ASK Commentary
February 9, 2004 

The First King in Israel

Commentary for February 9, 2004 — It Was Not King Saul

There are many misperceptions in our world. One is that George Washington was the first President of the United States. That is not exactly true. In fact George Washington was the 11th president of the United States.

George Washington was the first president of the United States under the present Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, the founding document of the entity known as the United States of America which took effect in November 1777, the first President was a gentleman named Samuel Huntington. Nine other men served as President after Huntington, which makes Washington the 11th President. For the interesting story see the Website http://articlesofconfederation.com/.

Likewise it is largely understood that Israel’s first King was Saul (whose name means “desired”) a Benjamite, son of Kish, followed by King David and then Solomon. This is also a misperception. In fact there were two kings of Israel before Saul. One was God and one gained the throne by a seizure of power.

Israel’s First King Was God

The apostle Paul in his day believed God was the king:

“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

1 Timothy 1:17

Samuel the Prophet and last righteous Judge of Israel made his sons to be judges over Israel but they were not righteous or worthy of the office. The elders of Israel demanded that a King be appointed. (Read the story in 1 Samuel 8:1–18.) Samuel was displeased and downheartened.
“And the Lord said unto Samuel, ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto you: for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.’”

1 Samuel 8:7 (cf. 1 Samuel 10:19)

The word “reign” here is the Hebrew malak which is the verb form of the Hebrew word for king, melek. Israel was to be God’s particular “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) with God as their King. More to the point, after Saul was anointed as the new human king and announced to Israel, Samuel specifically said that God was their King in earlier times.
“And when you saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, you said unto me, ‘Nay; but a king shall reign over us’: when the Lord your God was your king.’”

1 Samuel 12:12

When the people requested a king, God told Samuel to tell the elders of Israel what to expect from a human king. When Samuel made the announcement to the people of Israel he said:
“And Samuel said to all the people, ‘See you him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people?’ And all the people shouted, and said, ‘God save the king.’”

1 Samuel 10:24

The first king of Israel was actually God Himself, YHWH. King David certainly considered God to be King over him, over Israel and over the whole earth:
“Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto you will I pray.”

Psalm 5:2

You are my King, O God: command deliverances for Jacob.”

Psalm 44:4

“Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: sing you praises with understanding. God reigns over the heathen: God sits upon the throne of his holiness.”

Psalm 47:6-8

“They have seen your goings, O God; even the goings of my God, my King, in the sanctuary.”

Psalm 68:24

“For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”

Psalm 74:12

“Yea, the sparrow has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.”

Psalm 84:3

“I will extol you, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.”

Psalm 145:1

Jeremiah also considered God to be King of earth.
“But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.”

Jeremiah 10:10

In fact YHWH is king above all the gods also,
“For the Lord [YHWH] is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”

Psalm 95:3

The proper and obvious understanding of this is that God is sovereign over all kings. There were several human kings who were termed “king of kings.” See Ezra 7:12; Ezekiel 26:7; 1 Timothy 6:15; and Revelation 17:14; 19:16 where this is stated clearly. Any king of Israel would rule under God Almighty as His vassal king. Himself a king of kings ruling over other human kings (see Daniel 2:37), Nebuchadnezzar understood this principle:
“The king answered unto Daniel, and said, ‘Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing you could reveal this secret.’”

Daniel 2:47

Then Came Saul

God had rules by which Israel could establish a king to rule them like the nations. Israel could not choose their own king, but rather God would choose the king for them. If the people agreed, they could make him king. Another qualification was that the man chosen must be one of their brethren, an Israelite.

“When you are come unto the land which the Lord your God give you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell therein, and shall say, ‘I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me’; you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose: one from among your brethren shall you set king over you: you may not set a stranger over you, which is not your brother.”

Deuteronomy 17:14–15

The full story of Saul becoming the first anointed King of Israel is to be found in 1 Samuel chapters 9 and 10. As the Lord of Kings, God anointed Saul as the King of Israel. To be sure Saul was the first anointed King of Israel, but he was not the first human king of Israel. That honor goes to a man named Abimelech.

The First Human King in Israel

This sad story of usurpation of power can be found in the book of Judges chapter 9. Abimelech, a son of the good Judge Gideon (also named Jerubbaal) by a maidservent (Judges 9:18) attempted to make himself a king. This attempt went totally counter to Gideon’s attitude and ambition. Gideon, actually rejected Israel’s attempt to make him a ruler, or a king, of Israel:

“Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, ‘Rule thou over us, both you, and your son, and your son's son also: for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.’ And Gideon said unto them, ‘I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.”

Judges 8:22–23

Abimelech was paid 70 pieces of silver from “the house of Baalberith” which was a temple of the god Baal, a Philistine god, to betray his brethren. Abimelech gathered the men of Shechem and murdered 70 of his own male family members, all sons of Gideon in Gideon’s own house. Abimelech was proclaimed king by the people of the city of Shechem.
“And he went unto his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself. And all the men of Shechem gathered together, and all the house of Millo, and went, and made Abimelech king, by the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.”

Judges 9:5–6

Slaying his brethren “upon one stone” likely means that he did so in a ritualistic manner, otherwise the stone would not have been mentioned. This would be in line with pagan practice of ritual murder. As soon as Gideon died the people of Israel reverted to paganism:
“And it came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baalberith their god. And the children of Israel remembered not the Lord their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side.”

Judges 8:33–34

As King of Shechem, Abimelech would attempt to extend his power over the other people and tribes of Israel and Judah. However, a surviving family member, Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, proceeded to tell the people of Shechem a parable (Judges 9:7ff) about various trees choosing a king. Jotham escaped.
“When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel, Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.”

Judges 9:22–23

Abimelech was betrayed by the Shechemites in a manner similar to the way Abimelech and the Shechemites betrayed Gideon’s family. Abimelech successfully fought off the attack by the people of Shechem and destroyed the city. Later, while attacking another city, Abimelech was hit by a stone cast down from the city walls by a woman and he begged his servant to slay him with his sword (Judges 9:54). Thus died the first king of Israel.
[By the way, note that the audience reading Judges (or better, having it read to them) would have noted that Abimelech’s skull was crushed by the actions of a woman, just as a woman, Jael, crushed Sisera’s skull and destroyed an enemy of Israel (Judges 4:21–22).]
Three First Kings of Israel

God was the first King of Israel. Abimelech was the first human king selected by one city. His power and influence grew so that he “reigned three years over Israel” (Judges 9:22). But Saul was the first human king properly anointed by God. Saul’s anointing took place about 110 years or so after Abimelech was king. Whenever you ask questions of the Bible, such as “Who was the first king of Israel?” it is important to be precise in your question. Only then can you hope to get the proper answer.

David Sielaff
david@askelm.com

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