(This series of articles is taken from Bible Class Notes prepared by Mr Riddle)
We must commence our studies in 1 Samuel by remembering that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom 15.4). We can therefore expect to hear God speaking to us throughout the book. The first chapter proves the point. It is brimful of important lessons. But before we embark on ch.1, we ought to say several things about the book in general.
The Name of the Book
In the Hebrew manuscripts, 1 & 2 Samuel make up one book, and the same format applies to 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. In the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, made at Alexandria in the third century BC (the work actually commenced in 280 BC), 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings are called the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Books of the Kingdoms. (It is called the Septuagint because, it is alleged, seventy scholars were involved in the translation.) The word "Kingdoms" refers, of course, to the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The Latin Vulgate translation repeated the Septuagint division of Samuel and Kings into two books each, but called them the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Books of the Kings (not Kingdoms). This is the origin of the sub-titles to these four books in our Authorised Version. For example, under the title "The First Book of Samuel", you will find "Commonly called, the First Book of the Kings".
The Position of the Book
First Samuel covers the period of Israels history commencing with the birth of Samuel to the death of Saul - approximately one hundred and fifteen years (1171-1056 BC). It was a most important period for at least two reasons. First, the era of the Judges ended, and the era of the prophets commenced, and, second, the era of direct divine rule ended, and the era of the earthly monarchy commenced.
The era of the prophets commenced
Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the prophets. See Acts 13.20: "And after that [the division of the land under Joshua] he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet".
a) Samuel the judge. See, for example, 1 Samuel 7.6: "And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh", and 7.15-17: "And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life...and judged Israel...and there he judged Israel". Prior to Samuel, the judgeship was vested in Eli - see 1 Samuel 4.18: "And he had judged Israel forty years". In his latter years, Samuel "made his sons judges over Israel" (1 Sam 8.1-2), but they were rejected, for good reasons, by Israel.
b) Samuel the prophet. See Acts 3.24: "Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days". Note, in this connection, 1 Samuel 3.20; 9.11,19; 1 Chronicles 9.22; 29.29; Hebrews 11.32. (In some of these passages, the word "seer" is used. For an explanation, see 1 Samuel 9.9.) As C. E. Hocking observes, this did not imply "that there had not been prophets before him. From this time onward, however, they were given a specific and permanent place. The priesthood having failed irremediably, the prophet comes into his own".
The era of the kings commenced
Theocracy gave place to the monarchy. That requires some explanation, and 1 Samuel 8 now becomes compulsory reading. "Behold, thou (Samuel) art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations...Nevertheless (in spite of Samuels protest) the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (v.5, vv.19-20). Up to this point in their history, Israel had been ruled directly by their unseen heavenly King. When they cried to Him, He heard and answered (see Judg 3.9,15). He had never failed them, and the stone between Mizpeh and Shen commemorated His faithfulness. It bore the name "Ebenezer", meaning "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Sam 7.12). But now change was afoot. Israel preferred visible human rule, rather than unseen divine rule. In Gods own words, "They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (8.7). Years before, in different circumstances, Israel had asked Gideon to reign over them as king and to establish a dynasty. Listen to his splendid words: "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you" (Judg 8.23). What a pity he spoiled it almost immediately! Read the rest of the chapter.
Church history, sadly, proves that little has changed. Professing Christians still prefer visible organisation and human wisdom to simple faith and dependence on God. Whilst God, in His mercy, allowed them a king, it was not long before the disadvantages of this arrangement became strikingly apparent. Israel chose the second-best. Faith in God, and obedience to His Word, cannot be bettered. We should not be satisfied with anything less.
The Plan of the Book
For sheer interest, 1 Samuel is unsurpassed. Not only does it recount eventful history, it is eventful history interwoven with the biographies of three colourful personalities, Samuel, Saul, and David. The book can be divided with reference to these three biographies.
Quite clearly, the three sections overlap. "Samuel lives well on into the reign of Saul, and also sees David rise to prominence; while Saul continues his reign until David is thirty years old" (J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book). However, the three sections focus our attention on Samuel, Saul, and David respectively.
First Samuel begins where Judges ends. "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judg 21.25). This does not mean that when the kings eventually came everything turned out well. That was far from the case. It means that "the people themselves, individually and corporately, had the responsibility of checking ungodliness, and promoting holiness" (Michael Wilcock). The early chapters demonstrate that the priests were doing "that which was right in his own eyes" (2.12-17), and the people were doing "that which was right in his own eyes" in worshipping Baalim and Ashtaroth (7.4). The elders did "that which was right in his own eyes" by calling for the ark of the covenant in the conflict with the Philistines (4.3-4). Israel had sunk very low indeed when Samuel was born. He has been described as "Gods emergency man". "When Samuel steps into the breach at the eleventh hour, we witness afresh the sovereignty and sufficiency of God. If all else has failed, God has not" (C. E. Hocking).
To be continued.