Old Testament

Why was God Upset Israel Asked for a King in 1 Samuel 8?

Photo of a man holding a crown of a king

1 Samuel 8 is an interesting passage of Scripture because both Samuel and God seem displeased Israel asked for a king (1 Sam 8:6-9). The reason this is initially surprising is that God had promised Abraham that kings would come from him (Gen 17:6), and that same promise is repeated to Jacob (Gen 35:11). Furthermore, God’s revelation to Israel foretold a king who would come from Judah (Gen 49:10; cf. Num 24:7, 17).

Not only was there to be an expectation of a king of Israel, but in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 God had given Moses specific guidelines about installing a king once Israel was in the land of Canaan. So, Israel had prophecy creating the expectation of a king, and they also had laws given by God to help their king govern. So, why was God upset that Israel asked for a king? Why did both Samuel and God view this request as a rejection of God’s kingship?

I think the answer lies in the motivation for why Israel asked for a king. In the context of 1 Samuel 8:1-3, it is clear that Samuel (the protector of Israel at that time) was fading from the picture. His sons were worthless and unable to protect Israel (1 Sam 8:3). Samuel had been the figurehead of Israel’s success against the Philistines (1 Sam 7:10-13), but with him passing from the picture, the people of Israel seem to have desired continued security and safety.

Importantly, their request was, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). I think this qualifying phrase, “like all the nations” reveals their true motives. They were not interested in trusting God to provide and care for them. Rather, they wanted the semblance of strength they see in the other nations.

God acquiesced to Israel and gave them what they wanted, but not what they needed. Because of Saul’s kingship, Israel suffered in many ways. I always try to remember this lesson while praying. It can be a form of judgment for God to give us what we ask for! I never want to find out God gave me something I asked for, even though it was not what He wanted, or what I really needed. So we must pray, not my will, but Yours be done.

Even though Saul ended up being a selfish, proud, dishonoring representative of Yahweh, he has an important role in the books of Samuel. In God’s sovereign plan, Saul functions as a foil to David, the man after God’s own heart. Where Saul was a man of stature, and looked like a leader (1 Sam 10:23), David did not have the look of a leader (1 Sam 16:7), but his trust was completely in Yahweh (Ps 13:5).

Photo by Lians Jadan on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Hunter Hays

    This is a very helpful analysis of Israel’s faulty motivation. I am wondering though, since Deuteronomy 17:14 states that the reasoning will be, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” did Moses’ stipulations actually predict the bad heart motivation too? If so, it is interesting that God still says you may have a king “whom the Lord will choose.” I wonder if this plays at all into the Lord’s choice of David as a man after his own heart (1 Sam 13:14) vs. the people’s king whom they have chosen for themselves (1 Sam 8:18)?

    • Peter Goeman

      I had not thought about it like that before, but I am intrigued to investigate that possible connection. Gracias! Perhaps (as elsewhere) Deuteronomy 17 contains some forward-looking elements, and not just law.

    • Danny Dolan

      That’s a great observation, you got me thinking.

      ‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭17:14‭-‬15‬ ‭
      [14] When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” [15] be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite.

      I think the problem wasn’t that Israel was asking for a king; I think they were demanding a king.

      ‭‭1 Samuel‬ ‭8:19‭-‬20‬
      [19] But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. [20] Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

      Deuteronomy 17 says that if Israel wanted a king, they had to wait for the LORD to appoint a king of His choosing, at the right time. Israel wasn’t willing to wait. They wanted to force God to choose a king immediately; and they refused to listen to the warnings from Samuel. So the LORD gave them exactly what they craved.

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