After last week’s brief digression into the love story of Ruth, we return to the heart of the Deuteronomic History with the four books of Samuel and Kings. Between them they tell the story of Israel’s journey from tribalism, through greatness, into exile and slavery. We have already discovered that the Deuteronomic History was written to explain how the nation got to the point of near-destruction, and we noted two key themes, both of which had, in the eyes of God, been violated. One was about the need to remain separate from and untainted by the nations around, and the other had to do with worshipping God where and how he demanded to be worshipped. There two motifs are a bit hidden to begin with, but are going to become more explicit as we go through the story over the next four weeks.
1 Samuel begins with the birth of the prophet Samuel, the kingmaker who sets Israel on the path of monarchy, albeit with some reluctance. His birth, like that of several biblical heroes, has a supernatural dimension to it: the message is that God clearly wanted him around, and so specially provided for his birth. The ever-present threat of the Philistines, whose territory lay to the south west of Israel, and the discontent with the tribal amphictiony, leads Israel to ask Samuel for a king ‘such as all the other nations have’. Samuel is reluctant, and tries to spell out for the people what this might look like in real life, but in the end he hears God telling him that although this is a rejection of bother their leaderships he should go ahead and give them a king. Saul is duly selected, and he looks a good choice, but it is only a few chapters before God rejects him.
So what did he do wrong? Not surprisingly, given the point of view of the writers, he offers a sacrifice which it was not his place to do (13:13), which is about keeping God’s rules for worship, and then in 15:8-9 he disobeys God by failing totally to destroy Agag, king of Amalek, and taking plunder from the battle. This violates the ‘separation’ theme, but fortunately Samuel remedies the situation in one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible: ‘Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord at Gilgal’.
From this point on we see a new star rising, as Samuel is told by God to look for a replacement king for Saul. David is picked, even though he is so unlikely that he wasn’t even invited to the interview, and then a series of stories portrays the early life of this new hero, his prowess in battle, his acceptance into the royal court, and the growing jealousy of his king. As Saul descends into occultism and madness David keeps his integrity, refusing just to finish him off and showing loyalty to him, because he is still the Lord’s anointed king. When Saul finally dies in battle David’s grief is genuine, but more of that next week.
So how do we read this book today? As a history lesson and background to the high-point of Israel’s life, the reign of David, it is invaluable, but it also stresses the values of the Deuteronomic historians, made explicit in 15:22-23
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
From the other side of the cross this truth is still as important as ever for Christian disciples, particularly in a culture where anything goes and ‘tolerance’ is the highest virtue of our society. What God says matters, and he expects us to listen and obey. We may not get rejected, or even hewed in pieces, if we disobey, but we severely hold up God’s purposes and rob ourselves of blessing when we try to live with cheap grace.