Samuel: King-maker

The period of the judges (Judges-Ruth) continues into the book of 1 Samuel, where we encounter Samuel, the last judge of Israel. Having previously encountered Samson, who was morally and spiritually the lowest of all the judges, Samuel is a storm of fresh air (see 1 Samuel 7:3-6; 12:3-5). How could such a morally and spiritually dark period produce such a bright star as Samuel? It was not by accident.

Samuel’s mother Hannah was actually barren. The stigma she bore for being barren was severely aggravated by the provocations of her husband’s other wife. This drove Hannah to pray to God and vow that if God would give her a son she would give him back to God (1 Samuel 1:9-11). God answered Hannah’s prayer, and when Samuel was weaned, she fulfilled her vow by giving him over to Eli the high priest (1 Samuel 1:24-28). So Samuel lived with Eli and grew up at the sanctuary in Shiloh.

Unlike the five other barren women mentioned in the Bible, the narrator did not exactly say Hannah was barren. He instead stressed (twice) that God “had closed her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5,6; cf. Genesis 20:18). In other words, the narrator is highlighting that God was personally involved in Hannah’s barrenness, implying that her barrenness was part of God’s plan to fulfill a specific purpose. This purpose is clearly expressed in the plot: Hannah’s barrenness and the consequent provocations caused her to pray and make that vow, so that Samuel would be given to God as a child.

If it was God who caused Hannah to bear the stigma and suffer the provocations so that Samuel would be given to Him as a child, was God then being unfair to Hannah? Given the greatness that Samuel achieved (Jeremiah 15:1), any mother would in retrospect feel privileged to be called to do what Hannah did. Also, God “visited Hannah” and blessed her with three other sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:20-21).

The reason God wanted Samuel as a child is apparent when we contrast his case with that of Samson. Samson was called to be a judge to deliver Israel even before he was conceived (Judges 13:1-5). His mother was also barren, but God enabled her to conceive. Samson was raised by his own parents and, under the circumstances of the period of the judges, he turned out to be what he was. In contrast Samuel “grew before the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:21); in fact as a boy he was already serving God as an apprentice priest under Eli (1 Samuel 2:11,18). In other words, Samuel was also called to serve God before he was conceived, but in his case, to ensure that he would not turn out to be another Samson, God wanted him to grow up in His presence. So He closed Hannah’s womb.

Another reason was so that Samuel could be apprenticed from young to succeed Eli as priest. For though Eli was apparently a God-fearing man, he had failed as a father—his two sons were utterly corrupt as priests. And God had planned to destroy them. Samuel not only became judge and priest; he was also called and, as we have seen, publicly confirmed as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:19-4:1; 9:6). So even in the darkest period of a nation, God can raise up the man or woman needed to fulfill His purpose.

God called Samuel as a prophet when he was still a boy (1 Samuel 3:1-21). In fact God called him by name. But Samuel repeatedly failed to recognize it was God calling him because at that time he did not yet know God, nor had God’s word yet been revealed to him (verse 7). It took even Eli a while to realize that God was calling Samuel. The historical setting given was that in those days, word from God was rare as prophetic visions were infrequent (verse 1). Together with prophetic dreams, visions were God’s usual means of revealing His word to the prophets (Numbers 12:6). In other words, even Eli did not immediately realize God was calling Samuel because God was not expected to speak in those days. The calling and subsequent confirmation of Samuel as a prophet demonstrate that in times like these, when it feels like God is not there, He is still real.

Samuel’s role as judge is recounted in 1 Samuel 7, where he led the Israelites to repentance from idolatry (verses 3-6) and subsequently delivered Israel from the Philistines (verses 7-11). At that time the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, had not been in the sanctuary for twenty years. The two corrupt sons of Eli had taken it out to war against the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:2-11). The ark had actually struck fear among the Philistines. But the Israelites still lost the battle. Both the sons of Eli were killed and the ark was captured by the Philistines. The ark created so much havoc for the Philistines that they returned it to the Israelites (1 Samuel 5-6). But it was not returned to the sanctuary.

Even without the ark Samuel delivered Israel easily; God “thundered loudly against the Philistines … and threw them into confusion” (1 Samuel 7:10). This account clearly underscores the monotheist belief that even the ark, Israel’s holiest object, had no intrinsic efficacy. God could work with or without it. But the two corrupt sons of Eli were treating it as a talisman. They were behaving like the surrounding polytheists. Fallen human nature has a bent towards attributing intrinsic efficacy to religious rituals and objects (see 2 Kings 18:4; cf. Numbers 21:9). This bent is so natural that even one who professes a monotheist faith may not realize he is treating a ritual or an object as though it had magical powers.

Samuel was better known for his role as a prophet, particularly as king-maker. When he was old, the elders of Israel used the excuse that his two sons were not upright like him to request for a king over Israel, so that Israel would be like the other nations (I Samuel 8). Like a judge, a king was a deliverer as well as a ruler (verses 19-20). But unlike a judge, a king would have a standing army and the power to compel compliance (verses 11-18; cf. Judges 2:17; 6:33-35). The elders were insistent on having a king like the nations even after Samuel reminded them that such a king would be a tyrant.

In fact God had anticipated not only the need for a king over Israel (Genesis 49:8-10), He had also anticipated their request for a king, and made provisions for it (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). For Israel indeed needed a human king to enforce God’s rule (Judges 21:25). Samuel as well as God did respond negatively to their request, but only because of their wrong motive—they wanted to be ruled by a king like the nations rather than by God (1 Samuel 8:7; 12:12). So God told Samuel to give in to their request and subsequently instructed him to anoint (privately) Saul as king over Israel (1 Samuel 9:16; 10:1).

After Saul was publicly chosen as king at Mizpah Samuel announced to the people the rules governing kingship, wrote them down, and placed the document in the sanctuary (1 Samuel 10:25). In other words, although Samuel had warned the elders that a king like that of the nations would be a tyrant, he did not envision Saul to be such a king.

For though the content of the document is not revealed to us we can infer that it would be similar to, if not based on, the rules governing kingship that God had already given through Moses (Deuteronomy 7:14-20). And we have seen, unlike that of the nations, kingship as envisioned in Deuteronomy is constitutional. This inference is later confirmed in the narrative. For after the people had formally installed Saul as king in God’s presence at Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:14-15), Samuel warned the nation that if both the people as well as the king do not fear God and obey Him, God would be against them (1 Samuel 12:14-15). This clearly implies constitutional kingship, which proscribes tyranny.

Furthermore, in line with Israel as a covenant community, which was unique in the ancient world, God ensured that the people would gladly consent to who will rule over them as king. In their context, this means they needed the assurance that Saul was indeed God’s choice for them.

God gave them that assurance before they formally installed Saul at Gilgal. Firstly, Samuel was publicly confirmed as a prophet so that they would accept him as God’s spokesman. Secondly, though Samuel had already anointed (privately) Saul as king on God’s instruction, he did not simply announce God’s choice to them. He gathered the people by their tribes and by their clans at Mizpah so that God Himself could reveal His choice to them through the casting of lots (1 Samuel 10:20-21; though casting lots is divination in a polytheistic culture, Proverbs 16:33 teaches that it is consistent with monotheism if it is not viewed as having intrinsic efficacy). For “the new ruler will not necessarily be welcomed on Samuel’s say-so, and the process of election by lot will have to be undergone so that there will be no doubt as to whom God favours” (Gordon 1986: 119).

Even then there were some who despised Saul saying, “How can this one deliver us?” (1 Samuel 10:27). So thirdly, when the Ammonites were besieging an Israelite city, God empowered Saul and enabled him to raise up an army (1 Samuel 11:1-13). The victory was so decisive that those who had despised him would be put to shame. It was this victory, after which all the people gladly accepted Saul as king, which led to the formal installation at Gilgal. It was an occasion when “Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly” (1 Samuel 11:15).

Hence God did not exactly give them what they (wrongly) requested—kingship like the nations—but something far better, kingship according to His will, which God Himself had anticipated.

Saul: Rejected King

When Samuel anointed Saul he told him that he would later encounter three separate signs, each in a different place, that would assure Saul that he was indeed called by God to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 10:2-8). The third sign was to happen in a place where the Philistine garrison was located (verse 5). And it involved the Spirit of God coming upon him in a tangible manner, and he would be “changed into another man” (verse 6), that is, “being equipped with power to play a new role as Gideon and Jephthah did when the spirit of God came upon them (Judg. 6:34; 11:29)” (Tsumura 2007: 288). All these came to pass (1 Samuel 10:9-13).

Samuel instructed Saul that “when these signs come to you, do what your hand finds, for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:7). The phrase “do what your hand finds” is an idiom that means do what needs to be done that is within one’s capacity (cf. 1 Samuel 25:8; Judges 9:33). But the instruction need not be limited to acting in just one or a particular occasion (Leviticus 12:8; Ecclesiastes 9:10). It can even refer to one’s calling in life or vocation, which by definition involves meeting needs one is particularly equipped for.

In Saul’s case, it need not mean he had to do something right after the three signs came to him. But since the last sign happened in a place where the Philistine garrison was located, it does imply that what Saul needed to do that was within his (Spirit-empowered) capacity was to deliver Israel from foreign nations like the Philistines. This was part of his calling as king. The first occasion came when he soundly defeated the Ammonites.

After that decisive victory, the people said to Samuel to put to death those who had despised Saul. But Saul intervened and said it was God who had accomplished the deliverance (1 Samuel 11:12-13). Hence Saul started well as king over Israel. Unfortunately, he did not end well. Twice Saul disobeyed God in a significant way. Because of the first disobedience Saul’s descendants would not inherit his kingship (1 Samuel 13:13-14). The second disobedience resulted in Saul himself being rejected as king (1 Samuel 15:26-28). To better understand God’s will for kingship (or government) we now look at the nature of these two incidences of disobedience.

The first incidence was Saul’s failure at Gilgal to wait for Samuel to come to offer sacrifices to God (1 Samuel 13:8-12). As soon as Saul had finished offering a burnt offering Samuel arrived. Samuel rebuked Saul for having acted foolishly by not keeping God’s commandment. What was this commandment that Saul failed to keep? The obvious answer is that it was about making the offering without Samuel. There is no need to assume that Saul personally made the offering (cf. Tsumura 2007: 347-48); he had a priest with him (1 Samuel 14:3). But whether he made the offering personally or through another priest, Saul had usurped the prerogative of Samuel the priest. In other words, he had usurped authority over a priestly matter. Under the Mosaic Covenant the king cannot do such a thing (cf. 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). We have seen that this would uphold religious freedom as it means that the sphere of religion is to be independent from the sphere of the government.

In the second incident Saul failed to execute everything that God specifically commanded him concerning the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-25), who had attacked the Israelites when they were on their way to Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt (Exodus 17:8-15). After defeating them, he disobeyed God by allowing the king to live as well as allowing his people to take the best animals as spoils. What is particularly significant is that Saul confessed that he had disobeyed God by allowing spoils to be taken “because I feared the people and listened to their voice” (verse 24). Apart from delivering the nation from enemies, the primary role of the king was to hold the people accountable to God and His commands. And Saul had no excuse for not acting as the anointed king to enforce God’s commands, for God had confirmed his calling through the three signs after Samuel anointed him.

Obviously Saul disobeyed God at other times and in other ways. The fact that these two incidences were so consequential to Saul’s kingship shows that for a king these kinds of violations could not be tolerated. Put in today’s terms, it means a government cannot compromise on religious freedom as well as on upholding justice (holding the people accountable to God’s commands) without fear or favor.

Since God’s specific commands to Saul came through Samuel the prophet, Saul’s disobedience also means he did not wholeheartedly recognize prophetic authority. This kind of violation is also significant. For even after Saul was formally installed as king God publicly worked a miracle through Samuel so that the people “greatly feared the LORD and Samuel” (1 Samuel 12:18). As Robert Gordon (1986: 129) aptly comments, “more important than the momentary awe [from witnessing the miracle] is the lesson that even under the monarchy there can be no derogation of prophetic authority.” Since today’s counterpart to the prophetic institution is the media, the role of the media in holding the government accountable to the constitution also cannot be compromised.

We have highlighted in our exposition on the Media that just as the prophet cannot effectively hold the king accountable to God without the people, the media cannot hold the government accountable to the constitution without the citizens. This democratic role of the people is well illustrated in an episode recorded in 1 Samuel 14, which provides a more complete perspective on the king (or government) fearing the people and listening to their voice.

The excuses Saul gave for not waiting for Samuel to arrive to offer the sacrifices were that the Philistines may attack anytime and the 3000 men with him were deserting him. (They were then in preparation for a battle and Saul was eventually left with only 600 men.) When the Philistines actually began to make a move (1 Samuel 13:23), it was Saul’s son, Jonathan, who responded without informing his father. Together with his assistant he made a counter-move. Unlike his father, who earlier became desperate when his army was dwindling, Jonathan said to his assistant, “nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). God honored his faith; acting on what he considered a sign from God Jonathan and his assistant killed 20 Philistines. This encounter, together with a timely earthquake, resulted in panic among the Philistines.

It was after discovering that the Philistines were in confusion that Saul decided to make a move with his men. When he arrived he witnessed the Philistines killing one another. And Israelites who had previously defected to the Philistines came out to side with Saul and Jonathan. Also, Israelites who had been hiding in fear of the Philistines came out and joined in the battle in pursuit of the Philistines who were fleeing. The Philistine army was far superior in size and in equipment (1 Samuel 13:5,22). Israel won the battle because Jonathan believed in his God.

The Israelites could have done more to cripple the Philistines if Saul had not foolishly put his people under oath to fast until the battle was won (1 Samuel 14:24). When moving across a forest the Israelites found a large supply of honey. Though they were exhausted, none of them ate the honey because of the oath, except Jonathan, who was not there when Saul made the oath. When told of the oath Jonathan criticized “his father for having brought disaster to the country by his impractical oath. While Saul was stubbornly religious, Jonathan was, by contrast, practically God-fearing” (Tsumura 2007: 373). For the honey would have refreshed the army, as it did Jonathan.

When the oath had expired, the people rushed greedily upon the spoils and began eating the animals with blood still in them, which was not permitted under the Mosaic Law. This was the consequence of Saul’s oath, which had kept his men hungry and weary. Saul intervened to stop them from “sinning against the LORD.” When Saul later sought guidance from God whether to pursue after the Philistines, God did not answer him. Saul put the blame on Jonathan when he discovered that his son had (unknowingly) violated his oath by eating the honey. Saul was determined to put Jonathan to death, but his own men rescued Jonathan. For they swore in God’s name that Jonathan, “who has brought this great deliverance in Israel” because “he has worked with God this day,” must not be harmed (1 Samuel 14:45).

The folly of the “stubbornly religious” Saul becomes more obvious when we compare him with David, his successor, in a similar situation (1 Samuel 25:22). For “David did not keep his oath to kill Nabal and his men when Abigail pointed out the wrong of it, and so at least it was considered that an oath to sin could be broken” (Tsumura 2007: 381). Saul’s determination to put his own “practically God-fearing” son to death reveals much about the religion he actually practiced, which is evidently not consistent with what God revealed through Moses.

In the first place, why did Saul make that oath when it made no sense for his men to fast when going out to battle? Kyle McCarter (1980: 249) has presented the most sensible reason: “Saul imposes a fast upon the army in an attempt, apparently, to influence Yahweh [the LORD] by a grandiose gesture of self-denial” (cited in Tsumura 2007: 370). This makes sense as Saul, who was left with only 600 men, cared about numbers, unlike Jonathan. He was certainly desperate for divine help. But a fast, like prayer, needs to be from the heart and thus cannot be imposed. This shows that Saul, knowingly or unknowingly, believed that a ritual like fasting had intrinsic efficacy (cf. Isaiah 58:3-4). We have shown that this is polytheism and not monotheism.

This explains why Saul was so careful about his men observing a ritual like not eating the animals with blood in them, but was so careless about shedding the blood of his own son who was innocent because he did not know about the oath and who had worked with God to bring about the deliverance. Ironically the law against eating blood was meant to cultivate the sense that human life is sacred. Saul’s behavior indicates that he sought to observe the letter, but not the spirit, of the law and his oath. He was misguided not only in making the oath, but also in implementing it. Being a polytheist at heart, he cared more about the form rather than the substance of his monotheist religion. This was the root of his downfall.

If not for his men Saul would have unjustly put Jonathan to death. What Saul’s men did was consistent with Israel being a covenant community ruled by a constitutional king. For they refused to comply when the king was blatantly unjust. In this situation they did not need a prophet to help them see what they should do. Now these 600 men did not desert Saul when 2400 others had done so. Their opposition to Saul means that Saul was indeed unjust and their loyalty to their king was not blind. By opposing Saul they had actually done Saul and the nation a favor.

Hence a king (or government) should fear the people and listen to their voice when the people are upholding justice, but must neither fear nor listen when the people are perpetrating injustice.

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