Overview of the Book of 1 Samuel

Overview of the Book of 1 Samuel

Overview of the Book 1 Samuel

Author: The author is unknown.


To explain that David's dynasty remained Israel's hope for the future in spite of the curses that David and his house had brought on the nation

Date: 930-538 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God wanted his people to have the king he would choose.
  • God carefully prepared the way for the king of his choice.
  • God chose the house of David as the royal family forever.
  • Despite the weakness of David's Kingdom, the hope for God's people still remained in his family.


The books of Samuel were originally one work that was later divided into two. This book offers no clear guidance on the question of authorship. It seems likely that the attachment of Samuel's name simply reflects the role he played in the early chapters of the book. Samuel is described as an old man in 1 Samuel 8:1 and as dead in 1 Samuel 25:1, which would have been long before many of the events of 1 and 2 Samuel took place. However, 1 Chronicles 29:29 attaches the names of Samuel and his prophetic successors Nathan and Gad to certain written sources, some of which may well have been incorporated into this written history of Israel as it took shape.

Time and Place of Writing:

The book of Samuel offers several clues as to its date of final composition. The writer relied on a number of prophetic and royal sources for his history, but the earliest likely date for the book is indicated by the fact that it looks back on "the last words of David" (2 Sam. 23:1); i.e., David's final official words before his death. Also, 1 Samuel 27:6 remarks that Ziklag remained under the control of "the kings of Judah," which probably acknowledges the division of Judah and Israel in 930 B.C. If so, the book could not have been written until after the division of the nation that resulted from the failures of David and his house. If Samuel was written at this time, the book affirmed hope in David's line despite the troubles of the divided monarchy.

The latest likely date for final composition is the return from exile in 538 B.C. The writer of Chronicles used Samuel as one of his most important sources (see "Introduction to 1 Chronicles: Author"). Moreover, the book of Kings appears to pick up the history of Israel's throne where Samuel left off (see 2 Sam. 23:1-7; 1 Kings 1:1), and 1 Kings 2:27 refers to the fulfillment of 1 Samuel 2:27-36. Therefore, Samuel was probably written before Kings, which is dated between 561 and 538 B.C. (see "Introduction to 1 Kings: Time and Place of Writing"). If Samuel was written at this time, the book declared hope in David's line despite the exile, which largely resulted from the disobedience of David's royal sons.

It is impossible to arrive at firm dates for many of the events that are described in 1 and 2 Samuel. There is broad consensus that David had consolidated his rule over the tribes shortly before 1000 B.C. (Judah c. 1010 B.C. and Israel c. 1003 B.C.). David's lifetime extended from c. 1040 to c. 970 B.C.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The title of the book has varied throughout the centuries. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) groups 1 and 2 Samuel together with 1 and 2 Kings as the "First, Second, Third and Fourth Books of Reigns" (or "Kingdoms"). Similarly, the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) refers to these books as "First, Second, Third, and Fourth Kings." Most modern versions reflect the Hebrew tradition of distinguishing between the books of Samuel and those of Kings. Until the fifteenth century, Hebrew tradition treated 1 and 2 Samuel as a single book.

It was during the latter half of the eleventh century B.C., a time when the empires of the ancient Near East were not at full strength, that God transformed Israel from a loosely knit tribal confederacy into a united monarchy. Although the institution of the monarchy marked a significant political and religious development, it was not a new idea in Israel. A fundamental tenet of Israelite faith was that the Lord himself was Israel's sovereign, the great King (e.g., 1 Sam. 8:7; 12:12; Num. 23:21; Psa. 5:2; Mal. 1:14). Nevertheless, the opening books of the Bible contain various indications that Israel, in accordance with the divine will, would one day have a human monarch (Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:7, 17-19; cf. Gen. 17:6, 16; 35:11). In Deuteronomy 17:14, Moses anticipated a time when Israel would be settled in the land of promise and would desire a king, and he gave instructions to regulate kingship at such time as the monarchy would be instituted (1 Sam. 15-20; cf. 1 Sam 28:36). This time period is the subject of the book of Samuel.

As a result, the narrator of the book of Samuel had at least two main purposes. First, he was determined to chronicle a true historical account of the birth and early development of the Israelite monarchy. This history is highly selective and evaluative, but it is historically accurate nonetheless. Second, the manner in which the narrator selected and evaluated the historical events alerts us to his complex theological purposes. The centerpiece of these theological interests was the theology of Davidic kingship. The book records the rise, successes and failures of David's rule, but it does so in order to teach a theology of kingship for the sake of future generations who would be led by David's royal sons.

Like Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings, the theology of 1 and 2 Samuel is deeply influenced by Deuteronomy. See "Introduction to the Historical Books." The emphases of Deuteronomy on covenant blessings and curses, the centralization of worship and authority, the evils of idolatry, the necessary righteousness of the king, the role of prophets, etc., form a theological backdrop to the perspectives guiding the book of Samuel. When the writer of Samuel applied the theology of Deuteronomy to the development of Israel's early monarchy, he explained what future kings should learn from David's successes and failures and why David's dynasty remained Israel's hope despite the covenant curses that David's house brought on the nation.

These theological purposes seldom come to explicit expression in the book of Samuel. Like most of the narrative portions of the Old Testament, Samuel tends to present dramatic narration. The characters act and interact, as it were, on stage. Relying on characters to show rather than the narrator to tell the readers how to evaluate events engages readers' interests and powers of moral discernment.

In keeping with the dramatic mode of narration, Samuel was written concisely, with the narrator employing a variety of sophisticated techniques to express his theological evaluations: (1) key words (see note on 1 Sam. 2:29), (2) comparative or contrastive characterizations (e.g., Saul and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 13-14 [see notes on 1 Sam. 13:22; 14:6] and David and Uriah in 2 Sam. 11), (3) repetition with variation (e.g., Saul's two confessions in 1 Sam. 15:24-25,30), and (4) narrative analogy (e.g., Nabal as a surrogate of Saul in 1 Sam. 25). Sensitivity to these literary features will lead the reader to increased theological understanding.

The content of 1 Samuel is so complex that it is helpful to summarize the material. The plot of 1 Samuel divides into four main parts (and an appendix) that feature the intersecting lives of Samuel, Saul, and David. 1 Samuel 1-7 describe events leading up to the appearance of Saul, the first king of Israel. The first half of this material (1 Sam. 1-3) recounts the birth narrative of Samuel (1 Sam. 1:1-28). Chapter 2 opens with Hannah's song of praise for the birth of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1-10). Hannah's song and David's poetic compositions (2 Sam. 22-23) frame the books of Samuel and introduce themes that prove fundamental to the theology of the books: the sovereignty and holiness of God, divine reversal of human fortunes, divine deliverance, and the futility of trusting in human strength. Even kingship is anticipated in a reference to the Lord's "anointed," his king (1 Sam. 2:10). The remainder of chapter 2 tells the story of the downfall of the priestly house of Eli, introducing yet another important theme in Samuel: divine rejection and its causes. Chapter 3 reiterates the rejection of the house of Eli, this time in the words of the Lord through the fledgling prophet Samuel, who henceforth would serve as God's man in the transition to kingship.

1 Samuel 4:1-7:1 constitutes what is often called "the ark narrative." These chapters strikingly demonstrate the Lord's power, first in his resistance to Israel's attempt to manipulate the ark as a source of magical power and second in his devastating tour of Philistine cities, a virtual victory march. 1 Samuel 7:2-17 provides a climax to the preceding two sections, as God's power to deliver Israel and defeat Israel's enemies is displayed through God's man, the prophet Samuel.

Against this backdrop, the sinfulness of the people's demand for a human ruler (1 Sam. 8-12) is most clearly seen. It was not that Israel was never to have a human monarch, for a king had long been anticipated. Rather it was objectionable that the people wanted a king "such as all the other nations [had]" (1 Sam. 8:5), for this connoted a rejection of the great King, God himself (1 Sam. 8:7). Despite the offensiveness and folly of the people's request, God was nevertheless willing to grant it - provided that the people first heard warnings concerning the potential abuses of kingship and that the king himself did not seek autonomy but was willing to submit himself to an authority structure whereby God's rule would continue.

It is in this latter regard that Israel's first appointed king proved deficient. Saul is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:2 as an impressive individual of striking proportions, presumably what the people had in mind. Nevertheless, it soon becomes apparent that this superb specimen was lacking in qualities necessary to be a successful king in Israel. A primary indication of Saul's unsuitability was his repeated failure to obey the word of the Lord as related by Samuel. While the better-known instances of Saul's disobedience are found in 1 Samuel 13:1-23 and 1 Samuel 15:1-35, the first occurrence appears already in 1 Samuel 10:1-27. On the occasion of Saul's anointing by Samuel, three signs were given to serve as confirmation. When the third and last had been fulfilled, Saul was to "do whatever [his] hand [found] to do" (according to Samuel's charge in 1 Sam. 10:7), after which (according to Samuel's further directive in 1 Sam. 10:8) Saul was to return to Gilgal to await additional instructions regarding the Philistine battle that his first action would surely provoke. Had Saul adhered to this scheme, he would have demonstrated his willingness to submit himself to God's rule and would have confirmed his suitability to be king. He would also have moved a step closer to the throne, following the three-part pattern of designation (by anointing), demonstration (by a deed of valor; i.e., "whatever [his] hand [found] to do" [see 1 Sam. 10:7 and its note]), and confirmation (by the people and the prophet). Unfortunately, Saul shrank back from the charge of 1 Samuel 10:7 and forestalled the accession process. While Saul's victory over the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11:1-15) was sufficient to satisfy the people, it was apparent from the tone of Samuel's speech (1 Sam. 12:1-25) that, in Samuel's mind at least, Saul had yet to pass the test in terms of suitability for kingship.

In 1 Samuel 13 Jonathan, not Saul, did what Saul's hand should have done, thus throwing down the gauntlet to the Philistines. Apparently recognizing that the charge of 1 Samuel 10:7 was now fulfilled, albeit by Jonathan, Saul immediately went down to Gilgal (in accordance with 1 Sam. 10:8) to await Samuel's arrival. When Samuel was slow in coming, Saul proceeded to offer pre-battle sacrifices in Samuel's absence, judging that the military situation precluded further delay. No sooner had Saul begun than Samuel arrived and, after hearing Saul's excuses, announced that Saul had acted foolishly and that his kingdom would not endure. Commentators sometimes seek to justify, or at least to trivialize, Saul's actions and to criticize Samuel's reaction as overly harsh. But in the light of the significance of the charge issued in 1 Samuel 10:7-8 as a test of Saul's fitness, such interpretations must be rejected. On this occasion of Saul's initial rejection, as also on the occasion of his second (1 Sam. 15), Saul's specific deeds of disobedience were but symptomatic of his fundamental inability to accommodate himself to the necessary requirements of theocratic kingship.

After his definitive rejection in 1 Samuel 15, Saul was no longer the rightful king in God's eyes (though he remained on the throne for some years), and God turned his attention to another: David, "a man after his own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14). 1 Samuel 16-31 trace Saul's emotional and psychological disintegration - a disintegration exacerbated by his fear of David, whom he sensed to be God's choice for king. After failing in many attempts to take David's life, Saul eventually took his own. David was providentially, if circuitously, guided toward the throne. Beginning with his anointing in 1 Samuel 16, the account of David's rise was punctuated by reminders that "the LORD [was] with him" (1 Sam. 16:18 and its note).

Christ in 1 & 2 Samuel:

Christ stands in contrast to the many examples of the sinful leaders of Israel who appear in the book. More than this, however, Jesus is the heir of David's throne, and David's career set in motion and anticipated the person and work of Christ. Both David and Jesus had prophetic sanction, David by Samuel (1 Sam. 3:20; 16:13) and Jesus by John the Baptist (Matt. 14:5; John 1:29-31; 5:31-35). The Spirit of the Lord came upon both (1 Sam. 16:13; Mark 1:9-11), and both did mighty works (1 Sam. 17:1-58; Matt 11:4-5), were involved in holy war (1 Sam. 17:1-58; Col. 1:20), and were rejected by jealous kings (1 Sam. 18:9; Matt 2:16) and warned to flee for their lives (1 Sam. 20:1-42; Matt. 2:13-15). Rejected by their own people without just cause (1 Sam. 23:12; John 19:15), both learned in exile to depend on God. Both interceded on behalf of God's people (2 Sam. 21, 24; John 17), and both were highly exalted by God (2 Sam. 23:1-8; Isa. 52:13; Phil. 2:9). In these and many other ways, David's life foreshadowed the accomplishments of Christ, his son.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Historical Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.