Lecture 7: Judges and 1 Samuel
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
Lecture: Judges and 1 Samuel
We now come to the book of Judges. The book of Judges really is a chaotic book. It is a book in which we see God disciplining and delivering His people. God disciplines and delivers. Judges is a unique book. It tells some of the most gruesome stories of the Bible. At the same time it stresses single minded worship of the Lord. Colorful characters appear. Some with some terrible and obvious character flaws. Yet God uses these individuals to govern and deliver Israel.
The Theme of Judges
Given these seemingly contradictory facts, this mixture of good and bad, it is important for us to ask, ‘What is Judges main purpose’? Normally it is wise to let a book speak for its self, that is readers should study a text and then decide what it means. But because of its seemly offensive stories it is proper to announce Judges theme now as we begin study the book. There are two key passages that tell us what the book is trying to convey. When you look at 17:6 and then the book’s last verse, 21:25, we see the book’s main idea. The book describes what happens when everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
In other words, when everyone becomes a law unto themselves, when God is not followed, and there is no ruler in the land, there is chaos. When the covenant is ignored and when there is no king to keep order, terrible things happen. What sort of things? According to chapter 11 people offer human sacrifices. According to chapter 19 women are raped and dismembered. According to chapter 20 relatives kill one another in civil wars. Terrible, terrible things happen. But readers should not think the author of Judges favors such action. Rather the writer paints such gruesome pictures to warn future generations against lawlessness.
Setting and Dating
The setting for the book of Judges is in the land of Canaan. And it is probably between the years 1350 B.C. and 1050 B.C. So about a 300 year span. If the Exodus occurs about 1400 B.C. and it takes several years to conquer it then at least by 1350 B.C. the people are living in the land, under the circumstances described, and these circumstances will stay the same until about 1050 B.C. when Israel has their first king, an event that is described in the book of 1 Samuel.
So it is difficult to tell how much time unfolds in Judges for a lot of reasons. For example, it is possible that some of the judges lived at the same time and are ruling and judging in different parts of the country. It is difficult to connect archeological evidence with what we see in the text. Nonetheless, if we give ourselves a broad expanse of time we can tell that certainly these events had time to unfold in 300 years.
There are certain sociological factors that impacted Israel during this era that might help us understand the book. First, during this era new enemies moved into the region. Among others, the Philistines who figure prominently in the book rose at this time. Second, new weapons were developed. Iron slowly replaced bronze as the metal for war instruments. Nations who possessed iron weapons defeated those who did not. Israel was slow to produce iron instruments so they were in trouble militarily.
A third factor, not only were new enemies moving into the region, not only were new weapons being developed, but vast migrations of peoples already in the land already occurred. No major powers ruled the area so various people groups came in and out of Canaan and some of these groups raided Israel’s settlements. Fourth, Israel was extremely disorganized. They had no central government or standing army. So Israel was vulnerable to every moderately strong power in the region.
Fifth, besides all these difficulties, Israel had terrible spiritual problems as we shall soon discuss. So the one thing that would have held them together, their faith in God, was not even able to secure them. They cast off their faith in the one, true God, the God who brought them into the land, the God that their ancestors believed in.
They were disorganized, raiding parties moved in and out of the region. New weapons that they didn’t have were being developed and permanent enemies were resettling in the land. Israel had severe problems. But again the main problem is that people were sinning against God by worshipping other gods and by turning away from their other covenant commitments.
Outline of Judges
The book of Judges can be divided into the following main parts: the first major part is 1:1 to 2:5. Here we find the roots of chaos. This section explains to us why things got so bad in Israel. Judges 2:6 to 16:31 provides the second section. The second section stresses what it is like to live in chaotic situations. So Judges 2:6 through 16:31 gives us lots of descriptive information about what happened when the people begin to experience the consequences of deciding to sin against the Lord. The third section is chapters 17 to 21. This section is the worst of all. These chapters are really hard to summarize, but they show the outer darkness of living against the standards of the Lord. So we have an increasingly bad situation.
Chapter 1:1 through 2:5 tells us where the people went wrong and how that happened. Chapter 2:6 to 16:31 shows us the typical normal upheaval that comes from living in a way that is displeasing to God. And then chapters 17 to 21 go even further. They show us some of the darkest, most horrible things that human beings do when they turn against the Lord. So we have increasing chaos as we go.
The Roots of Chaos
In chapter 1:1 to 2:5, Israel struggles to complete the conquest of Canaan after Joshua’s death. Some advances are made. Despite their success though, Israel never completely displaces the Canaanites. Many people groups are allowed to remain though these are forced to work for Israel. Unfortunately, Israel’s unwillingness and inability to drive out their enemies causes problems. When the Canaanites are spared, their gods are also spared. Israel thereby breaks their covenant agreement with God. Because the people eventually worship these gods, God will not tolerate their disobedience and idolatry. According to 2:1-5, to remind Israel of their covenant obligation, the Lord allows their enemies to oppress them. God will always test their obedience by allowing the enemies they have spared to torment them.
This short section of the book serves two important functions. First, it reminds the reader of God’s love for the people and Israel’s past victories. Things have gone well for Israel since they left the desert when they keep the covenant. Second, it hints of trouble on the horizon. If Israel has powerful enemies and worships idols they cannot flourish in the land.
Living in Chaos
Second section, Judges 2:6 to 16:31, after Joshua’s faithful generation dies, a new unfaithful generation emerges. A leadership crisis leaves this group knowing neither the Lord nor what He had done for Israel according to 2:10. Israel plunges into a sin cycle that lasts throughout the book of Judges. Here is how the cycle goes: the people do not appreciate Yahweh, so they worship Canaanite gods (2:11-13). Because of their idolatry, God sends nations to defeat Israel, to encourage the people to change (2:14-15). When they fall into trouble, Israel cries out for the Lord’s help (2:15). Out of kindness the Lord will send judges or military leaders to defeat the oppressing, punishing nation (2:16-18). The people serve God while the judge lives but they turn away when he or she dies (2:19).
Then rebellion starts the cycle all over again: covenant breaking leads to God’s discipline usually in the form of a foreign enemy oppressing them. The people cry out to God, He sends them a judge, a person who will rule over them spiritually, militarily, and economically, and judicially. And this person helps the people defeat their enemy, but when he dies or when she dies the people go back to their old ways. And this pattern happens over and over again.
Starting with Othniel, the nation’s first deliverer. His story is told in 3:7-11. In that story Israel angers the Lord by serving the Canaanite fertility gods Baal and Asherah. Since Baal and Asherah appear throughout the Old Testament from this point forward it might be good for us to explain a bit about what sort of religion worshipped them. It goes back to some fundamental things. The Canaanites, like Israel, were farmers and herdsmen. They depended on the land’s fertility for support. According to the Canaanites beliefs, Baal was the fertility god. Baal was the god who made animals fertile, women fertile, the land fertile and so forth. He and his sister-wife, Asherah, caused crops to grow and animals to bear the young. So he was seen as the god of fertility and his sister, who is also in some stories his wife, is his consort who, as they reproduce, the land reproduces.
How do you worship such a god? Well because of its emphasis on fertility, Baal worship had strong sexual overtones. In fact, some Baal worshipers even had sexual relationships in worship centers with prostitutes dedicated to Baal. So there would be female prostitutes and some scholars think also male prostitutes so that men and women could go to this center, have sexual relationships with these sacred prostitutes, to worship sex and fertility, and in an agricultural community if you are worshiping the god who makes the crops grow you are also worshipping a god who gives you money.
So Baal worship was really about worshiping sex and money and power. It was a very popular religion. It was connected to the lifestyle of the people to the fleshly desire of human beings and to people’s basic desire for power, sex, and money. So the people were worshiping these gods according to chapter 3. Now clearly Baal worship violates the covenant God has made with Israel. Thus the Lord allows a migrating people to oppress Israel (3:8). So then Israel cries out to God and God chooses Othniel to deliver them from their enemies. And the land has peace for forty years. Yet when Othniel died, the sin cycle begins again.
There are a whole series of these judges, we can name many of them but just a few. There is Ehud, a skillful crafty left-handed man whose story is told in chapter 3. There is Deborah, a female judge whose story is told in chapter 4. She leads Israel to defeat Jabin, king of Hazor. There is Gideon, whose story is told in chapter 6 and following.
Gideon is well known because he is the person who is called by God to deliver Israel from Midian and he asks the Lord for a sign. He takes a fleece from lambs and puts it the ground and asks the Lord to make it wet and the ground dry once and to make the ground wet and the fleece dry at another point in time. God does what he asks and in an unusual decision gives His servant Gideon a sign of the truthfulness of the calling to deliver the people. Gideon also is famous because though he starts with 30,000 warriors the Lord tells him it is too many for him to win the battle and God get the glory so He strips Gideon down to 300 soldiers who are able to win a great victory against a much larger opponent. Gideon’s story covers chapter 6, 7, and 8.
There is another famous judge we might mention his name is Jephthah. Jephthah delivers Israel from the people from Ammon. His story is told in chapters 10 and 11. Jephthah is famous because at one point to secure victory he vows to sacrifice to the Lord the first thing out of the door of his house when he returns home (11:30-31). Perhaps he thought an animal would emerge first since they normally stabled animals in their homes during this era.
But much to his surprise, however, his only child, his daughter comes out to meet him. And because of his vow to sacrifice the first thing that comes out he offers her as a sacrifice. Now does God approve of such actions? If we started reading the Bible at this point we might not know, but if you have been reading the Bible you know of course God does not approve of such actions. How do we know? Leviticus 20:1-5 and several other passages have already prohibited human sacrifices. Killing children and siblings does not honor God despite the beliefs and practices of Israel’s neighbors. Many of them did practice human sacrifice.
Again it is important to remember the book’s theme – unthinkably immoral things happen when all the people do what is right in their own eyes. Jephthah should have known God’s standards. As Israel’s leader he should have been following Moses’ commands. And yet he does not and his daughter pays the price for his misguided religion.
But perhaps the most famous judge of all is the man, Samson. His story is told in Judges 13 to 16. In my opinion, Samson embodies the mistake of living by mere human standards. As we read the story we see Samson does whatever he wishes at all times and therefore squanders great potential. Like other important Biblical characters he has an unusual birth. His parents are unable to have children yet God tells them they will have a son.
He will be a special child. He will be what Numbers 6 describes as a Nazarite. That was a particular group of people who committed themselves to not drink strong wine, cut their hair, touch dead bodies or eat unclean food. They were set apart for special service of God. Yahweh promises to use this child to deliver Israel from the Philistines who have been oppressing them. So he is a special person with particular commitments but he breaks every one of those commitments and several others.
Contrary to Moses’ law Samson decides to marry a Philistine woman according to chapter 14. Now you will recall Israelites could marry foreigners who followed the Lord, Moses had an Ethiopian wife and the book of Ruth tells us about Ruth a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite. But marriages with idol worshippers such as the Philistines were forbidden. Samson’s parents warn him against this union but he persists. He says in 14:3, “She is right in my eyes,” an obvious reference to the book’s main theme. Samson will do what he thinks best despite what the Lord and his parents say. God will wrench some good from Samson’s disobedience as we will see.
But still the disobedience leads to several terrible events. Samson and his parents will eventually go to Philistia to make the marriage arrangements. While on the way Samson kills a lion with his bare hands. This event demonstrates Samson’s great God-given strength. Going home Samson finds honey in a lion’s carcass. He eats a little and gives some to his parents but he does not tell them where he got it. Again Samson has broken Moses’ law. Nazarites were supposed to avoid dead bodies of all kinds. So once more, Samson simply does as he pleases; he does what is right in his own eyes.
During his wedding feast Samson asks his guests a riddle. He bets 30 linen garments that they can’t solve it. Based on the lion and the honey he says in 14:14, “From the eater comes something to eat. And from the strong comes something sweet.” The guests ponder this puzzle for three days. Then they threaten to burn the bride, her parents and their home if she does not give them the answer. She gets Samson to tell her the answer to the riddle after much nagging and whining. The guests solve the riddle, Samson loses his bet. To collect the garments, Samson kills 30 Philistines and takes their cloths. So God does use him to defeat Israel’s enemies. Samson is so angry at his bride he leaves her. Killing these men is just the first time he attacks the Philistines.
According to chapter 15 he stays away for some time and so his wife is given away. Angry at the Philistines he then torches their fields, destroys their crops. Eventually over 20 years he will kill dozens of Philistines. So of course they want to remove him. You may know the story of how they ask a Philistine woman named Delilah, a woman that Samson loves, to betray him. She plots to betray him for money.
She wants to know the source of his strength. It is apparently in his hair, he has never had his hair cut. And despite all his other sins as long as he has his hair as a symbol of his commitment to the Lord as a Nazarite, the Lord has been with him. Eventually he tells her this is the source of his strength. She cuts his hair and the Lord leaves him and the Philistines take him. They put out his eyes and imprison him. On a festival day they bring him out to make fun of him and to rejoice how their god has given them victory over this enemy. Samson is placed at the pillar of the whole structure. God restores his strength and he pushes them down killing more Philistines in his death than he did in life.
Samson has a spectacular career. But perhaps more than any other judge he illustrates Israel’s attitude during this era. Like the people, Samson does whatever is right in his own eyes. Despite his Nazarite vows he repeatedly follows his own appetite. Certainly God uses him to punish the Philistines. Certainly at times Samson honors the Lord. But sadly he personifies Israel as a whole by being a rather inconsistent follower of the Lord.
Consequences of Living in Chaos
Judges 17 to 21: these chapters tell us some of the darkest stories in the Bible. In fact the writer knows that these are going to be such difficult stories that he begins by telling you in verse 6 that this is what happens when everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Chapters 17 and 18 describe the career of a young Levite who stops serving the Lord. For a salary, for room and board, he agrees to serve as a priest for idols. This story shows how bad it is when even the priests do what is right in their own eyes.
But chapter 19 and following are even worse. The story begins with a Levite, yet another priest from Northern Israel, taking a concubine, that is a woman who would provide sexual favors for him and live with him, but who he doesn’t marry, takes a concubine from the southern town of Bethlehem. She runs away to return home so he goes south to retrieve her. With the reclaimed woman he begins the journey home.
They stop in a town called Gibeah, which is in the tribal territory of Benjamin. It was customary for inhabitants of Israelite towns to offer visitors a place to stay but no one invites them in. Finally though an old man invites them to stay with him. This is a wicked city. During the night a group of men surround the house, they demand that the Levite be sent out so they can have sex with him.
To quiet and perhaps shame the crowd the old man offers his daughter to them instead but the men refuse. So the Levite sends his concubine into the street. She is raped and abused until morning. Her body weakened, she only has enough strength to crawl to the house’s doorway. Her master exhibits no concern for her. As he leaves in the morning he finds her at the door and says, 19:28, “Get up, let’s go,” but she has died. To protest her death he takes the grisly step of cutting her body into 12 pieces and sending a portion to each tribe of Israel.
This awful action causes Israel to gather and ask what has happened in chapter 20. The Levite describes the woman’s death and the people decide to confront the city of Gibeah. They ask that the murderers be handed over but the city refuses. They protect the murderers, these rapists. This sparks a civil war in which thousands of Israelites die. At least 40,000 of them die. Israel pays a high price for doing what is right in their own eyes. An innocent woman has been raped and killed. Her body has been dismembered. Her killers have been protected. And 40,000 people die in battle.
Without obedience to the covenant, without a king to enforce civil laws, such atrocities can happen. Judges concludes with an episode that hardly eases the reader’s disgust with the events of chapters 17 to 20. Since the men from Benjamin have been guilty of rape and all kinds of sexual abuses, the other tribes vow not to let their daughters marry them (21:1).
How then will Benjamin get wives? How will this tribe continue? They cannot intermarry indefinitely. So the people decide on a rather odd method for gaining wives. An annual festival is planned in Shiloh. The girls from Shiloh dance in this festival. The men from Benjamin are told to hide in the vineyards near Shiloh, wait for the girls to dance by the road, and then grab one for a wife. Read 21:19-24. Each man therefore snatches a wife. Of course this method of choosing a wife is not God’s will. This is not what Moses taught at all. The story is disturbing. Because it is the result of sin it is also tragic. These events only happen because, one last time, the people do what is right in their own eyes, as the book concludes in 21:25.
What can we say about the book of Judges? There are many things to say but it is important for us to see that Judges illustrates the consequences of lawlessness and poor leadership. Covenant breaking can only lead to punishment and loss. Often Israel has no leadership and at other times their leaders do not serve God wholeheartedly. No one like Moses or Joshua appears. This spiritual and political vacuum must be filled or Israel will never become a great nation, it will never be a kingdom of priests showing the other nations how to find the Lord. It remains to be seen what God will do to address these problems.
We are at a critical state as we conclude the book of Judges. The nation is worshipping idols. The nation is living as they wish. The nation is certainly not showing the other nations how to serve the Lord. I think it is important for us to understand that just as in these days, turning away from the Creator and His standards and His redemption and His plan for us leads to all sorts of chaos. Human beings cannot live however they wish and have everything go well. God’s people, those who are called by His name, cannot turn away from Him, serve idols, and do as they wish, and ever hope to have His blessing and His approval.
The book of Judges is a cautionary tale for us all. It causes us to ask ourselves about our commitments, about our covenant keeping. It calls us to understand that there is a difference between God’s standards and the world’s standards. It calls us to understand that all truth is ultimately God’s truth. And we must follow His standards. People will say that it is fine to serve other gods. People will say that all standards are equal. But the Bible warns us that not following the principles outlined by the Creator in His word will have terrible consequences in the end.
We now come to the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. So far in the prophetic section of the Old Testament we have studied the books of Joshua and Judges. In Joshua we saw the Lord keeping His promise in giving land to Abraham’s descendants so that they might be a kingdom of priests, a holy people and declare God’s greatness to all the nations so that they might be redeemed.
But we saw in the book of Judges that the people had a very uneven witness to the Lord. That the majority of the time they were sinning against the Lord and living as the other nations. And the Lord was having to discipline them and bring them back to Himself. When the book of Judges ends things are at a low ebb. The people have fallen to new depths of immorality. They have perpetuated some of the worst deeds that we find recorded in the pages of Scripture. So we are at a crucial point when we come to 1 and 2 Samuel. And these books emphasize that God provides a kingdom for Israel in the Promised Land. That God will give a king who will rule the people with whom God will make a covenant to give an eternal kingdom that will provide a blessing to all nations.
We will see that this king is David, but before David we have Saul, the first king of Israel. And before Saul emerges we have Samuel, the last judge of Israel. So we are moving in 1 and 2 Samuel from the era of the judges through the ministry of the last judge, Samuel, into the era of the kingdom, the monarchy, that begins with Saul, continues with David, and then in 1 and 2 Kings continues with his son Solomon and on down the ages. So 1 and 2 Samuel emphasizes God giving the kingdom in the Promised Land.
The setting for the book is as I just mentioned in Canaan, the land of Israel. The time period that is covered in 1 and 2 Samuel is about 1070 or so B.C. down to about 970 B.C., so about a hundred years are covered in 1 and 2 Samuel. As is true of Joshua and Judges we do not know who wrote this book. Certainly we can see that the person is using authentic material, is giving an accurate portrayal of what is happening, but this person’s name is never given.
Outline of 1 Samuel
The book of 1 and 2 Samuel can be divided in the following manner. In chapters 1 through 8 we have Samuel’s career. Samuel is the last judge of Israel. He is the last of the type. The type of people we have already seen such as Othniel and Ehud and Jephthah and Samson and Deborah. He is the last of that type of leader. And he is a great one. Chapters 1 to 8 we have his career. And then in chapters 9 through 15 we have an emphasis on the kingship of Saul. Saul is chosen to be the king of Israel but after a series of decisions he makes to honor himself instead of the Lord he is replaced. In 1 Samuel 16 to 31 we have the rise of a new king, King David. Saul continues to be the official ruler, but God has chosen a new king to replace him, this king is David, a man after God’s own heart, that’s 1 Samuel 16 to 31.
Samuel’s Career (1–8)
So there are three major parts to first Samuel: chapters 1 to 8, chapter 9 to 15 and chapters 16 to 31. So 1 Samuel 1 to 8: Samuels’s career. Israel’s woes continue as the book of 1 Samuel begins. Israel still has no king and the people do not obey God’s command. Something is needed to break the endless cycle of sin, punishment, oppression, etc. Judges has already hinted at a temporary solution in 17:6 and 21:25 – if Israel had a king perhaps law and order would exist and the nation would serve Yahweh. Moses mentioned that eventually Israel would have a king in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20. So as the book unfolds we are going to see the kings arise. But before that we have Samuel.
Like Isaac, Moses, Samson, and other important characters, Samuel’s birth occurs under unusual circumstances. According to chapter 1, his mother, Hannah, cannot conceive. To make matters worse, her husband has another wife who has had children and this rival wife taunts Hannah unmercifully. So Hannah prays for a son and God opens her womb. And she promises to give this son back to the Lord. True to her word when her son Samuel is born she turns him over to God’s service. She takes him to Shiloh where the priest Eli is serving the people.
According to chapter 2, Eli’s own sons are corrupt men, they are the worse sort of priest. They take choice portions of meat from the sacrifice, they sleep with the women who serve in the sanctuary. Clearly these are unsuitable leaders for God’s people.
According to chapter 3, while Samuel is still young, God chooses him to be a prophet. The story I was told when I was a child, and told in very vivid detail I recall, the Lord calls Samuel at night. Three times He calls him. It is not until the third time that Samuel realizes that it is the Lord who is calling. The Lord calls Samuel and gives him a message and it is that Eli’s family can no longer be servants and priests. They will be displaced for their sins and Samuel will become the person who will serve the Lord as the major priest and leader.
In chapters 4, 5, and 6, we find Israel being defeated by their old enemies the Philistines. God’s people are unable to overcome their enemies because they are worshipping other gods. And so the Lord allows them to be defeated. Not even a good person, not even a good judge like Samuel can help them during these days. He attempts to turn them back to the Lord.
According to chapter 7, he challenges the people to destroy their idols and serve the Lord. He prays for the people and offers sacrifices on their behalf, so eventually the Lord does give them relief from the Philistines in chapter 7. But the Philistines never go away completely. Samuel is a great leader. According to 3:19-20 he is a prophet. According to 7:9 he is a priest. According to 7:15 he is a judge. He pushes the nation to keep its covenant obligations to God. He intercedes for the people and prays for them when they are sinful. At times he is able to help them with military victories. In short he is an ideal judge.
No other judge is as faithful to God as Samuel. No other judge has his moral and ethical excellence, with the exception, perhaps, of Deborah. Yet despite his efforts Israel will ask for and receive a totally different kind of leader. Israel will ask for a king. This occurs in 1 Kings 8. There the people demand that Samuel help them find a king. They want to be like the other nations, they say. They want a king who will lead them out and defeat their enemies and will give them the government they need.
Samuel warns them that a king will draft some of their sons and daughters into the army. He warns them that he will tax the nation. He warns them of all sorts of abuses and yet the people still demand a king. Samuel takes this matter to the Lord who tells him the people have not rejected Samuel, they have rejected Yahweh. They have rejected God and that he is to help the people have a king.
Now we have already said Moses had said that this would occur. That the time would come when the people would want a king and that God would give them a king. This king was to follow God’s Word carefully. He was to serve the people, not himself. We already have standards for a king. And so we will see how this king does once he is chosen.
Saul as Israel’s King (9–15)
The second section of 1 Samuel is chapters 9 through 15. These chapters emphasize Saul as Israel’s king. Saul is chosen by Samuel. He seems to be a likely candidate to be king. According to 9:2 he is tall and physically impressive. He is unassuming. According to 9:3-21 Saul finds it hard to believe that God would chose him to be king. He realizes he is from an insignificant family and from Israel’s smallest clan. He certainly hasn’t asked for this privilege. In chapter 9, he takes being king of Israel as a great honor. He receives it as God’s calling in his life. God gives Saul His Spirit to rule the people. And the first years of Saul’s reign go very well.
Once chosen, in chapter 11, the text tells us that he has initial success in battle. Ammonites surround an Israelite town and demand surrender. The city calls for help. Greatly moved by God’s Spirit, Saul gathers a mighty army and routes the Ammonites. He is the king the people have all been looking for. He can defeat their enemies, he can lead their armies. And at first he seems to be the kind of king God would approve. He has God’s Spirit, he has humility, he is following God’s standards. God has given Saul a great start to his kingdom.
But after this positive start, things go very wrong. In chapter 13, Saul is faced with fighting the Philistines. To demonstrate God’s approval of what the army was doing Samuel was supposed to come and offer sacrifices. He promised to arrive in seven days but is late. With his army scattering, Saul offers the sacrifice himself, an act only priests were supposed to perform.
According to 13:10-12, just as he finishes, Samuel appears and corrects him. Samuel declares that because of what Saul has done his kingdom cannot endure. His sons will not rule Israel. Samuel says in 13:13 God would have established Saul forever but his disobedience has disqualified him. And Samuel says a man after God’s own heart will lead Israel but this person has not yet been identified. So for now God allows Saul to continue to rule Israel.
He and his son Jonathan lead the people in a decisive victory over Philistia in chapters 13 and 14. So at this point is seems that Saul will be allowed to be king. God will use him to help the people but his sons will not succeed him. But one more sad episode causes Yahweh to reject Saul altogether. God decides to allow Israel to defeat the Amalekites, an old enemy. Samuel tells Saul that all the Amalekites and their animals must be killed. These are basically the same rules of war God gave Joshua.
According to chapter 15:4-9, though, Saul kills all the Amalekites but spares Agag their king and keeps some of the best animals for spoil. It seems he’s extended a little professional courtesy to his fellow king and that he has decided to keep some of the animals for himself. Only the weak and worthless animals are destroyed. Saul has disobeyed a second time. He has been very selective in his obedience. His actions may make political and financial sense, but they are not what God commanded him to do.
The Lord reacts strongly to Saul’s disobedience. He sends Samuel to Saul to confront the king. Saul is filled with pride. According to 15:12 he has already made a monument to honor himself. And he tells Samuel he has kept all God’s commands. But Samuel rebukes him and tells him that the Lord has rejected him as king. Saul pleads with Samuel to be reinstated but Samuel offers him no comfort. God has rejected Saul by the end of chapter 15.
We might ask at this point in light of the faults of other leaders God leaves in place, why is Saul rejected? After all, David, Saul’s successor will sin greatly, as we will see in our study. Men like Gideon and Samson are far from sinless. I suppose no perfect answer can be given. But perhaps it’s helpful if we compare Saul’s rejection with Moses’ punishment. Both Saul and Moses are chosen by God and both have success. Yet both disobey God in areas of worship. Both also disobey Yahweh’s direct commands. Both fail to honor Yahweh. The swiftness of the punishments each receives reveals how seriously God takes worship and His word.
Let’s see a contrast, too. Moses accepted Yahweh decision and led Israel toward the Promised Land. He prepared Joshua to succeed him. Having sinned against the Lord, having received his punishment, Moses accepted what God had said and moved forward to obey God in the new circumstances.
As becomes quite clear as we proceed in the book, Saul has no intention of following Moses’ example. He will cling to power as if power is God. He will do everything he can to remain king. He will not prepare his successor. He will not give up power. He will continue to rebel against God. He will continue to rebel against God’s true worship and God’s clear word.
David Becomes King (16–31)
1 Samuel 16 to 31 tells us about the rise of a new king. David is the chief character here. In 1 Samuel 16 the Lord directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem and visit the family of a man named Jesse. And there Samuel sees one son after another. They all seem impressive but God does not choose the first set of men that Samuel sees. God tells Samuel in 16:7, “The Lord does not view things like men do. Men look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.” So Jesse’s seven oldest sons pass before Samuel, yet none of them is God’s choice.
Finally, the youngest son David who has been watching the sheep meets Samuel. He is a handsome young man. He is a capable young man. And God commands Samuel to anoint him king, just as Samuel had anointed Saul earlier. When Samuel anoints David in 16:13, God’s Spirit rushes upon him. Whereas God had once empowered Saul to rule, see chapters 10 and 11, now David receives this strength. In fact, the next verse states that God’s Spirit leaves Saul. And that Spirit is replaced by a harmful spirit from the Lord that terrorizes Saul. Placed together, verses 13 and 14 clearly indicate that a change in God-appointed and God-approved leadership has occurred.
Because of the strangeness of 16:13-14 perhaps a brief explanation is necessary. You may fear that this text means that God deserts and then terrorizes people who disobey the Lord. Perhaps the following points can help ease such concerns. First, the passage does emphasize that God punishes sin. Not even believers can sin without experiencing the Lord’s gracious discipline. Second, the passage’s main purpose is to note the change in leadership. We need to keep that point clear in our minds.
Third, this harmful spirit, which some translations render as ‘evil’ spirit, was not, in my opinion, some demon or some other frightening being. Music soothes this spirit according to 16:15-16. So I don’t think music soothes a demon. Saul’s actions indicate that this evil spirit, this harmful spirit, is rather a form of some sort of depression. The Hebrew word often translated as evil is often just the common word for ‘bad.’ The word is used to designate everything from bad food to bad people. It does not have the force of the English word ‘evil.’
Just to summarize, the evil spirit, the harmful spirit is not a demon. It is some form of depression. And I want to be clear here. This particular form of depression was a specific judgment of God on Saul’s life. I am not saying that every form of depression comes because someone has sinned against God. The Lord just in this case uses a particular sort of depression or mental problem to judge Saul.
Fourth, the author of first Samuel wants readers to know that God rules history. Whatever happens to Saul is controlled by God. And we need to remember that God is merciful. Whatever God is doing He is doing to bring Saul back to Himself.
Fifth, 1 Samuel never says Saul was eternally damned for his sins. In other words, we are not told here that Saul was not a believer. Saul is a rather mixed bag, isn’t he? He is a person who expresses faith in the Lord. His is a person who serves the Lord at some points but he also is a person who sins greatly. It is important for us to remember all of Scripture. It is important to remember that God loves all people, including Saul. It is important to remember that the Lord does not punish unjustly. But it is also important to remember that sin has consequences, that the same God who used plagues to judge Egypt, could use a depressive spirit to judge Saul.
So David is chosen king. But yet it is a long time before he rules. Saul has not resigned. Saul has not died. Saul never considers abdicating, so only his death can bring David to the throne. David rises to prominence. He serves in Saul’s court as a musician. And he defeats the champion of Philistia, the man named Goliath. That famous story is told in chapter 17, that this massive man Goliath taunts Saul’s army, and taunts the living God. And David, despite his youth and inexperience, slays this giant and gives Israel the victory over the Philistines. Of course, such a dramatic event makes David famous.
In 18:7 the text tells us of women singing about David’s exploits. They say, “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” This sort of song makes Saul jealous of David. According to chapter 18, Saul tries to kill David. The same thing happens again in chapter 19. And in chapter 20 David flees from Saul’s court even going to live with the Philistines in chapters 21 through 27. When chapter 28 begins, Israel and Philistia are at war again. Since David and his followers are living in Philistia, his Philistine benefactor tells him he will have to fight against Israel, and David agrees. At this point it seems his future as Israel’s king is in jeopardy. How can the nation ever accept a leader that killed his own people? A crisis has developed.
To summarize again: David is God’s chosen leader, that’s 1 Samuel 16. David has killed Goliath, the Philistine champion and great enemy of Israel in chapter 17. According to chapter 18, this great victory and several others bring David to prominence. But as chapters 18 to 27 unfold, Saul tries repeatedly to kill David. David flees from Saul’s court. Saul pursues David and David is driven to the Philistines. And now it seems in chapter 28 that David will fight against his own people. But the Lord intervenes. The Philistines decide not to trust David. And he is not forced to go to battle.
Meanwhile Saul’s days are drawing to a close. He has no word from the Lord because of his disobedience. And so he decides to break Moses’ law yet again. Quite against Leviticus 19:31 he decides to seek help from a medium (28:7). He asks the medium to bring Samuel back from the grave and she does it (28:8-14). Saul asks Samuel how the battle will go. Samuel’s reply drains away all Saul’s strength. Samuel informs him that David has been chosen king and that Saul and his sons will join Samuel in the grave the next day. Whatever his other faults, Saul is not a coward. He fights the battle despite knowing he will die.
Still Saul has broken God’s rules again. He seems to believe in God and he certainly wants God’s help but he does not obey the Lord. In chapters 29, 30, and 31 the text tells us that the Philistines do kill Saul. The battle is lost. Saul’s son Jonathan, who is a wonderful friend to David, also dies. It seems things are at a low ebb. Israel’s armies have been defeated before their enemies, their king has been killed. God has chosen a new king, David, but he is not yet king at all. So the book of 1 Samuel ends much like Judges ends. Everything seems in disarray. The promises of God seem set aside. The covenant of God appears all but forgotten. What will God do?
As we come to the end of the book we must admit it is difficult to assess Saul’s life and work. On the one hand he helps establish Israel as a legitimate nation. Israel no longer fears every enemy, they’ve been able to have some military victories. On the other hand though, he disobeys God repeatedly, which brings negative consequences for himself, his family, and for the whole nation. He could have had a permanent kingdom. But instead he becomes jealous, vengeful, petty. In many ways, then, Saul is a hard man to characterize. He is inconsistent at best, yet we regret his demise. Perhaps in this way he is more like Samson than he is like anyone else.