The Bible: Exploring 1 & 2 Samuel

What’s in a name?

Samuel and SaulIt may seem strange that the books of Samuel are named after a figure who is less prominent than Saul and David in the latter half of 1 Samuel and who does not even appear in 2 Samuel. But we must remember that Samuel (Hebrew: Shemu’el, meaning “name of God” or “heard of God”) was the last judge of Israel and anointed the nation’s first two kings, Saul and David. Samuel also established the role of the prophet as the moral conscience of the nation. Thus, Samuel’s legacy indirectly dominates both 1 and 2 Samuel.


The books of Samuel, which cover a period of about 110 years, have a rich literary structure.

1. The story (1 Samuel 1:1–7:17) combines several wonderful elements:

  • A moving portrait of Samuel’s mother (1:1-28).
  • An exquisite poem, “Hannah’s Prayer” (2:1-10).
  • A contrast between the innocent child Samuel and the corrupt priesthood of Eli and his sons (2:11–3:21).
  • An irony-filled narrative concerning the ark (4:1–7:1).
  • A stirring passage in which the Israelites, under Samuel’s leadership, follow God, who then delivers them from the Philistines (7:2-17).

2. The Rise of Saul (8:1–12:25) contains two warnings by Samuel of the dangers of kingship (8:1-22; 12:1-25); these warnings surround two generally complementary portraits of Saul (9:1–10:16; 11:1-15). The center of this section foreshadows Saul’s eventual demise. After a prophetic judgment speech by Samuel, Saul is proclaimed king and is found hiding from his responsibilities (10:17-27).

3. Next comes the Fall of Saul and the Rise of David (13:1–31:13). The section begins with Samuel proclaiming God’s rejection of Saul’s dynasty and then Saul himself (13:1–15:35), and ends with an apparition of Samuel prophesying Saul’s death, followed by the death account itself (28:3–31:13). In between, several stories illustrate David’s rise in stature and Saul’s simultaneous decline:

  • The anointing of David to replace Saul (16:1-23).
  • David, not Saul, fighting Goliath as Israel’s champion (17:1-58).
  • Two of Saul’s own children, Jonathan and Michal, earning their father’s hatred for helping David (18:1–20:42).
  • Saul’s slaughtering of the priests who also helped David (21:1–22:23).
  • Saul’s attempts to hunt down and kill David contrasted with David’s sparing of Saul’s life (23:1–26:25).
  • David’s highly successful raids against Israel’s enemies (27:1–28:2).

4. The Accession and Reign of David (2 Samuel 1:1–20:26) can be divided into four sections, each followed by a four-verse list:

  • David’s accession to the throne of Judah (1:1–3:1), followed by a list of his children born in Hebron (3:2-5).
  • David’s accession to the throne of all Israel (3:6–5:12), followed by a list of those of his children born in Jerusalem (5:13-16).
  • A short summary of the early, triumphant years of David’s reign (5:17–8:14), followed by a list of his cabinet (8:15-18).
  • A longer narration of the later, more turbulent years of David’s reign (9:1–20:22), followed by another list of his cabinet (20:23-26).

5. The Epilogue (21:1–24:25) begins and ends with accounts of natural disasters caused by God’s anger (21:1-14; 24:1-25). In between are two lists of David’s greatest warriors (21:15-22; 23:8-39) and two of David’s poems praising God’s graciousness (22:1-51; 23:1-7).

How to read this book

An impressive cast of characters grace the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel: Hannah, Eli, Samuel, Saul, Jonathan, David, Michal, Goliath, Abigail, Abner, Joab, Nathan, Bathsheba, Uriah, Ahithophel, Absalom and many others.

These books were masterfully written. Samuel “achieves the maximum effect with the greatest economy of words. Its narratives are masterpieces of historical writing, and in its characterizations, both of the principal and of the minor actors, it presents ‘an incomparable gallery of historical portraits’” (S. Goldman, Samuel, Soncino Books of the Bible, p. ix).

The fascinating vignettes that make up the books of Samuel preach powerful sermons to us. The faithfulness of Hannah in giving up her son to God’s service as she promised (1 Samuel 1:21-28), the faith and courage of David when facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17), the loyalty of Jonathan to David (1 Samuel 20) — these should inspire us to display the same qualities in our lives.

Learning about God

The books of Samuel highlight various aspects of God’s character.

  • God directs history. As you study these books, you will see men and women in the foreground, making choices for good or evil. Yet you will also see God in the background, constantly guiding events to accomplish his purpose. “God is active in history to work out his purposes. He could impose his will on us, but he chooses not to do so. Rather, he weaves his purposes through our acts in such a way that our good is affirmed and our evil is judged” (Walter A. Ewell, ed., Baker’s Bible Handbook, p. 169).
  • God cannot be manipulated. The Israelites took the ark of the covenant from Shiloh into battle with them against the Philistines, confident that God would not allow the ark to be captured. They were tragically mistaken (1 Samuel 4:3-11).
  • God blesses and protects. He has promised to see us through even our most difficult times of trouble (Deuteronomy 31:6). For example, God continually protected David from Saul and his assassins (1 Samuel 18:10-12; 19:18-24).

There are nine epithets for God in 2 Samuel 22:2-3: rock [sela’], fortress, deliverer, rock [tsur], shield, horn, stronghold, refuge, and savior. Each of these titles refers to the protective aspect of Yahweh’s work on behalf of David. David’s refuge was not in his own prowess, nor did he attempt to usurp the throne for himself (as did his son Absalom). Instead, he chose to trust in Yahweh to work out His divine purposes. (Homer Heater, Jr., “A Theology of Samuel and Kings,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck, pp. 145-146)

  • God loves and forgives. On numerous occasions in the books of Samuel, God mercifully forgave those who sinned against him. No one knew this better than King David, who committed adultery and premeditated murder (2 Samuel 11). Yet, God restored David to an intimate relationship with him (12:13-25).

Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Historical Books”

We also see the work of Christ prefigured in Samuel. In his three roles as prophet, priest and judge, Samuel foreshadowed these aspects of Jesus Christ’s all-encompassing work. The same compliment is given to Samuel as was given to Jesus: He grew “in stature and in favor with the Lord and with men” (1 Samuel 2:26; compare with Luke 2:52).

As prophet, Samuel was the moral conscience of the nation. This role was continued by prophets such as Nathan, Elijah and Jeremiah, and eventually Jesus. As priest, Samuel intervened on behalf of the people (1 Samuel 7:8-11). Christ is our High Priest and intervenes for us (Hebrews 4:14-16). Samuel was the last judge over Israel before the people’s request for a king was granted. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Judge, as well as the King of kings (Philippians 2:9-10; Revelation 19:16).

Other topics

  • The Davidic covenant: God made an unconditional covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). This promise is fulfilled forever in the kingship of Jesus Christ, the Son of David (Luke 1:32-33; Revelation 11:15).
  • Prayer: The books of Samuel illustrate the value of fervent prayer. God answered Hannah’s prayer. God accepted Samuel’s prayer on behalf of the Israelites and saved them from the Philistines. In David’s time, two national disasters were averted through prayer (2 Samuel 21:14; 24:25). The prayers of the righteous were powerful and effective then, and they still are now (James 5:16).
  • The Lord’s anointed: An important lesson we can learn is that we should honor the office of leaders God has placed in authority. Perhaps the classic Old Testament example of this godly trait is David’s attitude toward Saul. In spite of Saul’s sinful behavior against God, David still showed great respect for Saul’s office as God’s anointed king. David could have killed Saul on two occasions (1 Samuel 24:1-15; 26:1-12), but he knew it was wrong to kill the leader God had placed on the throne of Israel. As David told Abishai, “The Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed” (26:11).

What this book means for you

The detailed portraits in the books of Samuel, particularly the story of David, demonstrate that even though we sin and have to suffer the consequences, God still forgives us and works through us to accomplish his plan of redemption. This is why David could ask God: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation…. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you” (Psalm 51:12-13).

Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay

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