We now reach a most important change in the theocratic constitution. The advanced years of Samuel, and the bad character of his sons, added to the vivid remembrance of all the evils they had suffered under the Judges, led the Jewish people to ask for a king. (1 Sam. viii.) They said to Samuel, "Make us a king to judge us like all the nations." This was a wrong step, in that it was in substance a rejection of the immediate rule of Jehovah. "They have rejected me, that I should not be King over them," said God to Samuel. A king as His ruler over men was undoubtedly intended by Him from the first; for the Divine purpose had its culminating point in the Incarnate Son and in His kingdom, and from a line of kings should He spring. Early had it been said to Abraham, "Kings shall come out of thee;" and in the organic law provision was made for such a change in the original constitution. (Deut. xvii. 14; Num. xxvii. 16.) But all this did not justify the present action of the people, since they should have waited for God to bring forth His king in His own time and way. Gideon long before had rightly and wisely refused the proffered throne, saying, "The Lord shall rule over you." (Judg. viii. 23.) Such action by the people was an assertion that their evil condition was not the fruit of their own sins, but of a defect in the theocratic constitution, which they would in this way remedy. To desire a king, that they might be "like the nations around them," showed at least their belief that they would then be in a better position to meet their enemies than as now under Jehovah.
The remonstrances of Samuel were in vain. He foresaw that a king set over them in their then condition of unbelief would become their oppressor, not their deliverer and protector, since they would rely on him rather than on God, and thus, on the one side, provoke Jehovah to anger, and, on the other, beget in the king a spirit of pride inconsistent with his position. The personal character of the ruler, always of highest importance in Oriental states, would very deeply affect the religious life of the people, and might become a great power for evil. The prophet warns them how much they might suffer from his arbitrary acts, and how he might make their interests subordinate to his own ambition. "And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not answer you in that day." A king could be a blessing only when he himself was obedient to Jehovah, and ruled over a people in whom the same spirit of obedience was found. But at last by Divine direction Samuel yielded to their desire, and Saul was set over them. He was, however, chosen by Jehovah, and not by popular election; for this change in the form of polity did not abrogate the covenant made at Sinai, or set aside Jehovah as the Supreme Ruler. (1 Sam. ix. 17.) He continued to be their King, and all steps taken to establish the new monarchy were under His direction.
In this newly established unity of the tribes under one civil head, there was nothing intrinsically incompatible with the kingly place of Jehovah: not as an independent ruler, but as His servant, His king, to execute His will, should the new magistrate administer the government: "To the Holy One of Israel belongs our king." (Rev. Ver., Ps. lxxxix. 18.) He could not make his personal authority the rule of civil action, or of himself originate laws. His place was to execute the law of Moses, and to carry out such special directions as he might receive from God, and in general to maintain political and social order. He could not perform the sacrificial acts appointed to the priests, and certain sacrifices said to be offered by him seem to have been offered by the priests in his presence. (2 Sam. vi. 17; 1 Kings viii. 62. See iii. 4.) It may be admitted that a kind of priestly character belonged to the king in virtue of his place as chief ruler of a priestly people. He had a general supervision of ecclesiastical matters, to see that worship was properly performed, the temple and its furniture kept in order, and legal provision made for the priests. To him especially belonged the office of judge in the last resort; and he was the leader of the armies, and, with the advice and aid of the princes and priests and prophets, made war and peace. His temptation was twofold,- to forget the peculiar calling of the people whom God was training for a special spiritual purpose, and to treat them as like the nations around them; and also to forget his subordination to Jehovah, and to attempt to rule over Israel in the tyrannical spirit of the heathen kings, trusting in his armies and fortresses and political alliances. And this was the rock on which Saul, the first king, made shipwreck. He did not fully recognize and accept his position of subordination, and "hearken unto the voice of the words of the Lord," and forfeited his throne through his disobedience.
It is apparent that an obedient and faithful king, who fully realized the theocratic calling of the people; one who maintained in all points the authority of Jehovah, and gave in himself an example of submission, would have proved a most effectual instrument in preparing the people for higher measures of Divine blessing. But if, on the other hand, he were not himself in unity with Jehovah, if His honor was not his chief aim, if he were selfish and self-willed, unjust and tyrannical, or inclined to idolatry, his position would make him a powerful instrument of evil. Thus the personal character of the king came in, from this time onward, as a most influential factor in determining the future destinies of the nation.
In the second king, David, God found " a man after His own heart," — not a man without sin, but one who was willing to take his due place, and to execute the will of Jehovah. For a long period after his anointing by the prophet, he waited till the providence of God should open to him the way to the throne, treating Saul with all honor and reverence as the Lord's anointed, and following in all points the Divine directions. (2 Sam. xxii. 22, etc.) His life was by no means without offence; and his crimes are not concealed in the historic records, and his last days were embittered by the domestic dissensions which they had caused. But, in the general administration of his government, he had done that which he charged his son Solomon to do, — he had kept "the charge of the Lord, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses." It was from this cause that God was pleased to enter into a covenant with him, that He would establish his house and his kingdom forever. (2 Sam. vii.) The throne of Israel was thus given in. perpetuity to the family of David. In its substance the promise was unconditional. The purpose of God embraced the Jewish nation as a permanent element in His work of redemption, and He now declares that at the head of this nation should stand a king of Davidic lineage. "Thy throne shall be established for ever." "His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven." (Ps. lxxxix. 29.) But this promise did not exclude sore judgments upon any of his children who should prove unfaithful. "If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments, . . . then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes." The throne might be overturned, and the nation cease to exist as a nation for a time; but it should be restored, and the Davidic throne re-established. Its fortunes were from this time inseparably bound up with the fortunes of this elect family. "My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips." Thus through the Davidic covenant, the monarchy became the permanent form of the Jewish government. The earlier promises of Jehovah had assured His people, if faithful to Him, of the continual possession of His land, and of all temporal blessings. To these was now added the blessing that would follow from the righteous administration of the government through His chosen and anointed king. In him the nation was headed up, and he stood before the world as the visible representative of its unity.
It may be admitted that the form of the promise to David does not necessarily limit it to an individual: it may be applied to a succession of rulers, or a dynasty. (2 Sam. vii. 12-16.) But, even if so, it finds its complete fulfillment in one who is especially The Anointed. If we here assume that a dynasty is spoken of, there is to be a succession of kings, — all of them, indeed, Jehovah's kings, His sons, His anointed, but whose official relations to Him do not necessarily preserve them from disobedience. They may commit sin, and deserve chastisement. (Ps. lxxxix. 30-32.) All are mortal and fallible men. It need scarcely be said that the kingdom thus administered could not but be very imperfect. It could not, at best, rise much above the measure of the kingdom under David and Solomon. Did not the Divine purpose look beyond this? How could the idea of duration without end be predicated of such a succession?
Although not very fully expressed, we cannot well doubt that the Messianic Kingdom, administered in perfect righteousness, holy and universal, as afterwards set forth by the prophets, was involved in the covenant with David, and designed by God to be the object of national hope. But here, as always in God's moral education of men, each truth revealed, each step taken, points forward to something beyond, to a new truth or a new step. The new can, however, be apprehended only as men have understood and applied the old. Knowing the present by discerning and fulfilling God's purpose in it, we see its higher bearings and issues. Thus the covenant with David, the choice of his family to rule under Jehovah, pointed to the Messiah and His kingdom; but a true apprehension of His place and dignity could grow up only as that covenant was rightly observed, and its blessings were realized. The idea of the perfect kingdom under its last Ruler, could spring up and become general only as steady approach was made towards it in the reigns of His predecessors.
If, therefore, the true end of this covenant was not for a time seen; if there is little mention of the Messiah for several generations after David, and there was little expectation or hope of such a prosperous and holy Kingdom,—we need not be surprised at it: the history of the time sufficiently accounts for it. But it would be an error to conclude that there were none who early saw more in the future than a prolonged dynasty of sinful and mortal men. This will appear when we examine the Psalms as the expression of Messianic hopes, and especially the Psalms of David. In all the generations after the promise was given to David, there must have been in the more reflecting and spirituallyminded the perception that the redemption of men from sin and its evils — which was the purpose of the Theocracy — demanded higher manifestations and operations of God than could be put forth under the rule of princes corruptible and weak, such as his natural successors must be. The Davidic kingdom as it existed could not be the realization of that redemption for which they were longing, of that revelation of God to His people, and of that communion with Him, which was their ardent aspiration. There must be something to come higher and better than this. Must there not be here, as in all God's actings, progress from the imperfect to the perfect? and will not the perfect King, He who in all things does God's will, be the Messiah, the last, the immortal One?
We can thus easily conceive that there might have been such steady progress in their religious development under wise and pious kings, such "following o"n to know the Lord," that they could have apprehended more and more the purpose of God in the Messiah, and have been so prepared for Him, that His kingdom would have come in a normal way, not preceded by a day of darkness and of severe judgment, but as the light of daAvn that shines brighter and brighter till the sun rise; and been welcomed as a Kingdom of righteousness. But if, on the other hand, there was no such national progress, if the kings were rebellious and wicked, and the people became increasingly disobedient and immoral, then the contrast between the promises of God and their fulfillment must have led the thoughtful and reverent to look for a special judicial interposition of Jehovah.
In later years the expectation of the Messianic Kingdom, one far higher than the Davidic, must have arisen in the consciousness of many as the fruit of experience. The covenant had not been fulfilled. Time had shown the weakness and wickedness of the kings, the division of the kingdom, the failure of righteous rule in both divisions, contempt of Jehovah, and general immorality. The experience of this would, in all who trusted in God's promises, awaken the hope that a king would yet come who would fulfill them; through whom Jehovah would be honored, and the people be blest. (Ps. lxxxix. 36, 37.) And, looking forward to the future, they felt that Jehovah could not continue to dwell in His holy city with rebellious kings who defiled it, and dishonored Him: a day of judgment must come; a holy king must appear; Jehovah's people must be brought into their true position, or He must depart from them. But His covenant cannot fail, He will fulfill His purpose. Thus there was begotten, by the failures of the past and by the evils of the present, the hope of one greater than David, who would honor Jehovah, and whom Jehovah would honor, and in whose Kingdom there should be righteousness and holiness and peace without end.