In 1 Samuel 8 we read about how the Israelites came to Samuel and asked him to make them a king “like all the nations.” What they didn’t realize was that along with such a king would come all of the tendencies which characterize every human government. The Lord told Samuel to honor their request but to explain exactly how these traits would come to affect them once they had a government like all of the other nations. Alva McClain in his book The Greatness of the Kingdom identifies 9 universal traits of human government from this passage.
First, Samuel warned them concerning government service. The king would begin by pressing their sons into military service (v.11), with some being assigned to farming and manufacturing in order to create a supply chain for the army (v.12). Even their daughters would be conscripted into service as “perfumers, cooks, and bakers,” again to supply the needs of the king’s military. McClain notes that “we have the beginning of government bureaucracy, the growth of which in all recorded history of the nations has never been voluntarily halted.”
Next, Samuel warned them that the king would begin job-making, that is, he would not only place captains over thousands, but also over fifties (v.12). By making their military units smaller and smaller, they would create and use many more commanders, expanding the demands of the labor force. He would even use some of the young men for the purpose of running “before his chariots.” What military purpose does this serve? None. However, it does serve to make a grand spectacle to impress the rest of the people with the king’s greatness.
Third, the result of this growing bureaucracy and its ever-increasing demand for the sons and daughters of Israel would be labor scarcity. This is a simple economic principle. Where more men an women are brought under the umbrella of government employment, fewer and fewer are available for economically productive pursuits. In a society which was primarily based on family farms and other family businesses, the conscription of so many of Israel’s sons and daughters would produce serious shortages in the regular labor force. This shift in the labor force from the private sector to the public must necessarily have a significant impact on the economy as a whole.
Fourth, they would begin to have government for its own sake. The king would compel them to give up their children and servants for “his work” (v.16). The military is described as “his chariots” and “his horsemen,” while the supply chain comes from “his ground” and “his harvest.” Clearly, the people would be compelled to serve their king and his interests, rather than having a king who would serve them and theirs. McClain notes that this is a characteristic of all forms of government, when he writes, “no matter how idealistically political officials may talk about serving ‘the people,’ the ugly fact remains that a government is interested first and last in its own support and perpetuation.” The result of all of this is that labor production is decreased because there is no incentive for the individual to achieve when the government begins to operate for its own sake.
These may all sound familiar as you consider the state of our current government. Whatever else we may say about it, God’s word contains the principles to warn us of these dangers if we would only take the time to see them. Next week we’ll consider more of these traits of human government.