Israel had been governed by judges whom God raised up at crucial times in the nation’s history; however, the nation had degenerated both morally and politically. It had been under the merciless onslaught of the Philistines. The temple at Shiloh had been desecrated, and the priesthood was corrupt and immoral. Into this religious and political confusion stepped Samuel, the miraculous son of Hannah. In a remarkable way the renewal and joy that his birth brought to his mother prefigures the same for the nation.
First Samuel is a book of great beginnings . . . and tragic endings. It begins with Eli as high priest during the time of the judges. As a religious leader, Eli certainly must have begun his life with a close relationship to God. In his communication with Hannah, and in his training of her son Samuel, he demonstrated a clear understanding of God’s purposes and call (chapters 1 and 3). But his life ended in ignominy as his sacrilegious sons were judged by God and the sacred Ark of the Covenant fell into enemy hands (chapter 4). Eli’s death marked the decline of the influence of the priesthood and the rise of the prophets in Israel.
Samuel was dedicated to God’s service by his mother, Hannah. He became one of Israel’s greatest prophets. He was a man of prayer who finished the work of the judges, began the school of the prophets, and anointed Israel’s first kings. But even Samuel was not immune to finishing poorly. Like Eli’s family, Samuel’s sons turned away from God; they took bribes and perverted justice. The people rejected the leadership of the judges and priests and clamored for a king “like all the other nations have” (8:5).
Saul also started quickly. A striking figure, this handsome (9:2) and humble (9:21; 10:22) man was God’s choice as Israel’s first king (10:24). His early reign was marked by leadership (chapter 11) and bravery (14:46-48). But he disobeyed God (chapter 15), became jealous and paranoid (chapters 18–19), and finally had his kingship taken away from him by God (chapter 16). Saul’s life continued steadily downward. Obsessed with killing David (chapters 19–30), he consulted a medium (chapter 28) and finally committed suicide (chapter 31).
Among the events of Saul’s life is another great beginner—David. A man who followed God (13:14; 16:7), David ministered to Saul (chapter 16), killed Goliath (chapter 17), and became a great warrior. But we’ll have to wait until the book of 2 Samuel to see how David finished.
Samuel’s own sons do not share his godly character. The people do not have confidence in his sons’ abilities; as Samuel grows old, they press him to give them a king. Reluctantly, he does so. Saul, a handsome and charismatic man, is chosen to become Israel’s first king. His ego is as large as his stature. He impatiently steps into the office of priest, rather than wait for Samuel. After rejecting God’s commands, he is rejected by God. After this rejection Saul becomes a tragic figure, consumed with jealousy and fear, gradually losing his sanity. His final years are spent relentlessly chasing David through the wilderness backcountry of his kingdom in an effort to kill him. David, however, has found an ally in Saul’s son, Jonathan, who warns David of his father’s plots to kill him. Ultimately, when both Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, the stage is set for David to become the second king of Israel.
It is clear in 1 Samuel that God is at work in history. Even the most sinful and rebellious occurrences can be used by Him to continue His divine plan. The corruption of Eli’s sons and his unwillingness to deal with them becomes the schooling environment for the child Samuel. The rejection of God and the demand for a king by Israel becomes the basis for the establishment of an earthly royal line that will bring forth the entrance of God into human history in the person of the Messiah. Finally, Saul, who had such a wonderful beginning, ends his life in tragedy and suicide. Yet, because of Saul’s insanity, David is brought from the sheepfold into the courts of the king. Saul’s senseless jealousy and enraged pursuit of David provide the backdrop against which the greatest king of Israel, the “man after God’s own heart,” comes to the throne.
But it is not only in the broad sweeps of history that God’s hand is obvious. The following lessons are also evident in 1 Samuel. God steps into the pain and misery of Hannah to give her, not only a son, but three sons and two daughters (2:21). Though men look on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart (16:7). Obedience is better than sacrifice (15:22, 23), indicating that God is concerned about men’s hearts as well as their actions. God does not spare even those in high position when they have sinned, but He is still a God of patience and forgiveness.
As you read 1 Samuel, note the transition from theocracy to monarchy; exult in the classic stories of David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, David and Abigail; and watch the rise of the influence of the prophets. But in the midst of reading all the history and adventure, determine to run your race as God’s person from start to finish.