Book of 1 Samuel
Israel has its first king and the troubles that follow
By Samuel, a prophet of Israel
The story of the people of Israel in some ways resembles a classical tragedy: the ending is foreshadowed; and even in the times of great glory and happiness, disaster isn’t far away. The books of Samuel tell how the people of Israel decide that instead of placing their faith and trust in GOD, they will place their trust in a human king, as all of their neighbors have.
After the chaos and violence of the time described in the lessons from the book of Judges, perhaps their desire for security is understandable; but the people of Israel had always been told they are different from other nations, that true security can only be found in God.
Keeping Great Faith And Courage Alive
Described in the books of Samuel—the stories of Hannah, Samuel, Saul, and David—are people of great faith and courage, like Hannah and Samuel, and people who start off well but fail in a number of ways, like Saul. In the character of David is that human king whom the Israelites want.
David, who is loved by God, represents the high point of Israel’s civilization and is the model for the Liberator the Jews expect in the time of Jesus (and still today).
Samuel’s Divinely Inspired Work
Tradition associates the judge Samuel with the recording of these stories collected into the books bearing his name (1 Chronicles 29:29–30). While he may not have literally written the exact words we have today, he certainly crafted the stories compiled in these books by future editors through his divinely inspired work in Israel.
From A Tribal Society To A United Kingdom
Samuel is the last of the judges of Israel, the last great defender who brings together political and religious power in order to liberate the people.
In terms of personal holiness, the Jewish tradition compares him to Moses and Aaron (Psalm 99:6), and this crucial time recorded in the books of Samuel demands all of his resources as prophet and leader. Through his work, Israel transitions from a tribal society led by regional judges to a united kingdom under one monarch.
One Of The Greatest Stories
The people of ancient Israel lived in a time of great fear and conflict—a time not so very different from our own. Their responses—to turn to political and temporal power for safety, to forget the things God had asked of them—may be familiar to us. Leaders rise and fall; nations prosper and decline; but through it all, God remains.
While David is the central figure of these books, and his memory inspires us because of his heroism, creativity, and humanity, the images of Hannah, who trusts God completely, and Samuel, who warns that trusting in political power instead of God brings heartbreak, also linger. Great stories never go out of date, and this is one of the greatest.
1 Samuel 1:3
At the end of the Book of Judges, the world has descended into violence and chaos — it is, as the book concludes, a time when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them” ( Judges 21:25 ). And their selfish desires are often very wrong morally, socially, and personally. Israel is a dark place waiting for a light to enter, and as is usually the case in the story of the people of God, God has a plan.
1 Samuel 1:8
The story of Samuel begins quietly, not with a great warrior coming onto the scene, but with the faithful prayer of a woman who wants to be a mother.
The underlying message of the books of Samuel is, as in many other places in the Bible, that faith and trust in God are more important than any trust we place in human beings — even powerful human beings.
Hannah’s prayers for a child, her absolute faith in God’s plan, and her willingness to be a part of it however she can, resonate as the kings and warriors begin to enter the stage. Without her faith, there can be no story.
1 Samuel 3:19
When Eli hears God’s message to Samuel, a message that surely breaks his heart, Eli knows his sons have dishonored God and deserve punishment. His willingness to honor God’s message is truly a measure of his faith. This is one of many places in the books of Samuel where we can recognize the justice of God’s plan and still share some sorrow with those who will suffer because of it.
1 Samuel 6:4
Ancient people understand diseases and various infestations as omens of divine wrath. In order to appease the God of the Israelites, the Philistines cast metal tumors and mice to give back to the Eternal One what He gave to them.
1 Samuel 7:2
This section about the chest of the covenant shows God’s power in the world when all the nations around Israel believe in their own gods. Hebrew literature often talks about the Lord as the greatest of all gods, and this passage shows Him using the covenant chest to declare His preeminence.
He embarrasses another god in his own temple, brings death and destruction on those around Him (as He did with the plagues of Egypt), and inflicts something like the bubonic plague, which would devastate Europe in the Middle Ages, on the Philistines.
God is powerful and must be treated with the greatest of reverence. Even the people of God are happy to see the chest of the covenant move on, because it is too powerful for sinful human beings to live close to with comfort.
1 Samuel 7:4
The Canaanites have a long history of worshiping idols or local gods. In this case, the god being worshiped is Astarte (Ashtoreth), a fertility goddess similar to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. In Canaanite mythology, she is the sister and wife of the high god Baal.
She and similar goddesses are worshiped throughout the ancient Near East; and the children of Israel are constantly falling away from serving the Lord by worshiping Astarte, Baal, and other pagan gods.
God commands His people not to raise up idols or bow down to any gods except Him. Along with the worship of these gods come many strange practices that pollute the people of the Lord.
1 Samuel 10:17
Why is Saul chosen as the first king? He is from the tiny tribe of Benjamin, so he seems to be outside the mainstream of political power. But he is a handsome and tall young man, meaning he is appealing in appearance and able to inspire confidence in warriors.
At this first appearance, it even seems as if his inner qualities might match his outer qualities — God transforms him and gives him the power to prophesy — but as the story goes on, his insecurities and his jealousy of David are his undoing.
1 Samuel 12:1
The historical books of the Hebrew Bible often have sections where great religious leaders make a final speech. This is a summing-up of their lives and often a prophetic warning about the future. Call it “foreshadowing,” if you will, because everyone who hears this story knows that everything Samuel predicts comes true.
As long as the people and their king serve only the Lord, they prosper; but if they and their king turn away from that faith, they suffer. As those who read the books of Samuel know, the people of Israel turn away from God; and eventually, great empires come and lay waste to the land.
1 Samuel 12:4
Samuel asks his listeners to affirm that he has acted with integrity as their leader. Money has not swayed him, nor has personal emotion; he has done what is good in the sight of God. (Maybe, like Eli before him, his sons are a mess, but that’s another matter.)
The people take seriously what he has to say next for two reasons: they trust Samuel, and they fear God. Today some leaders taint religion by acting as Samuel’s sons did. Their personal greed, desire for political power, or unwillingness to put God first make some think that religion itself is a sham.
Faithful leaders can still be found, but Samuel’s example suggests that it’s a good idea to question the actions of our leaders before we let them tell us what they think God wants from us.
1 Samuel 15:4
Although Saul is given great victories, God rejects him, regretting that Saul was ever chosen as king. Several reasons are given for why Saul was judged for listening to his own counsel rather than trusting in God’s. First he takes the priest’s role as his own and carries out a ritual sacrifice.
Later his hungry soldiers break the dietary regulations from the law of Moses by devouring meat and blood together. Finally Saul does not destroy every aspect of the Amalekite kingdom as God commanded.
1 Samuel 15:11
What do we make of this idea that God has changed His mind? Classical theologians (Augustine and Aquinas, particularly) believed that God is unchangeable, above all such petty things as regret, anger, and sorrow, although His actions sometimes seem as though God feels such things.
More contemporary theologians suggest that God can change His mind as His purpose is being worked out through the actions of human beings. In either case, what we see here is God seeking someone who will act as His regent and do exactly as He says — and clearly, Saul is no longer capable of being that person.
1 Samuel 15:11-12
 Samuel feels terrible about what is going to happen, and he spends the night weeping. This reaction makes Samuel’s conversation with Saul that much more powerful — what sorrow and anger Samuel must be feeling as he is laying down the law to this young king he anointed with his own hands.
This tragic twist in the story of Saul develops because he has failed to live up to God’s requirements, so God decides that His chosen king will not remain on the throne.
1 Samuel 17:20
The story of David and Goliath is one that has grown in popular attention, and many people who have never read the Bible know it as a simple story of the underdog defeating the favored warrior.
Although there is another story of how David is noticed by the king (when he was brought to Saul’s court to play his music), in this story, David comes to the king’s attention as God’s warrior, contrasting Saul in almost every way.
A mere boy, David doesn’t trust in his own strength or in armor or in fancy weapons. David places his trust in God, and his courage comes from belief that God can use him, as small as he is compared to his opponent, because God is all-powerful.
1 Samuel 17:51
David’s victory over Goliath sets in motion the rest of the story. The army of Israel wins a great victory over the panicked Philistines after David strikes down their champion, and David is elevated in the eyes of all (and soon will become Saul’s leading general).
But the seeds of the ongoing struggle between Saul and David are also sown on this day, as the people celebrate the good-looking boy’s valor and heroism, filling Saul with jealousy.
Soon Saul is thinking that David has everything but the kingdom’s throne, and he turns on the boy who has saved his people. Their war destroys Saul and complicates David’s life and eventual rule.
1 Samuel 18:21
Although Michal is the only woman in the Bible described as loving a man, this is not a beautiful love story between David and Michal. Michal, the daughter of a king, was born to be a political pawn, not to marry for love.
First Saul offers her as a reward to David if he slays 100 Philistines, a task the king is certain will kill David. When David succeeds, Michal helps him build credibility as the future king among the Israelites who do not know that God has already anointed him king.
But those Israelites also don’t know that God has condemned Saul’s lineage, declaring that none of his descendants will ascend the throne of Israel. That decry excludes any of Michal’s children, too, so her marriage to David is doomed to failure, no matter how much she loves him.
1 Samuel 19:2
In the friendship between Jonathan and David, Jonathan stands to lose everything he has if David becomes king, yet he betrays family and ambition by befriending him. These two young men make a pact to protect and love each other in life; and if something should happen to Jonathan, David agrees to honor Jonathan’s descendants out of the love he bears for Jonathan.
Later that promise results in David elevating one of Jonathan’s sons to the king’s table. In a time when any reminders of the previous regime would have been distracting and even dangerous, David shows he can do more than just be strategic and political. Love knocks down barriers and makes us set aside our selfish concerns.
This friendship has long been counted as a model for how two people might love and serve each other.
1 Samuel 21:1
In the law of Moses, people are commanded to love their neighbors as themselves; and Jonathan does just that, loving David as he does himself. David’s love for Jonathan is also clear. When they are parted here, David is filled with sadness.
Although both of them weep, David weeps more; and when Saul and Jonathan are later killed in battle, David celebrates and remembers their friendship in one of the most beautiful songs in the Bible. These two demonstrate exactly what it means to follow the command of the law and love unselfishly.
1 Samuel 22:16
Saul may be truly at his worst. He fails to have reverence for God’s priests and orders them to be killed for harboring David. Not even Saul’s servants can support this horrid behavior, and they refuse to come under God’s curse by striking down His priests.
1 Samuel 24:4
It seems as if much of the First Book of Samuel is taken up with Saul trying to kill David and David escaping; and when David catches Saul in the most vulnerable position, his men urge him to kill Saul. It would be nothing more than self-defense. Wouldn’t Saul kill David if Saul caught him with his pants down? Isn’t Saul turning over every stone in the wilderness looking for David so he can kill him?
David settles for a symbolic victory — he cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe while Saul is otherwise occupied — but then he feels ashamed. If David is supposed to be king someday, God will make that happen. But until that time, who is he to bring shame on the king whom God anointed as his ruler?
The exchange between David and Saul shows both men at their best. At times, David could be a schemer; Saul’s obsession and possible mental illness could obscure the good qualities that caused God to choose him in the first place. But in this exchange, each acknowledges the other. Saul sees that David could have killed him and chose not to; for the moment, he sees the truth about their relationship.
In return Saul acknowledges what he knows in his heart to be true: David will someday be the king, and not he or his sons. And as Eli did earlier, Saul here accepts God’s plan, even though it will be the destruction of his line. Saul doesn’t always keep this understanding, and he will pursue David again. But Saul has his good — even noble — qualities, especially as his time grows short.
1 Samuel 26:1
Two women figure prominently in David’s ascension to Israel’s throne: Michal and Abigail. As the daughter of the king, Michal is born into the world of palace intrigue, but Abigail talks her way into it. As a beautiful, articulate woman, she is desirable to any man, but she has special appeal to David.
Abigail brings with her Nabal’s wealth and power in the south. By marrying this Calebite widow, David gains political influence with the southern tribes that soon gets him crowned king in Hebron ( 2 Samuel 2:2–4 ), a large city within Caleb’s territory.
1 Samuel 28:7
This is simultaneously one of Saul’s greatest offenses against God and one of the times when he is a sympathetic character. As he comes to battle the Philistines, he has been cut off from any contact with God. It must seem as though everyone conspires against him, that he is all alone in the world; so, against his own decree forbidding such a thing, he consults a medium who can speak to the dead, a dark practice according to Hebrew law.
1 Samuel 29:1
The medium reveals herself to be a woman of compassion; when the king collapses in fear and hunger, she feeds him — a last meal, prepared and served with kindness, for a condemned man. And Saul, knowing his fate beforehand, is ready to die in battle.
1 Samuel 31:3
Notice that David does not participate in the battle against his own people, and that even while he lives among the Philistines hiding from Saul, he doesn’t serve them.
This expedition against the raiding Amalekites offers a powerful explanation both for why David doesn’t fight for the Philistine king and why he doesn’t fight to preserve the armies of Israel.
Because David is far away with his own desperate battles to fight, no shame falls on him for any oaths he might have broken.
1 Samuel 31:7
That looks like the end of the story, but it isn’t. It is a tragedy, though a necessary one for Israel. At the beginning of his reign, Saul gathers a huge army to fight the Ammonites, who threaten to blind the men of Jabesh-gilead. Many years later, the people of the country hear what has happened.
They raise an army of their own, march all night into the Philistine town of Beth-shan, and without regard to the danger, take down the bodies and return to their own country to give Saul and his family a decent and respectful burial.
Saul is many things — a brute, a coward, a prince, a warrior, a faithful follower, a faithless wallower — and now he is dead. Some might celebrate; others mourn him. The king the people asked for has been dethroned, and the kingdom lies open to invasion, but God’s plan is still operating. In the Second Book of Samuel, it is evident this is part of a larger order. The people’s king has been defeated, but God’s king is on his way.
The deaths of Saul and his sons conclude the First Book of Samuel. God’s anointed dies, and the armies of Israel are defeated. Some commentators, even though they may condemn suicide, do not fault Saul for falling on his own sword. Remembering how the Philistines blinded and tormented the hero and judge Samson, Saul knows his fate is torture and abuse.
Not only does he not want to suffer that as a man, but also as God’s anointed king, he does not want these “uncircumcised dogs” — that is, followers of other gods — to claim such an advantage over the Lord. So he falls on his sword, and the Philistines, prevented from their torture, behead Saul’s body, strip him, and exhibit his and his sons’ corpses in public.