The Theology of 1&2 Samuel
I’m a big fan of getting the “Big Picture” of a biblical book. The old cliche that “You can lose the forest for the trees,” is definitely true in biblical studies. We can become so microscopic by examining a word or verse (which definitely has its place!), that we can lose the meaning of the whole. My purpose in this article is to look at the theology, or big picture, of 1&2 Samuel. These books were originally one book and, therefore, they should not be separated if one is looking for the overall teaching they provide. (Note: I have done a similar post on The theme of the book of Genesis).
We’ll tackle the theology of 1&2 Samuel by looking at the following four points:
- 1&2 Samuel is a story about 4 main families (a point often overlooked in many commentaries and studies of these books).
- A summary of the contents of these books.
- How the beginning and ending of 1&2 Samuel contributes to understanding its main themes.
- Key texts that summarize important theological points being made.
A Story About 4 Families
Because these are books that talk about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, it’s often overlooked that these books are a story about 4 families. The families of Samuel, Eli, Saul, and David not only dominate the narrative of 1&2 Samuel, almost every person mentioned in these books is related to one of these four families! There are a few exceptions to this, but the only reason these exceptions appear in the story is because of their effect upon—and relationship to these 4 main families.
There’s also a special relationship between the heads of these 4 families. Samuel becomes a surrogate son of Eli, Saul becomes a surrogate son of Samuel, and David becomes a surrogate son of Saul. These relationships connect the leading figures of 1&2 Samuel and move the story forward.
The use of family language in 1&2 Samuel is also very striking. For example the word “son” or “sons” occurs over 300 times in these books. The word “house” which can not only refer to a physical building, but to a family or dynasty—like “the house of Saul,” or “the house of David”—occurs about 176 times. The word “father” occurs 82 times, and I could bore you with the frequent occurrences of other family terms, but hopefully you get the idea. This emphasis on family is what led me to title my book on 1&2 Samuel “Family Portraits,” and it’s a feature of these books that is often overlooked.
Overview of Contents of 1&2 Samuel
There’s a great deal of disagreement over how to outline the books of Samuel. My purpose here is to present an outline that will give us a general overview of the contents without going into detail as to why I’ve broken the chapters down the way I have. That would be another long post.
Any overview of 1&2 Samuel should point out that these books constantly present contrasts between the major characters.
1 Sam. 1-7 depicts the end of the period of the Judges and present a contrast between the inept and corrupt leadership of Eli and his sons with Samuel. These chapters also anticipate the coming monarchy through Hannah’s prayer and by depicting Eli in royal terms. Chapters 4-7 also detail the important threat that the Philistines pose to Israel. Eli’s ungodly leadership results in God abandoning Israel to Philistine domination, but Samuel’s godly leadership reverses the tide and brings victory to Israel over their enemies.
1 Sam. 8-15 introduces the people’s demand for a king, followed by the selection of Saul. While there are mixed reviews on the beginning of Saul’s kingship in 9-11—some in favor, some not—Samuel’s speech in chapter 12 lays the groundwork for what the Lord expects in both a king and His people. Sadly, chapters 13-15 tell of Saul’s rebellion and rejection. Saul’s son Jonathan provides a positive contrast to his father as we see what a godly king should look like, while Samuel’s instructions and rebukes demonstrate Saul’s rebellion.
1 Sam. 16-2 Sam. 1 introduces us to David and provides various contrasts with Saul. David receives God’s Spirit while Saul loses the Spirit, only to have an evil spirit torment him. While Saul fears the enemy, David steps out in faith and defeats Goliath. Thus, just as Eli’s leadership resulted in failure and domination by the Philistines, so too does Saul’s. David, like Samuel before him, brings Israel victory against the Philistines. Saul seeks to kill David, while Jonathan befriends him. And when presented with the opportunity, David refuses to take Saul’s life. These chapters end describing Saul’s death and David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan.
2 Sam. 2-8 describe the rise of David over Judah first, and finally over all of Israel. The early chapters (2-4) contrast the rule of David and his general Joab with the rule of Saul’s son Ishbosheth and his commander Abner. Chapters 5-8 show David fulfilling a number of ancient prophecies, as well as establishing Jerusalem as the political and spiritual capital of Israel. The highlight is chapter 7 when God makes a covenant with David and promises him an eternal dynasty. This covenant recalls the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:10 and highlights the messianic theme of 1&2 Samuel.
2 Sam. 9-20 focuses on the house of David. Chapter 9 introduces David’s desire to do good to the house of Saul by blessing Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth. Things begin to unravel however when David is provoked into a war with the Ammonites. During the war, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders her husband Uriah. Chapters 13-20 explore the consequences of David’s sin and the destruction that falls on his household as well as the nation. Absalom’s rebellion is at the heart of these chapters and the author once again presents another contrast. This time it’s between David and his son Absalom.
The books of Samuel conclude with chapters 21-24. These chapters are not in chronological order. Instead they’re ordered by a literary technique known as chiasm. While David doesn’t die until 1 Kings 2, these chapters present a fitting conclusion to the books of 1&2 Samuel, including a psalm of David and his final words.
The Beginning and Ending of 1&2 Samuel
Introductions to biblical books are very important for understanding the overall messages that God seeks to convey. It’s also instructive to compare the beginning of a book with its end, especially when that book is a narrative like 1&2 Samuel. One should ask what’s different at the end from the beginning? How does the end of the story reflect on the changes that have occurred since the introduction? These questions are very instructive when it comes to 1&2 Samuel.
1 Samuel begins with a family crisis that is resolved by Hannah giving birth to Samuel and fulfilling her vow of dedicating him to the Lord. The climax of this story finds Hannah offering a Psalm of praise to the Lord at the beginning of chapter 2.
As we read her words of praise, however, it becomes clear that Hannah’s words are not simply about her own situation. They’re related to God’s ways of dealing with His people. They speak of His sovereignty and power as He raises people up and brings them down. Her psalm ends in 2:10 by speaking of God’s “anointed” and “king.” Of course, there’s no king at this point in the story and, so, Hannah’s prayer anticipates the future. Her words are, in fact, prophetic and introduce a messianic theme that leads to God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7). This covenant informs the rest of the OT and anticipates Israel’s future messiah, a descendant of David. If we pay close attention to her psalm of praise, we’ll find that it actually provides a blueprint for the stories that follow in the rest of the book.
As we approach the end of the book in 2 Samuel 22, we find a psalm of David (as noted above). A comparison with Hannah’s psalm reveals many similar words and phrases. In fact, the theme of David’s psalm is the same as Hannah’s—God’s power. The difference is that, while Hannah’s psalm looks forward and proclaims the things God will do, David’s psalm looks back on what God has done.
Many have also noted that David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan, which occurs in the middle of the book (2 Sam. 1) has a similar theme. And so the beginning, middle, and end of Samuel have important psalms that talk about power.
Just as Hannah’s psalm is preceded by an introductory story, so David’s psalm is followed by some concluding material. This type of structure where something begins and ends in a similar way is known in literary circles as an inclusio. Think of it like a set of bookends or a parenthesis that blocks off a portion of text.
To summarize, by looking at the beginning and ending of the books of Samuel, we’ve learned that power is a key theme to the book. To be more specific, we’ve learned that God’s sovereignty is a truth that determines the outcome of the story. While 1&2 Samuel affirm that Israel is God’s king and His power is absolute, it also includes God working in Israel through His anointed king.
Key Texts in 1&2 Samuel
Our last point of discussion is to note some of the key texts in 1&2 Samuel. An important question to ask is, “How do we know when we’re getting the message that God wanted to communicate through His Word, as opposed to making the text say whatever we want?
One of those ways is by becoming sensitive to what I call key texts. A key text might be a phrase within a verse, or perhaps a verse, or even a group of verses, that when you read them communicate an important truth that explains the story. In the case of the books of Samuel, there are certain texts that seem to jump off the page and say, “This explains in a nutshell what you’ve been reading about!”
In my opinion, there are four key texts in Samuel that summarize the major themes and purposes of the book. These four texts can be broken down into what I would call the main key text, which is then supported by the other three key texts.
1. The main key text of 1&2 Samuel is one we’ve already mentioned in the previous section. It’s Hannah’s psalm, or as some call it, Hannah’s prayer which is found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.
As we’ve seen, the theme of this psalm praises God for His power. Hannah declares that the Lord is in control. She says that the Lord raises up and brings down, the Lord kills and makes alive. This theme of power shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the books of Samuel are about the establishment of the monarchy, which is an expression of the exercise of human power. But Hannah’s psalm declares to us from the beginning that though humans may struggle for power with one another, ultimately it’s God’s power that matters. Hannah also announces in the final verse that God exercises power by giving strength to His anointed. Her psalm explains the contrasts in the book. The contrasts we spoke of when outlining the contents. Through Hannah’s words we understand why Samuel is raised up and Eli and his sons are brought down. Why Saul is brought low and David is exalted.
Very simply, Hannah’s prayer is the basis that explains everything that happens in 1&2 Samuel. Although we’ll meet many fascinating and compelling characters in 1&2 Samuel, Hannah’s prayer reminds us that God is the main character of the book.
2. The next key text, and first supporting text is found in 1 Samuel 2:30. When God rebukes Eli through a prophet, God tells him, “Those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.” These words are important because they let us know that God is not arbitrary. Hannah said “God raises up and God brings down.” We might ask, “On what basis?” Does God act arbitrarily? Is there no rhyme or reason why He does what He does? 1 Samuel 2:30 provides the reason why some are brought low, while others are exalted. It has to do with whether they honor or despise the Lord.
This statement matches the teaching of the Law where God promises to bless the faithful and judge the rebellious (e.g., Deut. 27-28). However, the picture isn’t this “black and white.” 1&2 Samuel gives ample evidence that God’s grace and mercy are important elements that must be factored into the equation.
3. The third key text, and second supporting text, is found in Samuel’s rebuke of Saul in 1 Sam. 15:22-23. There Samuel says, “To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed than the fat of rams.” Throughout 1&2 Samuel an emphasis is placed on true obedience vs. outward, ritualistic observance. God is looking for genuine worship, not outward show. There are many stories that reflect this important theme, including the contrast in the first two chapters between Eli and Hannah (as well as Eli’s sons and Samuel).
4. The fourth, and final key text (and third supporting text), is 1 Sam. 16:7. When God calls Samuel to go to the house of Jesse because He’s chosen a king from among his sons, He has to rebuke Samuel to not look at the outward appearance, as is common for humans to do. God tells Samuel that He doesn’t look on the outward appearance, but He looks on the heart.
The word “heart” is an important word in 1&2 Samuel. It occurs fifty-one times. Not only are there many stories that teach the lesson to not be fooled by outward appearance, this verse also connects closely with the other key texts. For example, God isn’t interested in outward ritual, but inward obedience of the heart. It’s the person with a genuine heart who honors God and this further explains God’s motivation in raising up some while bringing others down (1 Sam. 2:35; 13:14).
All four of these key texts work hand in hand and explain every story that is recounted in 1&2 Samuel.
Some would argue that the main point of the books of Samuel is the establishment of the monarchy, or, more specifically, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy. As we’ve seen, the theme of God’s anointed one is certainly an important theme in these books. However, one of the problems that can develop from this approach is simply looking at 1&2 Samuel as a historical source (“This is what happened long ago”). Of course, there are also many skeptics who would say this is an imaginative history. I would disagree and contend that these books contain genuine history, but we sell these books short if we only see them as history.
The four key texts noted above, and the way each of these texts interlock with the overall storyline, shows that 1&2 Samuel is much more than a nice story or ancient history. The message conveyed (and summarized in these 4 texts) is still very contemporary. In a world where the use and abuse of power is still a common theme, we need to know where real power lies. In our search for significance we need to realize that the honor we seek to achieve for ourselves is relatively meaningless and very fleeting. But in honoring the Lord, there is the promise of attaining everlasting significance as He promises to “honor those who honor Him.” This theme is continued in the NT where believers in Jesus are promised to share in His glory (e.g., Rom. 5:1; 8:30). Finally, the importance of integrity (the heart) and not focusing on outward appearance (or religious ritual without true content) is a message definitely needed in our society which is so image conscious but often lacks true depth and authenticity. The storyline, and culture that these books emanate from, may indeed be ancient, but the messages conveyed in 1&2 Samuel are very contemporary. These are books that definitely need to be taught and preached in the church today.