Historians and anthropologists do not dispute the antiquity of monarchal government, but there is neither consensus nor evidence for how kingships were first established. In his defence of the monarchy of his day, philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argues (Leviathan, Book II, Chapters 17-18) that there are cogent reasons to prefer monarchy over other forms of government. Among his arguments, Hobbes contends that unlike democracy or aristocracy (oligarchy, today), the king will enjoy superior counsel since he picks his own advisors, the king’s policies will be consistent since the king need not compromise with other opinions, and succession of power will be more stable. Hobbes also notes that a king elected by the people is not a true monarch since his election was an outcome of a democratic process.
Yet that is precisely how scripture sees the origin of kingship. The Torah considers what might happen when the Israelites enter the promised Land: “When you enter into the Land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit it and dwell in it and you say ‘I will appoint a king to rule over me just like all the surrounding peoples’” (Deuteronomy 17:14). The king does not magically rise to power. The king does not enjoy favoured status from time immemorial. The king is empowered by the people alone.
Indeed, this is exactly what occurs during the tenure of Samuel. Despite the prophet’s warning that a king will conscript young men into the army, force young women into palace service, and impose taxes on the people, the people demand that Samuel “appoint over us a king like all the nations” (I Samuel 8:5).
Being empowered by the people changes the nature of the monarchy. The Israelite king, to be sure, is constrained by the Torah, which he is commanded to keep with him always (Deut. 17:19-20). But the king is also constrained by the people who retain the power of appointment and deposition (cf. II Samuel 5).
The important message here is that no person – not even a king – can be an absolute power.