Introduction to I and II Samuel


The Books of Samuel are so called not because they were written by

Samuel, though possibly some of the materials may claim him as their

author, but because they describe his work for Israel; and it is not too

much to say of him, that as Moses was the founder, so it was Samuel who

reorganised and developed the political constitution of the Jewish nation,

and enriched it with institutions which made it capable of taking the high

place among the families of mankind to which the providence of God was

calling it.


Israel’s training was in every way remarkable. It had spent its childhood in

Egypt, and owed a great deal to that progress in mental culture in which

Egypt had outstripped the world. But it was in the wilderness, surrounded

by the bracing desert, and under the command of one who had mastered all

Egyptian learning, that Israel was formed into a high-souled people. And

there Moses endowed it with a law, which, if valuable to us chiefly in its

typical aspect, contains nevertheless so perfect a reenactment of the

fundamental principles of morality that its “Ten Words” still hold their

place as the best summary of the rules that should guide and control human

life. In its civil and administrative aspect confessedly there was much in the

Mosaic law conceded because of “the hardness of the people’s hearts,” or,

in other words, because of their imperfect state of civilization; but even this

was intended to lead them onwards. Confessedly preparatory and

educational, the institutions of Moses were but as a stage or scaffolding to

aid in the erection of a more perfect building. But they pointed out what

that building was to be, and can equitably be judged only in their relation to

it. For we must not suppose that the mass of the people had attained to

that high level on which Moses stood. Great as was the impress made upon

them by his master mind, and noble as were the qualities of the Israelites

themselves, yet as soon as the generation had passed away which had

personally known Moses, the nation hurried back into barbarism. Instead

of developing and realizing the grand ideal which their lawgiver had

sketched for them, they perpetually sank lower and lower. In the narratives

contained in the Book of Judges we find them wild, rough, lawless,

generous often, but oftener cruel; disgraced by fearful crimes, and

punishing them with atrocious barbarity. The priests and Levites appear

powerless and apathetic; the judges are brave soldiers, but with little

administrative capacity. Even with them Gideon, an early judge, is far

superior in character to Samson. Who would have thought that a nation,

which seemed fast degenerating into a loose aggregate of Bedouin tribes,

contained in it the germ of all that is best and noblest in modern culture,

and of that pure and spiritual religion which alone has been found capable

of satisfying the wants and longings of the human heart! And it was Samuel

who arrested Israel’s decay, and placed it upon the pathway which led it,

though by an uphill and tangled route, to its high destiny of being the

teacher of religion to mankind.


Never did time seem more hopeless than when Samuel arose. The

Philistines, strengthened not merely by a constant influx of immigrants, but

by the importation of arms from Greece, were fast reducing Israel to the

condition of a subject race. It might contend on equal terms with Moab and

Ammon, but the same superiority of weapons which had given Greece the

victory at Marathon and Plataea made the Philistines more than a match for

the rude levies of Israel. Samson with a bone might slay of the enemy

heaps upon heaps, but the nation which had helmets and shields, and coats

of mail, and swords and spears, must in the long run prevail. When the

Assyrians had broken up Egypt into a number of petty districts,

Psammetichus united them together again by means of his “brazen men;”

for the cuirass made its wearer practically invulnerable. And so the loss of

the sea coast, or the neglect to conquer and secure it in the days of Judah’s

strength (Judges 1:18-19), nearly lost Israel her independence, and

made her forfeit her noble calling. Content with those rolling downs on

which they found abundant pasture for their cattle, the princes of Judah

forgot, or had never learned, that the empire of the sea carries with it the

mastery of the land.


But just when it seemed that Israel must be crushed out from among the

nations Samuel arose. There had been a gleam of comfort under his

predecessor Eli. Of the early life of this remarkable man we know nothing.

He was the head of the inferior house of Ithamar, the younger of Aaron’s

sons; but as the chiefs of both the priestly houses held a high place in the

commonwealth of Israel, it may not after all be so extraordinary that we

should find him at the commencement of the Books of Samuel possessed

not only of the supreme civil power, but also of the high priesthood. We so

carry back our modern notions into ancient times that any deviation from

succession by right of primogeniture seems to us to require explanation. In

ancient times it was the family, and not the individual, to whom the

succession belonged. The more powerful of the kin, or the father’s

favorite, a Solomon, and not an Adonijah, took the father’s place. It was

this probably which led to that wholesale slaughter of relatives which

usually accompanied the accession of an Oriental king. What is really

remarkable is that Eli should be Israel’s civil ruler. If he was strong enough

to take this, no one would dispute with him the priesthood. And here

Scripture is absolutely silent.


The whole tone, nevertheless, of the history sets Israel before us as

enjoying under Eli a period of greater ease and prosperity than had been its

lot under Samson. The hill land of Israel was so easy of defense, and the

people so valiant, that under an able leader it repeatedly held its ground

against the mail clad Philistines, and in Eli’s days they had lost the

supremacy which made even Judah during Samson’s judgeship obey their

commands. It was only after a long period of slow decay, of which Eli’s

worthless sons were the cause, that Israel lost its independence and had to

submit to vassalage. It is an indication of the greatness of the reverse, that

the minds of the people were so embittered against him that they have

struck his name and the names of his race out of the genealogies, and have

put the worst construction upon the prophecies to which the broken

spirited old man submitted with such touching humility. To this cause

perhaps is also due the suppression of all account of his earlier doings.

What we have is taken probably from “the Acts of Samuel;” for there is a

curious humor and play upon words running through all Eli’s sayings such

as none but a contemporary would record. Samuel, we may be sure, had a

loving regard for Eli, but the people remembered him only in connection

with the Philistine invasion and the cruelties which accompanied it, and of

which the memory filled them with an intense horror. It was a calamity too

great to be fully narrated in history, but the Psalmist speaks of it as the

climax of Israel’s degradation (Psalm 78:59-64), when God “greatly

abhorred them; and the mention of it by Jeremiah (ch. 26.) roused all

Jerusalem to fury. It was thus from its deepest fall that Samuel raised the

nation to a new life, and from its shattered ruins built it up into an orderly

and progressive kingdom.


The foundation of all his reforms was the restoration of the moral and

religious life of the people. Without this nothing was possible. But in spite

of all its faults, Israel was still sound at heart, simple minded and primitive;

backward indeed in culture, but free from those debasing and effeminate

vices which too often make sensuality the companion of refinement. It was

no sickly, sentimental people among whom Samuel preached; and when his

words had brought conviction to them, with strong heart they followed

him; and so he won for them an alleviation of the Philistine yoke, and

prepared the way for its final destruction. In a year when the elements were

greatly disturbed — for there was lightning during wheat harvest — a

violent thunderstorm enabled the Israelites, rushing down the steep hill of

Mizpeh, to break the terrified ranks of the Philistines, and God by the great

deliverance wrought that day set His seal to the prophet’s work.

But as long as a man’s work depends upon his personal energy it has no

enduring existence. Many men who in life have been all powerful have left

behind them nothing more lasting than a Jonah’s gourd. Samuel was too

wise to trust to mere personal influence. If Israel was to be saved, it must

be by institutions which would daily exercise their pressure, and push the

people upward to a higher level. He seems to have studied the past history

of his nation carefully, and to have clearly seen where its weakness lay.

And so he set himself earnestly to the task of giving it mental culture and

orderly government; externally security from danger, internally progressive

development. The means he employed for the nation’s internal growth was

the founding of schools, and here the honor of the initiative belongs to

him, as well as of the wise development of his institutions. What Walter de

Merton long afterwards did for Oxford and England, that Samuel effected

for Israel. But as regards the kingdom he was rather the regulator than the

initiator of the movement. Still his wise mind saw the ripeness of the times

for it, and to him is due its greatness and success.


Thus then, in prophecy and the kingdom, Samuel gave to Israel first

education, and secondly constitutional monarchy. Samuel was the first

founder of schools, and as the great and primary object of his life had been

the internal reformation of the Jewish people, we can well understand how

his personal work had led onwards to this attempt to redeem his

countrymen from ignorance. In those long years which he spent in

perpetual wanderings up and down the land he must have constantly found

that a chief obstacle to his work was the low mental state of the people. He

had been brought up himself amidst whatever learning the nation had

imported with it from Egypt; but Shiloh’s sun had set. Was learning to

perish with it? Nowhere in Israel were men to be found fit to bear office or

administer justice. The decisive failure of one so highly gifted by nature as

Saul, and who started with so much in his favor, and under Samuel’s

guidance, but who seems to have had no ideas beyond fighting, proves that

Samuel was right in his hesitation about creating a king. The fitting man

was nowhere to be found. Schools were the primary necessity. Through

them the whole mental state of the people would be raised, and men be

trained to serve God in Church and State. From these schools came forth a

David. Without them the brave warrior, but fierce despot, Saul was all that

was possible.


At the Naioth, or Students’ Lodgings, for so the word means, near Ramah,

his own patrimonial inheritance, Samuel gathered the young men who were

to lift up Israel from its debasement. He taught them reading, writing, and

music; he also impressed their minds with solemn religious services, and

apparently made history and psalmody their two chief studies. These

schools were termed Schools of the Prophets not only because Samuel was

a prophet, and the teachers bore the same honored name, but because the

young men were trained expressly for THE SERVICE OF JEHOVAH!  Of

course Samuel did not expect his students to receive the gift of inspiration.

That was the most rare and precious of gifts, to be obtained by no education,

but bestowed directly by God; from whom it might come to a herdman,

with only such learning as could be picked up in a country town (Amos 7:14-15),

but was never given except for high purposes, and where there

was a special internal fitness on the part of the receiver. But the word has a

wide meaning in Holy Scripture. Any religious uninspired service,

especially if musical, was called prophecy, David’s trained singers

prophesied with harps and other instruments (I Chronicles 25:1-3). But

all of them, inspired and uninspired, went forth to do work for Jehovah;

not as priests, not necessarily as teachers, or as musicians, though they

were Israel’s bards. The institution was essentially free, was open to all

comers, and when educated the prophet might return to his farm, or to

some avocation of town life. But he was first of all an educated man, and,

secondly, he had been taught the nature of Jehovah, how he was to be

worshipped, and what was the life which every member of a covenant

nation ought to lead.


Thus Samuel’s schools not only raised Israel to a higher mental level, but

were the great means for maintaining the worship of Jehovah, and teaching

the people true and spiritual notions of the nature of God. As such we find

future prophets earnest in maintaining them. Incidentally we learn that

Elijah’s last earthly work was the visitation of the prophetic schools at

Gilgal, at Bethel, and at Jericho. He must have restored these schools, for

Jezebel had done her utmost to exterminate the prophets. He must also

have labored with masterly energy; for within ten years after Elijah’s great

victory at Mount Carmel, Ahab, at Jehoshaphat’s request, was able to

collect at Samaria no less than 400 men who claimed to be “prophets of

Jehovah.” Of Elisha we have abundant evidence that the main business of

his life was to foster these schools, and even personally teach in them

(II Kings 4:38). What we read of these two men was probably true of

all the great prophets. At suitable places there were schools in which they

gathered the young men of Israel, and the learning which at Shiloh had

been confined within the sacred priestly enclosure was made by them

general and national It ceased to be a special prerogative, and became the

inheritance of the whole race. Apparently it culminated in the time of

Hezekiah, and then came the Assyrian invasions, and with them the

destruction of a high and noble civilization. But under Ezra and the men of

the great synagogue it revived, and Israel became again, and continued to

be, a learned and intellectual nation.


This then was one part of the labors of Samuel. He laid the foundation

and fostered the rapid growth of a grand system of national education. At

Ramah he trained men to be Israel’s teachers; but he did not confine

himself to this. Most of the great ornaments of David’s court were his

disciples, and it is probable that large numbers of the wealthy and more

promising youth of the kingdom went to his schools simply to learn

something of those wonderful arts of reading and writing, which opened so

new a world to the youth of a race always distinguished for its intellectual

aptitudes. And through them Samuel raised the whole people mentally and

morally. Trained men henceforward were never wanting for high service

both at court and throughout the land. Other results followed of which the

whole world reaps the benefit. (Once upon a time The United States of  America

was like this, when Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, etc. were

divinity schools.  A similar time in America to when Israel was holiness unto

the Lord, and the firstfruits of His increase:  all that devour him shall

offend; evil shall come upon them, saith the Lord.”  - Jeremiah 2:3 – CY – 2016)

The gift of a series of inspired men would have been impossible had Israel continued

in the state of barbarous ignorance into which it had sunk in the time of the Judges.

Brave fighting men there might have been plenty; occasionally a man of witty jest

and proverb like Samson; an Isaiah never. He and his compeers were educated

men, speaking to an educated people, and themselves foremost in the rank

of teachers. When inspired prophecy ceased, gradually the scribes took the

prophets’ place; so much so that in the Chaldee Targum “prophet” is often

translated “scribe;” and however inferior their work, yet they kept learning

alive. The Old Testament was the fruit of Samuel’s schools, and so also

was the New. The noble tree which he had planted was still vigorous when

our Lord traversed the land of Israel; for none but an educated people

could have understood His teaching, and retained it in their memories, and

taught it to mankind. If Paul added to the teaching of Gamaliel the

intellectual training of a Greek university, it was in order that he might give

to Christian teaching that many-sidedness which was necessary for its

reception by Greek and barbarian as well as by Jew. But side by side with

him in equal perfectness stands the Jewish John. Who will say which of

the two shall carry off the palm? And it was Samuel who laid the broad

foundations of that culture which, carried on first by prophets and then by

scribes, made the Jews capable of writing the Bible, of translating the Old

Testament into Greek, of teaching its principles in most of the cities of

Greece, and finally of going forth as missionaries, carrying with them



The other great labor of Samuel was concerned with the establishment of

the kingdom, as an external necessity for Israel’s orderly development. And

here again we find a man far in advance of his age; for his great aim and

purpose was to found a limited, or, as we might even call it, a

constitutional, monarchy. To a certain extent he was an unwilling agent;

for he saw that the times were not ripe. A limited monarchy is only possible

among an educated people, and Samuel’s Book of the Kingdom (ch. 10:25)

could have had but little influence upon a Saul, who could

neither read nor write. (John Adams went further and stated in 1798:


“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.

It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Something in this so-called enlightened age which America is misssing

CY – 2016)  Perhaps anarchy is inevitably renewed by despotism,

and certainly Saul became too like what Samuel feared the king would be.

It was only after he had trained David that there was a Jewish Alfred ready

to sit upon the throne; and when we read so emphatically that he was a

king after God’s own heart, we must bear in mind that, with all his private

faults, David never attempted to set himself above God’s law, or even to

pervert it to his own use. He strictly confined himself within the limits of a

theocratic king, and his crimes were personal, and as such repented of, and

the punishment humbly borne.


But the term theocracy is ambiguous, or at least has two sides according to

the nature of its administration. As administered by the high priest it was a

failure. The appeal to Jehovah by Urim and Thummim was seldom made,

and then only under exceptional circumstances, and there was no orderly

method of carrying out its commands. Those commands themselves were

of the most general kind, confined apparently to a simple affirmative or

negative. It was thus irregular, fitful, in abeyance in all calm and peaceful

epochs, and when called into exercise was liable to terrible abuse, which it

even seemed to sanction. When Israel set itself to exterminate the tribe of

Benjamin, the people may have supposed that they had a sort of religious

approval of their extreme measures in the fact that the oracle had

encouraged them to make the third attack (Judges 20:28). Really the

ferocity was their own, and the priest who had given an affirmative answer

to their question may and ought to have been horrified at the cruelty which

followed upon the victory, and which he was absolutely powerless to

prevent. A theocracy has been tried again in the Papacy, with much the

same result, of being actually one of the worst possible forms of

government; and, like the theocracy of the time of the Judges, it must

necessarily be a snare to the conscience, as claiming or appearing to give

religious sanction to deeds that offend the moral sense.


The theocracy which Samuel endeavored to establish was that of kingly

power in the hands of a layman, but acting in obedience to the written law

of God, or to His will as declared from time to time by the living voice of

prophecy. It was a monarchy limited by the priest and the prophet, the

former taking his stand upon the Mosaic law, the latter with a more free

and active force giving a direct command in God’s name, appealing to the

king’s moral sense, and usually representing also the popular feeling. To

the old theocracy there had practically been no cheek, and, what was

almost as bad, no person responsible for carrying out its commands. But it

seems soon to have fallen into abeyance, and the judges were men raised

up irregularly under the pressure of some extreme peril. Usually they did

well, chiefly in expelling invaders from the land, but the priest with the

ephod took in their exploits little or no share. Under so irregular a form of

government there was small chance for the orderly development of the

powers that lay dormant within Israel, and which were to make it a blessing

to all the nations of the earth.


Samuel’s object was to found a monarchy active and powerful for the

maintenance at all times of order, but controlled by such checks as would

prevent it from becoming a despotism. And here we have the key to his

struggle with Saul. Samuel had a hearty detestation of mere arbitrary

power, as we know from his own words to the elders (I Samuel 8:11-18);

but Saul with his bodyguard of 3000 men had both the will and the

means of making himself absolute. Perhaps all minds of great military

ability have a natural tendency to arbitrariness. Unqualified obedience is a

soldier’s duty, and a general knows that in discipline lies his strength. It is

otherwise with a king. He is the best ruler who trains his people to habits

of self-reliance, and to do what is right not because he orders it, but

because they choose it. A nation drilled to obedience, a Church made

orthodox by having its creed forced upon it, loses thereby all moral

strength, because, alike in national and religious life, it is only by the

exercise of a moral choice that human nature can advance upward. Samuel

was laboring for Israel’s growth in all that was good, and the only king of

whom he could approve was one under whom Israel would be free to work

out its own destiny; and such a king would be no tyrant, but one who

would rule in submission to the same law as that which governed the

people. The two particulars in which Saul set his own will above the

command of Samuel may have been matters of no great primary

importance. But the one happened soon after Saul’s appointment, and thus

showed a very early tendency on his part to make his own judgment

supreme; the other was an express order, backed by Israel’s past history;

and both were given by the man who had called Saul to the throne. But the

real point at issue was that Saul was moving so quickly towards despotism,

and that when a second trial of him was made he had advanced a long way

towards it; and never was despot more thorough than Saul when he stained

his hands with the blood of the priests at Nob, and of their innocent wives

and children, on the mere supposition of their complicity with David’s

escape. Possibly, if we knew the particulars, the slaughter of the Gibeonites

was a crime of the same deep dye. It is at least significant that the cause of

the famine was said to be “Saul and his bloody house.” People in those

days were not so tenderhearted as to have troubled much about putting a

few men of a subject race to death, unless the deed had been done

barbarously. The manner of it must have shocked them, or it would not

have remained imprinted so deeply upon the conscience of the nation.

In David, trained by Samuel from his youth, we have a noble example of a

theocratic king, and that notable fact, which I have already pointed out,

that David, in spite of his terrible personal crimes, never set himself above

the law, was due we may feel sure to Samuel’s early teaching. He had in

Joab the very man to be the willing tool of a despot. He would have

delighted in playing a Doeg’s part. David valued his faithfulness,

appreciated his bravery and skill, nay, even used him for his crimes, but he

shrank from his lawlessness. God was always in David’s eyes greater than

himself. His law, often violated in hours of lust, was nevertheless to be

bowed before as supreme. And so as regards his subjects, there seems to

have been no intentional oppression of them. The idea of law was ever a

ruling one in David’s mind, and thus he approached Samuel’s ideal of “the

anointed one,” though his fierce passions brought upon him personally

deep and terrible stains.


It was thus Samuel’s lot to sketch out two of the main lines of thought

which converge in Christ. The idea of the prophet and the idea of the king

gain under him their shape and proportion. This is especially true as

regards the latter. The king is ever in Samuel’s eyes “the Messiah,”

Jehovah’s anointed one. Again and again the word occurs with marked

prominence. And it was the pregnant germ of a great future with the Jew.

He never lost the idea, but carried it onward and forward, with David’s

portrait for its center, as of one in whom Messiah’s lineaments were

marked in outline, feebly indeed and imperfectly, but with the certainty that

a Messiah would come who would fill up with glorious beauty that faint,

blurred Sketch.


   Such then is a brief summary of Samuel’s work, and it justifies us in

claiming especial importance for this portion of Jewish history,

independently of the interest connected with the development of two such

extraordinary characters as Saul and David, and with the many remarkable

persons grouped around them, such as Eli and Jonathan, and the brave

soldiers who formed the court of the two kings.



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