Summary: With the return of the Aron (Ark) from the Philistines, Samuel initiated a campaign of repentance among the people by gathering the people at Mitzpah. Hearing that the entire nation had gathered in one place, the Philistines took the opportunity to attack. Samuel offered an olah, an elevation offering to God before the ensuing battle. With God’s help the Israelite army defeated the Philistines, taking back their land on the western coast.
As Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons Yoel and Aviyah as judges. Yet they were not righteous and the people demanded a king as proper replacement for Samuel’s leadership. God tells Samuel to allow the people a king and sets out the protocol for a Jewish monarchy.
A deeper look: It is a Torah command to appoint a king (Deuteronomy 17:15). Why did Samuel resist the people’s request to fulfil this mitzvah? The Gemara explains that while the elders wanted a king to be a judge and provide leadership, whereas the people wanted a king to merely be like the other nations (Sanhedrin 20b). Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) adds that by comparing a Jewish king to a non-Jewish king the people denigrated the whole concept of a Jewish monarchy. The role of a Jewish king is to inspire and lead the people according to the Torah as part of their service to God, not impose laws or taxes through their own values, morals and rule of law.
Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1739) notes that by gathering the Jewish people together at Mitzpah to facilitate acts of repentance Samuel gave them a defence in the Heavenly court, despite their apparent affront to God through seeking to appoint a king only to be like the other nations.
Rabbi Meïr Leibush Weiser (Malbim, d. 1879) explains the difference between a מלך – melech, who is appointed by the people to serve the people and a מושל – moshel, who imposes their will on the people whether they like it or not. The people emphasised their desire for a melech – a righteous king, heralding the end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the Jewish monarchy.