Our Old Testament focus today takes us to the creation of Israel as a kingdom, and on the main characters: Samuel, and three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon.
So, what do we have here? 1st Samuel begins, logically enough, with the birth of Samuel. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had spent many years unable to conceive, so she prayed fervently, and God answered her prayer with Samuel. Then she turned around and dedicated to the service of the Lord.
So Samuel grew up in the temple at Shiloh, under the guidance of a priest named Eli. Eli had his own sons, and it was assumed that they would take over for him. The problem was that his sons were corrupt. They messed with the offerings, and messed around with the women who volunteered at the temple. So in chapter 3, God calls Samuel in the middle of the night, and tells him Eli’s sons won’t be taking over. Samuel was the one who would grow up to be God’s spokesman, his prophet.
In 1st Samuel chapter 4, we meet the Philistines. They had come into Palestine about the same time as Israel. They lived mainly along the Mediterranean coast, where the Gaza Strip is today, but they wanted to push up into the mountains, and that brought them into continual conflict with the Israelite tribes. Sound familiar?
The Philistines had better weapons. Their cast-iron spears and knives were more deadly than the bronze weapons of the Israelites. They used chariots as we use tanks today. At one point, they captured the Ark—the box containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Samuel then emerged as a “judge,” a military leader, who was able to unite the Hebrew tribes to defeat the Philistines and recapture lost territory.
That brings us to chapter 8, our reading for today. As Samuel grew older, the people decided that the temporary alliances formed by the judges was no longer sufficient. They wanted a King to rule all the tribes—in a unified kingdom of Israel. This is a crucial turn of events, and we’ll come back to it.
Samuel picked Saul. 1st Samuel 9:2 says that Saul was a big guy—“a head taller” – than anyone else in Israel.
In chapter 10, Samuel anointed Saul as king. The Hebrew word for someone anointed is Messiah. The Greek word for the same thing is Christos (kris-toss) or “Christ.” When we call Jesus the “Christ,” we mean that he’s our king, our leader, anointed by the power of God.
With the Spirit of God behind him, Saul was a successful king. But he kept breaking or ignoring God’s instructions. Finally, in 1st Samuel 15:23, Samuel told him, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”
In fact, God had already lined up a replacement: He sent Samuel to Bethlehem to track down the youngest of Jesse’s sons, a shepherd named David. 1st Samuel 16:13 says. “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him…and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.”
Meanwhile, the next verse says,” The Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul,” and he was having a mental breakdown. David was brought in to sooth him with some harp music. The music worked, and Saul became fond of young David.
That brings us to chapter 17, the story of David and Goliath—said to be nine feet tall. You know the story: David took his sling, nailed Goliath in the forehead with a rock, and then beheaded the giant with his own sword. That made David an instant national hero. It also made Saul jealous and suspicious.
By chapter 19, David was running for his life, as Saul chased after him with 3000 men. In time, David and Saul reached an uneasy truce, as joined forces to battle the Philistines. David wins battles, but in the last chapter of 1st Samuel, after a nasty defeat. Saul is wounded and falls on his own sword rather than be taken prisoner.
That clears the way, in 2nd Samuel, for David to become king. This book tells how David united the tribes into one great nation. But David had his own flaws.
We started this series with a look at the story of his adultery with Bathsheba. …
That sin unleashed a cancer in David’s own family. His oldest son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar. Her brother, Absalom, then took revenge by killing Amnon, then going after David himself, only to be killed when he caught his head in an oak tree and was left hanging until David’s men came along and finished him off. The stories come off like a cross between a soap opera and The Godfather. It’s not a pretty picture.
2nd Samuel ends with David an old man. The next book, 1st Kings, begins with David making Solomon his successor. In 1st Kings 3, God appears to Solomon in a dream, and grants him one wish. Solomon—wisely—asks for wisdom, and had such a reputation for being wise that many of the Proverbs, along with the Song of Solomon, are credited to him.
David made Israel a military power. Solomon made it an economic power. The great temple in Jerusalem was built during his reign. But Solomon let his own greed overpower him. We’re told in 1st Kings 21- that each year, he amassed several tons of gold, built up a huge navy, and a stable of 12,000 horses.
Moreover, he accumulated 700 wives and 300 more concubines. Many of them were pagans, who steered him into idol-worship. And so 1st King 11:9 says, “The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord…” From there on out, things literally fell apart. The great united kingdom split into north and south—and in time, each of them would fall.
But what does it all mean? The main lesson is the same one we saw last week in Joshua and Judges: When the king and the people are faithful and obedient, God sees to it that Israel succeeds. When the king and the people turn away, they suffer.
What we have here is a theory of government. Samuel tells God that the people are pushing him to give them a king. In verse 7, God says, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”
What does that mean? If every one of us followed the rules of God –that is, if we truly accepted Jesus as our only King—we wouldn’t need a government, or at least not much of one. We’d need cops to direct traffic—but not to track down criminals. Those with money would willingly help those without. Polluters would clean up their own messes. Employers would treat their workers fairly and compete fairly with one another. Why? Because we’d all be following the Golden Rule: We’d treat others only as we’d expect to be treated in turn.
But that’s not the way it is, God says. The people, he says in verse 8, are “forsaking me and serving other gods.” So give them their king, God says. But spell out the consequences! He says the king will turn your sons into cannon fodder, running out ahead of the chariots. He’s going to tax you to work his fields and build his weapons. There’s no free lunch. Justice carries a price tag.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Because we won’t do the will of God on our own. God uses the power of government to get his will done. People like to complain about politicians, but if you don’t like what the government is doing, look in the mirror. Government grows in proportion to our own sinfulness; our own unwillingness to practice justice and fairness; to live up to our own standard of being “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
(2) But there’s more here than politics. There’s gospel too; good news. Another constant theme in this section is that of God’s surprises.
1 Samuel begins with an odd story. A man had two wives. Hannah was infertile, and the other wife kept rubbing it in. So Hannah went to the temple, put it all in God’s hands, and was rewarded with a son—Samuel—a “Blessing baby,” if you will–a surprise, unexpected gift.
Then Hannah has a surprise of her own. Instead of keeping her bundle of pride and joy for herself, she gives Samuel right back to God, to serve in the temple. Well, what sane person would give up their only son to be a priest? The logical thing would be to keep him on the farm. But–surprise!–Samuel turns out to be one of the great figures in Biblical history, a prophet and the maker of kings.
David was likewise a surprise. When Samuel went to Jesse’s estate in Bethlehem, the father didn’t even bother to bring David in from the pasture for an introduction. He assumed Samuel was looking for one of the older boys. In the ancient world, it was taken for granted that the older sons would get all the breaks.
But—surprise! God had chosen the youngest one instead.
And then when it came time to take on Goliath, God didn’t choose the biggest and toughest Hebrew: He picked scrawny little David instead, armed with nothing but a sling and some rocks.
God choices are never predictable. and so we have to stop assuming in advance that God has let us off the hook. When we’re called to do something, our first instinct is to say, No, I’m not the one. But by faith, it should be: Ok, Lord, I’ll try it. It may not make sense to me, but…surprise me! Never under-estimate the power of God.
In these chapters, kings come and go, rise and fall, but God remains the same. If we commit ourselves to serve him faithfully, through the grace of Jesus Christ, he will have a multitude of surprises, good things to unfold, for the glory of that same Jesus Christ, our Lord.