1:1-5 The first person we meet in this story is Elkanah, Samuel’s father, who was a descendant of the priestly tribe of Levi (see 1 Chr 6:33-34), even though he is identified here as an Ephraimite—which referred to the territory in which he lived rather than his lineage. Samuel would serve as a priest and as Israel’s last judge. Elkanah was a godly man, as attested by his faithfulness to go every year to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord at the tabernacle in Shiloh, north of Jerusalem, where the ark of the covenant was kept (1:3).
The news that the ark of God [had] been captured caused Eli to fall off the chair, break his neck, and die (4:17-18). But even then, God wasn’t finished. The wife of Eli’s son Phinehas also died giving birth to a son. With her last breaths, she named him Ichabod because the glory [had] departed from Israel (4:19-22). This means that the glory of God left the tabernacle with the ark because the Israelites had misused it and defamed God’s glory.
5:1 The Philistines left the battle with their prize, the ark of God, and brought it to Ashdod, one of the five cities in their confederation (the others were Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron; see 1 Sam 6:16-17). To crush an enemy, strip him of his god, and bring it back home to display as a trophy was the ultimate symbol of victory for an ancient army. It also was a statement that the winner’s god was stronger than the loser’s god. But, the Philistines may also have had another strong motive for taking the ark back to their land. Because they knew the stories of how the ark had brought Israel such great and miraculous victories when they battled in the promised land, the Philistines may have believed that, by possessing the ark, they would inherit its related power.
The irony in this story is that Israel often operated by faulty theological thinking, too. Many Israelites, for instance, believed that their spiritual condition didn’t matter simply because they were God’s people. This is what led John the Baptist to later tell the Pharisees and Sadducees not to presume that their Jewish heritage would save them because “God is able to raise up children for Abraham from . . . stones” (Matt 3:9). God cannot be obligated, and he expects obedience from his children. To put this in modern terms, merely showing up to church on Sunday morning won’t save you or give you God’s blessings. You need to repent and place saving faith in Jesus.
5:2-5 Merely possessing the ark didn’t do the Philistines any good. They placed it in the temple of their god Dagon to demonstrate his power over the Lord and to give Dagon’s worshipers incentive to gloat over their victory (5:2). But nobody mocks God and gets away with it. By early the next morning, the Lord had humiliated Dagon in his own house. The Philistines’ idol had fallen . . . before the ark as if in both humiliation and worship (5:3). Though they put Dagon back on his feet, the same thing happened the next morning. This time, Dagon’s head and both of his hands were broken off (5:4). In that time period, severing the head and hands of an enemy was often done in battle, meaning these were trophies of victory. The message was clear: Dagon was nothing before the Lord.
5:6-8 The people of Ashdod were terrified of the Lord in the coming days—not only because he had defeated their god but because he afflicted them with tumors (5:6). This could be a reference to anything from boils to something like the bubonic plague. Once the leaders of Ashdod had had enough, they called a city council meeting (5:8). What was the outcome? They decided it was time to share the ark with their Philistine brothers in Gath (5:8).
5:9-12 Gath was situated about twelve miles from Ashdod, so it’s hard to believe the people there had not heard about Ashdod’s troubles because of the ark. Nevertheless, they received it, and the same problems experienced by their countrymen started immediately among them. Everybody in Gath was afflicted with tumors (5:9).
Gath thus decided to send the ark to the city of Ekron. But the people of Ekron said, “No way!” (5:10). The ark of God had become a deadly hot potato that none of the Philistines wanted to handle. Everyone realized that keeping it could mean nothing but more bad news for them—perhaps even death (5:12). They decided that if they didn’t do something drastic, no one would survive. The people of Ekron called all the Philistine rulers and demanded that they send the ark of Israel’s God away . . . to its place (5:11).
6:1-3 All of this punishment at the hands of the Lord happened over the course of seven months (6:1). The Philistines summoned the priests and the diviners to figure out an appropriate way to send the ark back to Israel (6:2). These pagan leaders had seen ample evidence that the God of Israel was a powerful deity who needed to be appeased. So, they proposed returning the ark with a guilt offering to remove his hand of affliction from the people (6:3).
6:4-6 The mention of rodents in this passage suggests God had sent mice to cause the tumors that had afflicted the Philistines, because the guilt offering was to include five gold tumors and five gold mice (6:4). The key statement here is that the Philistines were to give glory to Israel’s God so that he might stop oppressing [them] (6:5). This is a reminder that God will ultimately receive glory even from his enemies. Importantly, the Philistine religious leaders also had enough sense not to repeat the mistake of the Egyptians and Pharaoh who had decided to harden their hearts against Israel, resulting in their defeat (6:6).
6:7-9 In spite of the decent decisions they made regarding the ark, the Philistines were still pagans who wondered if they had just hit a run of bad luck unrelated to their prize. So, they devised a test for returning it that they believed would prove whether these events were from the hand of the Lord or had simply happened by chance (6:9). They took two milk cows away from their nursing calves and hitched them up to a new cart (6:7). They placed the ark on the cart with the guilt offering inside another box alongside it and sent both off toward Beth-shemesh on the border of Israel (6:8-9).
6:10-12 The idea behind the Philistines’ plan was that the cows’ maternal instincts, and their unfamiliarity with a yoke, would naturally cause them to want to throw off their restraints and turn back toward their bawling babies. So, if they didn’t fight the yoke and turn back, but went straight, the Philistines would know that the God of Israel had caused their troubles. Sure enough, as the Philistine rulers followed the cart all the way to the border of Israel, the cows . . . never strayed to the right or to the left (6:12). Thus, the Lord again proved himself to be the true God.
6:13-18 As much as the people of the Philistine cities had come to dread the ark, the Israelites in Beth-shemesh rejoiced at its arrival—at first (6:13). Because the cart carrying the ark stopped at a perfect place to serve as an altar, the people did the right thing in using the cart and the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord (6:14). They also did the right thing in calling for the Levites to handle the ark’s removal from the cart. That was a crucial step, in fact, because only the priestly leaders were consecrated to deal with the Lord’s holy things. They offered the Lord sacrifices (6:15).
6:19-21 Joy was short-lived when seventy people of Beth-shemesh looked inside the ark and were struck dead (6:19). Keep in mind that, under normal circumstances, the ark was to be kept in the tabernacle, screened off from view (see Exod 40:21). And, as a result of what happened, the people—like the Philistines—became afraid and asked the residents of Kiriath-jearim to take charge of the ark (6:21). This tells us that God’s people were, in one sense, as spiritually insensitive as the Philistines.
7:1-3 The ark stayed in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years. In those days, God stirred the whole house of Israel to long for him (7:1-2). Samuel knew where the people’s repentance had to begin if it were to be truly sincere. The Israelites had become worshipers of false gods whose presence had polluted the land. Baal was the chief deity of the Canaanites, the god of the sky who controlled everything. Ashtoreth was the female fertility deity whose worship involved debauchery. Israel, in worshiping the two, had fallen far from God. So, Samuel commanded the people to get rid of the foreign gods and dedicate themselves to the Lord, and worship only him (7:3).
7:4-6 The people obeyed Samuel and only worshiped the Lord (7:4). And, in his first publicly recorded ministry appearance, Samuel led the nation in a service of repentance at Mizpah, about seven miles north of Jerusalem. There, the Israelites fasted and confessed their sins (7:6). God was going to use this demonstration of national repentance and unity to give Israel a resounding victory over their enemies, a fact implying that he accepted their repentance as genuine.
7:7 Apparently the Philistines considered this Israelite gathering a threat to their security. So, they marched up toward Israel. The Israelites were immediately struck with fear over this and decided to ask Samuel to intercede with the Lord for them. Israel had not been successful against the Philistines in the past (4:2, 10), so they didn’t have high hopes of escaping another whipping.
7:8-14 Israel urged Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, to intercede for them and ask the Lord to save them (7:8). So, Samuel made an offering and prayed to the Lord on behalf of Israel, and the Lord answered him (7:9). God took matters into his own hands.
The offering was still on the fire when the Philistines attacked, but God’s thunder sent them into such confusion that Israel was able to defeat them (7:10). That day, God became Israel’s Ebenezer, their “stone of help” (7:12). The Philistines were pushed completely out of Israel’s territory, and Israel even regained some cities and territories the Philistines had held (7:13-14).
7:15-17 The closing verses of the chapter summarize Samuel’s ministry as Israel’s judge, prophet, and religious head. His yearly circuit included three cities that had been gathering places for Israel in the hill country of Judah (7:16).
8:1-5 This chapter records a pivotal moment in Israel’s history—the establishment of the monarchy, which would be in place from the coronation of Saul in 1051 BC to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the deportation of Judah’s King Zedekiah to Babylon in 587–586 BC. But Samuel’s readers needed to know about the rise of Israel’s monarchy for its theological as well as its historical reasons, because it profoundly affected the nation’s relationship with its sovereign King and Lord.
Israel’s demand for a king grew out of frustration over the corruption of Samuel’s sons, whom he appointed . . . as judges over Israel (8:1). Unfortunately, like Eli’s sons had been in the office of priesthood, Samuel’s sons were dishonest in their office. They took bribes and perverted justice (8:3). The obvious way to correct the problem would have been to remove these two men from their positions and reform the system. But instead, all the elders of Israel took matters into their own hands and asked Samuel to appoint a king to judge the nation (8:4-5). They had observed that all the other nations had kings, and they had probably wanted one for some time (8:5).
This was a case of family breakdown leading to an appeal for the government to come to society’s rescue when the family should have led the way. In this sense, the situation in 1 Samuel 8 is not that different from what we see happening in our own culture today. Many of the problems that government tries to fix are present because the family unit has broken down. Thus, people often want the government to manage affairs that should be in the hands of families. But, when civil government reaches into the other spheres that God has instituted—things like the family or the church—government grows far beyond its divinely authorized scope. This allows government to both confiscate and redistribute what should not be moved. That is exactly what God warned Israel against in 8:10-18 as they insisted on having a human king.
8:6-7 As soon as he heard what the elders wanted, Samuel considered their demand wrong (8:6). He did the right thing in taking his distress to the Lord, who confirmed Samuel’s deep concern. But, God insisted that the request was not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God himself as their king (8:7). Israel already had a king—the King of kings in fact—who was also the Lord of all the earth and worthy of worship above all other gods. Israel’s rejection of God was nothing new, but still unbelievable. They preferred to be led by a fallible human.
8:8-18 Samuel must have been speechless at God’s response, knowing that Israel was standing on thin ground with this sinful request. Nevertheless, God told Samuel to anoint a king, provided that he explain to the nation the rights of the king who [would] reign over them (8:9). Samuel did all that the Lord commanded him and communicated everything to the people (8:10-18).
Importantly, it wasn’t the request for a king per se that was wrong. A king was in God’s sovereign plan for his people (see Deut 17:14-15). The issue, then, was more that they merely wanted a human ruler. Rather than being set apart as God’s own, they wanted to be like all of the other nations. But, this was not the time of God’s perfect choosing, nor were these the right circumstances for the next season of Israel’s development. Yet, his people were impatient and unwilling to wait for the Lord’s will. The irony is huge.
8:19-22 Sadly, Israel’s people refused to listen to Samuel, meaning they refused to listen to the Lord (8:19). In the end, the people got their obstinate way, as God granted their desire (8:22). The people’s thoughts were focused on the idea that a king would be preferable to being judged by Samuel’s crooked sons. And besides, the right king could be the military leader and hero everybody wanted to lead the nation into battle. So, in spite of warnings about the heavy personal and taxation burdens their kings would inflict on them, the people went home in anticipation.