The Book of 1st Samuel

First and Second Samuel were written as one book. They appear as such in the Hebrew
manuscripts. We owe the division of the one volume into two to the Septuagint. According to J. Sidlow
Baxter in Explore the Book: “The present division into 1 and 2 Samuel has been decried by some scholars;
yet undoubtedly it has much merit. Second Samuel is distinctively the book of David’s forty years’ reign;
and it is well that such an epochal reign should be marked off, and given a book to itself. As for the First
Book of Samuel, it equally clearly marks off a definite period, running from the birth of Samuel, the last of
Judges, to the death of Saul, the first of the kings. It covers a period of about one hundred and fifteen years.
For sheer interest, 1 Samuel is unsurpassed. Not only doest it recount eventful history interwoven with the
biographies of three colorful personalities – Samuel, Saul, David; and it is around these three that the
chapters are grouped thus – chapters i. to vii. – Samuel. Chapters viii. to xv. – Saul. Chapters xvi. to xxxi. –
David. Of course, the three accounts overlap. Samuel lives well on into the reign of Saul, and also sees
David rise to prominence; while Saul continues his reign until David is thirty years old. Yet it is none the
less true that 1 Samuel is grouped as we have just indicated. In the first seven chapters Samuel is the
prominent figure. In the next eight chapters all focuses on Saul, and Samuel is in the background. In the
remaining chapters, although Saul is still reigning, there is no mistaking that the main attention is now on
David.”
Author and Time of Writing:
The Pulpit Commentary states: “Who was the compiler of the Book of Samuel is absolutely
unknown, and we are left also to gather our conclusions as to the date and character of its composition from
incidental facts and allusions scattered through the history. One such conclusion forced upon us is that the
Book is made up of a number of detached narratives, each of which is complete in itself, and carries the
history down into its remoter consequences. Of these narratives we have five or six grouped together in 2
Samuel 21-24, without any attempt at arrangement. The execution of Saul’s seven sons or grandsons, the list
of victories over the Philistines, David’s psalm of thanksgiving, his last words, the names of his heroes, and
the numbering of the people seem placed thus at the end because the compiler had no means of knowing
what was their proper place in the history. The ‘last words’ might fitly form the conclusion of the whole, but
the other narratives are entirely out of place, and conceal from the reader how little we know of David’s
conduct after he had returned to Jerusalem, penitent and saddened by the death of his beloved but unfilial
son.”
Whoever compiled the material for First and Second Samuel must have had some material to work
with. From First Chronicles we gather that Samuel kept some records of events, as did the prophets Nathan
and Gad. There also existed official records called “the annals of King David.”1
Theme and Content:
About the theme and content of I and II Samuel, Joyce G. Baldwin, in 1 and 2 Samuel, writes:
“Three characters dominate the books of Samuel; the prophet Samuel; Saul, who became Israel’s first king;
and above all David, the greatest and best loved of all who reigned in Jerusalem. The very sequence points to
one of the main themes of the book, which is the transition from theocracy to monarchy. Under the
theocracy, God by his Spirit designated human leaders as and when they were needed, whereas after the
establishment of a dynastic monarchy a successor to the throne was already designated from among the
king’s sons. To Israel, this development seemed altogether desirable: a king would regulate Israel’s life
according to some agreed policy in place of the piecemeal action of individual tribes, and having organized
1. See I Chron. 29:29,30; 27:24.
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the machinery of state of individual tribes, and trained a standing army he would enable Israel to defeat the
aggressive neighbors who plundered their crops and threatened to occupy Israel’s land. In the face of strong
popular demand for a king opposition finally gave way, and the account of Israel’s circumstances at the
time, together with the interaction of conflicting opinions and the successes and failures of the three leaders,
make up the subject matter of the books of Samuel.”
It is difficult, merely on the basis of material provided by the Scriptures, for us to get a clear picture
of Israel’s spiritual and political condition at the time The Book of First Samuel opens,. The Pulpit
Commentary gives an excellent and helpful general introduction to The Book of First Samuel, from which
we glean the following: “Never did time seem more hopeless than when Samuel arose. The Philistines,
strengthened not merely by a constant influx of immigrants, but by the importation of arms from Greece,
were fast reducing Israel to the condition of a subject race. It might contend on equal terms with Moab and
Ammon, but the same superiority of weapons which had given Greece the victory at Marathon and Plataea
made the Philistines more than a match for the rude levies of Israel. Samson with a bone might slay of the
enemy heaps upon heaps, but the nation which had helmets and shields, and coats of mail, and swords and
spears, must in the long run prevail. … And so the loss of the sea coast, or the neglect to conquer and secure
it in the days of Judah’s strength (… Judges 1:18, 19), nearly lost Israel her independence, and made her
forfeit her noble calling. Content with those rolling downs on which they found abundant pasture for their
cattle, the princes of Judah forgot, or had never learned, that the empire of the sea carries with it the mastery
of the land. But just when it seemed that Israel must be crushed out from among the nations Samuel arose.”
There had been a gleam of comfort under his predecessor Eli. Of the early life of this remarkable
man we know nothing. He was the head of the inferior house of Ithamar, the younger of Aaron’s sons; but as
the chiefs of both the priestly houses held a high place in the commonwealth of Israel, it may not, after all,
be so extraordinary that we should find him at the commencement of the Books of Samuel, possessed not
only of the supreme civil power, but also of the high priesthood. … What is really remarkable is that Eli
should be Israel’s civil ruler. If he were strong enough to take this, no one would dispute with him the
priesthood. And here Scripture is absolutely silent.
The whole tone, nevertheless, of the history sets Israel before us as enjoying under Eli a period of
greater ease and prosperity than had been its lot under Samson. The hill land of Israel was so easy of
defense, and the people so valiant, that under an able leader it repeatedly held its ground against the mail
clad Philistines, and in Eli’s days they had lost the supremacy which made even Judah, during Samson’s
judgeship, obey their commands. It was only after a long period of slow decay, of which Eli’s worthless sons
were the cause, that Israel lost its independence and had to submit to vassalage. It is an indication of the
greatness of the reverse, that the minds of the people were so embittered against him that they have struck
his name and the names of his race out of the genealogies, and have put the worst construction upon the
prophecies to which the broken spirited old man submitted with such touching humility. To this cause
perhaps is also due the suppression of all account of his earlier doings. What we have is taken probably from
‘the Acts of Samuel;’ for there is a curious humor and play upon words running through all Eli’s sayings
such as none but a contemporary would record. Samuel, we may be sure, had a loving regard for Eli, but the
people remembered him only in connection with the Philistine invasion and the cruelties which
accompanied it, and of which the memory filled them with an intense horror. It was a calamity too great to
be fully narrated in history, but the Psalmist speaks of it as the climax of Israel’s degradation (… Psalm
78:59-64), when God ‘greatly abhorred’ them; and the mention of it by Jeremiah (Ch. 26.) roused all
Jerusalem to fury.
It was thus from its deepest fall that Samuel raised the nation to a new life, and from its shattered
ruins built it up into an orderly and progressive kingdom. The foundation of all his reforms was the
restoration of the moral and religious life of the people. Without this nothing was possible. But in spite of all
its faults, Israel was still sound at heart, simple minded and primitive; backward indeed in culture, but free
from those debasing and effeminate vices which too often make sensuality the companion of refinement. It
was no sickly, sentimental people among whom Samuel preached; and when his words had brought
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conviction to them, with strong heart they followed him; and so he won for them an alleviation of the
Philistine yoke, and prepared the way for its final destruction. In a year when the elements were greatly
disturbed — for there was lightning during wheat harvest — a violent thunderstorm enabled the Israelites,
rushing down the steep hill of Mizpah, to break the terrified ranks of the Philistines, and God by the great
deliverance wrought that day set his seal to the prophet’s work.
But as long as a man’s work depends upon his personal energy, it has no enduring existence. …
Samuel was too wise to trust mere personal influence. If Israel were to be saved, it must be by institutions
which would daily exercise their pressure, and push the people upward to a higher level. He seems to have
studied the past history of his nation carefully, and to have clearly seen where its weakness lay. And so he
earnestly set himself to the task of giving it mental culture and orderly government; external security from
danger, and internal progressive development. The means he employed for the nation’s internal growth was
the founding of schools, and here the honor of the initiative belongs to him, as well as of the wise
development of his institutions. … But as regards the kingdom, he was the regulator rather than the initiator
of the movement. Still, his wise mind saw the ripeness of the times for it, and to him is due its greatness and
success.
Thus, in prophecy and in the kingdom, Samuel first gave Israel education, and then constitutional
monarchy. Samuel was the first founder of schools, and as the great and primary object of his life had been
the internal reformation of the Jewish people, we can well understand how his personal work had led
onwards to this attempt to redeem his countrymen from ignorance. In those long years which he spent in
perpetual wanderings up and down the land, he must have constantly found that a chief obstacle to his work
was the low mental state of the people. He had been brought up himself amidst whatever learning the nation
had imported with it from Egypt; but Shiloh’s sun had set. Was learning to perish with it? Nowhere in Israel
were men to be found fit to bear office or administer justice. The decisive failure of one so highly gifted by
nature as Saul, and who started with so much in his favor, and under Samuel’s guidance, but who seems to
have had no ideas beyond fighting, proves that Samuel was right in his hesitation about creating a king. The
fitting man was nowhere to be found. Schools were the primary necessity. Through them the whole mental
state of the people would be raised, and men would be trained to serve God in Church and State. From these
schools came forth a David. Without them the brave warrior, but fierce despot, Saul was all that was
possible.
At the Naioth, or Students’ Lodgings, (for that is what the word means,) near Ramah, his own
patrimonial inheritance, Samuel gathered the young men who were to lift up Israel from its debasement. He
taught them reading, writing, and music; he also impressed their minds with solemn religious services, and
apparently made history and psalmody their two chief studies. These schools were termed Schools of the
Prophets not only because Samuel was a prophet, and the teachers bore the same honored name, but because
the young men were trained expressly for the service of Jehovah. … Any religious uninspired service,
especially if musical, was called prophecy. David’s trained singers prophesied with harps and other
instruments (… I Chronicles 25:1-3). But all of them, inspired and uninspired, went forth to do work for
Jehovah; not as priests, not necessarily as teachers, or as musicians, though they were Israel’s bards. The
institution was essentially free, was open to all comers, and when educated, the prophet might return to his
farm, or to some avocation of town life. But he was first of all an educated man, and, secondly, he had been
taught the nature of Jehovah, how he was to be worshipped, and that was the life which every member of a
covenant nation ought to lead. Thus Samuel’s schools not only raised Israel to a higher mental level, but they
also were the great means for maintaining the worship of Jehovah and teaching the people true and spiritual
notions of the nature of God. As such we find future prophets earnest in maintaining them. … This then was
one part of the labors of Samuel. He laid the foundation and fostered the rapid growth of a grand system of
national education. At Ramah he trained men to be Israel’s teachers; but he did not confine himself to this.
Most of the great ornaments of David’s court were his disciples, and it is probable that large numbers of the
wealthy and more promising youth of the kingdom went to his schools simply to learn something of those
wonderful arts of reading and writing, which opened so new a world to the youth of a race always
First Samuel
distinguished for its intellectual aptitudes. And through them Samuel raised the whole people mentally and
morally. … And it was Samuel who laid the broad foundations of that culture which, carried on first by
prophets and then by scribes, made the Jews capable of writing the Bible, of translating the Old Testament
into Greek, of teaching its principles in most of the cities of Greece, and finally of going forth as
missionaries, carrying with them the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The other great labor of Samuel was concerned with the establishment of the kingdom, as an
external necessity for Israel’s orderly development. And here again we find a man advance in age; for his
great aim and purpose was to found a limited, or, as we might even call it, a constitutional monarchy. To a
certain extent he was an unwilling agent; for he saw that the times were not ripe. A limited monarchy is only
possible among an educated people, and Samuel’s Book of the Kingdom (… I Samuel 10:25) could have
had but little influence upon a Saul, who could neither read nor write. Perhaps anarchy is inevitably renewed
by despotism, and certainly Saul became too like what Samuel feared the king would be. It was only after he
had trained David that there was a Jewish Alfred ready to sit upon the throne; and when we read so
emphatically that he was a king after God’s own heart, we must bear in mind that, with all his private faults,
David never attempted to set himself above God’s law, or even to pervert it to his own use. He strictly
confined himself within the limits of a theocratic king, and his crimes were personal, and as such repented
of, and the punishment humbly borne.
But the term theocracy is ambiguous, or at least has two sides according to the nature of its
administration. As administered by the high priest it was a failure. The appeal to Jehovah by Urim and
Thummim was seldom made, and then only under exceptional circumstances, and there was no orderly
method of carrying out its commands. Those commands themselves were of the most general kind, confined
apparently to a simple affirmative or negative. It was thus irregular, fitful, in abeyance in all calm and
peaceful epochs, and when called into exercise was liable to terrible abuse, which it even seemed to
sanction. When Israel set itself to exterminate the tribe of Benjamin, the people may have supposed that they
had a sort of religious approval of their extreme measures in the fact that the oracle had encouraged them to
make the third attack (… Judges 20:28). Really the ferocity was their own, and the priest who had given an
affirmative answer to their question may and ought to have been horrified at the cruelty which followed
upon the victory, and which he was absolutely powerless to prevent. A theocracy has been tried again in the
Papacy, with much the same result, of being actually one of the worst possible forms of government; and,
like the theocracy of the time of the Judges, it must necessarily be a snare to the conscience, as claiming or
appearing to give religious sanction to deeds that offend the moral sense. The theocracy which Samuel
endeavored to establish was that of kingly power in the hands of a layman, but acting in obedience to the
written law of God, or to his will as declared from time to time by the living voice of prophecy. It was a
monarchy limited by the priest and the prophet, the former taking his stand upon the Mosaic law, the latter
with a more free and active force giving a direct command in God’s name, appealing to the king’s moral
sense, and usually representing also the popular feeling. To the old theocracy there had practically been no
check, and, what was almost as bad, no person responsible for carrying out its commands. But it seems soon
to have fallen into abeyance, and the judges were men raised up irregularly under the pressure of some
extreme peril. Usually they did well, chiefly in expelling invaders from the land, but the priest with the
ephod took little or no share in their exploits. Under so irregular a form of government there was small
chance for the orderly development of the powers that lay dormant within Israel, and which were to make it
a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Samuel’s object was to found a monarchy active and powerful for
the constant maintenance of order, but controlled by such checks as would prevent it from becoming a
despotism. And here we have the key to his struggle with Saul. Samuel had a hearty detestation of mere
arbitrary power, as we know from his own words to the elders (… 1 Samuel 8:11- 18); but Saul with his
bodyguard of 3000 men had both the will and the means of making himself absolute. Perhaps all minds of
great military ability have a natural tendency to arbitrariness. Unqualified obedience is a soldier’s duty, and
a general knows that in discipline lies his strength. It is otherwise with a king. He is the best ruler who trains
his people to habits of self-reliance, and to do what is right not because he orders it, but because they choose it. A nation drilled to obedience, a Church made orthodox by having its creed forced upon it, loses thereby
all moral strength, because, as in national and religious life, it is only by the exercise of a moral choice that
human nature can advance upward. Samuel was laboring for Israel’s growth in all that was good, and the
only king of whom he could approve was one under whom Israel would be free to work out its own destiny;
and such a king would be no tyrant, but one who would rule in submission to the same law as that which
governed the people. The two particulars in which Saul set his own will above the command of Samuel may
have been matters of no great primary importance. But the one happened soon after Saul’s appointment, and
thus showed a very early tendency on his part to make his own judgment supreme; the other was an express
order, backed by Israel’s past history; and both were given by the man who had called Saul to the throne. But
the real point at issue was that Saul was moving so quickly towards despotism, that when a second trial of
him was made, he had advanced a long way towards it. Never was a despot more thorough than Saul when
he stained his hands with the blood of the priests at Nob, and of their innocent wives and children, on the
mere supposition of their complicity with David’s escape. Possibly, if we knew the particulars, the slaughter
of the Gibeonites was a crime of the same deep dye. It is at least significant that the cause of the famine was
said to be ‘Saul and his bloody house.’ People in those days were not so tenderhearted as to be troubled
much about putting a few men of a subject race to death, unless the deed had been done barbarously. The
manner of it must have shocked them, or it would not have remained imprinted so deeply upon the
conscience of the nation. In David, trained by Samuel from his youth, we have a noble example of a
theocratic king. That notable fact which I have already pointed out, was that David, in spite of his terrible
personal crimes, never set himself above the law. This was due, we may feel sure, to Samuel’s early
teaching. He had in Joab the very man to be the willing tool of a despot. He would have delighted in playing
a Doeg’s part. David valued his faithfulness, appreciated his bravery and skill, nay, even used him for his
crimes. But he shrank from his lawlessness. God was always in David’s eyes greater than himself. His law,
often violated in hours of lust, was nevertheless to be bowed before as supreme. And so as regards his
subjects, there seems to have been no intentional oppression of them. The idea of law was ever a ruling one
in David’s mind, and thus he approached Samuel’s ideal of ‘the anointed one,’ though his fierce passions
brought upon him personally deep and terrible stains. It was thus Samuel’s lot to sketch out two of the main
lines of thought which converge in Christ. The idea of the prophet and the idea of the king gain under him
their shape and proportion. This is especially true as regards the latter. The king is ever in Samuel’s eyes ‘the
Messiah,’ Jehovah’s anointed one. Again and again the word occurs with marked prominence. And it was
the pregnant germ of a great future with the Jew. He never lost the idea, but carried it onward and forward,
with David’s portrait for its center, as of one in whom the Messiah’s lineaments were marked in outline,
feebly indeed and imperfectly, but with the certainty that a Messiah would come who would fill up with
glorious beauty that faint, blurred Sketch.
Such then is a brief summary of Samuel’s work, and it justifies us in claiming especial importance
for this portion of Jewish history, independently of the interest connected with the development of two such
extraordinary characters as Saul and David, and with the many remarkable persons grouped around them,
such as Eli and Jonathan, and the brave soldiers who formed the court of the two kings

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