Israel’s loss of the ark of the covenant to the Philistines and its return prompted the Israelites to put away the foreign gods that they had been worshiping alongside Yahweh, the one true God, and resulted in the Lord’s giving them victory over Philistia (1 Sam. 4–7). However, Israel’s was a short-lived, incomplete kind of repentance, which characterized the era of the judges and, as we will see, much of Israel’s later history as well.
We know that this repentance after the return of the ark was incomplete because of today’s passage. In 1 Samuel 8, we read of how the Israelites asked for a king near the end of Samuel’s life. But as the chapter makes evident, this was a sinful demand and reflected the people’s rejection of God as their king (v. 7). Their request demonstrated that they had not wholeheartedly returned to our Creator.
But why was the Israelites’ demand for a king a sin? After all, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 told Israel that if they wanted a king, they could have a king, provided that they choose an Israelite for a ruler, that he not trust in his own might, and that he be careful to know and do the law. In other words, the Lord’s intent was for Israel to have a king, but not a king of the same kind that the pagan nations had. The people of Israel erred in the days of Samuel because they wanted the type of kingship evident among the gentiles, not merely because they sought a monarchy.
We see this, for example, in 1 Samuel 8:19–20, where the people ask for a king who would “fight [their] battles.” Yet God was the One to fight for Israel (Deut. 1:30). Having God as the leader of battle is not incompatible with having a human king who guides Israel in warfare as long as that human king trusts in the Lord for the victory (2 Kings 18:5; Ps. 72), but that is not the kind of ruler the Israelites wanted. They wanted a king who would revel in his own might, in the size of his royal court, and in his own glory. Samuel warned them that having such a king would not be good for the nation, but they ignored him and demanded the wrong kind of king anyway (1 Sam. 8:10–20).
The Lord responded by telling Samuel to listen to the people and to appoint a king for them (vv. 21–22). But as we will see, even though the people got the kind of king they wanted, it led to much strife in Israel. Sometimes God manifests His judgment by allowing people to have what they want even if what they want is not good.