And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. - 1 Samuel 8:7 (ESV)
The First Book of Samuel is named after the final, and perhaps the greatest, judge of Israel. Although two books are named after Samuel, he dies before the end of the first (1 Sam 25:1).
As the final judge of Israel, Samuel serves as a hinge between two major eras of Israelite history, the times of the judges and the times of the kings. Samuel lives to see the first and second kings that Yahweh chooses to rule his people: King Saul and King David.
An Outline of 1 Samuel
Chapters 1-8 treat the origins and ministry of Samuel. Samuel shares rarefied air in biblical stories. There are few biblical figures whose lives are traced from before birth to death (and maybe even after! cf. 1 Sam. 28:8-19). We read about a childless woman named Hannah who prayed to Yahweh and was granted a son. Hannah dedicated Samuel to serving Yahweh at the temple in Shiloh, where Samuel served during his childhood under the priest Eli.
Chapters 9-15 focus on the selection and subsequent rejection of Saul. We read how Yahweh selects a reluctant Benjaminite to be the first king of Israel. This is in response to the insistence of the people and despite Samuel's warnings. Saul establishes himself in fits and starts, but war helps to consolidate his reign. However, he oversteps his bounds and disobeys Yahweh via Samuel. Because of this, he is rejected from being king.
Chapters 16-31 treat the rise of David and the decline and eventual death of Saul. There are many notable stories in these chapters, but the gist is that David continues to find success in nearly everything he does despite intense persecution. He even finds himself pretending to fight against Israel for the Philistines at one point. 1 Samuel ends with the death of Saul and his sons in battle against the Philistines.
The Benefits of 1 Samuel
1 Samuel is a book that is more full of stories than commentary. This is to say that there is not much explanation of what the stories mean or what we are supposed to learn from them. The stories proceed at a fast clip through the entirety of Samuel's life and a 40-year rule by Saul.
So how do we benefit from stories like these? We may not simply choose which parts to make into moral lessons. The first duty is always to understand what is being said, and from there to piece together why it is said that way. After that, we can draw lines of connection between the stories and ourselves.
It may be helpful to compare 1 Samuel to the stories surrounding the founding of a country. Take the American Revolutionary War for an example. While there may be much that can be gleaned for ourselves from the stories of the battles and the individual lives of the men and women who played great parts during those times, the purpose of the stories is not to be like George Washington or try to figure out who is King George today. Instead, the stories have intrinsic value for us insofar as they help explain a distant but significant series of events that brought us to where we are today.
The transition from judges to kings is perhaps the most important shift that takes place in the book of 1 Samuel. God makes clear to Samuel that, in demanding a king like the rest of the nations, Israel was not rejecting Samuel but Yahweh. Very quickly, we learn just how right Samuel was to warn the people about the difficulties that would come along with having a king.
One of the great benefits of Bible books full of stories like 1 Samuel is that we are offered divine insight into the working of God in history in a way that we often are not. As we read 1 Samuel, we learn about a God who is in total control and yet, paradoxically, allows his people to make all sorts of decisions that are not good.
One of the interesting things about 1 Samuel is how God works through what appears to be rather chaotic times to accomplish his purposes. 1 Samuel begins with the priesthood in disarray, a woman struggling with a barren womb, and the people still doing what is right in their own eyes. Samuel is born, and God uses him to lead his people until they transition to a king. But even in leading the transition to having a king in Israel, God chooses Saul, who would turn out to be a failure despite a promising start.
Then enters David, an unlikely hero just like Samuel was. God plucked Samuel from a barren womb like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Then God plucks David from the pasture and sets him on the throne. What is more, David is chosen to be part of the line through whom the Messiah would come. 1 Samuel contains many ups and downs in Israel's history, but the constant and sovereign hand of Yahweh over all things becomes clear time and time again.
As we read 1 Samuel, we do well to read the origin story of David with great interest. But we do better to read and see the sovereign hand of Yahweh in all things to lead and guide his people inexorably toward his intended ends. Despite all the failures of the priesthood, the judges, and the kings, God's purposes are not thwarted.
As we read 1 Samuel, we should read it not only as the story of Israel's transition from the time of the judges to the time of the kings but also as another chapter in the story of Yahweh's providence for his people as he shapes history to prepare it for the coming of the Messiah. From where we stand today, the Messiah has already come. But we experience the same providence from the same God shaping the same history as we await for the return of the Messiah, arriving not in humility as a servant but as a king to conquer.