Samuel’s story seems similar to many of Israel’s prophets. The prophets were godly men who opposed Israel’s rebellious ways and called for a return to Yahweh and Yahweh’s precepts and teachings. Samuel also played a vital role in the inauguration of David as God’s chosen king.
Samuel’s birth has been compared to that of John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth seem to have been foreshadowed by Elkanah and Hannah. While Elkanah had an additional wife, Peninnah, who bore him children, Hannah remained childless until the Lord granted her request to have a son. When Samuel is born his name means God has heard (listened and answered my petition).
Part of Hannah’s petition was that the boy would be offered in service to the Lord through the service of the Temple of the Lord. Samuel begins this service at a young age (after being weaned 1:24). The Lord is gracious to Hannah and she has five other children after Samuel.
As early as 1 Samuel 3:1 we learn that the Lord was communicating through Samuel at a time when “the word of the Lord was rare: there were not many visions.” Samuel is given the responsibility of telling the aged Eli some severe news about his heritage (3:17-18). 3:19-21 states “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel through His word.”
After 20 years of the ark being away from the Israelites (7:2) Samuel called the nation to repentance. Israel repented and in 7:6 Samuel is regarded as the leader of Israel. Samuel continued to be judge over Israel throughout his lifetime (7:15). Peace between the Amorites and Israel was characteristic during this time. It appears Samuel is a necessary intercessor in chapter 7. The nation mourns and Samuel intercedes. Israel becomes victorious over the Philistines and Samuel sets up the stone of help we understand to be called Ebenezer. The stone is named thus because the Lord has provided the help in subduing the Philistines and they did not invade Israel’s territory again. Samuel, I would think, would be elated by the national trust in the word of the Lord. yet, now they seem to turn from that trust because Samuel is no longer expected to lead and his sons have become corrupt. “Give us a king!” they say.
When Samuel was older he appointed his sons as judges for Israel (8:1). But his sons were corrupt. The elders of Israel came to Samuel and requested a king. Samuel is noted for opposing this request. 8:7 says “And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they’ve rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so are they doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
Superficially, we seem to hear that God has some opposition to kings, at least earthly ones for Israel. What can make this history more confusing is that Genesis 17; 35:11; and Deuteronomy 17:14-20 can appear to endorse or promote the idea of kings for the nation. Is it that Israel desires something that we’re not able to see on the surface? Is it that Israel is playing politics? The Lord told Samuel that Israel has rejected God as their king. They have served other gods, forsaking the Lord. Is Israel seeking a figurehead that allows them to war in the way they wish? Is there a backstory here that we typically miss? After all, David will be chosen as king over the tribes and Jesus will be a descendant of his.
Is the answer found in the solemn warning that Samuel gives the nation? Is Israel too weak for a king’s temptations of power or is it that they don’t care because it appears that the other nations have a better system?
We know that Israel was unique among the nations. They had no king like the surrounding nations. They had the true and living God. However, the fickleness of the nation seems to cause the undulation in this part of Israel’s narrative. Samuel is portrayed as heroic because of how he’s judged Israel during his lifetime but he ends up being a “party” pooper. He’s not in the same political “party” as the majority of Israel. This is one major reason Samuel should be known, yes?
Is this why Samuel’s story is important to Israel (and to us)? Is Samuel the godly expression shining brightly in yet another rebellious generation, a generation that apparently wants to drive off the cliff? Was Samuel the righteous soul opposing the wrong kind of leadership but the one endorsing the right kind of king that the Lord would choose to unite His nation? Saul exemplifies Israel’s foolishness and David exemplifies God’s righteousness?
Samuel is portrayed as being rejected. His faithfulness to the Lord and service to Israel is noted as ending with a list of great judges that the Lord sent to rescue Israel from itself. The value of those exercises by the Lord is now being marginalized by another generation which doesn’t get it. They want a king to fight their battles for them, even if it means they’ll be slaves (8:17). Fortunately, Samuel will be known for his rejection by the nation but his appointment of Israel’s best king.
John the Baptist also didn’t want to play politics and faithfully introduced the rejected King of 1 Samuel 8. Unfortunately, many still requested to be like the other nations. “We have no king but Caesar!” Thankfully, the Lord refused that request and took the throne Himself.
Shouldn’t we be asking uncommon questions about these texts? Why was Samuel born the way he was? Important to Israel’s story? Yes. Important to ours? Yes.