Several principles of human government can be discerned from careful observation of the Lord’s warning in 1 Samuel 8:11-18, and, following the work of Alva McClain in his book The Greatness of the Kingdom, we have already identified several. They are government service, job-making, labor scarcity, government for its own sake, burdensome taxation, and property confiscation. This list, although it may sound frightening enough when considered altogether, is not complete, for God warned the children of Israel that they should expect their government to deteriorate even further once these rather mild forms of intrusion into their private lives was brought to pass. In the passage, we find three more principles of human government that flow out of the six already mentioned.
Political corruption is the first. He says very plainly in v.15 that the king would take 10% of their grain and wine and “give it to his officers and servants.” McClain identifies this for what it truly is when he says, “It is an unpleasant fact that a large share of government income always finds its way into the hands of the partisans of the ruling party.” For all their talk about devoting themselves to the “public good,” we must remember that politicians must secure their own positions of power in order to carry out their plans. So while there may be some who are genuinely interested in serving their constituents, their motives are never wholly benevolent.
Samuel paints a pretty grim picture of the final stages of human government in v.17 where he says to all of Israel, “You will be his servants.” Having a king like all the nations would result in their society coming under totalitarian control. This is the end of the vicious cycle which begins when people work and exist solely for the state, to feed it and to do its bidding. They propose government solutions to their problems, which only increases the demand for government labor and the taxes and property necessary to support it. This in turn makes an even greater percentage of people and of their property, subject to the king’s control. In the end, as McClain puts it, “the State…swallows up the very citizens who created it.” And while this end may be delayed by means of the separation of powers and a suspicion of centralized government, it is the end toward which all forms of human government ultimately flow.
The final result of such control in society is intolerable oppression, of which the Lord warned his people in v.18. Samuel said, “you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day.” The oppression they were sure to face was the not the result of a foreign invasion and conquest, but of their own government which they had chosen for themselves. Their cries on that day would go unheard, because they would simply be reaping the fruit of their own foolishness.
McClain’s conclusion is wise: “Human government is necessary, but people who are wise never let it get too big or powerful. Unless strictly limited, the end is the loss of liberty, economic distress, and political despair.” While we do not have the option that Israel had, to be under the direct ruling authority of the Lord himself, we can and should learn to be skeptical of the claims of fallen men when it comes to their selflessness in government service and to take steps to limit the power of all those whom we would elect to public office. It is not pessimism that drives this attitude but faith in the principles of government taught in God’s word.