Samuel’s address to the people is normally understood to be his farewell address. He recounts his record of integrity and demands their affirmation. He reminds them of the history of their relationship with God, of its ups and downs, and of God’s constant loyalty to them despite their not infrequent disloyalty to Him. He chides them for choosing a king to lead them when God has always provided them with the proper leadership when needed. There is not a little bitterness in his words for he feels rejected for their desiring a king in lieu of his leadership as a judge.
This understanding of Samuel’s words sees this speech as his swansong, his bowing off the stage, transferring the mantel of leadership despite his misgivings and attempting to insure that despite the change in the manner of leadership, the people’s loyalty to God would remain intact. Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain) introduces this speech with these words: “the request for a king was an indication of the people’s disgust with the leadership of Samuel, as is indicated by their words: ‘You are old and your children have not followed in your ways, or it was possible that they were disgusted with God’s leadership and His judgment, as is indicated by God’s words: ‘It is not you (Samuel) that they loathe but My (God) kingship that they loathe.’ This is why the prophet reproached Israel, in particular, with regard to his leadership, for I have heard your voice, to all that you have said to me and I will appoint a king over you, that is to say, I have listened to you and understood all that you have said to me… only then [after appointing a king] did he say his piece with regard to himself.” (adapted translation)
Shimon Bar-Efrat (21st century Israel) proposes a different understanding of Samuel’s speech. He asserts that this is not Samuel’s farewell address. Instead, it represents Samuel’s giving notice that the behavior of the new monarchy of the nation as a whole would not go unchecked: “This is not a farewell address like many modern scholars believe. The opposite is the case! Samuel wants to continue to wield influence and the purpose of his speech is to show, that even though the system of governance has changed, Samuel still intends to have a significant role to play in the life of the people. In the past, both the political and religious leadership were in Samuel’s hands. Now, the political and military apparatus will be in Saul’s hands, while Samuel will continue to be the religious and moral barometer for the nation.” (adapted from 1 Samuel, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 160-161)
Samuel, then, is ensuring that both the king and the people will remain under God’s watchful eye. The king and the people will still be answerable to Samuel and to God. Samuel will reign in the king when necessary. There will not be an absolute monarchy in Israel which will go unchecked. There must always be a system where corporal power will be checked by moral and spiritual power to ensure that power will never go unrestrained.