Introduction

Introduction

  1. 1–2 Samuel as Mirror
  2. 1–2 Samuel and Story
    1. Specificity and detail
    2. Story and divine redemption
  3. Major Characters
  4. Structure
  5. Plot
  6. Challenges for Interpretation and Preaching
    1. Different time, different culture
    2. Individual and community
    3. Honor and shame
    4. Sex and family
  7. 1–2 Samuel in the Story of Scripture
  8. Theological Themes in 1–2 Samuel
    1. Israel’s God and King
    2. Covenant
    3. Leadership
    4. True worship
    5. Sin and punishment
    6. Hope and Messiah

To read the Old Testament is to read about the God who created the world, who saw His creatures commit treason against their Maker, and who enacted a rescue mission to “reconcile everything to Himself by making peace” through the blood of His one and only Son, Jesus the Messiah (Col 1:20). Jesus is the King. He is the secret of heaven and earth, the secret of Scripture, the clue that unlocks the confusion of our lives. To know and love God, to know and love ourselves, to know and love our fellow humans, and to know and love our world, we must first know this King, Jesus the Messiah. There are many beautiful but troubling things about the theology of Karl Barth, but on this point he gets things right about Jesus:

This man is the secret of heaven and earth, of the cosmos created by God. To know Him is to know heaven and earth in their diversity, unity and createdness, and to know God as their Creator. The Old Testament insight into this matter can thus be understood as meaningful and practicable only if it is understood as the promise, or prototype, of the knowledge of the Messiah. (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1: 21–22)

To read Scripture in this way means we must learn to read the Bible front-to-back and back-to-front. Both practices are vitally important. Reading the Bible front-to-back means beginning at the beginning (Gen 1) and then going to the end (Revelation). As we do, we will discover a God who created everything and who has redeemed everything in His Son, Jesus. As we read front-to-back, we discover God, the One on whom everything depends and the One who deserves all allegiance and worship. We discover His virtues and values. We discover all the major stories, images, and themes present in Israel’s history, the roles each major person in Israel’s history plays, and how the stories of Israel find their fulfillment in Jesus. We see how Jesus really is the culmination and crest of Scripture.

But this way of reading is still not complete. We must learn to read the Bible back-to-front as well. This means that once we see Jesus in the New Testament, we then turn back to the stories of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus and find that He was always there. He is there at creation, and everything is made through Him and for Him. He is the exodus from slavery to freedom. He is the deliverance at the waters of the Red Sea. He is the promised rest for Israel. He is the judge, prophet, priest, and king. Jesus is the temple and the sacrifice. Jesus is the all in all, the beginning and the end, the secret of heaven and earth. Both movements are necessary for a truly evangelical (sometimes called “Gospel-centered” or “Christ-centered”) reading of Scripture. As we read in this way, we will find Christ exalted in the Scriptures, and we will proclaim Christ from them! As we read in this way, we will discover God’s plan for the coming and reigning King.

As a unified narrative, 1–2 Samuel reveals God’s plan for this King. We cannot avoid this fact, and we must understand the significance of the King’s story. The coming of Israel’s king to the world stage marks a watershed moment in history.

The monumental nature of this moment is not due to the nobility, wisdom, or greatness of the kings of Israel, especially when one compares them to other kings in history. In many (perhaps most) ways, the kings of Israel played marginal roles in the political and national goings on in the ancient world. Israel’s kings found themselves caught between major players on the world stage: the hammer of Egypt and the anvil of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley nation-states. Babylon was known for law. Egypt was known for wisdom. Assyria was known for brutal power. The gleam of Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian warlords, and Assyrian kings shone more brightly in history than did the dim light of the kings of the people of Israel. Yet appearances can be deceiving.

As we will see in this commentary, while nations prize visible strength and great wealth, true power comes from the hand of God. The greatness of Israel’s kings has little to do with human greatness at all. What makes the advent of Israel’s king so significant in world history is what God would do with and through him. And this is the story 1–2 Samuel tells.

Readers will notice that in their (English) Bibles, 1–2 Samuel appears to be two books. However 1–2 Samuel is not really two separate books but one book. That is not to say it is seamless and was composed at one time. Clearly there are different portions of the book. Still, these different parts have come together and been incorporated into a unified whole.

In ancient times our two books appear together on one scroll, and they tell one story of major transitions in the life of God’s people. It tells of the transition of Israelite worship at God’s shrine in Shiloh to His worship in Jerusalem, at the central sanctuary. It tells the story of the transition to kingship under Saul, the first king of Israel. It proclaims the transition from Saul’s reign to the reign of David, God’s appointed king. And it shows the story of the transition from Israelite tribal confederacy (as in the book of Judges) to a monarchy. But each of these transitions occurs in one unified and unfolding story. So in this commentary we will be using the language the “book” of Samuel or “1–2 Samuel” to describe the entire account.

Taking stock of the full story of 1–2 Samuel is important for reading and preaching the book. If we exalt Christ in 1–2 Samuel, we should not be content to pick out a story here or there, or a verse here or there, and show how it connects to Jesus, His life, and ministry. Rather, the whole freight of 1–2 Samuel draws us to Jesus, helps us see His beauty and glory, and helps us fit into His story.

1–2 Samuel as Mirror

In so many ways 1–2 Samuel is like a mirror to the modern world. It shows us a society with serious trouble. Among other things this text puts on display

men abusing women,

wives betrayed by husbands,

children gone wild,

corrupt religious leaders,

conspiracy to murder,

deceitful politicians,

power struggles,

and the horrors of war.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The realities in 1–2 Samuel remind us of the modern world because we see them over and over again in our neighborhoods and friendships! You see, we all share the common problem of sin. Sin is, at its root, rebellion against God. It is our way of saying to our Creator that we know more than He does, and as a result we can live as we want rather than living according to His best plan. This was true for ancient Israel, and it is true for us today. So 1–2 Samuel mirrors the modern world.

And as a mirror 1–2 Samuel reveals something else profound: as people turn their backs on God and His ways, the results are catastrophic. What was true for their day is true for ours. Except for God’s gracious help, our sin would swallow us whole.

This point on the persistence and consequences of sin in the book of Samuel stands out because it reminds us of the realism of the biblical books. The actions of the leaders of Israel in the book of Samuel often are atrocious and immoral, and they help expose the foibles of our own leaders. Families, too, appear as dysfunctional as modern families. In the light of the earthiness and messiness of the biblical texts, we should not try to read or preach them by making them more palatable for a religious audience. Nor should we whitewash the problems of the characters presented therein so that we get a sanitized picture of life.

Reading the book of Samuel, we see life in all its gory detail. And as a result, readers who become familiar with the horrors of Scripture discover the vocabulary to speak about the horrors of our own world. God did not give 1–2 Samuel to show us the perfect world or even the best world. That is more the realm of science fiction or utopian novels. First and Second Samuel expose for careful readers the horrors and hope of the real world.

1–2 Samuel and Story

Eugene Peterson reminds us that 1–2 Samuel presents a story with realism and power but that we should not underestimate its power as a story:

Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation. A good storyteller gathers us into the story. We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked, realize there is more to this business of being human than we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, doors and windows open. The Hebrews were good storytellers, good in both the artistic and moral senses. (First and Second Samuel, 2)

Peterson hits the nail on the head. We would take his point one step further: how the author tells the story of 1–2 Samuel is as important as the fact that it is a good story! So, how does this book present the story? We touch on two dialectics: specificity and detail, story and divine redemption.

Specificity and Detail

The author of Samuel presents the narrative with a certain specificity of detail. By using the term specificity, we do not mean that the author gives us all the details. Rather, the author gives only details that carry the story forward to present the message the author wants to convey.

It is similar to the way the Gospels present their stories of Jesus. The apostle John concludes his Gospel by saying,

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)

The point is that John selected only the details that would give the story of Jesus that was necessary to get across his message to the readers of the Gospel. Other things could have been added, to be sure, but the goal was not to give a blow-by-blow report of all Jesus did; the goal was to show how Jesus—the Word of God and Son of God, the Savior of the world, the King of Israel and King of creation—came to live a perfect life, die a sinless death, and rise from the grave so that those who call on His name might be saved and find life eternal.

Similarly, other details could have been added in 1–2 Samuel, but it does not give a blow-by-blow record of all the events in the history of Israel. It is a story with specific details that get across a specific point. So the details that appear in the story are sparse but specific, concise but concrete. Often this means that some details are left out, leaving readers wondering what else was going on in the story! But that is not a bad thing. Peterson argues that the “reticence” to give all the details of the story opens a space for the reader to enter in, join the story, and figure out how (or whether) he or she fits! Biblical authors

show us a spacious world in which God creates and saves and blesses. First through our imaginations and then through our faith—imagination and faith are close kin here—they offer us a place in the story, invite us into this large story that takes place under the broad skies of God’s purposes, in contrast to the gossipy anecdotes that we cook up in the stuffy closet of the self. (Peterson, First and Second Samuel, 2)

Story and Divine Redemption

The major actor in the story of Samuel is none other than Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is His story rather than merely Israel’s story. As a result, the One issuing the call in the book of Samuel is Yahweh. He extends His invitation to come and see what He is doing in His redemption.

Readers catch a glimpse of God’s invitation as the actors in the book respond to Him. Take, for instance, the praise prayers of Hannah (1 Sam 2) and David (2 Sam 22). These songs capture the magnitude of God and His invitation. In each song the singers proclaim the praise of their God. They proclaim that this is the God of redemption:

  • He saves, delivers, and protects (1 Sam 2:1; 2 Sam 22:2-3).
  • He judges the wicked and vindicates the righteous (1 Sam 2:3,9; 2 Sam 22:8-16,21-25).
  • He raises up the lowly and humbles the proud (1 Sam 2:1,3; 2 Sam 22:26-28).
  • He provides life to the barren (1 Sam 2:5).
  • He raises up the poor (1 Sam 2:8).
  • He created the world for His glory (1 Sam 2:8).
  • He strengthens the weak but overpowers the strong (1 Sam 2:4; 2 Sam 22:17-20).
  • He brings life out of death (1 Sam 2:6; 2 Sam 22:6-7).
  • He gives power to His Son, the King of Israel (1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 22:44-51).

Because the story is framed in praise, we are invited to sing the song of our great Redeemer as well. The story of Samuel draws us in: Do we want to know this God? Do we want to receive His invitation to know Him and be known by Him? Reading His story in Samuel takes us on a journey to see who He is, what are His virtues and values, and what He is doing in redemption through Jesus.

Major Characters

Although Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the central character, other characters remain fundamental to the story. Other than Yahweh, 1–2 Samuel presents four major characters:

  1. Hannah (1 Sam 1–2)
  2. Samuel (1 Sam 2–12)
  3. Saul (1 Sam 13–31)
  4. David (1 Sam 13–2 Sam 24)

The plot of the narrative revolves around these characters and those who associate with them. This emphasis will be important in this commentary because it will focus more on these characters than the other characters who serve as agents that propel the story of Hannah, Samuel, Saul, and David. When we look at the book from the opening presentation of Hannah, each character links forward and backward to the other, creating a forward momentum to the narrative.

Hannah gives birth to Samuel.

?Samuel anoints Saul as king.

?Saul’s faulty kingship gives way to David.

?David’s kingship proceeds despite setbacks.

The challenging, scandalous, and unfolding realism presented in Samuel reminds the careful expositor that one cannot teach or preach the parts of Samuel without an eye to the whole. If we want to preach the story of David and Goliath, yet ignore David’s faults with Bathsheba, his terrible faults as a father, or his selfishness in his interaction with his people and with God, then we present an untrue portrait of Israel’s greatest king. A focus on the whole story of the book of Samuel is an urgent need for the church in her preaching and teaching (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 6).

Structure

And the whole story of Samuel is organized along a structure. Authors create books in the Bible to present various messages, and the structure(s) of the books help carry those messages forward. Unfortunately, there is no existing manual from the biblical period—written by Moses or David or anyone else for that matter—that tells us in advance what the structures of biblical books actually are! So, as readers, we are left on an adventure of discovery to figure out the structure(s) of books and how they present the messages the authors want to convey.

When it comes to 1–2 Samuel, a number of possibilities appear for its structure. Peter Leithart helpfully presents the following structure of the book, where repeated elements across both halves draw us to the central concern of the whole (Leithart, A Son to Me, 31):

A – Birth of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1–2:11)/(Hannah’s Song: 1 Sam 2:1-10)

B – Corruption of Eli’s House (1 Sam 2:12–3:21)

C – Exile and Return of the Ark (1 Sam 4:1–7:17)

D – Saul’s Rise (1 Sam 8:1–12:25)

E – Saul’s Fall (1 Sam 13:1–15:33)

F – David in Saul’s House (1 Sam 15:34–20:42)

G – Saul versus David (1 Sam 21:1–27:12)

H – Saul’s Death (1 Sam 28:1–2 Sam 1:27)

G´– House of Saul vs. House of David (2 Sam 2:1–4:12)

F´ – David as King (2 Sam 5:1–9:13)

E´– David’s Fall (2 Sam 10:1–12:31)

D´– Absalom’s Rise (2 Sam 13:1–15:12)

C´– Exile and Return of David (2 Sam 15:13–19:43)

B´– Rebellion of Sheba (2 Sam 20:1-26)

A´– The true King (2 Sam 21:1–24:25)/(David’s Poems: 2 Sam 22:1–23:7)

This structure recognizes the repeated elements within the narrative and is known as a “chiastic” structure. Such structures appear throughout Old Testament narratives, and Leithart’s analysis is sound as it relates to 1–2 Samuel. Following on this structure, the careful expositor will note a few things:

First, poetry frames the entirety of Samuel in Hannah’s and David’s songs (A parallels A´). Poetry also lies at the center of the story (H, where David sings a lament over Saul and Jonathan in 2 Sam 1:19-27). The death of the sinful king of Israel (Saul) opens the way for the new king of Israel (David). The imminent death of the new king (David) then opens the way for the true king of Israel (Jesus). In this way the death of Saul is the hinge on which the plot of Samuel moves.

Second, in the parallel between C and C´, one sees the exile and return of the central tabernacle element (ark) and the new king (David). This parallel is important thematically as it links tabernacle and king. Jesus is the One in whom both the Davidic king and Israelite worship find their ultimate fulfillment and meaning. Jesus is the King of Israel and the place where God’s people find forgiveness from sin.

Third, this structure reveals the eerie parallels between David and Saul (D, E and E´, D´). Saul rises and falls and David rises and falls. The difference between the two lies in their inversion: God raises the Davidic line up once again while the Saulide dynasty is no more after his fall. This reminds the careful exegete that David, for all his greatness, is just a man with all the vicissitudes and foibles of humanity.

David is a type and a shadow of the true King who will come: Jesus the Messiah. David rises again to power because God is faithful to His promises (2 Sam 7); and this foreshadows the fact that God will be faithful to His promises in and through the true King, Jesus the Messiah. Although He will die at the hands of sinful people, God will raise Him up in power.

Plot

One can understand the structure of 1–2 Samuel as organized along a series of plot movements, centered on major figures in the book: Samuel, Saul, and David. Samuel is the prophet, priest, and judge of God’s people who transitions them from the leadership of judges to that of kings. Saul is the first king of Israel, the king of Israel’s choosing but rebellious against the ways of the Lord. David is the second king of Israel but the king of God’s own choosing, a king after God’s heart. We should not be too idealistic with David, however. He is a king who commits murder and adultery, and he is a man with hands full of blood. He is not a perfect person, and so, in his imperfection, he points us to the perfect King, Jesus Christ.

1 Samuel 1–7

The Rise of Samuel and the Kingship of Yahweh

1 Samuel 8–15

The Rise and Fall of Saul, King of Israel

1 Samuel 16–2 Samuel 4

The Rise of David, King of Israel

2 Samuel 5–24

The Reign of David, King of Israel

Within this basic plot line, some points that emerge remain important for preaching and teaching 1–2 Samuel.

First, the story of David is part and parcel of a larger testimony of God’s message in the book. It is tempting to focus sermons and teaching from 1–2 Samuel (almost) solely on David, his life, and his times. This is not altogether inappropriate and can be done well (see Boda, After God’s Own Heart). But if we want to attend to the story of David, we must attend to the message God communicates in the book of Samuel. The life of David in the book remains secondary to the message of the book itself. Faithful interpretation attends to the message of the book of Samuel.

Second, the transitions in the book highlight a common theme in Scripture: the interweaving of divine judgment and salvation. While God judges Eli’s household because of their sin in 1 Samuel 1–3, He simultaneously plans and promises salvation through Samuel in 1 Samuel 1–7 (and as we will see, ultimately, through Jesus). While God judges Saul for his failure to follow God’s requirements as king in 1 Samuel 10–15, He simultaneously plans and promises (and fulfills) a future king after His own heart through David in 1 Samuel 16 (and as we will see, ultimately, through Jesus).

Judgment and salvation are part of the two-step rhythm of Scripture. God judges wickedness and sin, yet His love and compassion in salvation extend higher, wider, farther, and deeper than we could ever imagine. Exodus 34 beautifully captures the connection between divine judgment and salvation:

Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exod 34:6-7)

Judgment and salvation together reveal the character of Israel’s God, Yahweh. God’s judgment is sure (to the third and fourth generation) and just. Yet note the grand extent of God’s faithful love and forgiveness: “to a thousand generations.” The point of this text is not to give us a calendar for how long judgment or salvation ensues, as if we could say, “Whew! I’m in the fifth generation. I suppose God’s judgment does not extend to me!” Or alternatively, “Oh no! I’m in the thousand-and-first generation. God’s faithful love does not extend to me!” No. These timelines are there to illustrate the judgment and salvific mercy of God. While His judgment is sure, God’s faithful love and forgiveness extend beyond His judgment to His people. This really is good news, and we see it in 1–2 Samuel. Although He judges His people, His priests, and His kings (even David!) because of their sin, His faithful love extends beyond judgment to preserve His people, provide faithful priests, and present us with a future Davidic king, Jesus the Messiah, who will save the world from sin.

Third, the final emphasis of the book is on the God of Israel who leads us to Jesus. Both of us (J. D. and Heath) grew up in churches where it was common to hear a teaching about the people in Scripture whom Christians should emulate. In interpretation this process is known as a “character study” on a biblical person. So, for 1–2 Samuel, we learn about Samuel or David, their character, and emulate their “heart” so that we can have a heart like them. Only then will God bless us. This is, in fact, the thesis of the highly popular study of 1 Samuel by the popular pastor Warren Wiersbe, particularly focused on David (Be Successful). David certainly was a man after God’s own heart. And we do want to learn from him. But the question that needs to haunt us as we look at the whole of the book is this: if we are going to do a character study, which character should we study as most important?

For 1–2 Samuel, the primary actor who takes center stage, the One from whom we learn and whose voice we strain to hear, is God Himself. Israel’s God, Yahweh, remains always and ever the One who raises up Samuel, Saul, and then David. He is the One who brings down Eli and Saul, and He is the One who is praised in the opening and closing of the book of Samuel (1 Sam 2 and 2 Sam 22–23).

The goal of reading 1–2 Samuel is to hear what this God might say to us from the book. The stories of 1–2 Samuel (like most of the narratives of the Old Testament) are there for our instruction (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:1-14) so that we might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Growth in Christ means that we learn who God is, what God values, and what God is doing with His people in the book of Samuel. Still, when we learn to read the book to hear God’s address, a number of challenges present themselves, creating obstacles to hearing God’s word well.

Challenges for Interpretation and Preaching

Different Time, Different Culture

Despite the fact that we have said the story of 1–2 Samuel is a mirror to the modern world, we must be honest and affirm that much of the book seems far distant from us today, especially the Western world (North America and continental Europe). This is because it is culturally distant from the modern world. The stories of kings and priests as well as prophets and witches seem strange to “enlightened” people with smart phones, advances in modern science, and a globalized culture. These tales from Samuel take us back to “the dark ages”! For example, the “witch” of Endor from 1 Samuel 28:3-25 will catch a modern reader’s attention. We have found that many Christian readers in our American contexts don’t know what to do with this story. What political leader today would put a witch on his or her official cabinet as a paid advisor? But this is the practice of King Saul, at least almost. He consults a witch to make a decision. A witch is his advisor, though she is not in his royal court. I (Heath) remember teaching 1–2 Samuel in class one day when a student boldly declared that I should stop talking about witches because they are “unbiblical.” Clearly he had not read 1 Samuel 28! A strange story indeed. For those who live in the Western world, these realities seem like the stuff of legend.

But for those who live and work in majority world contexts, kings and prophets, priests and witches are not the stuff of legend but part of the normal order of things. The careful reader needs to become familiar with the customs and social structures reflected in the Old Testament to get a bearing on what is going on in the text of 1–2 Samuel. A couple of good resources we have found are by Chalmers (Exploring the Religion), Matthews and Benjamin (The Social World of Ancient Israel), and King and Stager (Life in Biblical Israel).

Individual and Community

Another thing we can mention about the strangeness of 1–2 Samuel has to do with how it speaks to the community of God’s people primarily and then secondarily to individual readers or hearers. The question for 1–2 Samuel is not, what does this text mean to me? The question it answers is, what does this text mean for us? The book’s viewpoint is oriented more to the collective group than to the individual. What this means in practice is that the stories are oriented more to God’s work with the group rather than with the individual.

When we read Samuel, we should not be thinking it addresses God’s will for my life exclusively, but rather it speaks to what God is doing with our lives together. Again this perspective is decidedly non-Western, where the value is the individual over and above all others. So those who live and work in non-Western or majority world contexts likely will find familiar ground in Samuel’s stories while the rest of us have to work to get there.

Honor and Shame

The book of Samuel arises out of an honor-shame structure of society, which is inherently foreign to Western readers. In the biblical world, honor was the ability of a household to care for its own members and the ability to take care of a neighboring household when it faced dire circumstances such as drought, death, or war (Matthews and Benjamin, The Social World of Ancient Israel, 142–44).

Individuals in a household would act in such a way that brought it honor and avoid behavior that brought it shame. Shame was the inability for a household to provide for its members or its covenant partners. In the Old Testament honor and shame were closely tied to a family’s fidelity to Israel’s God.

Honor and shame dynamics appear throughout the narrative of 1–2 Samuel. For example, note the following elements in the book:

  • The grievous sins of Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, not only bring shame on his father and the priesthood, but they shame the God they serve. Or, as the text reads: “They had no regard for the Lord” (1 Sam 2:12) and treated the Lord’s sacrifice “with contempt” (1 Sam 2:17). Their infidelity to God brought shame on their household rather than honor.
  • David takes great care to honor Saul as the anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 26:8-25). David cares for Saul’s household, as he is the anointed king and he does not want to bring shame on his God or his king by harming the anointed of God.
  • The name of “Ish-bosheth,” Saul’s son (2 Sam 2–4), means “man of shame.” As he attempts to succeed Saul as king over Israel, his name casts an ominous shadow over his attempt to rule.
  • Amnon’s rape of Tamar is not merely unethical, but it brings great shame on Tamar. Amnon does not care for his household but creates tension and strife within it. The rape not only is an affront to God, but Tamar also frames the horrific violation in terms of honor and shame. The rape “humiliates” (2 Sam 13:12) and brings “disgrace” (v. 13).
  • Absalom’s murder of Amnon for raping Tamar is an exercise of honor killing (2 Sam 13:32-33). Western readers likely see it purely in terms of vengeful murder. The honor-shame dynamic likely does not enter into their interpretation.
  • Absalom’s revolt against David, his father, in 2 Samuel 15–16 is not merely unethical. Even more so, it brings dishonor, or shame, to his father. It exposes David as unable to provide for or protect his household. This is one of the major reasons Absalom has sexual intercourse with each of David’s concubines after running his father out of the capital. Absalom engages in this act in the sight of all Israel to publicly shame David and solidify his authority before the people and denigrate David’s authority as king and head of his own household (see 2 Sam 16:21-22).

The actions of those in the book of Samuel are governed not only by what we would term “ethics.” They are inherently informed by what would bring honor or shame to the larger social group in which the offender lives.

For this reason we need to take care not to impose Western values onto an ancient Near Eastern society out of which 1–2 Samuel originated. So, for instance, it might seem ridiculous that David would want to go out and destroy Nabal’s entire household (1 Sam 25:1-44) because Nabal essentially disrespected him. But in that culture an action that brought shame on David—especially considering the narrative reveals that he is the anointed of God—necessitates action to preserve the honor of the Davidic house. Nabal’s faithful wife, Abigail, recognizes who David is, steps in, and ameliorates her husband’s dishonor by bringing greater honor to David. As a result, David does not go through with his plan.

Does all this sound strange (and perhaps unethical)? Perhaps to Western ears but not to those in majority world contexts! The alert reader must attune his or her interpretative ears to the different music that comes from an honor-shame culture.

Sex and Family

Another thing that makes this book strange for Western readers is the sexual and family structure. In 1–2 Samuel, polygamy is common: King David had at least seven wives, and probably eight, not counting concubines.[1]One should not apologize or try to downplay this reality in the text. However, just because the text describes David’s polygamy does not mean God prescribes such family and sexual norms!

When one reads the rest of the story, multiple wives and the sordid family of David turn out to be a problem, not an ideal. The narrative shows the problem of dysfunctional and illicit sexual and family structures rather than telling it overtly. That is the point. As readers, we are invited to see the problems of David and his family and, using our sanctified imaginations, we have the opportunity to respond: “What a tragedy! What a dysfunctional family. I know my family is not perfect to be sure, but that’s not the kind of family model we want to emulate!”

Of course, the world Church often engages the issue of polygamy because those they reach with the gospel are sometimes part of families with more than one wife! For instance, while teaching in Ethiopia, I (Heath) learned of how the church wrestled mightily with how to address polygamy once those who engaged in it converted to Christ. Their reactions varied. Some churches demanded immediate divorce for all wives except the one who was first married to the husband. However, this put terrible strain and social shame on the divorced wives and their children. Other churches allowed converted polygamous families to be baptized and normalized in the life of the church as a concession but taught that polygamy was not the ideal. Polygamous men were excluded from eldership and leadership as well. The church taught monogamous marriage to the second generation in the family and held it as the ideal (grounded in Gen 1–2), with the firm belief that polygamy would recede from the life of the church. Indeed, those who read Scripture with non-Western eyes perhaps can grasp the nettle of sex and sexuality in Samuel better than Western readers!

We argue that monogamous marriage remains the norm and ideal, not least on the foundational teaching of Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:5. But for Western eyes illicit sex and different family structures (multiple wives and concubines) seem odd because these are so commonplace in 1–2 Samuel, and they just don’t mesh with Western values. (Well, maybe the illicit sexuality does mesh, and the polygamous relationships do not, but who knows? Modern American culture is ever shifting away from God’s norms.) Again, just because the text describes this kind of activity does not mean it prescribes such family and sexual norms.

Teachers and preachers of the book of Samuel must wrestle with each of these challenges (and probably more!) as they engage the text. This commentary will address these issues along the way as we work through the narrative. We hope our wrestling with these issues gives a helpful model for how expositors might handle them in their own preaching or teaching contexts.

1–2 Samuel in the Story of Scripture

There is another challenge to bring up in this introduction. The book of Samuel is not an isolated story in the Bible. It is part of a bigger story that extends from Genesis through 2 Kings on the one hand and from Genesis through Revelation on the other. We should not forget this as we read and preach 1–2 Samuel. Although the Bible is a coat of many colors, it is still one coat! We will look at both of these in turn.

Scholars often call the section of Scripture from Genesis through 2 Kings the “Primary History.” To understand the book of Samuel well, we need to place it against the broader canvas of the Primary History, which tells the true story of the world:

  1. God’s creation of the world (Gen 1–2)
  2. Humanity’s fall into sin (Gen 3–4)
  3. God’s purification of the world from its wickedness (Gen 6–9)
  4. God’s plan for the healing of the world through Abraham’s family, Israel (Gen 12–22)
  5. God’s calling of Israel to be a light to the nations in the land of Canaan, with their responsibilities (Exodus–Deuteronomy)
  6. Israel’s entrance into the land and general problem with sin (Joshua–Judges)
  7. Israel’s transition from a tribal confederacy to a nation under the Davidic King (1–2 Samuel)
  8. The sin and exile of the Davidic monarchy and the people of God (1–2 Kings)

When we look at the Primary History, it raises important questions. These questions remain crucial for our answering:

Where are we? We are in God’s created world, with an important role to play in His creation. There is a God who creates: He is loving, powerful, and infinitely good. He creates a world that thrives and flourishes and lives. This world is ordered, symmetrical, and good according to Genesis 1. Everything has its place and rests under the loving care of its Creator.

Who are we? We are human beings, created in the image of the Creator God, and His vice-regents on the earth. We are creatures in God’s creation. We are not gods, but God has made humanity to be in relationship with Him, our fellow humans, and His created world.

Why are we here? We are created to be fruitful in God’s world, to multiply, to order and rule the world in a way that imitates God’s creative and orderly creation of the world. We cannot do what God has done, but we can create culture and work in a way that imitates God’s loving care. Work, then, is part of what it means to be human as we relate to God, one another, and the world (Gen 1–2).

What has gone wrong? The Primary History tells us that our frustration, disappointment, and pain in life arise as a direct result of human sin. It tells us that human sin is the internal desires and external actions that lead us to live outside of God’s good order for His world. So we think we can live outside the lines of God’s care. We think we know better than Him, and therefore we live like it. Unfortunately, sin corrupts the primary relationships for which God creates humanity: relationship with God, relationship with our fellow human, and relationship with the world. As a result, our relationships and our work—indeed our very lives—are stained and twisted by sin, leading to rivalry, frustration, domination, and horrors (Gen 3).

What happened next? In the face of corrupting sin, God does not junk the world He made because God does not make junk! Rather, God goes on a rescue mission to bring back the broken world to Himself. This act of bringing what is lost and broken back to Himself is called “redemption.” God’s mission is to “redeem” the world back to Himself, and He does this in and through a specific family, the family of Israel. The father of the family, Abraham, is given special promises (Gen 12; 15; 17; and 22). These promises are that God will grant Abraham and his family a name, a land, and children (Gen 12:2-3). This family is later called the people of Israel (Gen 24–50), and through this family all the nations on the earth will experience God’s blessing (Gen 12:2-3). So Abraham’s family will be the channel through which God’s blessings will flow. But to be this channel of blessing, God’s people must put away sin and follow Him only (Exod 19:4-6). As they follow their God, all the nations on the earth will see the light of God and be drawn to Him (Exod 19:4-6; Deut 4). Israel, however, has a perennial problem with following God. Sometimes they do, but often they do not. This is true early on (Exodus–Numbers) in their relationship with Him but also deep into their story in the land He gives them (Deuteronomy–Kings). It is true when they have a leader like Moses (Exodus–Deuteronomy), and it is true when they have charismatic leaders to lead them after Moses (Joshua–Judges). It is true when they have kings who rule over them as well (Samuel–Kings). By the end of the book of Kings, God exiles His people from the land because of their sin. What will happen to God’s redemption of the world? How will God’s promises end up? What will happen now? The remainder of the Scriptures through the book of Revelation tell the rest of the story.

In the face of Israel’s sin, God remained faithful to His promises. In 1–2 Samuel, God promises salvation through the royal line of David, Israel’s anointed king. The book of Psalms and the prophet Isaiah in particular show that this Davidic King is the ruler of Israel and all nations, the Son of God, and the One through whom all the nations will be blessed. The prophecy of Isaiah shows that this Davidic King will renew Israel and restore creation but not through a victorious battle over enemy nations. Rather, the Davidic King will renew and restore all by suffering on behalf of the sins of others. In His suffering and death, the Davidic King will provide the solution to the sin problem (forgiveness of sins: Isa 53) and will be the key that unlocks the healing of creation (the kingdom of God: Isa 60–65).

The New Testament tells us that this Davidic King, the Son of God and the descendant of Abraham, is none other than the man Jesus the Messiah. He was born of a virgin, preached the coming of the kingdom of God, suffered unjustly under Jewish and Gentile (Roman) officials, and died a cruel death on a cross.

The miracle of all is that His suffering and death on a cross brought forgiveness of sins and the healing of creation. Jesus died, but He did not stay dead. God raised Him up from the grave on the third day after His crucifixion. His resurrection proves that Jesus is the suffering and saving Messiah pictured in Isaiah and the Psalms, and He is the fulfillment of all God promised to Abraham and David.

Moreover, in Jesus the problem of human sin finds its solution for those who believe in His work and live under His lordship and care. The New Testament also pictures the future rule of Jesus, the Davidic Messiah. As He puts death, sin, and corruption under His feet, Jesus makes all things new (Rev 21:5). Those who believe in Christ Jesus become princesses and princes in God’s world, utterly reconciled back to God as His daughters and sons (2 Cor 6:18, drawing on 2 Sam 7:14). The apostle Paul boldly affirms that those who have faith in Christ now are in the family of God, the family of David. The Church, then, in Christ becomes the agent through which Davidic blessings flow!

The book of Samuel introduces readers to King Jesus: He is from the family of David, God’s anointed and appointed ruler for Israel. Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Israel and the fulfillment of the hope of the Davidic king. He is the true King of Israel and the Lord over all creation.

This point is revealed clearly in the opening lines of the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew opens by stating, “The historical record of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Why is Jesus identified first as the Son of David rather than the Son of Abraham? Historically, of course, Abraham came first! The reason is that Matthew emphasizes the Davidic kingship of Jesus.

The closing lines of the Gospel of Matthew affirm this point and take it further. In Matthew 28, the Davidic King is recognized as the crucified and risen Savior, the King of all things. Jesus has suffered, died for sin on a cruel cross, was buried, rose again from the grave validating His royal and divine power, and appeared to many. God the Father grants all authority to Jesus. Possessing all authority over the whole of creation (“in heaven and on earth”), King Jesus commissions those who are in His family to go into the entire world and proclaim the good news: He has died for the forgiveness of sin. He has risen, defeating death and vindicating life. He is King of all things! So the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel reads,

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)

The book of Samuel helps us see a key component in the way God achieves His project of redemption: from Israel, the royal line of David will be key in providing the King who will heal the brokenness of the entire world.

Theological Themes in 1–2 Samuel

Israel’s God and King

Samuel presents to its readers “Yahweh,” the covenant God of Israel (1 Sam 17:45; 2 Sam 6:2). The name Yahweh is the name God gives in Exodus 3:14-15, when Moses asks for it. Yahweh is the personal name for God, worthy to be praised and honored as the Holy One of Israel, who expects Israel to be holy as He is holy. As Moses and the Israelites sang of Yahweh in the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15:

Who is like You

among the gods, O Yahweh?

Who is like You,

glorious in holiness,

awesome in praise,

doing wonders? (Exod 15:11, authors’ translation)

Yahweh is high and mighty, holy beyond compare, awesome and worthy of praise, beautiful, and a miracle-working God! He is worthy of all honor and fidelity that is due Him. If God’s people do not follow Him, then they walk away at their peril. Yahweh is the giver of life to those who follow Him, yet He by no means clears the guilty but punishes iniquity and sin (see Exod 34:6-7). He is high and holy, the source of all love, faithfulness, and salvation. So Hannah sings in 1 Samuel 2:2:

There is no one holy like the Lord[Yahweh].

There is no one besides You!

And there is no rock like our God.

Further, Yahweh is King. As scholar David Firth rightly argues, the book of Samuel reminds us that any and all

human authority exists under Yahweh’s reign, a theme that comes to prominence under David’s closing songs (2 Sam 22:1–23:7). Apart from Yahweh, Israel’s kings have no authority. (1 & 2 Samuel, 43)

We are reminded of Jesus’ final words in the Great Commission, that God has granted Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18). Jesus’ authority as King was given by the Father, and He rules as one who lives to do the will of the One who sent Him. As Jesus says,

“I can do nothing on My own. I judge only as I hear, and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30)

As we see in Hannah’s song, although utterly holy and wholly other, Yahweh, the divine King, is the One who enters into a deep and abiding relationship with His people. He cares for them as a parent cares for a child. He strengthens the weak, lifts up the lowly, and hears the cries of the suffering! King Yahweh is the heavenly Father.

Yahweh desires to relate with His people. This is no grey-haired Zeus who stands far above, only watching the affairs of his people but never getting involved with them. Yahweh is no deist blind watchmaker. Rather, the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the One with whom Israel must deal, the One with whom Israel has the joy of relating. The name Yahweh occurs no fewer than 6,700 times in the Old Testament, by one scholar’s count, highlighting the importance of understanding God in the Old Testament as Yahweh, the holy Creator-God and intimate covenant Lord (Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 41).

Covenant

Yahweh is revealed in the covenants He makes with His people. Covenants in the Old Testament are not contracts as we understand them today. If two parties enter into a business contract (such as a cellular phone contract), then both parties must abide by the contract. If one party breaches the terms of the contract, then the contract is null and void, and the business relationship is off.

However, covenants in the Old Testament are not like that, especially if we are speaking of divine covenants Yahweh establishes by His own prerogative. The Old Testament has six such divine covenants. Significantly, one of them appears in 2 Samuel 7. These covenants make up the backbone of the story line of Scripture.[2]Six covenants appear in the Old Testament:

  1. God’s covenant with creation (Gen 1–2; 9). In the covenant with creation, God establishes a world that is good and thriving. God sees His world, and it is very good. In His world God creates humanity to serve as His vice-regents. Humanity is made to relate to God, to fellow humans, and to the created world. God creates humanity to cultivate His world so that it thrives, a good place for the good of all.
  2. God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 6–9). Humanity rebelled against their Maker, thinking themselves to be like their God (Gen 3). So Adam and Eve fell into sin, and every human after them has fallen into the same pattern. The text describes the activity of humanity as “corrupt” in Genesis 6:3 and goes further to say that “every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). But God purified the world with a flood that covered the earth. The waters purified the world of human sin, and God preserved one family, the family of Noah, through whom He would repopulate the earth and bring blessing to the world. God establishes His covenant with Noah in Genesis 8–9 and promises never again to flood the earth with water; rather, Noah and his family will be the channel of blessing through whom God will bless the world.
  3. God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12; 15;17; 22). Noah’s descendants carry the line of divine blessing, particularly through the lineage of Noah’s son Shem, whose descendant is a man named Abram (God later changes his name to Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”). God promises Abraham a great name, a land, and descendants. Through the line of Abraham, all the families of the earth will find God’s blessing. Abraham has a large family, true to God’s promise, and his descendants constitute the 12 tribes, which are called Israel.
  4. God’s covenant with Israel (Exod 19–23; Deuteronomy). God establishes a covenant with Israel to make them His chosen possession. They are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:4-6; Deut 7:6-11). God’s people are to be a lighthouse in the land where He plants them so they might shine His light out to all nations, so they in turn will know Israel’s God. Israel, then, is a missional people set among the nations.[3]God establishes a covenant with the family of Abraham because of neither their righteousness nor their power (Deut 7:6-11; 9:4-6). Rather He establishes a covenant with them out of His divine grace and on the basis of His former promise to Abraham. Thus, God will accomplish His purpose of blessing the whole world and reconciling it back to Himself, and He will accomplish this through the family of Abraham and His covenant with Israel.
  5. God’s covenant with David (2 Sam 7). The covenant with Israel is narrowed down to the royal family line in the reign of David, the true king of Israel. God promises to be a “father” to David and his royal line, and Israel’s Davidic king will be a “son” of God. Yahweh promises a great name, a dynastic house, and land. These promises are similar to the Abrahamic promises (see the parallel in the exegesis of 2 Samuel 7 in the commentary below). This covenant is important because the Davidic king represents the people and mediates for the people. As a result, as goes the king in Israel, so go the people! If the king stays faithful to God, then the people will remain faithful as well. If the king strays, then the people will wander from fidelity to Yahweh too.
  6. God’s new covenant (Jer 31–33). All the covenants are partially fulfilled and un fulfilled in the Old Testament. That is because the covenants anticipate something greater: a new covenant. This covenant is only called “new” in Jeremiah 31–33, but it is pictured in a number of other Old Testament texts. What is the new covenant? It is the fulfillment of all the covenants. God’s people will dwell securely in God’s land under God’s rule (Jer 31:31-40; 33:25-26; a fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Israelite covenants). His divinely appointed Davidic King will reign eternally (Jer 33:14-18; a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant). God’s covenant with creation and Noah will be fulfilled as well, as the entire created world is reaffirmed, and sin and death are no more (Jer 31:35-37; 33:25-26). Divine forgiveness for human sin is secured, and atonement is secured, forever. God says in the new covenant, “I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin” (Jer 31:34). In the new covenant Yahweh proclaims,

    They will be My people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way so that for their good and for the good of their descendants after them, they will fear Me always. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never turn away from doing good to them. (Jer 32:38-40)

These covenants are not contracts. Because God initiates them in each case, God will see them through even if the covenant partner fails to obey the terms of the covenant. In short God’s covenant plan will not fail in the face of human sin. Rather, God will achieve His purposes. We know from the Old Testament that all the covenants will be fulfilled in the new covenant. We know that the time of the new covenant will mean an end to sin, and forgiveness will be complete. The new covenant, then, is the climax of all the covenants.

But Jeremiah never stipulates the mechanism by which this new covenant will come about, only that it will be accomplished at the initiative of Yahweh. Other prophetic texts (Isaiah and the Psalms, for example) do stipulate that the Davidic King, who is Messiah, will bear the sins of many and be raised victorious. They do not, however, clearly link this action of this Davidic Messiah to the new covenant. Because of this, connections between Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isa 53), the Psalms’ Davidic King (Pss 1–2), and the new covenant in Jeremiah sit rather loosely together.

What is loosely connected or dimly portrayed in the Old Testament, however, finds brilliant and radiant illumination in the ministry of God’s Son, Jesus. According to the New Testament writings, Jesus is the firstborn over all creation, the hope of salvation, the seed of Abraham, the faithful Mosaic teacher, the Davidic King, the true and faithful Israelite, the perfect priest, the teacher of all righteousness, the temple, the sacrificial lamb, the true prophet, the wise teacher, and the instigator of the new covenant. Jesus is the One who brings about the new covenant that is anticipated in the Old Testament texts. So the writer of Hebrews says,

Therefore, He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance, because a death has taken place for the redemption from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. . . .

But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment—so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him. (Heb 9:15,26b-29)

Jesus brings about the forgiveness of sin and restoration of all things to which the new covenant testifies! His sacrifice for sin on the cross bears sin once for all, and His victorious resurrection provides the guarantee of new life for all who believe.

Leadership

The book of Samuel reveals the significance of leadership among God’s people. Good leaders love the Lord wholeheartedly and lead God’s people to do the same. Good leaders draw God’s people to appropriate worship, which is a theme described more fully below.

However, leadership in Samuel often fits the description of the offices of leadership presented in Deuteronomy 16–18: judge, prophet, priest, and king.

Judge. There are two offices of “judge” in the Old Testament. The first is what we find in Deuteronomy 16:18–17:13—the role of an appointed official who operates without partiality or corruption to settle disputes among God’s people. This is one who gives “righteous judgments” to God’s people as he adjudicates. The second office of “judge” in the Old Testament comes in the book of Judges—a charismatic leader anointed and appointed by God to lead God’s people, to settle disputes (Deborah, for example, is described as a judge and prophet in Judg 4:4), and to deliver God’s people from oppressors. In the book of 1–2 Samuel, Eli (1 Sam 4:18) and Samuel (1 Sam 7:15) are judges in this latter sense of the word: leaders who settled disputes and led all God’s people.

Priest. The role and office of Levitical priest is found in Deuteronomy 18:1-8. The Levites were those who received sacrifices from God’s people and mediated between God and the people. They also had the role of teaching God’s people His law. Eli is a priest in 1 Samuel 1–2, where we find that Eli and his household are not mediating between God and Israel faithfully. The failure of priestly leadership is the reason God will raise up a “faithful priest” who will do all that is in God’s heart and mind. He will faithfully mediate between Yahweh and Israel. In the narrative we know that this priest is Samuel (1 Sam 2:18; cf. Exod 28:4), but ultimately Samuel and the Scriptures show that the priest is Jesus (Heb 8).

Prophet. The role and office of prophet remains significant in the book of 1–2 Samuel. Samuel is clearly a prophet (1 Sam 3:18-21), and David has prophets in his court (Nathan, 2 Sam 12; Gad, 2 Sam 22–24). What is a prophet? Biblical prophecy originates with God, who gives messages to a prophet. A prophet, then, is a spokesperson for God, who declares God’s ways and words to a particular people. In the Bible prophets can be both men and women, and we find this in the New Testament as well. Male prophets we know more often, perhaps, because they have books that bear their names: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, for example. But there is clear evidence of female prophets as well: Miriam (Exod 15:20-21), Deborah (Judg 4–5), Isaiah’s mother (Isa 8:3), and Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), for example. Prophets could come from any portion of the society, whether in the royal house (Isaiah), in priestly families (Haggai, Zechariah, and perhaps Habakkuk), or from the farming community (Amos and Elisha). According to the teaching of Deuteronomy, prophets speak only what God gives them to speak, nothing more and nothing less (see Deut 13 and 18). With this in mind, it might be tempting to think God gave prophets spontaneous speeches to the people when they were under some form of trance or divine possession. However, that is not usually the way prophetic speech works. While prophets were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21 ESV), they used a traditional set of speech patterns to communicate God’s messages. This makes one think prophetic preaching is a learned form of communication, although the individual personalities and creative styles shine through as well.[4]Eli, David, and Saul are not prophets, though Saul is a curious case where people wondered whether he was “among the prophets” (1 Sam 19:24).

King. Saul and David are anointed and appointed as king in the book of Samuel.

Saul:

1 Samuel 8:9-18; 9:18-22; 10

David:

1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Samuel 2; 5; 7

Neither Eli nor Samuel is called “king.” The appeal of God’s people at Ramah for Samuel to “appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:5) is interpreted as an act of rebellion against God, their true King. So Samuel would not lead them at all beyond the role of a judge. It is extraordinarily telling that God predicted His people would ask for a king like all the other nations had.Deuteronomy 17:14 reveals that God knew the people would want a king like all the other nations. But God wanted a king after His own heart.

Kingship is not a bad thing, and the Scriptures anticipate kingship at a number of points throughout the first five books of the Old Testament. However, the appeal by God’s people for a king “the same as all the other nations have” exposes their wayward hearts. The law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 forbids

  1. Israel from setting a foreign king over them, restricting it to a fellow Israelite (Deut 17:15);
  2. the king from gaining a large number of horses for a cavalry or chariot force, effectively circumscribing the military power of the king (Deut 17:16); and
  3. the king from amassing great wealth through taxation of the people or incursions into foreign kingdoms to amass plunder (Deut 17:17).

Effectively, the king’s power is balanced or kept in check by the Lord, His law, and the authority of the Levitical priests, who teach God’s law (Deut 17:18-20). The king, then, is to be the leader who loves the Lord and loves his neighbor, both his fellow Israelite and the foreigner. So long as the king loved God, followed His word, and led the people to do the same, the king would remain in power, and all would be well.

The leadership offices are important for 1–2 Samuel. They highlight the importance of Samuel, who was prophet, priest, judge, and almost king. And they highlight the importance of David, who was anointed and appointed by God and served Him as one who lived his life after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). However, the book of Samuel reveals that neither Saul nor David lived up to the standard and failed ultimately in this regard.

But the failures of Israel’s leaders in 1–2 Samuel show how Israel still searches for the true leader, the true prophet, the true priest, and the true king! The New Testament confirms that this long-sought-after figure was none other than Jesus.

Jesus is the Judge. He is the One who adjudicates and leads His people. In the New Testament, Jesus is the One who arbitrates among many nations and casts out the wicked and vindicates the righteous. This is done in the last days, so it is apparent what is in black and white in the persons of Eli and Samuel comes to full color in the person of Jesus. In fact, Jesus will be the Judge who adjudicates all things (Acts 10:42; 17:31; 2 Cor 5:10). In Revelation 19:11, the notion of Jesus as the Judge who delivers from oppression takes hold as well: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness.”

Jesus is the Prophet. Over and over again characters in the Gospels characterize Jesus as a “prophet” (Matt 14:5; 16:14; 21:46; Mark 6:15; 8:28; Luke 7:16; 9:8,19; 24:19; John 4:19; 7:40; 9:17). Jesus self-identifies as a prophet while indicating that God’s prophets (such as He) will not receive honor in their hometowns (Luke 4:24). As a prophet, Jesus performed many of the miracles one finds performed by Old Testament prophets (esp. Elijah), such as raising the dead, multiplying food, and healing (Witherington, Jesus the Seer, 333; Brodie, The Crucial Bridge). He also spoke the word of the Lord, as one would expect from the true prophet of God. Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God to speak God’s word, particularly about the kingdom of God. In this latter act Jesus is the eschatological Prophet of the new covenant. His prophetic word then deals with God’s appointed time of judgment and salvation for the people of God, which would usher in God’s reign.

Jesus is the Priest. The writer of Hebrews teaches that Jesus is a greater priest than all who have gone before Him. But this is difficult because Jesus does not derive from a priestly family according to His genealogy (e.g., Matt 1:1-17). Jesus comes from a royal family (from the Davidic line and the tribe of Judah) but not a priestly family like the tribe of Levi. No matter. Hebrews tells us that Jesus was a priest in the order of an earlier priestly family, namely, that of Melchizedek (from Gen 14:18-20). Melchizedek’s priesthood is an eternal priesthood and, therefore, better than that of the Levites (cf. Ps 110:4). Jesus, then, is able to mediate eternally on behalf of those who come to Him to be reconciled to God.

Jesus is the King. Kingship remains central to His identity. The term messiah is a claim about Jesus’ divine anointing and appointing to do the work of salvation that would belong only to the Davidic king (Isa 53; 61). Jesus was killed as the “king of the Jews” (Matt 27:37), a mocking title the Romans gave Him, which actually spoke the truth they did not know or understand. Jesus the King preached the arrival of the kingdom of God, and the early church confirmed that Jesus was the true King (Acts 17). Jesus is the “Son of David” in the genealogy of Matthew 1, confirming that Jesus is the One through whom the promises of 2 Samuel 7 come to absolute fruition.

True Worship

Worship frames the book of Samuel, as we see in the structure of the book, above (A and A´). The opening of Samuel begins with Hannah’s prayer and praise to God at the temple (1 Sam 1–2). The conclusion of the book of Samuel contains David’s praise and prayer (2 Sam 22:1–23:7) and focuses on David’s plan to build a temple for Yahweh where all peoples can worship Him (2 Sam 24:18-25). So we see that a focus on worship serves as bookends to the book of Samuel.

Many readers of the Old Testament may not know that the worship of God in Jerusalem, at the temple, was not always the norm in Israelite faith. The book of Samuel presents a movement from the worship of God at the tabernacle in Shiloh to the worship of God in Jerusalem, the new place of Davidic rule. Although David cannot build the temple, the narrative of Samuel reveals that his son (Solomon) can and will (see 1 Kgs 6–8).

First Samuel opens with a focus on worship at Shiloh, which was corrupt. This is not so because of Hannah—she is faithful! But it is so because of the lack of vision, discernment, and faithfulness of the priesthood at Shiloh. At the shrine in Shiloh, the high priest Eli and his sons (Hophni and Phinehas) minister before the Lord. But this family reveals itself to be faulty and wicked. The sins of the sons will be discussed in the commentary, but note the characterization of Eli in 1 Samuel 1–3:

  • He can’t differentiate prayer from drunkenness in 1 Samuel 1 (lack of discernment).
  • He loves a good meal more than his God in 1 Samuel 2 (lack of discipline).
  • He neither sees God nor hears God’s voice in 1 Samuel 3 (lack of spiritual vision).

As a result of the failure of the father and his sons, God will raise up a priest for His people, and this priest is Samuel: “Then I will raise up a faithful priest for Myself. He will do whatever is in My heart and mind” (1 Sam 2:35). Because of the problem with the priests and the need for a true priest, the opening chapters of the book expose the problem of true worship among God’s people, especially God’s leaders.

What does the book of Samuel teach about true worship? The secret to true worship is aligning inward devotion and outward obedience out of our love of God and His gospel. God does not demand only interior devotion in the heart; that is a common myth perpetuated by purveyors of empty piety who say, “God only cares about our hearts but not our lives!” No. God cares about a healthy and holy alignment of heart and life, inner and outer, soul and body. The book of Samuel shows that true piety and true worship are expressed in an alignment between heart and life.

For example, when Saul fails to do what God tells him to do in destroying everything in 1 Samuel 15, Saul responds by saying that what he kept he was going to give to the Lord in worship. However, his is not true piety or worship; it is a misalignment of devotion and obedience. Saul’s inner love for God should be marked by outward obedience to God’s commands. Instead he tries to appease God with a show of outward piety (offerings and sacrifices) without real devotion to God in his deepest self. This lack of alignment between the inner life and the outward expression exposes the problem of false worship. Samuel’s well-known words spoken to Saul ring in our ears:

Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices

as much as in obeying the Lord?

Look: to obey is better than sacrifice,

to pay attention is better than the fat of rams. (1 Sam 15:22)

Sin and Punishment

We stated above that judgment and salvation form the two-step rhythm of Scripture. This point holds true in Samuel, and for a moment we want to focus on the first step in that rhythm: judgment. Divine judgment comes as punishment for sin.

This is too often a point missed not in Scripture but in modern culture. If we mention sin at all, it is usually someone else’s sin! With evocative and troubling detail, the narratives of Samuel present the pervasive problem of human sin. The narratives never offer the guilty party a rock to hide behind; they do not allow the characters in the story or the readers of the story to point the finger of blame toward someone else. The problem of sin lies at the doorstep of the one who has committed the affront to God or one’s fellow human. For example, when Saul blames someone else because of his sin, it reveals his own moral ineptitude and culpability rather than his innocence. When David attempts to hide behind his own righteousness and to conceal his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, God exposes him terribly.

In each of these cases and more, the narratives of Samuel demonstrate in a wonderfully human way the problem of sin. The faults of Saul or David (or Absalom or Eli!) may as well be the same faults we share. After all, who does not attempt to avoid blame when caught in sin? By giving the horrible truth about sin—its pervasiveness, its problems, and the horrors of human response to sin—the narratives hold up a mirror to the modern world.

These texts of terror are wonderfully productive in instructing readers on the subtleties of sin in human hearts, negative examples of sinners and those who cast blame, and diverse ways for readers to reflect on our own proclivity to rebel against God and harm our fellow man. But we should reflect carefully: God punishes human sin, and the searchlight of God’s holiness shines no matter the shadowy underside of human hearts or actions. And sin brings punishment.

Hope and Messiah

The hope of the book of Samuel lies in the goodness of Israel’s God to provide life out of death and to provide justice on the earth. Hannah’s song affirms both theological points:

Life out of death:

The Lord brings death and gives life; He sends some to Sheol, and He raises others up. (1 Sam 2:6)

Justice on the earth:

Those who oppose the Lord will be shattered; He will thunder in the heavens against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. (1 Sam 2:10)

Hope for life and justice do not derive from any source other than Israel’s God. Yahweh, Israel’s God and King, is the wellspring of vitality and equity in the world. An entire book could be written on the source of hope in our world (Zimmerli, Man and His Hope; Drinkard and Dick, The God of Hope).

But in 1–2 Samuel, the specific shape for hope in God takes a rather human form, surprisingly: Israel’s God brings life and justice by way of His anointed and appointed king. Another way to say it is like this: God’s messiah is the divine agent of hope for the world.

The structure of the book of Samuel bears this out. As we look at the structure of the book (see p. 10), we see that the hinge of the book is found in “H–Saul’s Death (1 Sam 28:1–2 Sam 1:27).” This means the dynasty of Saul does not embody the ultimate divine anointing or appointing to “judge the ends of the earth” through God’s “power” (1 Sam 2:10). Rather, it will come through another anointed and appointed leader.

God’s anointed and appointed leader is the Davidic king. The word messiah comes from the Hebrew word that means “to anoint.” So to speak of God’s anointed leader is to speak of God’s Messiah. As the plot of 1–2 Samuel carries forward, David’s rise as the messiah and Saul’s fall become apparent. David enjoyed divine anointing, but Saul’s anointing left him. David was a man after God’s heart, but Saul was a man after his own heart. So Saul is not the king God would use to bring hope to the world, but the Davidic king is that hope.

The link between Israel’s God, life, justice, and the Davidic king appears in David’s final poems in 2 Samuel 22–23. In these poems God delivers the Davidic king from all terrors and perils and enemies (2 Sam 22:8-31). God empowers the Davidic king to quash those who oppose God’s plans and to provide justice in the earth (2 Sam 22:32-43). God empowers the Davidic king to reign over all nations with justice and equity, providing peace (2 Sam 22:44-49). David becomes God’s agent of justice and life for all peoples so that God says over the Davidic king,

“The one who rules the people with justice, who rules in the fear of God, is like the morning light when the sun rises on a cloudless morning, the glisten of rain on sprouting grass.” (2 Sam 23:3-4)

God pronounces this affirmation over the Davidic king, His anointed and appointed agent of justice and peace. So David rhetorically says of God’s pronouncement over him, “Is it not true my house is with God? For He has established an everlasting covenant with me, ordered and secured in every detail” (2 Sam 23:5).

So we can ask of the book of Samuel:

Where is hope found?

And the answer comes:

Hope is found in Israel’s God!

But this answer raises the question:

How does God bring hope?

And the answer comes:

Through God’s Davidic Messiah!

David knows this truth. Hope is found in his royal dynastic line, anointed and appointed by God to give life and justice to Israel and the nations. So he concludes his song with these words:

Therefore I will praise You, Lord,

among the nations;

I will sing about Your name.

He is a tower of salvation for His king;

He shows loyalty to His anointed,

to David and his descendants forever. (2 Sam 22:50-51)

But by the end of 2 Samuel, we have seen David’s fall into sin (E´ in the structure, above, which is recorded in 2 Sam 10:1–12:31), and we know that David, too, is soon to die. So although the Davidic messiah is God’s agent of hope, life, and justice, we do not know when the true Messiah will come.

But because of the faithfulness of Yahweh, the true Messiah will come, and this fact is certain. Second Samuel 22–23 in particular reveals God’s plan with the Davidic Messiah: He will bring life, hope, and justice in the world. But at that point we do not know when He will come, only that He will come. Still, what a day that will be!

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