1 Samuel 8
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(1Samuel 8:1-22) Israel desires an earthly King. The Elders bring the Bequest to Samuel. The Eternal sees fit to Grant their Request.


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.

And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel.
(1) When Samuel was old.—We are not able with any precision to fix the dates of Samuel’s life. When the great disaster happened which resulted in the capture of the Ark of God and Eli’s death. the young prophet was barely thirty years old. For the next twenty years we have seen how unweariedly he laboured to awaken in the people a sense of their deep degradation and of the real causes of their fallen state. Thus, when the great revolt and the Israelite victory at Eben-ezer took place, Samuel the judge was probably nearly fifty years of age. Another considerable apse of time must be assumed between the day of the uprising of the people and the throwing off the Philistine yoke and the events related at such length in the present chapter—the request of the people for an earthly king; for we must allow a sufficient lapse of time for the Philistines to have recovered the effects of their defeat at Eben-ezer, and again to have established themselves in power, at least in the southern districts of Canaan. A famous Hebrew commentator suggests seventy years of age as the most likely time of life. This supposition is, likely enough, a correct one.

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.

And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.
(3) Took bribes, and perverted judgment.—This sin, at all times a fatally common one in the East, was especially denounced in the Law. (See Exodus 23:6-8; Deuteronomy 16:19.) It is strange that the same ills that ruined Eli’s house, owing to the evil conduct of his children, now threatened Samuel. The prophet-judge, however, acted differently to the high priestly judge. The sons of Samuel were evidently, through their father’s action in procuring the election of Saul, quickly deposed from their authority. The punishment seems to have been successful in correcting the corrupt tendencies of these men, for we hear in after days of the high position occupied at the court of David by the distinguished descendants of the noble and disinterested prophet. (See the notices in 1Chronicles 6:33; 1Chronicles 25:4-5, respecting Heman, the grandson of Samuel, the king’s seer, who was chief of the choir of the Psalmist-king in the house of God.)

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
(4) All the elders of Israel.—We have here a clear trace of a popular assembly which seems in all times to have existed in Israel. Such a body appears to have met for deliberation even during the Egyptian captivity (see Exodus 3:16). Of this popular council we know little beyond the fact of its existence. It seems to have been composed of representatives of the people, qualified by birth or office; these were known as “elders.” Ewald sees special allusions to the “Parliament” or Assembly of Elders in Psalms 1. and 82. There are, however, various mentions of these councils in the Books of Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
(5) And said unto him.—They ground their request—which, however, they framed almost in the very terms used in the prophecy of the Law (Deuteronomy 17:14)—upon two circumstances: first, the age of Samuel, and his consequent inability to act as their leader in those perpetual wars and forays with the surrounding hostile nations; secondly, the degeneracy of his sons, who, placed by their father in positions of great trust, naturally looked to succeed him in his high dignity. They felt that the cares and duties of government were too weighty for Samuel, now growing old; and the men who through their kinship to him would naturally succeed him were utterly unfit for his office. The prospect before them was, they felt, a gloomy one. The Philistine power, too, was becoming daily greater in the south.

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.

But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
(6) The thing displeased Samuel.—It is clear that it was perfectly justifiable in the elders of the people to come to the resolution contained in their petition to Samuel. The Deuteronomy directions contained in 1Samuel 17:14-20 are clear and explicit in this matter of an earthly king for the people, and Moses evidently had looked forward to this alteration in the constitution when he framed the Law. No date for the change is specified, but from the terms of the Deuteronomy words no distant period evidently was looked on to. Then, again, though Samuel was naturally displeased, he at once, as prophet and seer, carried the matter to the God-Friend of Israel in prayer, and the Eternal King at once bids His old true servant to comply with the people’s desire.

The displeasure of the prophet-judge was very natural. He felt—this we see from the comforting words his Master addressed to him (see 1Samuel 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.

And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
(7) Hearken unto the voice of the people.—The words spoken to Samuel, probably in a vision, by the Most High are very touching and very sad. Very touching, in their extreme tenderness to the noble old man. Take courage, they seem to say, “my old true servant, and be not dismayed at this apparently bitter proof of the ingratitude of the people you loved so well. This deliberate complaint on the part of Israel is directed not against you, the judge, but against Me, the invisible King. They have ever been the same—incapable of becoming my true subjects, and of winning on earth the lofty position I would have given them; you must give them now their hearts’ desire. It has all been foreseen and provided for; only make them understand what they are asking. Then give them their earthly king.” Very sad, for it was the deliberate abandonment by the Eternal God of His first intention as regarded Israel—the deliberate lowering of the grand ideal once formed for His chosen people. Here, as is not unfrequent in the Divine records, we have a corner of the veil which hangs between the creature and the Creator lifted for a moment. We see how sadly possible it is for man in the exercise of his perfect freewill to mar the glorious work arranged for him by his God. We see too in the records of such a transaction as this (see Deuteronomy 17:14) how all was foreseen by the King of heaven, and we catch sight of the sorrowful regret—if we may use the term—of the Creator for the perverse folly of His creatures.

And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
(11) And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you.—In obedience to the word of the Lord, Samuel, the judge of Israel, without blaming the people for their desire, quietly asks them if they were in real earnest—if they had fully considered the grave changes which such an appointment as that of a sovereign over the nation would bring about in the constitution. Were they willing to exchange their Republican freedom for the condition of subjection to a sovereign who, after the manner of those other kings of foreign nations—the Pharaohs, for instance—would of course govern Israel after his own will? in other words, were they really willing to give up their Republic for a Despotism?

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?

And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
(12) To ear his ground.—To ear, that is, to plough. The word is an old word (Anglo-Saxon earian), and connected with the Latin arare.

And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
(13) Confectionaries.—Better rendered perfumers—that is, makers of ointments and scents, of which Orientals are inordinately fond.

And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
(16) And your goodliest young men.—The LXX. Greek Version here reads, “your best oxen,” which required only the change of one letter of similar sound in the Hebrew word here. This was, no doubt,. the reading of the original text, as the young men seem included among the sons in 1Samuel 8:11-12, and oxen would naturally precede the asses mentioned in the next clause of this verse.

He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.
(17) And ye shall be his servants.—This statement generally includes all that has gone before. In other words, “Ye elders and chiefs of the people must make up your minds, in the event of electing a king, to the loss of all political and social freedom.” How bitterly the nation, even in the successful and glorious reign of King Solomon, felt the pressure of the royal yoke, so truly foretold by their last judge, is shown in the history of the times which followed the death of Solomon, when the public discontent at the brilliant but despotic rule of the great king led to the revolution which split up the people into two nations. (See 1Kings 12:4.) “This whole passage bears internal evidence of having been written before the establishment of the monarchy.”—Speaker’s Commentary.

And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.
(18) The Lord will not hear you in that day.—After the separation of the north and the south, when King Solomon was dead, a large proportion of the northern sovereigns—or kings, as they were called, of “Israel,” in distinction to the southern monarchs, the kings of “Judah”—fulfilled in their lives and government of the realm the dark forebodings of the seer. The northern tribes broke with all the hallowed associations connected with the Ark and temple, and set up a rival and semi-idolatrous religion in some of their own popular centres. There no holy influences swayed the councils of their despotic kings. The lives of the Israelites who still loved the law of the Lord, and cherished the glorious memories of their fathers, must have been very bitter and hard when men like Omri and Ahab reigned with all their cruel power in Tirzah and Samaria.

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.

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;
(19) The people refused.—The warning words of the prophet-judge were evidently carefully considered and debated in a formal assembly, but the majority at least abided by the terms of their request.

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.
(20) Like all the nations.—There is something strangely painful in these terms with which the elders urged their request—the wish “to be like other nations” seems to have been very strong with them. They forgot, or chose to ignore, the solitary position of lofty pre-eminence God had given them among the nations. They had, it is true, failed to comprehend it in past, as in present days, but this haste to give up their lofty privileges, and to descend from the pedestal on which their God had set them, was in the eye of one like Samuel a strange inexplicable foolishness.

And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD.
(21) In the ears of the Lord.—Again the seer returns from the council chamber, where he had met the elders of the people, to some quiet spot, probably the sanctuary he had set up in his own “Ramah of the Watchers,” where he poured out his heart before his God-Friend.

And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, Go ye every man unto his city.
(22) Hearken unto their voice.—And for the third time (see 1Samuel 8:7; 1Samuel 8:9) the voice of the Eternal, which Samuel the seer knew so well, used the same expression, bidding the reluctant and indignant old man comply with the request of the people. God had allowed His servant to remonstrate, well knowing all the time what would be the result of his remonstrances.

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.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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