Discovering Samuel

In our English Bibles, the Old Testament (OT) features a special six-book series: 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. These are actually three books in the Hebrew Bible: Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Together, they provide a detailed history of the kings of Israel, just as a history of the United States presidents would do for us today.


Each of these three books have a special purpose. The first one, Samuel, is as a bridge from the chaotic time when various judges (warlords) led the people of Israel to the time when royal dynasties governed them instead. This book also functions as an intro to the kings of Israel by comparing the first two kings – Saul and David.

You can phrase the central message of this book in this way: God leads his people through imperfect leaders who humbly respond to him.

You can summarize the content of this book (or books) in the following way:

  • The ministry of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1-7)
  • The beginning and end of King Saul (1 Sam 8-31)
  • The beginning and end of King David (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 20)
  • The epilogue (2 Sam 21-24)

The Ministry of the Prophet Samuel

Samuel was born in answer to the prayer of a woman named Hannah who was unable to bear children. In response to God answering her prayer, she dedicated her son to the full-time service of God.

There is a sense in which 1 Samuel serves as a biography of the life and ministry of Samuel, a prophet who spoke to Israel for God. He also guided them throughout the transitional process of choosing their first two kings and served as a source of spiritual accountability to these kings, but especially to Saul.

Early in Samuel’s ministry, the nation of Israel encountered severe conflict with the neighboring Philistine people. After suffering significant military losses, Israel carried the Ark of the Covenant out from the tabernacle as a “good luck charm,” hoping that this act would help them defeat the Philistines. It did not and the Philistines confiscated the Ark from them instead.

When you read this section of Scripture for yourself, it is good to ask yourself this question, “Am I following God as the supreme authority in my life, or am I following him merely as a good luck charm and as a way to have a comfortable, victorious, and successful life for myself?”

The Beginning and End of King Saul

Israel continued to display an arrogant heart against God when they demanded that Samuel set up a king over their nation. This request was not born out of a desire to follow God and establish an orderly kingdom. It came from an arrogant, independent desire to be like the pagan nations around them who did not answer directly to God (1 Sam 8:5-7).

It was not wrong to want a king. In fact, Moses had given instructions for choosing a king when they settled into the land (Deut 17:14-20). The problem was that they wanted to govern themselves rather than answer to God.

In response to this request, Samuel selected a king for them named Saul. He was from the tribe of Benjamin and was tall, handsome, and polite. As king, he began well and won numerous victories against Israel’s enemies.

As time went on, however, some serious character flaws arose. He lacked integrity, was dishonest, was more concerned about his personal image than God’s will, and – most importantly – was unable to admit when he was wrong.

On one occasion, he offered sacrifices which God had not authorized (1 Sam 13). On another occasion, he disobeyed God’s instructions by refusing to destroy the enemy (1 Sam 15). On these occasions, he argued with Samuel and made excuses for his behavior. Samuel informed him that God would reject him as king and choose a replacement king.

When you read this section of Scripture, you should ask yourself a couple of questions. First, “Do I disregard what God has said to do things my way instead?” Second, “Do I admit when I am wrong, or do I make excuses to protect my own image instead?”

The Beginning and End of King David

The selection of Israel’s second king differed from the selection of Saul in several ways.

  • First, Israel chose Saul, but God chose David.
  • Second, Saul met the external qualifications that the people of Israel valued, but David met the internal, personal and spiritual qualities that God valued (1 Sam 9:1-2; 16:7).
  • Third, Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, but David was from the tribe of Judah. This was important because it set in motion the fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy to his son Judah (Gen 49:8-10). This is especially remarkable because Benjamin was a favored tribe, while Judah had done some bad things, yet God had promised to bless Judah in a merciful way.

Though God selected David as Saul’s replacement in 1 Samuel 16 and vindicated his choice when David killed Goliath for Saul in 1 Samuel 17, Saul spent the remainder of his career trying to capture and kill David rather than submit to God and hand over the throne.

The remainder of this book, then, describes both how Saul pursued after David and how David handled himself during this time. Saul acted in arrogance and self-interest, while David acted in humility and confidence in God.

David wrote many of his poetic songs (psalms) during this difficult time of his life (cf. Psa 18, 52, 54, 57, 59, 63). As he suffered continual persecution from Saul, he learned to wait on the Lord and trust in his care. At the end of this difficult period, Saul failed to remove David and died in a gruesome way in a battle with the Philistines. His sons died with him.

2 Samuel 1-20 goes on to describe the reign of David as king over Israel. Throughout his reign, he showed the kind of sensitivity and humility before God that Saul had lacked. He won many battles, unified the tribes together, established Jerusalem (which he renamed Zion) as the capital city.
David also took steps to make Israel the religious center for the nation as well. To do this, he brought the Ark of the Covenant there and made plans to build a permanent house of worship that would replace the tabernacle (the Temple).

At this time, something very important happened – something just as important as when God made an unconditional covenant with Abraham (Gen 12, 15). He made an everlasting covenant to extend David’s family dynasty forever, especially through a future king from God who would build God’s ultimate temple and rule over the world forever (2 Sam 7:12-13). This king would be the Messiah (i.e. Jesus Christ) and David describes this in greater detail through some poetic songs (Psa 2, 72, 132, 145).

Sadly, this high point in David’s career descended into difficult times – reminding us that David had failures of his own. He committed adultery and conceived a child with a woman named Bathsheba, then he arranged the execution of her husband to cover his tracks. Unlike Saul, however, when a prophet – Nathan – confronted his sin, he responded in a broken, repentant, and humble way, acknowledging his sin. We can read about the details of his response in Psalm 51.

Unfortunately, David’s family life unraveled as a result of his sin. His son Amnon abused his sister Tamar, then another son, Absalom, murdered Amnon in retaliation. After this, Absalom attempted to remove his father from the throne and take his place. This forced David to live on the run for a second time. This difficult period ended when someone murdered Absalom. This sad ending broke David’s heart and he ended his reign in a humble, broken, and sorrowful condition.

When you read this section of Scripture for yourself, you should ask yourself, “Though I follow God and receive his mercy for my sins, do I recognize that my sinful actions will affect my family and the people around me?”

The Epilogue

This combined book ends with a thoughtful conclusion that summarizes the two primary characters, Saul and David. It also summarizes the central message of the book – that God leads his people through imperfect leaders who humbly respond to him.

The conclusion is given in a poetic way that forms a three-layered chiasm spanning four chapters.

> Saul’s failure (21A)
>> David’s mighty men (21B)
>>>David’s final thoughts (22)
>>>David’s final thoughts (23A)
>>David’s mighty men (23B)
>David’s failure (24)

The outer layer of this chiasm highlights the failure of both kings and how their failure to follow God as leaders negatively influenced the lives of other people. This is significant because archaeology reveals that the historical records of ancient kings tend to embellish the memories of their rulers. The Old Testament takes an opposite approach, giving us an honest assessment of the men who ruled over God’s people.

The second layer of this chiasm draws attention to David’s mighty men, men he could rely upon to defend him, win difficult battles, and overcome challenging obstacles. This layer also highlights two instances in which David had been weak and had to rely on these men for help. This layer emphasizes that even the greatest men are frail and that no man is invincible. As such, a good leader must rely on the assistance of others who will join him in the cause – especially in the cause of serving the Lord. No man – no matter how good and godly – is a self-sufficient island to himself.

The third and central layer features two poetic songs. The first is a long poem that emphasizes the LORD as the source of all mercy and victory and as the God who reigns over all. The second is a short poem that emphasizes God’s choice of David as king and the kind of relationship that a king of Israel should have with God as the supreme king. It also emphasizes David’s humble recognition of his personal failure, while also recognizing God’s promise of an everlasting dynasty.


As you read and study Samuel (both books) for yourself, I encourage you to consider these three overarching truths. Each one echoes statements from Hannah’s poetic song that opens Samuel (1 Sam 2)

God removes kings and raises up kings. (1 Sam 2:8; Dan 2:21)

Therefore, we should exercise faith in God’s providential guidance of history, whether good men or bad men rule. David himself exhibited this approach when he had an opportunity to kill Saul but refused, even though it meant more suffering for himself (1 Sam 24:6; 26:9). Do you trust God with the political developments of your nation and the world?

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Sam 2:3, 7; Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5)

Ultimately, it was not Saul’s failures that disqualified him from being king – it was his refusal to follow God’s leadership and his refusal to acknowledge when he was wrong. Though David failed, too, he differed from Saul because he followed God’s leadership and acknowledged when he was wrong. For this reason, God rejected Saul but accepted David. Are you arrogant or humble before God?

God is a rock to stand upon and to hide in through the turbulent events of life. (1 Sam 2:2; 2 Sam 22:2, 32)

David lived a turbulent, restless life for many years as Saul attempted to capture and kill him. He also lived through turbulent times when his children went astray and forced him away from the throne once again. Yet through it all, he found refuge in the constant faithfulness and unbreakable power of God. Are you finding peace and comfort in God as your Rock through the turbulent, confusing difficulties of your life?

God will raise up Christ as the king over all people and he will rule over God’s people forever. (1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 23:5)

Just as God was faithful to raise up David as king over Israel, he will raise up Jesus Christ the Messiah as the king over his people forever in the end. Do you live with an eye to the future, finding encouragement and motivation by this promise to serve God in the chaotic world we live in today?

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