How and Why to Read 1 Samuel in 2022
As Christians everywhere remember Christ’s birth, many read the words of Mary’s prayer, recorded in Luke 1, called the “Magnificat” after its first words, “My soul magnifies the Lord …” (Luke 1:46-55). Its lines drip sweet, gospel honey: God is merciful and faithful to his servants, he exalts the humble and lowers the proud, he rules over all powers, and most importantly he saves.
Mary’s Old Testament antecedent is Hannah, who also miraculously bore a child and who also prayed, “My heart exults in the Lord …” in a song containing all the same themes (1 Samuel 2:1-10). The God who made his dwelling among us prefaced his coming with prophecies and types in the Old Testament book of First Samuel. Just as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John describe, the unknown author of 1 Samuel tells his readers about the marvelous news of salvation and instructs believers about how to live.
Overview of 1 Samuel
Originally, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were a single work, continuing the divine history of God’s people from where Judges ended up to the end of David’s reign. (For those following the series and expecting Ruth to come next, it hasn’t been forgotten, but will be considered with the other Writings; for now I’m focusing on the Histories, otherwise known as the Early Prophets). While it has many connections with 2 Samuel, 1 Samuel does function as a standalone work, easily divisible into three sections, each of which stars a main character and a supporting character.
In 1 Samuel 1-8, the main character is the prophet and last judge Samuel, while the supporting character is the elderly high priest Eli. The first chapters contrast Eli’s family with Samuel. Eli’s immoral sons blaspheme God by stealing his offerings, profane their office by sexual immorality, and interfere with the worship of others by threatening force (2:12-17, 22). As judge, high priest, and their father, Eli could have had them executed or removed from the priesthood for their crimes; instead, he rebukes them too gently (2:22-25). So God told Eli by an anonymous prophet (2:27-36) and then by Samuel (3:10-18) that he would remove his entire family from the priesthood. When Eli’s sons inappropriately carry the ark of God into battle, the Lord defeats Israel by the Philistines who capture the ark and kill Eli’s sons. News of the defeat kills both elderly Eli and his pregnant daughter-in-law because “the glory has departed from Israel” (4:22). But during the ark’s exile among the Philistines, the glory of Israel proved himself able to vindicate his own name.
Meanwhile, Samuel, born miraculously to a barren Hannah and given to God, grew up in wisdom and the favor of God, much like Jesus did (Luke 2:40). Although not a priest, he ministered in the temple as a boy and “was established as a prophet of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:20). After Eli’s downfall, which he had foretold, Samuel gets a battlefield promotion of sorts, since most of the spiritual and political leaders of the nation were wiped out. Upon the ark’s return, Samuel preached a message of repentance (7:3) and interceded as a mediator on Israel’s behalf (7:5), much like Jesus did. While Israel had been defeated in battle under the profane, presuming priests, God saved his people according to their repentance and Samuel’s prayers. For years after that, it seems that Israel followed God under Samuel’s faithful guidance, as we are told nothing more until Samuel was old, and the people demanded a king “like all the nations” (8:5).
In 1 Samuel 9-15, the main character is Saul, who proved to be just the type of king the people wanted, while Samuel becomes the supporting character. We first meet Saul unprepared, uninformed, and unengaged with Israel’s affairs. He hides from responsibility even after God’s prophet anoints him as king. When the Ammonites who were mobilizing in chapter 8 finally invade in chapter 11, the king to fight Israel’s battles is plowing a field. But then “the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul” (11:6) and empowered him to defeat Israel’s enemies, which established him as king. By the Spirit of God, Saul began well; but, once he disobeyed, he quickly became foolish. Saul twice disobeys God and is told that God has rejected him as king. After the first disobedience we see the once valiant Saul transformed into a dithering, cowardly commander, who actually sabotages the victory God wrought through his son Jonathan’s faith with a rash vow that provokes the people to sin.
As Saul rose, Samuel faded into the background. He anointed Saul as king, presided over his coronation, and preached a farewell sermon to hand off the baton of leadership. The sermon emphasizes everything the Lord had done for Israel, and how they had rejected God by choosing a king. He foretold chance meetings for Saul and a devastating thunderstorm at harvesttime for the people to confirm that the Lord was speaking through him. Thenceforward, he only ministered to Saul, the leader of God’s people, instead of presiding over them. He issued Saul commands from the Lord, rebuked him for his disobedience, and foretold the tearing away of his kingdom. Yet he still maintained extraordinary authority to offer sacrifices like a priest (13:8-15) and carry out justice like a king (15:33) by a special commission from the Lord.
In 1 Samuel 16-31, the narrative shifts to David as the main character, although not yet king, while Saul becomes the supporting character. After Samuel secretly anoints him king, David advances into royal service, first as a musician and then as a warrior. But as God turns the hearts of Saul’s own family and all Israel towards David, he confronts Saul’s jealousy, which eventually turns murderous. David flees from place to place, saving cities and defeating Israel’s enemies as a king should do, while the sitting monarch seeks his life. After several close calls with Saul, David twice spares his life — learning in the process to leave vengeance to the Lord. David eventually goes into exile among the Philistines where he serves as a feudal vassal — while still fighting Israel’s other enemies — until Saul’s death.
Saul goes from bad to worse as David rises. Without the Lord’s spirit, Saul is tormented by a harmful one. He tries to kill David on multiple occasions, both personally and by various stratagems. No reason can persuade him to leave off his murderous jealousy, not his own son pleading David’s innocence, not the imprudence of leaving the country exposed to foreign invaders, not even when David spares his life. He carries his rage so far as to threaten his own son’s life, insult his own wife, and murder the city of the priests. On the eve of his defeat and death, he consults a spiritual medium — an abominable, demonic practice he had banned, in accordance with the law.
Interpreting 1 Samuel
God intervenes more actively to purify his people in 1 Samuel than in Judges. During the first few hundred years, God mostly left the people to themselves, to see whether they would follow the law he had given them (they often failed). He would occasionally send a judge when they cried out for deliverance, but God was mostly hands-off during that period. By contrast, God was actively working to reform his people Israel in 1 Samuel. He cut off the wicked priests that despised his offerings and profaned his dwelling. He even forsook Shiloh (Psalm 78:60) and made it desolate (Jeremiah 26:9), the place where God had set his name, so that Israel was for a time deprived of tabernacle worship. He established Samuel as a prophet at a time when there was no frequent vision (1 Samuel 3:1). And he anointed two kings — one after the people’s heart, and then the other after God’s heart.
One striking feature of 1 Samuel is the number of times the author sets side-by-side events that are similar, but which have significant differences. For instance, there are two battles in 1 Samuel 4 and 7. In the first battle, Israel raises a mighty shout, which terrifies the Philistines, but because they are trusting in themselves and presumptively carrying the ark into battle, they are utterly defeated (4:5-10). In the second battle, Israel relies on the Lord, and “the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines” (7:7-11), which results in a victory for Israel. The author gives two accounts of David sparing Saul’s life, of Saul’s coronation, of Saul’s disobedience leading to God’s rejection, of Samuel anointing a king, of David joining Saul’s court, of Saul pursuing David into the wilderness, and of the Amalekites’ defeat, among others. This near repetition was written down for our instruction.
Gospel Themes of 1 Samuel
The author of 1 Samuel puts a number of gospel themes on display. In fact, it’s possible to present most of the gospel using only this book.
God looks on the heart. When Samuel goes to anoint one of Jesse’s sons at Bethlehem, he is struck by the appearance of the eldest. In response, God tells him, “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). Samuel had told Saul that God would replace him as king with “a man after his own heart” (13:14). This means it’s impossible to hide our sin from God. We could fool other people by acting the right way — at least when we’re around them. But God knows our hearts. He knows the discontentment, pride, envy, lust, covetousness, and anger seething underneath the surface. When give a final account for our actions, God will also judge our hearts.
God prefers obedience over religiosity. Some people have bought into the idea that certain religious credentials will save them from God’s wrath. They prayed a prayer one time, or belong to the right church, or partake of certain rites, or come from a Christian family. But that comforting theory lacks a scriptural foundation. In fact, God rejects those with the proper religious status, family, and rites in 1 Samuel, in favor of those who walk in obedience. First, he rebuked the high priest Eli and his sons (also priests) for despising the offerings God commanded, declaring “those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (2:30). God cursed Eli’s family and eventually banished them from the priesthood. God later struck down another 70 priests for “looking upon the ark of the Lord” (6:19).
But it wasn’t the offerings God cared about, so much as obedience to his laws. Samuel explains to Saul that God takes disobedience seriously. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry” (15:22-23). These sacrifices were meant to honor God, but God said he would rather have obedience than be honored by any such religious rites.
God does not regret. There is a curious tension in 1 Samuel 15. Samuel says, “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (15:29), yet twice we are told that God regretted making Saul king over Israel (15:11, 35). Unraveling this seeming contradiction requires that we distinguish two types of regret. First, God can feel disappointment. God was disappointed with Saul’s disobedience, for he takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). Second, God cannot make mistakes. God cannot regret any of his actions, in the sense of wishing he could go back and do it over differently. If he could, he would not be all-knowing, all-wise, or eternal. God never has to move to a “Plan B” because his first plan didn’t work out. This means that God is faithful to “judge the ends of the earth” (2:10). But it also means that God is faithful to save those who trust in Christ. If you are a Christian, God has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And he “will not lie or have regret” for that promise.
God saves, often through a person. 1 Samuel shows repeatedly that when God’s people cry out to him, he saves them. He saved Israel through Samuel leading them in repentance just as the Philistines attack (7:3-11). He saved Israel through Saul defeating the Ammonites with the Spirit of God upon him (11:6-11). Jonathan said in faith, “nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (14:6), and God proved him right (14:23). God saved Israel through David when the Philistine giant Goliath defied God. Saul discouraged him, Eliab berated him, and Goliath mocked him, but David charged the greatest enemy of God’s people in what looked like weakness to human eyes, but was actually reliance on God. He did this “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s” (17:46-47). In another sense, David saved Israel as a type of Christ, who was also despised among men, who also saved God’s people in human weakness, and who now leads them in triumph.
God chooses. Throughout 1 Samuel, God selects the people who will carry out his purposes. “Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen these,’” but when David arrived, “the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he’” (16:10, 12). Before David, God sent Saul to Samuel to anoint as king (9:15-17), and then chose Saul by lot out of all Israel (10:20-24). Later, the Lord rejected Saul as king (15:26) and chose David instead. Samuel explains to Saul, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people” (13:14). Before Saul, God had called Samuel (3:4-10). And before Samuel, he chose Aaron and his descendants to be priests (2:28), but then announced he would cut off Eli’s house from the priesthood (2:31) and “raise up for myself a faithful priest” (2:35) — that is, Jesus. God’s free choice is central to appointing — or anointing — each new leader. No one can successfully oppose, revise, or recall God’s choices except God himself.
Application of 1 Samuel
In addition to gospel principles, 1 Samuel also provides a platinum mine of instruction for our own lives. In addition to the points above — God sees not just your deeds but your motives, and he cares more about obedience than religious observance — the book also teaches us to care more about God’s glory than our own. Both Eli (2:29-30) and Saul (15:30) cared more about their own honor than God’s, whereas God’s honor motivated Samuel and David (17:45).
Throughout Scripture, we find that God’s honor is one of his primary reasons for doing anything. As he states in 1 Samuel, “Those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (2:30). As a man after God’s own heart, David understood this. He told Saul that God would help him defeat Goliath “for he has defied the armies of the living God” (17:36), and he told Goliath that God would defeat him “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (17:46). God always vindicates his glory.
Additionally, we learn to leave revenge to God. While Saul pursues David, God twice gives Saul into David’s hand. The first time, when David’s men urge him to kill Saul, he “arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe” (24:4), but afterward he was conscience-stricken and forbade his men to kill Saul, reasoning “the Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed” (24:6). Instead, he confronts Saul, “May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you” (24:15).
Then David resolves to take vengeance on rude Nabal and is only kept from bloodguilt through the intervention of prudent Abigail (25:32-34). There, the Lord took vengeance on Nabal, striking him dead. The next time Saul fell into David’s hand, his man urged him to kill Saul, but David was ready with a countermand, “The Lord will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish” (26:10). In fact, that’s exactly what happened. The Lord brought Saul to a wretched end, so ordering it that he died by suicide (31:4), a just fate after Saul had sought out a medium (28:7), for which God prescribed, “I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.”
Saul’s bad end and David’s improved response illustrate another principle: obedience and disobedience confirm themselves over time. Those who set their hearts to follow God and obey his commands will repent of their sins and pursue righteousness. This will become evident over time. By contrast, those whose hearts are not devoted to God might maintain an outward veneer of religion for a time — perhaps even a long time. But eventually, their conscience will grow stiffer and their sin will become more brazen and pronounced, until it is clear they never were truly following God.
Samuel was righteous; Saul was unrighteous; David was righteous. By the end of their lives, there was no disguising it. By the end of your life, there will be no disguising it either.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.