, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, it shall crush the head of Moab, and break down the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). As with the previous passage this one finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. Yet we must ask if this meant anything to Israel in its history.
Finally there is the law concerning a king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Yahweh anticipated that Israel will ask for a king, but “like the nations that are round about me.” Thus He made provision for a future king. Our question is, what did they mean by the phrase “like the nations”? Does this passage show Yahweh making a concession to give a king even though he never intended Israel to have a king? I will argue that is does not.
It seems from these passages in the Penteteuch that Yahweh had plans to give Israel a king, from the line of Abraham (Genesis 17:6), from the nation of Jacob (Numbers 24:17) and from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). How then should we understand Gideon’s declaration that seems to indicate that a king is a bad idea? Or Samuel’s statement that Israel has rejected Yahweh as king?
Let’s look at Gideon first. Gideon, although a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11) is not a credible character in the Judges story. He did decline kingship, but notice what he then proceeded to do. First, he collected plunder or spoil from the victory; something that a king would normally receive. Then he made an ephod, basically starting his own religion. Then he retired to Ophrah to live out his days as a wealthy man. He had seventy sons. Only a man with a harem could produce so many sons; he must have had daughters as well. Only kings had harems. In the beginning of the story he is the lowest man in the lowest family in the smallest tribe. At the end of the story he is living like a king, only without the responsibility of ruling. Did he really want to decline kingship? He named his son Abimelech, which means, “My father is king.” He does not name his son Elimelech, “God is king.” It seems from the story that the issue is not really that no one in Israel thought a monarchy was a good idea. Gideon is not a credible character. He simply wanted the privileges and lifestyle of a king, without the responsibility.
Then what about Samuel’s statement that Israel has rejected Yahweh from being king? That sounds also like no one thinks a monarchy is a good idea. But is that the case? The problem is that Israel wanted a king “like the nations.” What does that mean? According to their own response in 1 Samuel 8:19-20, Israel wanted someone who will go out before them and fight their battles. In other words, Israel’s mistake was trusting a king to give them military victory and thus national peace. They had lost faith that Yahweh would bring victory and peace. The issue is similar to the Gideon story. The men of Israel wanted Gideon to rule, “…for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” They had mistakenly attributed the victory to Gideon, not Yahweh. In the Samuel story the punishment for “rejecting Yahweh” was not the monarchy; the punishment was Saul. God gave them a bad king so that Israel would learn that trusting in the king was not a good idea.
A few other things to consider. First, in the Old Testament we see Yahweh working in, with and through the institutions of the ANE (ancient Near East). The law is clearly patriarchal in nature; slavery as an institution was not abolished. The form of government throughout the world at that time was monarchy. God didn’t have a problem with a monarchy per se (what other form of government would Israel have even understood?); what He was looking for was a faithful king, one who could lead the nation in covenant fidelity. Secondly, and here is where Jesus comes in, if Israel was never supposed to have a king, from where were they get the model for the coming messianic king? Israel was given priests and prophets to model who Messiah would be. Where would they get the understanding of a messianic king without a model?
I would suggest the conclusion that it was always Yahweh’s intention to give Israel a king. The idea that the monarchy was a bad idea that Yahweh never intended is probably not the best interpretation. The issue was not the monarchy but the kind of king who ruled. Yahweh was looking for a man after his own heart that would be faithful himself, and lead the people in covenant faithfulness. Some kings were more successful than others. The ultimate expression and fulfillment of the faithful king is, of course, Jesus. The One to whom the monarchy always pointed.