The central theme of the books of Samuel is God’s exercising of his cosmic kingship by inaugurating a Davidic dynasty (“house”) in Israel (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89), not a Saulide one (1 Sam. 13:13–14; 15:28), and by electing the holy city Zion (Jerusalem; 2 Samuel 6; Psalm 132) as the place where David’s successor will establish the temple (“house”) for the worship of the divine King Yahweh (see 2 Sam. 24:18). The Davidic “covenant” (2 Samuel 7; Ps. 89:3) entitled Matthew to put David at the center of the genealogical history of the divine plan of salvation (Matt. 1:1).
The themes of 1 Samuel are the kingship of God, his providential guidance, and his sovereign will and power.
1. God’s kingship. God is the King of the universe; no human king can assume kingship except as a deputy of the divine King. God has been enthroned as King from eternity. This view is expressed in the Bible as early as Exodus 15:18: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
The first occurrence of the word “king” in 1–2 Samuel is in the Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:10). Though the Lord is not explicitly described as King here, it is implied in the statement that he is the One who judges “the ends of the earth” (cf. Ps. 96:10). In this verse Hannah expresses her conviction that this King, the Lord, is the One who gives power to his human deputy (the “king”) and lifts up the “power of his anointed.”
According to Genesis, all human beings were created as “royal” figures in the image of God. Hence, humans are deputies who rule and control other creatures for the sake of the King of the universe. So when God allowed the people of Israel to have a human king (1 Sam. 8:6–9), he gave them a king only as God’s earthly vice-regent or deputy, who is responsible to the Lord for his actions and subject to his commands (see esp. 1 Sam. 12:14; 2 Sam. 12:9).
The Lord’s holy sovereignty is expressed also in his title “the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (1 Sam. 4:4). As in other places in the Bible, he is clearly seen as controlling events not only in Israel, the land of his covenant people, but outside Israel too, especially in Philistia (1 Sam. 4:1–6:21; 23:27; 29:4; see also Amos 9:7).
2. God’s providential guidance. Romans 8:28 summarizes well what the author of 1 Samuel meant to convey to his readers: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is certainly the One who providentially and individually guided the lives of chosen individuals such as Hannah, Samuel, and David; even the life of Saul was in God’s providential care (see 1 Sam. 9:16). The course of life is different for each individual, but the same God, not “Fate,” consistently and graciously guides one’s life. Though it is often not recognized by his human agents, God’s timing is always perfect (see 1 Samuel 9 and the end of 1 Samuel 23), for he is the Lord of history.
God’s saving plan is fulfilled in the ongoing day-to-day lives of human beings. For example, Hannah’s difficult relationship with Peninnah leads to the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1); Saul’s donkey-searching journey leads to the encounter with the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 9); David’s chore of bringing food to his brothers enables him to see Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Ordinary situations are the most meaningful in human life, and it is in these that God “works for good.”
Later, in 2 Samuel 7, God uses King David’s earnest desire to build a house for the Lord to indwell as an occasion to further his plan of salvation by choosing David’s line to be that of the Messiah-King who would sit on the throne of David forever. In 2 Samuel 7:16 God says to David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” In other words, Yahweh, King of the universe, promises David that he will establish David’s house (i.e., his dynasty) as eternal. Thus, this promise to, or “covenant” with (see Ps. 89:3), David was a turning point in the outworking of God’s saving purposes.
3. God’s sovereign will and power. As Hannah phrases it, God is the all-knowing God, “a God of knowledge” (1 Sam. 2:3b), and he chooses or rejects people according to his absolute sovereign will and purpose. From a human perspective it sometimes looks as though God has changed his mind, but God “will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:29). To be sure, the Lord as the sovereign deity may change his way of dealing with individuals according to his plan and purpose. But his decision is always just and right; at the same time, he is merciful and gracious to sinful human beings.
Therefore, obedience to God’s word is of prime importance in human life. First and Second Samuel provide many examples of the importance of listening to the word of God. The boy Samuel listens to the word of God (1 Samuel 3), but Saul fails here, rejecting God’s commandment (1 Samuel 13; 15). David fights bravely with Goliath for the honor of Yahweh’s name (1 Samuel 17) but later fails to keep the commandments, committing adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). God gives David a second chance by sending the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12), while Saul is finally refused a chance to repent (1 Samuel 15). Only God’s grace upholds human beings, who are sinful in nature, before the holy God.
“Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20)—these words of the men of Beth-shemesh well express human reality, though their understanding of God’s “holiness” was not adequate (see Leviticus 19). Only the God-given way of approaching him through sacrifice can prepare sinful human beings to come closer to the holy God.
God spontaneously reveals his will in words, and his word through the prophets determines events. But not every detail is revealed to the eyes of human beings (e.g., 1 Sam. 3:1–21; 9:15–21; 16:1–13). Believers can only wait on God, who will do his will according to his own purpose.
For fighting God’s battle against his enemies, Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:6) and David (1 Sam. 17:45–47) called on God’s power. God uses human urges and enthusiasms for his honor—often in a way that seems to defy common sense. God is the One who works wonders and uses even his enemies (Philistine kings, Achish, etc.) to fulfill his plan and purpose. Thus, humanly impossible agendas become divinely possible, encouraging believers to put their faith in the One who is sovereign over the entire creation.
The story of 1–2 Samuel begins with Samuel and ends with David, framing the problematic figure of Saul. These three are certainly central figures in the history of the kingdom of God. Their lives illustrate many biblical themes. In God’s dealings with Saul and David, one might see God’s justice and his mercy, respectively; according to the NT, both qualities find their ultimate expression in the person of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross.
The themes of 1 Samuel (namely, God’s kingship, providential guidance, and sovereign will and power) are related to the themes of 2 Samuel (namely, the Davidic covenant and messianic promise): the sovereign God, who has guided David’s life, elects David as his deputy to represent his kingship by his eternal covenant. David thus becomes the prototype of the future Messiah, Jesus Christ.
- Davidic covenant. For the Davidic covenant, see ESV Study Bible note on 2 Samuel 7:1–29.
- Messianic promise. Second Samuel 7 is a turning point in the history of salvation; it clearly advances the messianic hope in the Abrahamic covenant. True, Saul was also anointed by Yahweh. David in fact called Saul “the Lord’s anointed” (e.g., 1 Sam. 24:6) until the end. Yet God chose David, the youngest and forgotten son of Jesse, to establish a dynasty. David was used for God’s eternal plan of salvation, not because he was perfect and ideal from a human viewpoint, but because the Lord was “with him” and David found favor in God’s sight.
The idea of the eternal throne and dynasty was not a product of postexilic idealism as is sometimes claimed. Such a concept was already current in the second millennium b.c. in Canaan as mlk ‘ilm (Ugaritic, “the king of eternity” or “king of the world”) and was prominent among the Assyrians during the eighth century b.c., as can be seen in the Assyrian records. Thus, the prophecies in Isaiah 7–9 reflect the ideal of preexilic times.