1-2Samuel appears midway through the sequence of the Old Testament books that narrate the flow of Israel's history from the time of the conquest to that of the exile (Joshua-2Kings). The Books of Samuel are particularly significant for understanding Israel's religious and historical development because they tell of the momentous transition from the period of the judges to that of the monarchy.
Overview of 1-2Samuel . The early chapters of 1Samuel depict the historical setting for the rise of kingship in Israel. These chapters include descriptions of Samuel's birth and call to be a prophet (1-3); Israel's defeat by the Philistines and the capture of the ark (4-6); and the role of Samuel as a judge and deliverer (7).
This introductory section of the book is followed by a series of narratives telling how and why kingship was introduced in Israel under the guidance of the prophet Samuel (chaps. 8-12). Here it becomes evident that the kingship in Israel was to be radically different from the kingship of the surrounding nations. It was to be a "covenantal kingship."
Saul's violation of his covenantal responsibilities as king quickly led to his rejection by the word of the Lord through Samuel (chaps. 13-15).
Samuel is then sent to anoint David as king, in place of Saul (chap. 16). Subsequent narratives describe the progressive deterioration of Saul's reign, while at the same time depicting David's gradual rise to the throne (1Sam. 16-2 Samuel 5 ). The reign of David is then described both in its grandeur and glory (2 Samuel 6-9 ), as well as in its weaknesses and failures (chaps. 10-20). The book ends with final reflections on David's reign in the narratives and poems of 2 Samuel 21-24 .
Theology and History in 1-2Samuel . The narratives of 1-2Samuel are important not only for the light they shed on the historical events that spawned and gave birth to the monarchy in Israel's national life, but also, and perhaps even more important, for the insights they provide on the theological issues that attended this significant development. These theological issues, in turn, have significant implications for the biblical theology of both the Old and New Testaments.
The "Deuteronomic" Perspective . In keeping with the character of all the historical books in the Old Testament, this historiography of 1-2Samuel is not simply a detached and disinterested presentation of a series of historical occurrences. This is not to suggest that the historiography of 1-2Samuel is distorted or untrustworthy, for any historiography worthy of the name must utilize some well-defined perspective or point of view in order to select, organize, and disclose the significance of the events of which it speaks. In Jewish tradition the "historical books" have long been known as the "former prophets" (the "prophetic books" are then known as the "latter prophets"). This is an appropriate designation, because the historical books present a "prophetic" and, therefore, trustworthy representation and interpretation of Israel's history. The events about which they speak are clearly placed in a theological context, and described from a particular "point of view." It is in this "point of view" that the theological orientation of the narrator, as well as the theological significance of the events themselves, is highlighted.
The dominating theological "point of view" in all of the books from Joshua to 2Kings, including 1-2Samuel, is that which found its fullest expression in the Sinai covenant. Yahweh had chosen Israel to be a people of his own possession (Exodus 19:1-6
). He had delivered them out of Egypt and brought them to Sinai where he entered into covenant with them. There he had given them his Law (the stipulations of the covenant, found in the legal sections of Exodus and Leviticus) sanctioned by blessings for obedience and cursing for disobedience (cf., e.g., Leviticus 26 ). He had led and preserved them through the wilderness period, and then renewed the covenant on the plains of Moab, at the point of transition between the leadership of Moses and that of Joshua, just prior to Israel's entrance into the land of Canaan. This renewal of the covenant is described in detail in Deuteronomy. It is especially the theological perspectives of Deuteronomy, including blessings for obedience to the covenant, and cursing for disobedience (chap. 28), which inform and dominate the theological viewpoint embraced in all the historical books, including 1-2Samuel.
Divine Sovereignty . It is quite apparent upon reading 1-2Samuel (which was originally one book) that the unknown author used "The Song of Hannah" (1 Samuel 2:1-10
) at the beginning of his narrative and "David's Song of Praise" (2 Samuel 22 ) and "Last Words" (2 Samuel 23:1-7
) at its end to frame the entire book, and in so doing to indicate the theological underpinnings on which the entire presentation rests. These poems are three of the few pericopes in the book that are not narrative in style and thus more adaptable to explicit theological assertions. The poems complement each other in presenting a magnificent God concept.
There is only one God, the Lord God of Israel (1 Samuel 2:2
; 2 Samuel 22:32
). This God has spoken, and his word is true (2 Samuel 22:31
; 23:2 ). The Lord God of Israel is sovereign over all things (1 Samuel 2:6-10
; 2 Samuel 22:33-46
). He is a Rock, a place of refuge and security for those who trust in him (1 Samuel 2:2
; 2 Samuel 22:2,3
, 32,47 ; 23:2 ).
By means of these introductory and concluding poems, as well as by numerous comments within the body of the book, some made by the narrator and others included in the dialogue of the persons described in the book, all that happens in both individual lives and Israel's national life is placed in the context of divine sovereignty.
In many instances recognition of divine sovereignty is made implicit in the events narrated, rather than conveyed by explicit statement. Note, for example, when Saul's forces were closing in on David in their effort to capture him and "a messenger came to Saul saying, Come quickly! The Philistines are raiding the land.' Then Saul broke off his pursuit of David" (1 Samuel 23:26-28
). From the standpoint of the narrator this can hardly be viewed as mere coincidence. God was sovereignly ordering events to protect David from the designs of Saul. All of this combines to impress on the reader the conclusion that everything that happens in the lives of the individuals described in the book, as well as everything that happens in the national life of Israel, lies within the sphere of God's sovereign control.
The narrator also makes it clear, however, that divine sovereignty does not mean that God is an impersonal, fatalistic force. On the one hand God is presented as a personal being who responds with grace and mercy to the needs and concerns of his people when they seek him and are truly repentant of their sins; but, on the other hand, he is also depicted as one who reacts in righteous anger and judgment against those who rebel against his commands and show no true repentance. In the final chapter, when Gad, the prophet, gives David three options for punishment after his sin in the matter of the census taking, David says, "Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men" (2 Samuel 24:14
). Later in this same chapter we are told that, "When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, Enough! Withdraw your hand'" (v. 16). The narrator makes it clear that God is merciful, even in judgment. He is a personal God, not an unmoved mover. This does not mean, however, that he is permissive or lax. When Saul disobeyed the Lord's command to completely destroy the Amalekites and their cattle, and then attempted to justify himself by shifting the blame to his soldiers and arguing that his troops had kept some of the better cattle for sacrifices, the Lord said, "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king" (1 Samuel 15:23
The narratives also make it abundantly clear, although not according to the neat formulations of systematic theology, that while God's sovereignty extends to all human actions (both good and evil ) it does not annul human responsibility, nor does it nullify God's justice or holiness. The narratives suggest that the narrator understands that in whatever way these notions of divine sovereignty and human responsibility may be defined, they are ultimately not inconsistent. God is the sovereign ruler of the universe, including all that comes to pass in human history, yet human beings are consistently held accountable for their actions (cf., e.g., Eli, who is held responsible for the evils practiced at the tabernacle during the time of his priesthood
Saul, who is held responsible for his rejection of the Word of the Lord
David, who is held responsible for his actions in the incident with Bathsheba
Kingship and Covenant . It is within the overarching perspective of God's sovereignty, and men and women's responsibility to respond in faith and obedience to his Word, that Israel's history is described in 1-2Samuel in connection with the dual themes of kingship and covenant. These two concepts function as the major organizing principles of the book. A number of subthemes are integrated into the structure of 1-2Samuel by virtue of their relationship to these major themes of kingship and covenant. Among the most significant of these subthemes are: the role of the prophet in relation to the king; the significance of the ark; and the messianic idea and the Davidic covenant.
Organizing the book around the concepts of kingship and covenant yields a fourfold division of its content.
First, kingship as requested by the people was a denial of the covenant (1 Samuel 1-8 ). When the elders of Israel asked for a king, Samuel was displeased (1 Samuel 8:6
). But the Lord told Samuel that even though the request meant that "they have rejected me
0 as their king" (v. 7), nevertheless Samuel was to give them a king (vv. 9,22). Although Samuel warned the people (vv. 9-18) about what a king like those in all the other nations would be like, they persisted in their demand to be given a king "to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles" (v. 20). It is clear that the people wanted the wrong kind of a king for the wrong reasons. The Lord was their great King. He had already promised his people security and victory over their enemies as long as they remained faithful to their covenant obligations (Exodus 23:22
; 34:11 ; Deuteronomy 21:1-4
). He had demonstrated his faithfulness to this promise as recently as the victory over the Philistines under the leadership of Samuel as reported in 1 Samuel 7 . In fact the whole history of the period of the judges reflected in the cycles of oppression, repentance, and restoration demonstrated the reliability of God's covenant faithfulness. But evidently this was not sufficient for the Israelites. They wanted a human ruler, like those of the neighboring nations, to fight their battles and to provide them with a symbol of national unity and security. Unfortunately this desire was, at the same time, a rejection of the Lord who was their King.
Second, kingship as given by Samuel was consistent with the covenant (1 Samuel 9-12 ). The Lord told Samuel that although the people had sinned in requesting a king (1 Samuel 10:19
; 12:17,19 ), the time to establish kingship in Israel had arrived (1 Samuel 8:9,22
; 9:16 ; 10:1 ). Kingship in itself was not wrong for Israel, and, in fact, had been anticipated in previous revelation (Genesis 17:6
; 49:10 ; Numbers 24:17
; Deuteronomy 17:14-20
). After Samuel had anointed Saul privately (1 Samuel 9:1-10
:16 ), he called all Israel to an assembly at Mizpah (1 Samuel 10:17-27
), where he supervised the public selection of Saul by lot and then clearly defined the role and responsibilities of the king in Israel. "Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the Lord" (1 Samuel 10:25
). After Saul led Israel to victory over the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-13
) Samuel called for an assembly at Gilgal, where he presided in the inauguration of Saul's reign at a public ceremony of covenant renewal (1 Samuel 11:14-12
:25 ). On this occasion Samuel made it clear that even though human kingship had now been incorporated into the theocracy, in obedience to the command of the Lord (1 Samuel 12:12-15
), this in no way annulled the responsibility of either the people or the new king to continue to recognize the Lord as their ultimate Sovereign (1 Samuel 12:20,24
-25 ). Kingship in Israel was to function in a way that was consistent with the covenant and the continued recognition that the Lord was Israel's great King.
Third, the kingship of Saul failed to correspond to the covenant ideal (1 Samuel 13-31 ). Saul quickly demonstrated that he was not prepared to submit to the requirements of a covenantal kingship. When the Philistines gathered to attack Israel, Saul did not wait for Samuel as he had been instructed, but offered a sacrifice himself. When Samuel arrived he said, "You acted foolishly You have not kept he command the Lord your God gave you" (1 Samuel 13:13
). Later, after being instructed by Samuel to utterly destroy the Amalekites and everything that belonged to them, Saul disobeyed the word of the prophet and spared their king, Agag, as well as the best of the plunder from the battle (1 Samuel 15:9,18
). On this occasion Samuel confronted him again, and said, "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king" (v. 23). So Saul rebelled against the Lord (v. 23a), and failed to rule in a way consistent with the requirements of a covenantal king.
Fourth, the kingship of David was an imperfect, but true, representation of the covenantal ideal (1Sam. 16-2 Samuel 24 ). David's reign is described in great detail in 2 Samuel 2-24 . The climax of these narratives is found in 2 Samuel 7 , where David is told by Nathan the prophet that "Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever" (v. 16). This promise of an enduring dynasty for David carries forward the promise made centuries earlier to Abraham, and confirmed to Isaac and Jacob, that through his offspring "all nations of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3
; 26:4 ; 28:14 ). Ultimately both of these promises find their roots in the statement of Genesis 3:15
that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. It is now made clear that this promised offspring will arise among the descendants of David and will sit on his royal throne.
In view of this promise it is surprising that David, like Saul before him, is not presented in the narratives of 2Samuel as a king whose reign perfectly conforms to the covenantal ideal. David sinned in treacherous ways with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11 ). He betrayed his reliance on military might rather than trust in the Lord, when he took the census of his army later in his reign (2 Samuel 24 ). David is clearly not a perfect example of the covenantal king. Yet while God had rejected Saul and judged him severely, the Lord was merciful to David and promised him an eternal dynasty. The question arises, "Why did God treat these two sinful men so differently?" The answer lies in their attitudes after they had sinned. Saul made excuses and tried to justify his actions (1 Samuel 13:12
; 15:15,21 , 24 ). David confessed his sin and repented: "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Samuel 12:13
); "David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you to take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing'" (2 Samuel 24:10
); "I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family" (2 Samuel 24:17
). For this reason David is termed a "man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14
; Acts 13:22
). It was David's desire to serve the Lord faithfully, even though his obedience was far from perfect.
David himself describes the covenantal ideal for kingship in words given to him by God. "The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of the God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth'" (2 Samuel 23:3-4
). Even though David was not perfect, the narrator has previously told us that "David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people" (2 Samuel 8:15
). His reign, in spite of its flaws, became the standard by which all the subsequent kings of Israel were measured.
Perhaps the key to understanding the difference between David and Saul is found in 2 Samuel 22:21-32
where David says "I have kept the ways of the Lord" and "I have not turned away from his decrees." One might wonder what these statements could possibly mean, when it is abundantly clear that David's obedience was not perfect and that he "despise
the Word of the Lord by doing what
evil in his eyes" ( 2 Samuel 12:9
) when he committed murder and adultery. It would appear that David is not claiming that his life was absolutely perfect, but that he had lived with the set purpose of serving the Lord and being faithful to his covenant. David's "righteousness" (2 Samuel 22:21,25
) and his "keeping of the ways of the Lord" (2 Samuel 22:22
) were not absolute, but they were substantial. The general pattern of his life reflected covenant faithfulness rather than the reverse. When he sinned, he was quick to repent. David affirms that the Lord shows himself faithful to the faithful (2 Samuel 22:26
) and saves the humble (2 Samuel 22:28
). He clearly views himself as included among the "faithful" and the "humble." It is in these traits that David truly, although imperfectly, exemplifies the ideal of the covenantal king.
The Role of the Prophet . The narratives of 1-2Samuel contribute in a significant way to our understanding of the role of the prophet in ancient Israel. The early chapters of 1-2Samuel tell of Samuel's birth (1-2) and his call to be a prophet (3). These narratives prepare the way for Samuel's role in the establishment of the monarchy. When Samuel was young we are told that "in those days the word of the Lord was rare" (1 Samuel 3:1
). As he became a young man we are told that "All Israel recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord" (1 Samuel 3:20
). Samuel's prophetic authority was used by the Lord in the anointing of Saul as Israel's first king (1 Samuel 9:1-10
:16 ). Kingship was not autonomous in Israel, but was established by the word of the prophet and limited in its authority. The king was required to submit to both the laws of the Sinai covenant and the word of the prophet. This requirement of subordination to the word of the prophet was clearly spelled out at Saul's inauguration when Samuel told the king and the people that he would continue to teach them "the way that is good and right" (1 Samuel 12:23
). When Saul disobeyed the word of the Lord given by Samuel, he was confronted by Samuel and rejected as king (1 Samuel 13,15 ). The Lord then sent Samuel to anoint David to replace Saul as king (1 Samuel 16 ).
From these early narratives in 1-2Samuel we learn that a pattern was established when kingship was inaugurated in Israel that provided the foundation for the work of all the prophets who would follow Samuel. These individuals were never afraid to call to account the kings of Israel and Judah when they went astray from the covenant. In fact the ministries of many of the prophets seem to be more directly concerned with the kings than with the people of the land. The prophets were the guardians of the theocracy and therefore functioned mainly at its center, the royal court.
The Significance of the Ark . In addition to the narratives that focus primarily on Samuel, Saul, and David there are a group of narratives in 1-2Samuel that focus on the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4-6 ; 2 Samuel 6 ). Instructions for the building of the ark are recorded in Exodus 25:10-22
. Its lid was made of solid gold and at each end was a golden cherub. The Lord told Moses that he would be present in the space above the lid of the ark between the two cherubim, and from this place he would give Moses commandments for Israel (v. 22). Subsequently, the ark held the two tablets of the Decalogue (Exodus 25:16,21
; 40:20 ; Deuteronomy 10:5
). Because of the close identification of the ark with the presence of God among his people, he is said to be "enthroned between the cherubim" (1 Samuel 4:4
; 2 Samuel 6:2
), which suggests that the ark was viewed as the throne of the Lord from which he guided and ruled over his people.
Because of the close identification of the ark with God's presence (cf., e.g., the role it played at the crossing of the Jordan
) it is not surprising that when the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4 ) the elders requested that the ark be brought to the battlefield. They thought that this would guarantee God's presence with them and thus ensure victory in battle. To their dismay, they were again defeated, and, worst of all, the ark was captured by the Philistines. From this incident it is clear that God cannot be manipulated by his people, and that his connection with the ark was not automatic or mechanical, but spiritual.
When the Philistines placed the ark in the temple of their god, Dagon, at Ashdod, the next day they found that the image of their deity had fallen to the floor and broken in pieces before the ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 5 ). In addition a plague of tumors broke out among the people of the city of Ashdod. When the ark was moved to other cities the same tumors appeared among their inhabitants. Eventually the Philistines were forced to send the ark back to Israel where it remained for twenty years in the house of Abinadab in Kiriath Jearim (1 Samuel 6:1-7
:2 ). In these chapters it becomes clear that while the Lord will not permit his people to manipulate the symbol of his presence to gain victory over the Philistines, neither will he permit the Philistines to conclude that because they defeated the Israelites, their god, Dagon, was more powerful than the God of Israel.
The ark remained in obscurity during the reign of Saul. It was not until David was made king that the ark was returned to its rightful place at the political and religious center of the nation. David brought the ark to his capital city, Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6 ). In so doing he confesses that the nation's ultimate sovereign is the Lord, who sits "enthroned between the cherubim, " and that his own kingship is subordinate to divine authority. This is the perspective of a covenantal king.
When, in his later years, David was driven from Jerusalem by the revolution led by his son, Absalom, the ark was brought along by the priests who fled from the city. But David said, "Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord's eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, I am not pleased with you, ' then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him" (2 Samuel 15:25
). Here David recognizes the true significance of the ark as a symbol of the presence and power of the great King of Israel. He knew that possession of the ark was not an automatic guarantee of the Lord's blessing. He also understood that it was proper for the ark to remain in Jerusalem, because ultimately the Lord was the true Sovereign of the land.
The Messianic Idea and the Davidic Covenant . Perhaps the most significant theological feature of 1-2Samuel is its contribution to the development of the messianic idea in Scripture by virtue of its association of anointing with kingship (1 Samuel 2:10
b; 9:16 ; 10:1 ; 16:13 ), as well as by its provision of a framework for the development of this idea through its presentation of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7 ; 23:5 ).
It is striking that in the very beginning of 1Samuel Hannah speaks with prophetic insight when she proclaims that the Lord "will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed" (2:10b). This is the first time in Scripture that the king of Israel is referred to as the "anointed of the Lord" or "messiah." In the remainder of 1-2Samuel the expression "the anointed of the Lord" is applied frequently to both Saul and David (1 Samuel 2:35
; 12:3,5 ; 16:6 ; 24:6,10 ; 26:9,11 , 16,23 ; 2 Samuel 1:14,16
, 21 ; 19:21 ; 22:51 ; 23:1 ). To say that Saul and David were the "anointed of the Lord" became equivalent to saying they occupied the office of king in Israel. Although the technical sense of "messiah" as an "ideal king of the future" did not emerge u