The life and career of the prophet/judge Samuel is an interesting one. Following the exodus from foreign subjugation that is wrought under his service as the judge of Israel, we eventually come to find out that “In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel” (1 Samuel 8:1). This did not go well, and they did not serve well. Samuel’s sons “did not follow his ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice” (8:3). Clearly, such behavior is unacceptable for a judge, whose first priority is to bring about justice. It was the performance of his sons that served as the proximate cause for the elders of Israel to gather together and approach Samuel at Ramah and to ask for a king to be appointed over them (8:4-5). This is quite hurtful to Samuel, as in their request for a king and in their rejection of his son, Samuel naturally feels as if they are rejecting him as well. That is why “this request displeased Samuel” (8:6a).
When Samuel seeks the Lord’s input on this matter, much of significance is revealed, as God informs Samuel that “it is not you that they have rejected, but it is Me that they have rejected as their King” (8:7b). What’s more, God goes on to connect this matter---as so many things are---to Egypt and the exodus, saying that this rejection of Himself as their rightful and legitimate King is “Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day” (8:8a). From here, God goes into the issue of idolatry, which gives us an idea where this conversation with Samuel is headed, saying that “they have rejected Me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you” (8:8b). So in God’s eyes, the request for a king---a human leader to whom to give honor, respect, and reverence---is not altogether different from the idolatrous practices which have consistently led them into exile and away from God’s purposes for them. In spite of this, God says to Samuel: “So now do as they say” (8:9a). To this, however, God adds “But seriously warn them and make them aware of the policies of the king who will rule over them” (8:9b).
Where else do we hear God providing warnings to His people? The first instance that should come to mind takes us all the way back to the garden of Eden. God warned Adam that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” saying, “for when you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Acting contrary to this warning caused man’s exile from the garden. Now obviously there are other warnings to be found in the Scriptures, but the next warning to be discussed, which is probably the most prominent warnings, as they relate to the strong Scriptural themes of exile, exodus, and subjugation, are the warnings to be found in the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy (and the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus). The curses that are outlined throughout the chapter are warnings against violating God’s commandments and statutes (28:15), with specific attention given to idolatry. The pinnacle of the curses, as we know, was exile from their land, which represented God’s promises to them, and God’s promises to the world and His creation through them.
Returning to Samuel with these things in mind, we note again that God speaks of His people’s service of other gods, along with warnings to be sounded in connection with their request for a king. Idolatry, as we have repeatedly seen, brings with it a form of exile. Does this mean that the coming of a king represents exile, or at least, a form of exile? Let’s see. What does Samuel go on to say about the king, as He delivers the warning that God demanded? He said, “He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers” (8:11b-13). Well honestly, to begin with, that doesn’t sound too terrible. What, though, do we find in Deuteronomy, in the list of curses connected primarily with idolatry (which God has connected with the request for a king)? There we read, “Your sons and daughters will be given to another people while you look on in vain all day, and you will be powerless to do anything about it” (28:32).
What comes next from Samuel? The king “will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants” (8:14-15). In Deuteronomy, God says, “As for the produce of your land and all your labor, a people you do not know will consume it, and you will be nothing but oppressed and crushed for the rest of your lives” (28:33). Samuel continued on, saying “He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants” (8:16-17). Deuteronomy says, “Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes but you will not eat of it. Your donkey will be stolen from you as you watch and will not be returned to you” (28:31a).
Samuel concludes by saying, “In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day” (8:18). It could be said that a king chosen for oneself sounds suspiciously like an idol. Does Deuteronomy have a corollary to this? Indeed it does, as we read, “Your flock of sheep will be given to your enemies and there will be no one to save you” (28:31b). For good measure, in relation to idolatry and curses and exile, a few verses later in this chapter in Deuteronomy, God mentions “the king whom you will appoint over you” (28:36b). Nevertheless, in the face of the clear presentation of exilic imagery in association with a king, the people refuse to heed Samuel, crying out “No! There will be a king over us!” (8:19b) By adding “We will be like all the other nations,” and “Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles” (8:19b-20), all of which had been the territory and prerogative of their God to that point, God’s people were practically demanding subjugation.