Why did the ancient Israelites want an actual king before the time of Saul and David when they had the judges who spoke in God’s place?
In the days of the judges, when Samuel came on the scene as the first seer, or prophet, the people cried out for a King because they wanted to be like the nations around them. This is the reason the people cry for a King (1 Samuel 8:5, 20).
One of the problems with the era of the judges was that the people would continually return to their sin, be captured by their enemies, and be forced to be ruled by another nation. The judges were localized rulers. There was no central government for the whole nation.
When you read the book of Judges carefully, you see that judges rose up in different areas throughout Israel. They only had regional control over parts of the country. So the Israelites would continually be returning to their sin and idolatry.
The book of Judges presents a “sin cycle” that takes the people from sin that leads to capture and tyranny from other nations to pleading for someone to lead them, a judge. The judge roles for a certain amount of time but then when the judge either dies or is done ruling, the people go right back into their sin.
This may have been one of the reasons people cried out for it. Samuel once the people what a king would do (1 Samuel 8:10-18). The judges are not a perfect system, but they would not be as tyrannical as the kingly role.
Moses set the standard for what kings could not do (Deuteronomy 17:16-20). Kings would take advantage, taking wives from their daughters, their goods and lands, and other advantages. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what the kings of Israel did, especially the more evil ones.
One of the good things about the judge system was that it was more evident that God was the King of Israel, who worked through the rule of these judges to bring righteousness to Israel. When the kings and a more centralized government come on the scene in Israel later, the priests and the prophets are the ones to keep the kings in check and remind them of the Torah laws of Israel.
Just as one example, Nathan is the prophet who shows David his wickedness when he takes Bathsheba as his wife after allowing her husband to die in battle. Other than these two offices of Israel, there was no one to keep the kings in check.
This eventually leads to the divided kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, as well as the exile. Kings were the first step toward the downfall of Israel.
But the people refused to relent and demanded their King. So Samuel went out and found a King, Saul, whom he anointed to serve in that office for the people. But as the people would quickly find out, Saul had his own agenda and did his own thing much of the time.
The second king, David, was considered the most godly king, and Scripture even says that David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:34; Acts 13:22). But even David did not do everything the way that God wanted him to.
There was the incident with Bathsheba, letting her husband die in battle so he could marry her, and the death of their first child. He also took a census that made God angry with him and cost Israel greatly.
One of the follies of David as a father figure in his own household and family is that he was unable for the most part to transpose his own spiritual advancement and relationship with God onto his children. Many of them became wicked rulers of Israel later.
Solomon is the next King of Israel during what most consider to be the Golden age of Israel. God gave him great wisdom because he had enough wisdom to ask for that above all other things that most kings clamor for.
But the problem with Solomon was that much of his foreign relations with other kings, taking their daughters as wives as part of his treaties, led him astray from the Lord at least for a time in his life.
Although he wrote much of the wisdom literature of the Bible, Solomon fell very short in his personal walk with God. He was a fairly godly King, although he tended to use the Israelites for hard labor to build the temple for God and his own house.
Even though God gave him great wisdom which is recorded in several of the books of the Bible, Solomon had a rocky road throughout his life and rule. The kings that followed him split the nation into two kingdoms and eventually ignored God so completely that the exile is the next step. Israel never really recovers throughout history from the time of the exile.
Some of the people never return to the land of Israel and stay in the lands that they were exiled to. This sets up the New Testament where there are Jews living everywhere throughout the provinces of Rome, and the empires of the world conquer the nation of Israel over and over.
So having a good and godly king would have been okay for the people, but that’s not the reason they asked for one. In a sense, they were spurning the leadership of Samuel, the judges, and God. They wanted to be like the nations and they got exactly what they wanted.