I. Samuel and the Transition to the Monarchy (1 Samuel 1:1–8:22)
I. Samuel and the Transition to the Monarchy (1:1–8:22)
A. Samuel’s Birth and Early Life (1:1–3:21)
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).
But Elkanah had two wives, which was a violation of God’s original design for marriage (see Gen 2:18, 21-24). His first wife, Hannah, was childless, but deeply loved (1:2, 5). Peninnah, who was likely younger given cultural practices of the day and her behavior throughout the story, was fruitful (1:2). This became a source of great tension in the household (see 1:6-7). A second wife was sometimes taken in the case of a childless first marriage, but bigamy or polygamy was never God’s perfect plan.
In verse 3, the writer also included a brief historical note that would soon become very important for Samuel’s service and the nation’s future. Israel would soon come out of the tragic and sordid period of the judges, and God was preparing the nation for a new kind of leadership. At the tabernacle in Shiloh, the elderly Eli had turned over the priestly duties to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1:3), who would prove to be unworthy. Their gross sins, followed by no real rebuke or discipline from Eli, would lead to severe judgment on Israel. Though Samuel would step in to fill the void, the people would soon cry out for a king and, in response, God would establish the monarchy.
For many years, Hannah had been childless because God had kept [her] from conceiving (1:5). Likely Samuel’s coming, then, was welcomed as a miracle.
1:6-8 Because the commonly held view of childlessness in ancient Israel was that it was a curse from God, Hannah had to bear the bitter taunting of Peninnah (1:6-7). The related agony didn’t last for a few months, but instead went on year after year, in spite of Elkanah’s attempts to comfort his favorite wife (1:7-8).
1:9-18 Finally, Hannah couldn’t take the heartache any longer and went to the tabernacle to pray. Deeply hurt, she poured out her heart to God with great anguish. She vowed that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him back to God all of his life (1:10-11). By promising that his hair [would] never be cut (1:11), Hannah was offering to raise him in accordance with the Nazirite vow, which included abstinence from alcohol and untrimmed hair as signs of a person’s dedication to God (see Num 6:1-21).
While observing Hannah’s intense prayer, Eli mistakenly assumed she was drunk (1:12-14). But, when Hannah explained her situation, Eli comforted her with a blessing, and Hannah received it with gratitude (1:15-18).
1:19-20 The phrase, the Lord remembered Hannah, is important (1:19). Why? Because the Lord “had kept” her from conceiving (1:6). The inclusion of these parallel truths signals to us that if God causes a problem, only God can fix it. Note the prayer was answered when there was a kingdom purpose for ministry connected to it.
The birth of Samuel gave Hannah reason to put away her grief (1:20), and his arrival also heralded a gift of incalculable value to Israel. Samuel would be the last of the judges as well as a prophet and priest. He would serve as the great transitional figure from the lawless days of the judges to the relative structure and orderliness associated with Israel’s monarchy. The latter period would last from the coronation of Saul in about 1050 BC to the Babylonian captivity in 587–586 BC.
1:21-28 For three years, Hannah nurtured her baby, but never lost sight of her vow to take Samuel back to the tabernacle to stay there permanently and serve the Lord (1:22). When he no longer needed nourishment from her, she knew the time had come for her to take little Samuel to Eli. Once there, Hannah reminded Eli of her story and promise and entrusted Samuel to the elderly priest’s charge (1:24-28).
2:1-10 Hannah responded to the fulfillment of her vow with a tremendous song of praise to God. The themes of Hannah’s song were the holiness, sovereignty, and power of God, displayed among his people and in her own life. The lyrics exalt the Lord for all of God’s actions on behalf of his people: He is holy, a rock, and full of knowledge (2:2-3). He brings death and gives life (2:6). He brings poverty and gives wealth (2:7). He guards the steps of his faithful ones (2:9). Those who align themselves with him, then, are on the winning side.
2:11 Elkanah and Hannah went back home, but Samuel stayed at Shiloh and served the Lord.
2:12-17 Although Samuel could not have known it at his tender age, he had come to the Lord’s service at a difficult time. The situation at Shiloh was terrible and would soon become disastrous. This summary statement sets the scene: Eli’s sons were wicked men; they did not respect the Lord or the priests’ share of the sacrifices from the people (2:12-13). The sacrifices made were holy to the Lord, yet Hophni and Phinehas—descendants of Aaron—stole the choicest parts of the meat for themselves and threatened violence on any worshiper who objected (2:13-16). In this way, they showed contempt for God’s offering (2:17).
2:18-24 By contrast, Samuel served the Lord faithfully in the middle of this mess. As a result, God blessed not only him but also his parents (2:18-21). The contrast between a mere boy serving the Lord well (2:18) and two grown men functioning as wicked priests couldn’t be greater. And, as if their foul actions in the tabernacle weren’t bad enough, Hophni and Phinehas also added to their list of sins adultery with the women who served at the tabernacle (2:22). Eli, however, did nothing to stop his boys except to scold them. No, my sons, the news I hear the Lord’s people spreading is not good, he said (2:24). In other words, Eli said, “Now, you boys, stop that,” as if one half-hearted rebuke would set them on the right track. But, he never appears to have made an attempt to restrain them or remove them from service.
2:25-26 God’s patience eventually wore thin with Hophni and Phinehas. Because they refused to repent, the Lord intended to kill them for their iniquity (2:25). Samuel, on the other hand, grew in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people (2:26).
2:27-36 God sealed the fate of Eli and his family through the prophecy of a man of God who delivered the message (2:27). The judgment was severe because Eli’s failure to discipline his sons revealed that, at heart, he despised God’s sacrifices and offerings, too (2:29). By his actions, Eli had honored his sons more than God (2:29). Thus, Eli’s family would lose its priestly privileges, which were transferred to the family of Zadok later in Israel’s history (see 1 Kgs 2:26-27, 35). Eli’s descendants would die violently; his sons would even die on the same day (2:33-34). The faithful priest whom God promised to raise up could have been Zadok himself. He would serve God’s king—first David and then Solomon (2:35).
3:1 Samuel may have been in his teens by the time his call from the Lord took place. The word translated boy means a young man. It’s the same word translated “youth” to describe David when he killed Goliath (see 1 Sam 17:33).
It’s important not to skim over the acknowledgement that God didn’t reveal himself much in those days, and prophetic visions were not widespread. With Eli and his worthless sons in charge of Israel’s house of worship and ministry, that’s not surprising.
3:2-9 When God was ready to speak, he called Samuel’s name one evening. The young man thought it was Eli repeatedly calling him (3:2-6). Finally, Eli realized what was happening and told Samuel how to respond if the call came again (3:8-9). Samuel’s lack of understanding of what was happening boiled down to the fact that he did not yet know the Lord, because the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him (3:7). In God’s sovereign plan, however, that was all about to change.
3:10-14 God called again, and this time Samuel responded (3:10). He was given his first charge to deliver a message as God’s prophet. The message was one of judgment on Eli and his family for his sons’ sins and for Eli’s failure to stop them (3:11-14).
3:15-21 It’s understandable that Samuel was afraid to tell Eli the vision (3:15). But, Eli insisted that he do so anyway. And, when he heard this terrible prophecy, there was nothing Eli could do but resign himself to God’s will (3:17-18). Samuel’s life and ministry, however, were just getting started. He continued to grow in spiritual power as God fulfilled everything Samuel prophesied (3:19). Samuel’s authority became known throughout Israel as he ministered faithfully at Shiloh and God revealed himself to Samuel there (3:20-21).
B. The Capture and Restoration of the Ark (4:1–7:17)
4:1-3 The judgment prophesied for Eli and his family didn’t stop at their front door. Because Eli was a leader in Israel, the nation suffered along with him. This is a spiritual principle that we see repeatedly in the Old Testament. Moreover, the entire story of 1 Samuel 1–7 also illustrates the kingdom principle that when one aspect of God’s kingdom structure fails to meet his standards, his kingdom work suffers. Everything is related. Eli’s drastic failure of kingdom responsibility in the family had consequences in the larger spiritual sphere. Because Eli was Israel’s spiritual leader as well as the leader of his family, those consequences were disastrous.
When the time came for God to carry out his judgment on the house of Eli, he did it through a familiar avenue in those days: war with the Philistines. These powerful people lived on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and had been adversaries of Israel since the days of the judges. In fact, they would still be giving Israel a hard time years later, leading a young shepherd to face a giant Philistine with a sling and some rocks (see 1 Sam 17). In the days of Eli, God would use the Philistines as his tool of judgment against Israel.
A day came when Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle (4:1). The Israelites were beaten badly (4:2), and clearly they hadn’t been expecting this defeat from the hands of the Lord (4:3). (It’s unlikely that Eli had advertised the prophecy against his family.) From the reaction of the elders of Israel, it seems that the lame spiritual leadership of Eli and his sons had penetrated the attitudes of the people. Instead of seeking God for the reason Israel had been routed, they simply decided to bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh (4:3). In other words, they were treating it like a good luck charm that would protect them and guarantee a victory. They mistook the symbol of God’s presence and blessing for his true presence and blessing.
4:4-5 Bringing the ark from Shiloh meant that none other than Hophni and Phinehas would be carrying it to the battle site (4:4). As they set out with the ark in tow, these wicked priests probably thought they were going as heroes to bring Israel a victory; instead, they were actually going to their own funerals. The Israelites, however, were so encouraged to see the symbol of the Lord’s covenant and glory arrive in their midst that their loud shout made the earth shake (4:5).
4:6-11 The Philistines knew the history of their enemy, being aware of the plagues related to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. When they discovered that the ark, God’s throne, had entered the camp, they assumed they were in serious trouble: Israel’s God had come to fight for them (4:6-8). Yet, instead of running away in panic, the Philistine army rallied and inflicted a slaughter on the Israelites that included Eli’s sons (4:10-11). Worse yet, the Philistines captured the ark (4:11). Understand that this wasn’t merely a demoralizing military defeat for Israel; this was the judgment of God at work.
4:12-22 Back in Shiloh, Eli was looking down the road toward the battle site, because he was anxious about the ark of God (4:13). He perhaps realized that the prophecy against his family was being fulfilled. But, when he’d witnessed the ark being transported from the tabernacle, Eli must have also recognized that God’s judgment was going to reach beyond his own house to the entire house of Israel.
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).
C. Israel’s Demand for a King (8:1-22)
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.