Samuel and Saul, Seer and Sovereign

As the time of the Israelite judges draws to a close, a new era begins: the people want a king.

In our continuing study of the Prophets, we have arrived at the transition between the period of the judges and the institution of the monarchy in Israel. The many years of spiraling down morally despite intermittent periods of sorrow, repentance and rescue under God-appointed judges were about to end. A new era would begin as God allowed the children of Israel a shift in form of government based on their request to have a king like other nations. God’s choice of king would be delivered through His servant, the judge and prophet Samuel.

In most modern Bibles two books are named after Samuel, though originally they were combined in one book in the Hebrew Bible. The two-part listing familiar to the Christian world arose from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, begun in the third century BCE. The separation into two books in the Hebrew Bible did not occur until the 16th century, being influenced in this by the Latin version of the Christian Bible, the Vulgate. Samuel’s name was given to these two books because he is the central figure from chapter 1 through chapter 25:1, where his death is recorded. Jewish tradition says that he composed the account covering this period. He is also influential throughout the remainder of the two books, because he anointed Israel’s first two kings—Saul and David—whose reigns dominate the narrative.

Samuel the Seer

The circumstances of Samuel’s birth begin the first book. The son of an Ephraimite named Elkanah and his wife Hannah, who was previously unable to bear children, Samuel’s arrival was a miraculous answer to prayer. For Hannah it meant dedicating the boy to God in fulfillment of the vow she had made if He would favor her with a son (1 Samuel 1:9–11). Appropriately, she named him Samuel (“Heard by God”).

Just when it seemed that the nation would cave in on its own rottenness, God intervened and in response to godly Hannah’s prayers gave young Samuel to her and the nation.”

Eugene H. Merrill, “1 Samuel,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary

At this time the center of Israel’s worship was at Shiloh in Ephraim’s territory, about 19 miles north of Jerusalem. Here the tabernacle had been set up when the Israelites had sufficiently subdued the land (Joshua 18:1). The high priest was Eli, aided by his sons, Hophni and Phineas. Once Samuel was old enough, his mother took him to Eli to serve at Shiloh and to live there. But in these circumstances Samuel “grew in stature, and in favor both with the Lord and men” (1 Samuel 2:26), in contrast to Eli and his sons. The elderly priest was indulgent toward his sons and himself in the matter of their taking the best of certain food offerings for themselves and despising God. The sons had also corrupted themselves in other ways, including taking sexual advantage of female workers at the tabernacle. All of this brought God’s disfavor on the sons and their father. According to a man sent by God to warn Eli, his descendants would no longer be part of the priesthood and would die prematurely (2:12–17, 22–36; 3:12–14).

One night as Samuel was sleeping in the tabernacle, God came and spoke to him. This was confusing to the young boy at first, because he had no experience of such communication till then. Hearing someone call his name three separate times, he went to Eli, thinking that the elderly priest needed him. The third time Eli realized it was God who was calling. He told Samuel to go back to bed and, if the call came a fourth time, to answer, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears” (3:9).

From a young age, then, he became a recipient of God’s messages. This first time he heard about the coming downfall of Eli’s house, a prophecy which he then repeated to the priest (verses 16–18). So it was that Samuel’s life as a seer began, and over time he became well known as a reliable source: “All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet of the Lord” (verse 20, Tagged Tanakh).

The Philistines attacked Israel during these early days of Samuel and in two engagements killed 34,000 Israelites and captured the ark of the covenant containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. At the same time the two sons of Eli died as prophesied (2:34; 4:1–11). When Eli was informed of the tragic turn of events, especially the loss of the ark, he fell backward over his seat, breaking his neck and dying. His 40-year priesthood also came to its prophesied conclusion (4:12–18). The shock of these events claimed one more victim of Eli’s family: his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phineas. She died after giving birth to a son, whom she named Ichabod (“the glory has departed from Israel”).

Meanwhile the ark was transferred to the Philistine city of Ashdod and placed in the Temple of Dagon. When the image of the pagan god was thrown down to the ground twice and dismembered, and the local inhabitants were afflicted with tumors, the Philistines moved the ark to Gath and then to Ekron. In each case the local people suffered to such a degree that they wanted the ark moved away (chapter 5).

After seven months, the Philistine priests advised returning the ark to the Israelites along with offerings consisting of five gold models of the tumors they had suffered and five gold rats of the kind that had plagued their fields. The number five corresponded to the five lords of the Philistines. The priests further declared that if the unattended animals transporting the ark would draw their cart toward the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh, the Philistines would know the God of Israel was behind the punishment they had received; if not, their suffering was just happenstance. So the people set the ark on a cart drawn by two sacrificial cows and freed the animals to choose which road to wander. The animals went on the Beth Shemesh road, where the Israelites were delighted to receive the ark and offer a sacrifice of thanks. But even some of the men of Beth Shemesh received punishment for treating the ark with disrespect by looking inside it, thereby defying instructions God had given in the time of Moses (see Numbers 4:4–6, 17–20). This prompted them to send it on to Kirjath Jearim to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar became the priest in charge of the ark. It remained there for the next 20 years (1 Samuel 6:1–21; 7:1–2).

The situation gave Samuel the opportunity to explain to the Israelites that they needed to repent of their worship of Baal and Ashtoreth and return from these idols to the true God. If they would, he said, God would defeat the Philistines for them. Meeting at Mizpah, the Israelites renewed their allegiance to God.

The Book of Samuel does much to give the modern reader a feeling for the lived life of Israelite antiquity—and it does so in many different social settings.”

Michael A. Fishbane, JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot

When the Philistines heard this they went on the attack once more. But with Samuel’s prayers and God’s response they were routed and did not fight Israel again while the prophet was alive, returning all of the Israelite cities and lands they had taken. During his time Samuel also acted in the role of judge traveling on an annual circuit to Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah, rendering legal decisions for the Israelites. His permanent base was in his father’s territory at Ramah, where he was born and where he built an altar (7:2–17).

Israel Demands a King

In his waning days Samuel appointed his sons, Joel and Abijah, to be judges over Israel operating from Beersheba. Unfortunately, as in the case of Eli, they proved to be unequal to the task: “His sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (8:3).

This led the elders to come to Samuel and ask that instead he appoint a king to judge or rule them “like all the nations.” Samuel was understandably upset. But God made it clear to him that “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (verse 7). It was simply a continuation of Israel’s lack of commitment and fidelity. Samuel was to warn them that the earthly king they sought would take advantage of them, effectively enslaving them to his needs as he sought power and wealth, and that they would eventually regret their decision to reject God as king, but that He would then not hear them (verses 10–18). Despite this strong caution, the Israelites refused to heed Samuel.

The king who emerged from the selection process that God put in place was a tall and handsome Benjamite named Saul. His beginnings were promising by virtue of his humility. Searching for his father’s lost donkeys, Saul came to Ramah to ask Samuel’s advice on where to search. This was the moment that God chose to show His prophet whom He had chosen as king.

When they met, Samuel asked Saul to stay overnight and hear what he had to tell him and to have no concern about the lost donkeys; they had been found. Then inviting him to a meal with 30 others, Samuel gave him the best piece of meat, saying that it had been saved for him. Saul was puzzled by this honor, wondering why his family—“the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin”—should be named by Samuel “the desire of Israel” (9:20–21).

The next day the prophet anointed Saul with oil and declared him “commander over [the Lord’s] inheritance” (10:1). That day God’s Spirit came upon him and he became a different person. Along with a group of prophets he began prophesying and followed Samuel’s instruction to go to Gilgal and wait seven days for him to come (verses 5–8).

Calling Israel together at Mizpah afterward, Samuel explained that God had appointed someone to be king over them as they requested. Using a system of lots, Saul was chosen in the sight of all. In his humility he was found hiding among the luggage. The people shouted “Long live the king!” in acclamation, and Samuel gave verbal and written instructions about the role of king (verses 17–25).

There were some who rejected Saul in his new position, questioning, “How can this man save us?” Saul wisely said nothing (verse 27). Not long after, his critics had to eat their words when the Ammonites threatened Jabesh Gilead and Saul was used to defeat them by calling together an Israelite force of 330,000. Yet Saul would not punish those critics who had rejected his rule, rather choosing to spare them: “Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has accomplished salvation in Israel” (11:1–13).

Returning to Gilgal, the people made Saul king, rejoicing in victory over the Ammonites and giving God peace offerings.

At Saul’s coronation, Samuel reminded Israel of the history of their liberation from Egypt, of their difficult history once in the Promised Land as they seesawed between commitment and compromise, of God’s deliverance through savior-judges, and of their wrongful desire for a king. Now, he said, God would bless them if they and their king would obey Him. If not, then they would suffer as their forefathers had (12:6–25).

Saul the Sovereign

Two years into his reign, Saul chose 3,000 men to take the offensive against the Philistines. With 1,000 of these warriors, his son Jonathan attacked the Philistines at Geba. But the Philistines’ response was anything but proportional: 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen plus an innumerable army soon arrived in Michmash (13:1–5).

Saul agreed to wait in Gilgal for seven days until Samuel would arrive to ask for God’s blessing (verse 8). When the prophet delayed, Saul took it on himself to make an offering to God without Samuel, for fear that the Philistines would come down to Gilgal. This was obviously not his role and not what had been agreed, and it would have disastrous consequences: “Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (verses 13–14).

The Kingdom of Saul

Adapted from Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions, Marsha A. Ellis Smith, June Swann, Trent C. Butler, Christopher L. Church and David S. Dockery (editors), Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.

From here on in the story of Saul we witness a gradual decline in his ability to rule wisely. He rashly demanded that lots be taken to determine who had sinned in Israel so that God did not answer him as to the outcome of war with the Philistines. Even if his son should be the one indicated as the sinner, he would have him killed. When Jonathan was revealed as the cause of difficulty, his father said that he would have to die, but he was forced by public opinion to back down.

Though Saul did establish a certain degree of mastery over the Philistines, all of his years were consumed with warfare. “So Saul established his sovereignty over Israel, and fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, against the people of Ammon, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he harassed them” (14:47).

God sent Samuel to direct Saul’s efforts against the Amalekites for what they had done to Israel on their way out of Egypt. As He had promised long before, the Amalekites would eventually pay the price for their merciless treatment of Israel. With 210,000 men Saul lay in wait for them east of Egypt and captured their king, Agag, sparing their cattle, sheep and valuables.

Again, this was against God’s instructions and Saul would have to be told so. God’s message would come through Samuel, to whom He said, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments” (15:11).

The remainder of this book is occupied in showing how the Divine rejection of Saul took effect, and how the Lord brought forward and trained the son of Jesse for the kingdom.”

H.D.M. Spence-Jones (editor), The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Samuel

This greatly upset Samuel, and he went to Saul the next morning. Saul’s greeting was deferential, but also included the deceit, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (verse 13). The prophet challenged the king to explain why he was hearing the sound of captured sheep and oxen. Saul tried to blame the people for bringing the animals for sacrifice. Samuel would have none of it and continued telling Saul what God had said the previous night about his failure to obey. Still Saul tried to blame others: “The people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal” (verse 21).

Samuel’s response was to explain that God places a greater priority on obedience than on sacrifices. But further, it was to make clear that Saul’s rebellion against God’s commands was as serious as the sin of witchcraft, and that his stubbornness was equivalent to evil and idolatry. As a result, God now rejected Saul as king (verses 22–23). Despite Saul’s pleas, Samuel also had to reject him and execute Agag, the Amalekite king whom Saul had spared.

Though Samuel mourned for Saul, he never saw him again. God regretted that He had made Saul king and now instructed His prophet to anoint a successor. It would be one of the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite (16:1).

Next time we’ll continue with the story of Israel’s most famous king, David.