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1 Samuel


1 Samuel is of course about the prophet Samuel, focusing on the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. It covers from Samuel’s birth to the death of Saul.

1 Sam. 1

The account of the prophet Samuel begins with Elkanah and his two wives. Not surprisingly, the two wives don’t get along, especially because one is fertile and the other is barren. We can assume there was always competition among wives in polygamy, which is why it’s such a bad idea for anyone to have more than one spouse. But as always, God works through and around people’s poor judgment and character flaws.

Every year Elkanah would take his family to Shiloh to worship God, which is where we’re introduced to the two sons of Eli the priest: Hophni and Phineas. Remember those names, because they’ll come up again later. But though Elkanah tries to pacify the barren wife Hannah with double portions of food since he loves her the most (and we all know how that sort of thing has worked out in Israel’s history), she’s still miserable because the fertile wife keeps mocking her for being childless. The husband just doesn’t get it.

But on one such trip to Shiloh, Hannah weeps bitterly to God about this, and she vows to God that if he gives her a child, she’ll dedicate him to God in a similar way to Samson, who never drank wine or cut his hair. But she’s praying in her heart and only moving her lips, so Eli presumes she’s drunk. After she explains that she’s crying out to God in anguish, he asks that God will grant her request.

She and the rest of the family return home, after which God answers her prayer, and then in time she gives birth to Samuel. But when the time comes to return to Shiloh, Hannah remains behind to wean Samuel, after which she takes him there to stay permanently in God’s service.

1 Sam. 2

This begins what is pretty much a taunt against Hannah’s rival wife, seeing that it’s all about humiliating the proud and elevating the humiliated. This is how God works, the opposite of society’s norms. In verse 12 the narrative turns briefly to Eli’s two wicked sons, who had been using their positions as priests to abuse others.

Then it turns back to Samuel, whose mother would bring him new clothes each year when they all came to sacrifice. Eli pronounces a blessing on Hannah for God to give her more children because she honored her vow and gave up her firstborn, and he does. Then in verse 22 it’s back to Eli’s wicked sons, who not only had been robbing people’s sacrifices but also (at least in the Hebrew text) sexually assaulting the women who served at the temple. Eli was old and didn’t even know what his sons were doing until other people told him.

God at this point has already decided that the sons will die for their wickedness. So he sends someone to confront Eli about his failure to discipline his sons, which meant he was valuing them more than God. Eli is then cursed with premature death on all his descendants, beginning with the deaths of both his sons on the same day. Moreover, his descendants will beg for crumbs from the family of the one God raises up to replace him.

1 Sam. 3

Meanwhile, Samuel grows up and has a reputation of being godly, though messages from God had become rare by then. One night Samuel hears a voice calling to him, so he goes to Eli thinking that’s who it was. But Eli just tells him to go back to sleep, and then it happens again. By the third time, Eli finally realizes that Samuel is being called by God, so he tells him how to respond the next time.

When he does, God gives him a message repeating the curse on Eli and his family line. But Samuel is afraid to tell him, so he waits till morning, but Eli demands to know what he was told. And though the curse did not take place that very day, Samuel was becoming known throughout Israel as a prophet of God.

1 Sam. 4

The curse is to begin with the Philistines, a familiar name from the study of Samson. They go to battle with the Israelites and begin to defeat them, so the Israelites decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield, which meant that Eli’s sons would go with it. But it does Israel no good, as if the Ark could be used like a talisman. It’s captured by the Philistines, and Eli’s sons are killed in battle. Stage one of the curse is complete.

Meanwhile, Eli is sitting in a chair by the road, waiting to find out the fate of the Ark (but apparently not his sons), when a runner comes with news of the battle. After telling him about his sons and the Ark, Eli falls backward off his chair and breaks his neck, and so he dies the same day as his sons. When one of his daughters-in-law hears of all this, she goes into labor, gives birth to a son, and then dies.

1 Sam. 5-7

Meanwhile, the Philistines had taken the Ark to the temple of their god Dagon. But the next morning, the idol was face down on the ground before the Ark. They stood it up again, but the day after that, not only was the idol on the ground again, but its head and hands were chopped off as well. You’d think they’d take the hint about false gods, but instead they just move the Ark to another place. Then sores break out on the people in the city where they take it, so they move it again, but the people there aren’t dumb enough to accept it.

After seven months of this, they consult their soothsayers to find out how to get Israel to take it back. Their advice includes familiarity with what God had done to Egypt, along with what they considered a proper guilt offering. They send the Ark and offerings on a cart and let two cows take it away on their own. The cows pull the cart to a certain field in Israel, but some of the locals are killed because they look inside of the Ark. So they send for others to come and take the Ark away, like a high-stakes game of hot potato.

After it stays in the next place for twenty years, Samuel tells Israel that they have to get rid of all their idols and shrines so they can be delivered from the Philistines. But when the Philistines see them all gathered together, they decide to come to do battle. But God basically shouts boo at them and causes them to panic, which allows Israel to defeat them. From then on, while Samuel lived, Israel was not bothered again by the Philistines.

1 Sam. 8

Now Samuel is old and he appoints his sons as judges over Israel. But as with Eli, Samuel’s sons turn out to be wicked, and it is this which prompts Israel to demand a king, which was never God’s intention. Samuel failed to learn from the poor example of his mentor, and this is the consequence.

But when Samuel tells God about this, God informs him that it isn’t Samuel the people are rejecting, it’s God Himself. He tells Samuel to give the people fair warning of what it means to have a human king over them: The sons will be conscripted into the army, the daughters will be pressed into service as cooks, the farmers will be ordered to grow the king’s food and tend his herds, the craftsmen will be ordered to make weapons, and the land owners will be taxed for the benefit of the king’s officials. Human government is inherently oppressive and parasitic.

But even with the final warning that God will turn a deaf ear to them when they whine about being oppressed by their own king, they still demand it, because they want to be like all the other nations. This is just as foolish as when Christians today demand to be under the laws of Moses.

1 Sam. 9-10

So now the search is on for a king, and naturally they pick the son of a prominent man. Saul, who is described as being head-and-shoulders taller than the average man, was off chasing after some of his father’s escaped donkeys when he comes to a town where Samuel is planning to make a sacrifice.

Samuel had been told by God that this guy he’d encounter the next day would be the one to anoint as king. When he meets him, Saul, like Gideon, wonders why someone from a small tribe in Benjamin is to be given a message from God. But instead of telling him outright, Samuel has dinner with him and then tells him just before he sends him back to his father.

So he anoints Saul with oil and pronounces him king of Israel, which will be proved when he conquers the Philistines. But notice that Samuel tells Saul that the Spirit of God will come upon him at a certain place, causing him to prophesy and changing him into a different person. Here is a clear instance of the fact that the Holy Spirit came and went on individuals before the cross, in contrast to the permanent indwelling of the Spirit after the cross.

These things all come true as Samuel prophesied, and people who had known Saul begin to wonder what happened to him. (Shouldn’t that be said of people who become Christians as adults?) Finally Samuel gathers everyone together to tell them that they finally had their precious king, instead of direct rule by the God who had rescued them from Egypt. It seems clear from this choice of Saul that God is going to teach them a lesson. But when it comes time to present Saul to them, he had hidden himself in fear! They had to drag him out, which should have been their first clue that this demand of theirs was a bad idea. But no, they all shout Long live the king! , like prisoners cheering a new cowardly warden.

1 Sam. 11-13

Saul’s first battle as king was to wipe out the army of the Ammonites who were threatening them, and after the battle they celebrate by formally established Saul as king.

Nearing the end of his life, Samuel recounts the pathetic history of Israel’s cycle of rebellion, oppression, and restoration. So God will be with them if they follow him, in spite of demanding this king. But if not, and really when not, they will be punished once again.

It begins with this king they just coronated. Saul provokes the Philistines, as if he had a stick in his hand and couldn’t resist striking a hornet’s nest with it. So now he’s confronted by an army much larger than his own, and he does what he’s best at: Hide in a cave and call for help. He sends for Samuel but gets impatient and makes an offering without him. When Samuel sees what he did, he tells him how stupid that was, because God requires someone loyal and faithful. So Saul will have the kingdom taken away and given to someoene not of his family line.

We’ve seen the name of Saul’s son Jonathan in this passage, and he will turn out to be best friends with Saul’s replacement. What could go wrong? And because of Saul’s foolishness, the Philistines had made sure Israel had no blacksmiths to make weapons, so only Saul and Jonathan had swords.

1 Sam. 14

But God is still working behind the scenes. Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak out and kill a Philistine garrison of twenty men, and God puts fear into the whole Philistine army because of it. By the time Saul and the rest realize what happened, the Philistines have scattered and begun killing each other. It’s only then that the army of Israel is brave enough to attack them.

But genuinely-brave Jonathan, who didn’t know about his father’s foolish curse on anyone who ate any food before evening, comes across some honey and eats it. He is revived while the rest of the army is faint with hunger, so they all follow Jonathan’s lead and quickly devour the animals from the army they plundered.

When Saul finds out about this, he really doesn’t punish anyone right away. But when God refuses to answer him when he asks for a sign to go into battle, he asks God to identify the sinner who caused the silence, and Jonathan is outed. But the army he had led to victory that day refuses to allow him to be executed, so Saul goes back home to consolidate his reign by dealing with all the other enemies, and then back to fighting the Philistines. Saul finally displays some bravery in this.

His other children are listed after this, including a daughter called Michal, another name to remember. But the Philistines, as mentioned in an earlier lesson, would continue to vex Israel during Saul’s reign, and he was in the habit of conscripting any particularly brave man he saw.

1 Sam. 15

God had said that the kingdom would be taken from Saul, and now we come to the events leading up to that. God tests Saul by ordering him to totally wipe out the Amalekites, but he spares the king and the best of the loot.

So God tells Samuel of his regret at choosing Saul, and Samuel confronts Saul over his failure to obey God. Saul makes excuses and denies his failure, but Samuel isn’t having it, and this is where we find the familiar passage about God valuing obedience more than sacrifice. Finally Saul admits his guilt, and that his motive was fear of his own army; his bravery was short-lived. Then we see another characteristic of God: he is not a human being, which most translations render man . This is important to remember whenever other religions try to make God in their image, or when Christians try to adopt heathen beliefs by making God gendered.

It would be Samuel, not Saul, who dispatches the Amalekite king, and Saul would never see Samuel again. But the repetition of the statement about God regretting his choice of Saul is a curious thing, since we know that God is all-knowing, and he had just said he doesn’t change his mind like people do. We also recall God’s regret at having made mankind at all, and the subsequent Flood. You can read a fairly exhaustive list of God’s apparent regrets at this source, in the final post on that page.

A possible answer from one angle is that God is saying this for our benefit and in terms we can grasp. His purpose is to emphasize that his decision is final, and also for us to learn from other people’s mistakes. The lesson here is not just for Israel; how often has Christianity chosen the most attractive, charismatic, eloquent leaders, instead of the most godly or studied in the Word? Look at the popular so-called ministries on television or the internet, and see what they’re teaching.

Another angle is that the word typically rendered regret is better understood as grief . Yet why would God only be grieved after the passage of time, since it was his choice and he knew how it would turn out? Certainly the free will he granted humanity comes into play, but in these and numerous other passages, we’re given the impression that God is disppointed that people miss his expectations, which shouldn’t be the case since he knew what they’d do from the start.

The Greek word here in verse 35 is metemelethe, whereas in verse 29 it’s metanoesei. The primary difference is that rather than merely a change of mind or direction, the one in verse 35 includes the motivation for such change. Remember as well that the semantic range of any word is taken from context, not context from semantic range. So we can at least establish that God is not repenting of a sin or mistake.

So how do we reconcile verses 29 and 35? In my opinion, the solution is that while God never changes his plans, he often changes our instructions at various points in time. This is the outworking of the paradox between his sovereignty and our free will. For example, when God came down to see what the builders of the Tower of Babel were up to, or whether Abraham would obey God without question, we must see these visitations as from our perspective and ability to understand, not God’s limitations or imperfections. This is also the essence of Dispensationalism.

1 Sam. 16

The prophet Samuel can’t seem to accept that Saul has been rejected by God as king of Israel, but God tells him to go anoint the new king he has chosen. This is where we see one of God’s cover stories. Samuel is afraid that Saul will kill him if he finds out what he’s about to do, so God tells him to pretend he’s just going to make a sacrifice.

Verse 7 is where we see God’s opinion of how people choose leaders. We pick the most outwardly impressive, but God picks the most inwardly impressive. God picks the runt of the litter in front of all his more outwardly-impressive brothers. And as with Saul, David immediately receives the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, that same Spirit had left Saul and was replaced by a tormenting spirit from God. For whatever reason, Saul’s advisors recommend a good harp player to soothe him during his episodes. David, the despised sheep herder, happened to be just such a musician, along with being a brave warrior, a good speaker, and a good-looking guy. He becomes Saul’s armor-bearer and soul-soother.

1 Sam. 17

Now back to the pesky Philistines, who camp out on one side of a valley while Saul’s army camps out on the other. Then out from the Philistine camp comes their champion, the infamous giant Goliath. His actual height is disputed, but all seem to agree that he was at least seven feet tall, but likely taller judging by the sizes given of his weapons and armor. Every morning and evening for forty days, Goliath would dare Israel to send out their champion to fight him. Saul was the biggest man in Israel, but he was afraid to face him.

Meanwhile, David had been commuting between sheep herding and placating Saul, but in another case of just so happened, David’s father sends him to bring supplies to his older brothers in Saul’s army. He arrives just as the soldiers are marching to the battle lines for the day, and he hear’s Goliath’s taunt.

But while the army retreats in fear, David hears them talk about the rewards promised to whoever would face him. His questions here are not to get the answers he already knows, but to declare his intention of being the one to fight Goliath. His oldest brother rebukes him for arrogance and for allegedly only coming to watch the battle. But David’s retort is one many of us can totally relate to: Can’t I say anything?

Eventually Saul gets wind of David’s offer, but he tells David that he, as a mere youth, can’t hope to compete with this powerful seasoned warrior. Yet David is confident, due to his experiences with wild animals, and his outrage that anyone would defy the living God who has given him his successes.

So Saul has David try on his own armor, but he rejects it― not because it’s too big but because he’s not used to wearing armor. He goes with his familar and trusted weapon, a slingshot. As you can see in this video (first segment), this is not the Y-shaped version we’re used to, but a long strap with a pouch that the person would swing in circles like a lasso. The stone released from this has enough force to break a skull, but it takes great skill to use with both power and accuracy.

As David approaches Goliath with only his shepherd’s gear and a walking staff, Goliath despises him and is insulted by Israel apparently sending its worst instead of its best to fight him. Trash talk ensues, but David fearlessly runs toward him and then stops to sling the rock, which sinks into Goliath’s forehead. Seeing Goliath drop dead on his face, David takes Goliath’s own sword and beheads him. Only now, in typical Israelite fashion, the army is emboldened and chases after the terrified Philistines. David takes Goliath’s weapons and puts them in his tent, but takes the head to Jerusalem.

Saul had been watching from a safe distance of course, but we’re puzzled to read that he doesn’t even seem to recognize him, though he had met him just a short time ago. But the end of the chapter tells us that what Saul didn’t know was the name of David’s father, not David himself, and this likely was at least being asked because of the promise he made about exempting the champion’s family from taxes.

1 Sam. 18

Remember Saul’s son Jonathan? He and David become best friends at this time, and Saul employs David full-time so he no longer commutes to his shepherding job at home. David goes on to become a respected warrior, but the rainbows and lollipops are fleeting. The women sing after the defeat of Goliath, but they credit David with ten times the honor of Saul. Not surprisingly, Saul is a tad jealous, and he keeps a wary eye on David from then on.

The next time David comes to play the harp for one of Saul’s episodes, he tries to impale David with a spear. After it happens again without success, Saul removes David from being his bodyguard to being a field commander. This of course only made things worse for Saul, because David would turn out to be a superb warrior.

So Saul decides to let the Philistines do his dirty work for him, by luring David into battle to win the right to marry his daughter Merab. But David feels unworthy, so Saul marries her to another man. Saul tries again with his other daughter Michal, who had a crush on David anyway. But David escapes death again and finally agrees to marry Michal. He continues to rise in rank, and in esteem in the eyes of pretty much everyone but Saul.

1 Sam. 19

Saul tries to get his staff to kill David, but Jonathan gets wind of it and warns David, then gets Saul to relent― for the time being. After an unknown length of time passes, Saul goes back to his old ways of trying to impale David with a spear while he’s playing the harp to soothe him. (I think the anger management classes aren’t working.) Then Saul sends a squad to David’s house to arrest him, but his wife Michal helps him escape during the night. She puts an idol on his bed and covers it with a quilt to make it look like he’s still there, and she tells the assassins that he’s sick. But when they come back to Saul without him, he sends them right back to haul him off anyway, and then they realize they’ve been had.

So Saul confronts Michal, who says David threatened to kill her, which of course was a lie, but again I would recommend the earlier discussions concerning what God considers sinful deception. Meanwhile, David has run to see Samuel. When Saul’s police catch up to them, they see them all prophesying, and even the police start to prophesy! So finally Saul goes there himself, and even he starts to prophesy. Pretty bizarre scene to say the least, but sometimes God seems to have a twisted sense of humor.

1 Sam. 20-21

While all that’s going on, David takes off to find Jonathan and ask him what Saul’s problem is. So the two of them devise a series of tests to see if Saul is hiding his intentions from Jonathan, and again, the plan involves lying. And to no one’s surprise, Saul has every intention of killing David, and seems to also hate Jonathan for being his friend.

So per the pre-arranged signal, David runs away, and would keep running away until God himself takes Saul’s life. Verse two is the incident Jesus would later refer to regarding the Pharisees’ objection to his healing people on the Sabbath. David is on the run and needs some bread, but the only bread available has been offered in sacrifice to God. He is given the bread anyway, and God doesn’t express any problem with David’s cover story.

From there David runs to Gath, but the people there are suspicious of his intentions, so David pretends to be insane― another deception. I keep pointing these out to impress on us how often deceit seems to further God’s plans, when such deceit is only doing harm to God’s enemies.

1 Sam. 22-23

Off David goes again, and this time his family finds him. Then all the discontented people in the area made him their leader and form a force of about 400 men. But then we see that there has been a snitch by the name of Doeg following David around. At Saul’s order, he had killed the priests who had sheltered David, but someone named Abiathar escaped and told David what happened.

After a skirmish with the Philistines, David hears that Saul and his army are coming after him again, and Saul stays in pursuit until God diverts them to deal with the Philistines.

1 Sam. 24

Now we come to the familiar incident where David has a chance to kill Saul, but he only takes a corner of Saul’s robe as he relieves himself in a cave where David and his men were hiding, and he doesn’t even know anything happened. So David’s group sneaks out of the cave and goes a safe distance, where David shouts to Saul and holds up the corner of his cloak to show that he could have killed him but didn’t.

David’s statement about not touching God’s anointed is one the Christian community has grossly misapplied. They take it to mean that preachers are not to be criticized, in spite of the New Testament’s explicit teaching that leaders are to be held to the highest standards. They are not God’s anointed above other believers. There is nothing elevated or special about one spiritual gift compared to others, as you can read in 1 Cor. 13. Any church leader or popular speaker who uses this phrase as a free pass to sin is a fake and should be disfellowshiped. Anyway, Saul admits his fault and breaks off the pursuit for the time being.

1 Sam. 25

Now we read the briefest mention of the death of Samuel, before coming to the next bit of drama. There was a wealthy man in the area, who had a wife named Abigail. The scripture describes her as wise and beautiful, but her husband Nabal as a harsh and evil fool.

David finds out that Nabal is sheering sheep and sends messengers to ask for provisions, since David and his men never gave Nabal and his servants any trouble. But Nabal insults them, so David decides to attack Nabal’s household. One of the servants finds out what’s about to happen, so he runs to Abigail to see what she might be able to do to keep them from being wiped out due to her husband’s stupidity and ego. And just to continue driving home a point, today’s Christian teachers would say she should have let them all be slaughtered rather than go behind her wicked husband’s back.

While David is on his way there, Abigail loads up a caravan of gifts for him and his men and rushes out to meet him. She takes full responsibility for all this, though none of it is her fault, and she tells him that her husband lives up to his name which means fool.

She presents her plea for mercy, and David is very impressed with her good judgment. So he accepts the gifts she brought and passes by. But when she gets home, she finds her husband throwing a party and slobbering drunk, so she doesn’t bother to tell him anything till the next day. When he finally sobers up and hears her story, he has a stroke and is paralyzed, until God kills him ten days later.

When David hears the news, he asks Abigail to be another of his wives. Though by this time Saul had married off Michal to someone else, David had married another woman. This sort of uneven playing field has been the cultural norm for most of history, so any modern-day whining about the field tilting the other way just a bit will get no sympathy from me.

1 Sam. 26

Now it’s back to Saul chasing David, which presents David with another opportunity to kill him. He and another man actually sneak into the middle of the sleeping enemy camp where Saul was surrounded by soldiers, but again David won’t strike him down. He had just seen how God took care of Nabal, so he has full confidence that God will do the same with Saul.

This time David takes a spear and a jug of water from right beside Saul, but he isn’t caught because God put them into a deep sleep. After retreating a safe distince, instead of shouting to Saul he shouts to Saul’s bodyguard Abner, to scold him for not protecting his king. How embarrassing!

Then David warns Saul that if he has tried to kill him without justification or permission from God, he and his men will be cursed. Again Saul confesses his sin, again they part ways, but again we all know how this will go.

1 Sam. 27-28

Now David does something totally unforseen: He takes refuge among the Philistines! His reasoning is that Saul won’t pursue him there, and the Philistines actually agree to his presence among them.

Then the time comes for the Philistines to go into battle again with Israel, so David pledges his support for the Philistines. Saul is terrified at the sight of the Philistine army, but of course God doesn’t listen to his pleas for help. So he seeks out a medium in a town called Endor. Why Saul thought a disguise could be of any use when visiting someone believed to have psychic powers, we can only guess.

Of course, she thinks this is a hit squad from Saul that has come there to entrap her since he had expelled all the other mediums from his land. He assures her that isn’t the case, so she asks who he wants her to conjure up, and he says Samuel. But to her great horror, Samuel actually appears! She had expected the usual trickery or even perhaps a demon, so this terrifies her, because she knows that this is Saul himself. Then Samuel actually speaks to Saul and demands to know why he disturbed him from among the dead. He also tells him that Saul and his sons will be with him in the grave the next day.

1 Sam. 29-31

Meanwhile, the upper leadership of the Philistine army decides that David and his men cannot be trusted in battle, so again David is held in suspicion though nothing he ever did made him deserving of it. Many of us who defend the faith online know this feeling all too well.

So David returns to where he had been living in the land of the Philistines while the army goes off to fight Israel. But they find that their city has been raided and burned and their women kidnapped. So David inquires of God what he should do, and he’s given the green light to go after the raiding party. He recovers everything and everyone that had been taken.

Now back to the battle between the Philistines and Israel, which Israel was losing. Saul’s sons all die as predicted, and Saul himself is mortally wounded. He asks his servant to finish him off so he won’t be captured and tortured, but the servant is afraid, so Saul falls on his own sword.

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