by Rev. Garry Walsh
1 Samuel is the first half of what was originally a single volume in the Hebrew bible. The Christian Bible now treats 2 Samuel as a separate book. Within the pages of 1 Samuel are found some of the Old Testament’s most dramatic and memorable stories. These stories include the call by God of the young child Samuel; the story of David and Goliath; the frantic chase of David by Saul; and the moving tales of friendship between David and Jonathan. It may also be possible for the careful reader to see the journey of life that is being captured here. Our lives are marked by a series of turning points. Some of these are subtle. Some are more abrupt.
1 Samuel marks a dramatic turning point for the people of Israel. They had been led by a series of judges and priests who had governed by direct Divine command. The trouble was that the people and their leaders did a poor job of following God’s plan for them. They flagrantly disobeyed their covenant with God and they found themselves caught without His protection as a result.
The book of Judges ends with the words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” I Samuel continues with this theme. (The book of Ruth separates these books. However, it is clear that Ruth is a side story that stands outside of the flow of the main narrative.)
1 Samuel begins with a heartfelt prayer from a childless woman. When God gave Hannah the child she prayed for, He also gave Israel the last, and indeed the greatest of its judges. Once weened, the young child Samuel was presented to Eli the high priest in order that he might remain there with him and serve God. The innocence of this child was in stark contrast the growing evil of Eli’s two sons. Hophni and Phenehas were descending into a life of corruption and debauchery. They undermined the priestly office and so presented God with no choice but to separate their family from His service.
Eli, while being depicted as a weak father, is also shown to be a God-fearing man. He recognised that the call that only Samuel could hear was the voice of God. It wasn’t long until all Israel began to realize that Samuel had been Divinely installed as a prophet and judge.
These were difficult times for Israel. The Philistines made war with them and regularly defeated them. Eli’s sons were killed in one of these battles, the shock of this news causing Eli to fall off his chair and also die. The Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines who soon began to suffer from the effects of falsely holding this most precious religious symbol.
The Ark was ultimately returned to Israel and under Samuel’s guidance there was a twenty year period during which there was a genuine effort to return to God’s ways. During this time, God used a thunderstorm to confuse the Philistines and repel another attack. This also served to once again demonstrate His Divine authority and power.
The sincerity and strength of Samuel’s leadership was not carried on by his sons. Over time they became as bad as Eli’s sons had been. This situation became part of the motivation for Israel to demand a king “like the other nations.” This marked an important emotional turning point for Israel. They were no longer prepared to accept the type of leadership that God was appointing for them. Now they were calling for a leadership style of their own choosing.
Consider how this situation reflects a young person’s change from being willing to accept directions and rules from authority figures like parents and teachers, to demanding that they make their own directions and rules. God allows us the freedom to create our own rules of life. He even allows us the freedom to reject Him and His authority. Yet, while we are free to choose our own way, we are warned of the dangers that will come if that way is not God’s way. Israel was warned about the price of a king. They clearly stated that this was a price they were willing to pay.
A young, humble man from an insignificant family within the small tribe of Benjamin was chosen by God to be Israel’s first king. Saul was physically special. He was the most handsome man in the land and stood a head taller than anyone else. He was out one day, scouring the countryside for his father’s missing donkey. Saul had more or less determined that it was time to give up and head home when his servant appealed to him to seek advice from a wise man who lived in that country. God helped Samuel recognise that he was the chosen one. Saul’s head was anointed with oil as a symbol of his Divine appointment. The fulfilment of Samuel’s prophesies on the journey home convinced Saul of the validity of the Samuel’s authority and of his own new position.
The spirit of God came upon Saul and a magnificent victory over the Philistines was achieved. Most of the initial opposition to Saul’s leadership melted away and he was crowned king by the people. Tragically, most of Saul’s reign went down hill from there. During another battle with the Philistines, Saul grew restless when Samuel was late to arrive. He conducted his own sacrifice to God and in the process broke the law that stated that only priests could fill this function. Samuel was clearly angry and announced that the kingdom would be taken from Saul.
What follows is a disjointed story that introduces David, the man who would one day replace Saul as king. Through God’s instructions, Samuel anointed David king. This was long before David became a nationally recognised figure. As the spirit of God entered David, it was withdrawn from Saul. In its place, Saul began to be haunted by forces of evil. It was believed that music would help ease Saul’s pain and his erratic temperament. David was a harp player. He was called to Saul’s house with the hopes of offering relief.
What come next seems out of sequence. We are given a scene of a battle between Israel and the Philistines. It is here that we find the much-loved story of David and Goliath. What is remarkable is that Saul seemed to have no idea who David was. David told tales of killing a lion and a bear in order to defend his father’s sheep. It was with much reluctance that Saul allowed David to approach Goliath.
From this story we return to the scene of David in Saul’s house. This was a time when a bond was being forged between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. In an earlier story, Jonathan’s bravery and his faith in God were proven when he took his servant into an overmatched battle with the Philistines and came out with a victory.
David’s music had an ever diminishing effect on Saul’s fiery temper and he grew more jealous of David by the day. This began a chase that would see Saul pursue David across much of Israel’s territory. David became an outlaw. He escaped to a cave. While he was there, many of Israel’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised came to see him as their only hope.
It was while hidden in another cave that David chose to save Saul’s life. Despite Saul’s actions, he was still the rightful king in David’s eyes. David spared Saul’s life a second time when he slipped into Saul’s sleeping camp unnoticed. It was during this time that that we hear of Samuel’s death, so closing the final chapter of Israel’s former history. This is also when we meet Abigail, one of David’s earliest and most influential wives.
Saul’s pursuit of David was put on hold while he attempted to put down yet another Philistine incursion. This battle, as it turned out, was Saul’s last. He died on the battle field along with Jonathan his son. While this was happening, David was avenging an Amalekite raid in another part of the land. It was acts such as this that paved the way for the eventual acceptance by Israel of David as their king. At the place where 1 Samuel ends, David has no idea that Saul and his friend Jonathan are dead.
The close knit friendship of David and Jonathan is one of the most uplifting aspects of this story. Amid the fury of Saul’s pursuit of David, we find this unbreakable bond between two brave young men. Tragically, one of their lives would end prematurely. Before then we are presented with a scene where David was hiding from Saul in some woods.
Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that.” So the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. And David stayed in the woods, and Jonathan went to his own house (1 Samuel 23: 16-18).
With David and Jonathan we see some of the qualities by which God could lead Israel, indeed all of us, back to His way. They showed courage, integrity, trust in God and genuine affection for another human being. If only David could have lived up to these ideals throughout his life, Israel would have had its future secured. As it would turn out, David would be haunted by a vast array of human failings. Yet, despite those things, he still was able to strengthen and increase Israel’s land and wealth. David never stopped looking to God, even when his actions seem in opposition to his faith. This unshakeable reliance on the power of God is among the reasons David will be remembered as Israel’s greatest king.