Chapter 5: Israel's History from the Death of Moses to that of David


While the twelve historical books which follow the Pentateuch give us, as we have said in a former chapter, an almost continuous history down to the close of the Old Testament period, the study of this history is facilitated by considering it according to the several distinct periods into which it naturally divides itself. We chose first, as best suiting our present purpose, the one named at the head of this chapter, and we shall set it forth by giving outlines of the several books in which the history is found.

1. Joshua. This book is so called, not because Joshua wrote it, although it is possible that he did so, but because it is he who figures most conspicuously in the transactions which it records.

The book is divided into three distinct parts. The first, beginning where the Pentateuch left off with Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, describes their miraculous passage of the swollen river, and their conquests, in two great campaigns, of the whole land of Canaan, with the exception of a few tribes who were so weakened as not to hinder the settlement of the country by the Hebrews. This brought to a final fulfillment the promise to Abraham that God would give him this land as an inheritance for his posterity. This part includes the first twelve chapters.

The second part, including chapters thirteen to twenty-two, gives the location of the several tribes, chiefly by naming the cities within their respective lots. These chapters might be called the Biblical Geography of Palestine. The student should here take up a good map and learn the location of every tribe, and of all the principal cities, mountains, plains, and waters. The closing part, twenty-third and twenty-fourth chapters, is occupied with two farewell addresses delivered by Joshua, one of the civil office-holders of all Israel, and the other to a mass meeting of the whole people, and with a very brief account of the death and burial of Joshua, and of Eleazer the priest. It also mentions the burial of the bones, or mummy, of Joseph, which had been brought out of Egypt. Israel is now settled as a nation in the promised land, and the promises respecting that land which had been made to Abraham and repeated to Isaac and Jacob, are fulfilled.

2. Judges. This book opens with an account of the separate actions of the several tribes in driving out the Canaanites who were left in their territories after the death of Joshua, though it also contains a repetition of one conquest by the tribe of Judah which had been achieved before Joshua died. Then, in a kind of preface, the author occupies the rest of the first two chapters with a brief statement of the alternate apostasies and deliverances which make up the history in the rest of the book. These two chapters may be styled Part First. Then follows Part Second, chapters three to sixteen, in which sometimes one tribe and sometimes many fall into idolatry; are subdued or greatly harassed by their enemies until they repent and call upon God; are then delivered under the leadership of a Judge raised up by the Lord for the purpose; are kept in the fear of God until the Judge dies, when the same round of events is repeated to the twelfth time. There was no central government; but to answer the purposes of such when necessity required, Judges were providentially raised up and the accounts which we have of them here gave the name Judges to this book.

The third part of the book, chapters seventeen to twenty-one, gives two incidents which have been passed over by the writer to avoid an interruption of the main thread of the history. The one shows how an idolatrous worship which was set up at Dan, and continued there for several centuries, was first inaugurated; and the other shows how the whole nation came together at an early day to punish a great crime, when the city and the tribe within which it had been committed refused to do so.

The general design of the book of Judges seems to be to exhibit the working of both civil and religious law during the first three or four hundred years of Israel's experiences under it. In both respects there had been a comparative failure, as is also true in the history of every nation both ancient and modern; but under this divine discipline many men and women of eminent virtues were developed.

3. Ruth. The romantic incidents of this beautiful story occurred while the Judges ruled in Israel (Ruth 1:1), and one of its purposes, the only one that appears till the closing paragraph brings out another, is to present a better phase of life under the Judges than we find in the book of Judges. This it does in a most charming manner. But at the close we ascertain that it was also intended to show that a woman of Moab was among the material ancestors of David, and to trace the interesting circumstances by which this was brought about. It could scarcely have been written before the reign of David; for it was David's reign that gave public interest to his genealogy.

4. First Samuel. This book begins with the last of the Judges and closes with the death of the first king. It contains, therefore, an account of the change in the form of government. It shows how the political and religious degeneration, which had been going on in the latter part of the rule of the Judges, sank to its lowest point in the moral corruption of the priesthood, when the people came to abhor the sacrifices of Jehovah on account of the wickedness of the priests who offered them. It shows also that political degradation reached its lowest point with the degradation of religion; and that then the ark of the covenant, which was the symbol of God's presence with Israel, was captured and taken away by their old enemies, the Philistines. This introduced an irregularity in the worship on the part of those who continued to serve God, and it led to a demand on the part of the people for a king to rule over them. This demand was treated as a sin of the people, because it was their own sins, and not an inherent defect in the form of government which God had given them, that brought about the failure. Nevertheless, God had foreseen this result, and had provided beforehand for it, and consequently he gave them a king in the person of Saul the son of Kish. In the meantime the prophet Samuel had brought about a great religious reformation among the people, and if Saul had proved to be a faithful servant of God, the affairs of the whole nation would in every way have been greatly improved. But though Saul was a skillful warrior, and fought many victorious battles, he turned away from God in many things, and his career ended in death on the battlefield. His reign closed, as did the rule of the Judges, in a defeat which left the people once more in subjection to the Philistines, once more illustrating the rule that righteousness exalteth a nation, while sin is a disgrace to any people. This is the lesson most strikingly taught by this portion of Israel's history. The book also shows how God prepared another man in the person of David to take the place of Saul, and to reign more worthily than he did. It also strikingly exhibits the career of the greatest prophet who had thus far appeared in Israel since the days of Moses; for Samuel was not only an eminently good man, but he was also a successful ruler, and even a king-maker, seeing that under God he selected and anointed as kings both Saul and David; and until his death, which was mourned by the whole nation, both these men and all the people looked to him for counsel in every great crisis. From this time forward the special officers raised up from time to time to represent God are prophets, as under the preceding period they had been Judges.

5. Second Samuel. In the Hebrew Bible our two books of Samuel are but one; and in the English the history goes on from the one into the other without a break. The division was made for convenience in making references and in finding particular passages. Neither of them bears the name Samuel because Samuel wrote it; but because he figured so largely in starting the course of events which they record. He died before the events in First Samuel had all transpired. The present book opens with David's accession to the throne, first over Judah, and after a seven-years war, over all Israel. The history had now reached the point at which another of the ancient promises of God began to be fulfilled; for it was promised to Jacob, "A nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins" {Genesis 35:11}; and Judah had been pointed out as the son of Jacob through whom this promise should be fulfilled; for in Jacob's dying prophecy about his sons he had said, "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah till Shiloh {2} come" {Genesis 49:10}. In fulfillment of this promise, David, a descendant of Judah by the genealogy recorded in the book of Ruth, was now a reigning king, and his posterity were to reign in succession after him. To show this was a leading design of the book. It also shows, by the career of David, even more strikingly than was seen in the career of Saul, that prosperity attends a king while he serves God, and adversity comes with disobedience; for this book, from the point at which it finds David on the throne, is divided into two very distinct parts, which may be styled, The Prosperous Part of David's Reign (chapters fifth through tenth), and David's Adversity (the twelfth through twenty-fourth chapters). The two parts are separated by the great sin which has been associated with David's name from the day it was exposed until now. The same great lesson is taught in the careers of many men prominently connected with David. This makes the second book of Samuel one of the most profitable for reading and reflection of all the books of the Old Testament.

This book also brings out the fact that the reign of David was a period of decided literary activity in Israel, for it publishes several of David's poems, and it connects the history with the contents of the book of Psalms, many of the poems in which were composed by him. We learn also from the book of Chronicles, that the prophets Samuel, Nathan and Gad, were authors of works which jointly included all the acts of David, "first and last" (1 Chronicles 29:29,30). It is highly probable that at this period the books of Ruth and Judges, and much of the book of Samuel were written. The book of Jasher too, which is mentioned only twice, once to state that it contained an account of Joshua's command to the sun and moon to stand still, and once to say that David's lamentation over the death of Saul was written in it, was probably written at this time, seeing that it is not mentioned in connection with any later event. It was evidently a book of great value and authority, though it was allowed afterward to perish.

During David's reign the reader should not fail to observe that God's chosen messengers to declare his will from time to time, in matters both of government and of morals, continued to exercise authority even over the king. This was especially true of Nathan and Gad, of whom we know little besides this.

{2} The word rendered "Shiloh" is obscure. It may mean "Peace." Somewhat better renderings are "Till he come to Shiloh" (Joshua 18:1) or "Till he to whom it belongs shall come."--W.