The Haphtarah to Parashas Korach discusses the inauguration of the first king of Israel, Shaul Hamelech. At the inauguration, Shmuel HaNavi, the prophet of the time, emphasizes to the nation of Israel that they have sinned against G-d by requesting to have a King rule over them. When one inspects the verses in the Navi, (Samuel I, 8:1-5) however, it seems as if the Jews were making a legitimate request. The verses tell that it was a time when Shmuel HaNavi was approaching old age and his successors were not acting in accord with the ways of G-d. Some kind of change in the system was necessary in order to maintain justice among the nation. If so, how was the request for a King a sin against G-d? On the contrary, the Jews were just trying to ensure that G-d’s system of justice be kept among the nation!
The Radak, a commentary on Prophets, raises another question. He says that there were three commandments issued upon the nation once they entered the land of Israel. They were, appointing a King, destroying Amalek, and setting up the Beis Hamikdash. Being that appointing a King is a commandment in the Torah, it seems as if this institution is beneficial for the Jews. If the Torah demands that the Jews have a king upon entering the Land Of Israel, what was sinful about asking for one? If anything, they were just trying to fulfill their commandment.
The Radak answers that the sin of the Jews rests in the fact that they did not ask with the intention of fulfilling the commandment of appointing a King, but rather, they had ulterior motives in doing so. It was these ulterior motives which demonstrated a lack of trust in G-d. Furthermore, he adds, they asked for a King, “like all the nations,” but they didn’t need a King like the other nations. Had they been following G-d’s ways, G-d would fight their wars.
At first glance, these explanations raise a few strong questions. First, what were these ulterior motives behind the request and how were they ipso facto a lack of trust in G-d? Second, we never simply assume a lax attitude, that G-d will “fight our wars”. The Jews always form an army to fight against their enemies, so why not have a King as well? Furthermore, if the Jews do not look to a king to fight their wars as other nations do, what purpose does this institution serve in Torah? Surely the Torah would not endorse something that detracts from the nation’s view of G-d?!
As a prerequisite to approaching these questions, it is necessary to highlight that an integral idea in Torah is that there is only one true King, the King of all Kings, G-d. The idea of a King as an independent authority, who has control of everything and is not subjugated to anything above, can only refer to G-d. G-d’s “Kingship” is qualitatively differentiated from man’s kingship. For example, a human king’s position is solely dependent on whether people are willing to follow him. His status as a ruler, therefore, is inherently limited to the loyalty of his constituents. If the people were to rebel, his kingdom would be overthrown. But such notions are in no way applicable to G-d. Being that G-d is not dependent on anything, His “Kingship” is essentially different. G-d is the only “all powerful” ruler since His Kingdom can never be overthrown.
As such, it must be that the position of a human king in Judaism is a very limited role, whose power as an authority is inherently limited to and dependent upon what G-d legislates. As it is impossible for a human to play any role similar to G-d, the only capacity of a Jewish a king is to help direct the people to serve the Real King, G-d. The human king functions in a way to help the nation recognize G-d as the only true source of security. This is illustrated by the many laws legislated specifically to the human king. For example, at the time the king starts to rule, he must write his own Torah Scroll and carry it with him wherever he goes, whether to battle or to the courts (Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 3:1). Perhaps this is a constant demonstration that an integral element to his kingdom is the concept that he is only a king - subject to the Torah, G-d’s law, not his own. When viewing the king, one immediately encounters the Torah, which he carries, which directs a person’s attention to the true Ruler of the world. Even at a time of war, when egos are raging and people are looking to find security in a war hero, the human king and the nation are reminded that such notions are false because their success is only due to their relationship with G-d as followers of the Torah, that the human king always carries. Additionally, there is a law stating that anyone who disregards the human king’s decree because he was involved in a commandment of G-d is exempt from punishment (ibid, 3:9). This also reflects the idea that the service of the human king is simply a means to the service of the True King. Therefore, it makes sense that the fulfillment of a commandment of G-d takes priority over the fulfillment of a human king’s decree, since the prior is a direct service of G-d.
Other nations of the world, however, relate to a human king in a way contrary to Torah. To the rest of the world, a human king assumes ultimate authority, whose demands cannot be questioned and whose existence maintains the security of the people. All respect and commitment is directed towards him because he is considered responsible for the nation’s success and prosperity. In addition to the socio-economic role of the king, there lies a powerful psychological dependency on the king as well. He is viewed as a “father” who will take care of all of the people’s needs, fighting their wars, removing worries from their hearts. It seems as if the other nations foolishly instill their kings with powers that only G-d possesses.
It follows that a false view of a human king, as the other nations maintain, reflects a false view of G-d, and ipso facto hits upon fundamental principles in Judaism. Had the request to Shmuel HaNavi been intended to fulfill G-d’s commandment and enable the nation to serve G-d better, there would have been no sin at all. On the contrary, it would have been a step towards true recognition of G-d, just as the commandment is designed. But it was evident from the request of the people that this was not their intention. They were interested in something else. As the verse tells, the Jews requested to be like all the nations, whose king would judge them and fight their wars for them. The Jews’ sin was that they failed to realize the true source of their prosperity and success. Unlike other nations, there is a special Providence over the Jews insofar as they are the nation who follows the Torah. The Jews must recognize that this providence plays an essential role in their existence as a nation which no human king can ever replace. Therefore, it must be that the Jews’ attempt to find any security elsewhere could only stem from a “lack of trust in G-d”, the only Real King.