The history of Israel from the birth of Samuel to the death of Saul is recorded in the book known to us as I Samuel. Originally the two books of Samuel were one. The translators of the Greek Septuagint divided the book in order to conform to the conventional size of the rolls on which Greek works were written. The titles First and Second Kingdoms were given to the resulting books, with our two books of Kings following as Third and Fourth Kingdoms. The Latin Vulgate retained the same divisions with the word “Kings” replacing “Kingdoms.” Since 1516 this division has been followed in printed texts of the Hebrew Bible also. There, as in the English Bible, the books are named I and II Samuel and I and II Kings.


The personality of Samuel is evident throughout the first 24 chapters of I Samuel. Following a pious childhood in the fellowship of Eli, he served Israel as prophet, priest, and judge, and anointed the first two kings of the land.

Tradition has suggested Samuel as the author of the chapters of the book in which his history is recorded, with Nathan and Gad completing the work. The book, in its present form, however, is anonymous. Internal evidence suggests that it was written after the division of the kingdom (cf. 1 Sam. 27:6). The unnamed author doubtless made use of earlier materials. These may have included records made by Samuel, Nathan, Gad, and others (cf. 1 Chron. 29:29).

International Background

Palestine usually served as a buffer state between Egypt and the empires of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. During the eleventh and tenth centuries B. C. there existed a power vacuum. Following the death of Ramesses III (1144 B.C.), Egypt was ruled by a series of weak pharaohs. Not until Sheshonk I (biblical Sheshak) who came to the Egyptian throne while Solomon was reigning in Jerusalem (935 B.C.) did the Egyptians again assert themselves internationally.

Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 B.C.) was a mighty Assyrian aggressor, but following his death the land was quiescent until the accession of Asshurnasir-apal II (883 B.C.). It was during this period of inactivity that Israel experienced its “Golden Age” under Saul, David, and Solomon.

Although not confronted with armies from the Euphrates or the Nile, formidable foes had to be faced nearer home. During the time of the Judges battles were fought with Aramaeans, Moabites, Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites, and Philistines. Difficulties with most of these groups were sporadic, but the Philistines continued as an active threat until the time of David.

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The “uncircumcised” Philistines were a non-Semitic people who had come to Canaan (which, subsequently, took the name “Palestine”) from Caphtor, or Crete (Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7). Settlements of Philistines were in Canaan during Patriarchal times (Gen. 26:1,14, 18). A large influx occurred, however, following an unsuccessful attempt to invade Egypt during the twelfth century B.C. A clash between Israel, which invaded Canaan from the East, and the Philistines, who settled in the southwestern part of the land, was inevitable. One of the results of the struggle was the establishment of the Israelite monarchy.


The Birth and Call of Samuel (1–3). Dedicated from birth to God’s service, Samuel was trained by Eli, a weak but godly priest, at the sanctuary in Shiloh (2:11, 18–21; 3:1–10). This was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and it served as the center of Israel’s religious life.

The youthful Samuel acted as God’s mouthpiece in condemning the immoral practices (2:22) and greed (2:12–17) which marred the usefulness of Eli’s sons. Eli was unwilling or unable to cope with the situation. God, through Samuel, declared that Eli’s family would not continue in the sacred office (3:11–18).

The Philistines Capture the Ark (4–7). Experiencing the bitterness of defeat (4:2), Israel determined to bring the sacred ark to the field of battle as a kind of fetish (4:3). God, however, did not honor this abuse of sacred things. The Philistines captured the ark (4:11), and slew Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli. At the tidings of the loss of the ark and the death of his sons, the aged priest also fell dead.

God did not permit the Philistines to retain the ark as a trophy of victory. It proved a source of embarrassment in the Dagan Temple (5:2–5) and was accounted responsible for the “emerods”—probably swellings associated with the bubonic plague—which afflicted the men of Ashdod (5:6–12).

The Philistines, determined to rid themselves of the troublesome ark, put it on a new cart with previously unyoked oxen, and sent it to Beth Shemesh (6:1–16). The men of Beth Shemesh, irreverently gazing on the ark, perhaps opening it to examine its contents, were also smitten (6:19). They sent to the men of Kirjath Jearim, in the Judean hill country, to take the ark (6:21). The earlier sanctuary at Shiloh was evidently destroyed by the Philistines (cf. Jer. 7:12). The ark remained in the house of Abinadab at Kirjath Jearim (1 Sam. 7:1) until the time of David (2 Sam. 6:3–4).

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A true spiritual revival took place in Israel. The Philistine oppression quickened a sense of need which resulted in a “yearning after the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:2). Samuel demanded separation from the pagan Baalim and Ashtaroth (7:3), which proved a snare during much of Israel’s pre-exilic history. At Mizpah Israel gathered to confess its sin (7:6). A Philistine attack ended in a great victory for Israel, commemorated in the monument Eben-ezer, “stone of help” with the testimony, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (7:12).

The Call of Saul (8:12). The desire of the Israelites for a king was motivated by several factors: (1) Samuel’s sons did not possess the spiritual qualities of their father (8:1–5); (2) the Israelites desired to copy the customs of surrounding nations (8:5); and (3) the Philistine threat continued (8:20).

Although Samuel warned the people of the dangers inherent in monarchy (8:10–18), the people insisted that they wanted a king. God assured Samuel that he was doing right in acceding to their request (8:7–9).

Saul, a Benjamite, had many qualities which would be admired in a king. He was young and able-bodied (9:2), with a commanding presence (9:2), and a deeply religious nature (9:10; 14:37).

While looking for some lost asses (9:3–14), Saul was directed to Samuel as a possible source of information concerning their whereabouts. God, in the meantime, prepared Samuel to anoint Israel’s future king (9:15–16).

Events took place as God had indicated they would (10:1–9). Samuel convoked the people at Mizpah where Saul was acclaimed king (10:17–24).

The first challenge came to Saul as king when the Ammonites demanded that the men of Jabesh Gilead submit to the brutal humiliation of having one eye struck out (11:1–2). Saul left his plow, cut up his yoke of oxen, and sent the pieces throughout Israel with the ultimatum that any who refused assistance would have their animals cut up the same way (11:7). The response saved the men of Jabesh Gilead and dispersed the enemy (11:11). Saul was confirmed as king at Gilgal (11:14–15), and Samuel formally renounced his judgeship, urging the new king and people to be loyal to God, and pointing out the dire consequences of rebellion (12:1–25).

The Rejection of Saul (13–15). Saul had shown an admirable spirit of humility in his first dealings with Samuel (cf. 9:21; 10:22). But early victories at Jabesh Gilead (11:1–13) and Michmas (13:2) gave Saul a spirit of self-confidence which ultimately led to his downfall through acts of disobedience. Pride ruined Saul.

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Awaiting Samuel at Gilgal (13:8), Saul offered the burnt offering (13:9) which was the prerogative of the priest alone. Kingship in Israel was never absolute. The king must abide by the law of God. Samuel warned Saul that his kingdom would not last forever (13:14), for God would seek a man “after his own heart.”

A second act of disobedience brought about a permanent rupture with Samuel. Amalek was to be placed “under the ban” (berem), or devoted entirely to God (cf. Lev. 27:28–29; Deut. 13:16–18). Israel would thus renounce any personal gain from the victory. Saul fought the Amalekites (15:7), but he took Agag, their leader, alive, and spared the best of the sheep and the oxen (15:9). He sacrificed to God that which was “of no account and feeble.”

When Saul explained that the people had spared the best of the flocks and herds “to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God” (15:15), Samuel replied, “Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams (15:22). Through disobedience, Saul had forfeited the kingdom.

The Choice of David (16:2–6). Samuel, mourning over the tragedy of Saul, was commissioned to go to Bethlehem and there anoint a king of the family of Jesse (16:1). David, the youngest of the family, “ruddy and withal of beautiful eyes and goodly to look upon” was designated as God’s choice, whereupon Samuel anointed him (16:13).

David was first introduced to the court of Saul as a skillful musician whose playing on the lyre could relieve the king’s mental distress (16:22). In an encounter with the Philistine champion, Goliath, young David exhibited a military prowess which would evoke a maniacal jealousy from the distressed king.

Saul’s son, Jonathan, and David became the best of friends—a fact which is the more remarkable because they were potential rivals for the throne. Similarly, Saul’s daughter Michal, fell in love with the popular hero. Saul, by this time determined to murder David, suggested 100 foreskins of the Philistines as a kind of bride price (18:25). Instead of being killed in battle, as Saul planned, David brought back 200 foreskins of the “uncircumcised” Philistines (18:27) in record time.

Open conflict between Saul and David continued until the death of Saul. On at least two occasions (24:5; 26:12), Samuel had opportunity to slay Saul, but he refused to lift up his hand against “the Lord’s anointed.” Jonathan remained a loyal friend of David, who vowed that he would not “cut off kindness” from Jonathan’s house (20:15). When reigning as king, David remembered this vow and gave a place of honor to Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son (2 Sam. 9:1–7).

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David Among the Philistines (27). Ironically, David, the Israelite who had “slain his ten thousands” was forced to find a place of refuge in Philistine territory. Achish of Gath received David as an ally, permitting him to occupy Ziklag. Although engaging in numerous raids (27:8), David studiously avoided attacking or harming his own people, Achish, however, was not aware of this (27:12).

The Close of Saul’s Life (28–31). In desperation, Saul determined to seek a message from the dead prophet Samuel. In disguise he sought out a “witch” who was reputed to secure messages from the abode of the dead. The “witch” seems to have been more surprised than Saul when Samuel appeared and uttered the words: “Tomorrow shalt thou be with me” (28:19). God, not the “witch” warned Saul of impending judgment in this unusual way.

Providentially David was restrained from joining forces with the Philistines in their attack upon Saul (29:4). While David was fighting the Amalekites (30), the Philistines fought the armies of Israel at Mt. Gilboa. Saul, his three sons, and his armor bearer were casualties. As trophies of victory, the Philistines took Saul’s armor to the “house of Ashtaroth” (31:10), identified as the Astarte Temple, and fastened his body to the walls of Beth Shan. The annals of the Assyrian kings present many examples of flaying and hanging the skins of victims on city walls as a warning to others who might be tempted to rebel.

The men of Jabesh Gilead remembered how Saul, in the prime of life, had rescued them from the Ammonites. And at the risk of their lives they removed the bodies of Saul and his sons from Beth Shan (31:11–13) and burned their bones in Jabesh.


Works on Old Testament history form an important part in the study of I Samuel. Among commentaries, consult W. G. Blaikie in “The Expositor’s Bible” and A. F. Kirkpatrick in “The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch collaborated on the Samuel volume in the Keil and Delitzsch series. The treatment by A. M. Renwick in Davidson, The New Bible Commentary has helpful appendices on “The Ark of the Covenant” and “The Critical View of Sources and Documents.”


Professor of Old Testament

Moody Bible Institute

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