Themes and Messages in the Book of Samuel

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Critically analyse the main message of the book of Samuel by considering its primary themes.

Introduction

In this essay I will show that the main message of the book of Samuel is Yahweh’s sovereignty and faithfulness towards his people, even when they fail, which leads to the promise of a Messiah. The poems at the beginning and end of the book (Hannah’s thanksgiving song and David’s song of praise) suggest this theme in a strong way. The narrative of Samuel is foreshadowed in Hannah’s joyful song (1 Sam 2:1-10), through the themes of Yahweh’s sovereignty, the failure of human kingship and the promise of a Messiah. These themes are then echoed in David’s song of praise (2 Sam 22): ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.’ (v2); ‘He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.’ (v18); ‘he shows unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.’ (v51b). Walter Brueggemann upholds this understanding of these two poems when he says, ‘In these poems at the beginning and at the end, the pious assert that the real power in Israel’s life and history belongs only to Yahweh, and not to the king or any other human agent.’[1]

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Authorship

The authorship of Samuel is unknown. Jewish tradition as far back as the Babylonain Talmud believed Samuel to be the author. However, in 1 Sam 25:1 and 28:3 Samuel’s death is documented and it would not have been possible for Samuel to complete the two books posthumously. Some commentators have suggested that other prophets took over the writing and 1 Chr 29:29 is sometimes given as evidence, however, it is more likely that Samuel is named here as a key figure in anointing Saul and David rather than meaning he wrote the entire book. It is also worth noting that Samuel is not mentioned at all in the second book of Samuel but the book is so named because 1 Sam and 2 Sam were originally one book that was split due to its length. 1 Sam begins with Samuel’s birth and call in the 11th century BC and 2 Sam ends near the end of David’s reign. Some of the text originates from the date of the events but some text was written later as phrases suggest (e.g. 1 Sam 5:5). Evidence suggests that the two books were finally edited in the ninth-eighth centuries BC.[2] It is thought that Samuel was written to tell the story of the founding of a kingship in Israel as an initial fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Gen 17:6,16; 35:11) and to document the kingship as a theocratic monarchy in which a human king obeys the Lord.

Explanation of the main message

When the prophets and kings seek the Lord, listen to his voice and carry out his instructions, Yahweh’s sovereignty and faithfulness are shown consistently throughout the book of Samuel. When facing Goliath, David sees that Goliath has ‘defied the armies of the living God’ and so recognises that as Yahweh has faithfully rescued him from the wild animals on the hillside, he will also rescue him and help him to defeat the Philistine (1 Sam 17:36-7). David continually seeks the Lord: ‘he enquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall I go and attack these Philistines?’’ (1 Sam 23:2). Yahweh answers him and when David carries out his instructions at Keilah, Yahweh is with him and he is victorious. 

By the end of the book, both the houses of Saul and David have ultimately collapsed due to their failure to follow Yahweh completely. Saul was anointed king in response to the people rejecting Yahweh through Samuel and although he sought the will of Yahweh through Samuel at the beginning of his reign, by the end Saul had totally turned away from Yahweh. David’s rise was willed by Yahweh who anointed David as a man after his own heart (1 Sam 13:14). Even David ultimately failed leading to the promise of a Messiah through David’s descendants (1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 6:17).

Yahweh’s Sovereignty

As we read the narrative of the whole book, we can see that one of the primary themes of Samuel is the sovereignty of Yahweh. Hannah, Samuel, Saul, Jonathan and David all seek Yahweh (either through the prophet Samuel, or directly) and when they do this, Yahweh is faithful and keeps his promises.

Hannah prays in absolute anguish and misery to Yahweh, who hears her and gives her a son. Hannah recognises the sovereignty of Yahweh and keeps her promise of giving her son to Yahweh for the rest of his life. Samuel continually tries to show the people the sovereignty of Yahweh and how they must do as he says. In 1 Sam 12, he shows the people that they did an evil thing in asking for a king by calling on Yahweh to send thunder and rain in the harvest. The mighty power of the sovereign Yahweh is seen by all the people, who are frightened and ask Samuel to pray for them.

Saul was anointed king but was not willing to fight the Israelites’ battles, offering a reward for anyone who would fight Goliath. It took David as a shepherd boy to recognise that it was Yahweh who was sovereign and fought the battles. Jonathan seeks confirmation from Yahweh in 1 Sam 14 before he attacks the Philistines and when Jonathan and his armour-bearer have killed some of the Philistines, Yahweh sends panic on the Philistine army so that Israel is saved. David asks Yahweh if he will deliver the Philistines into his hands and when Yahweh says that he will, David goes ahead and defeats the Philistines at Baal Perazim (2 Sam 5).

These are just a few examples but throughout the book of Samuel there are stories of leaders seeking Yahweh; obeying his words; Yahweh being faithful to his promises and so being sovereign over all. Yahweh’s sovereignty is not dependent on the actions of the human leaders as we shall explore through their failures. Many battles are won, situations are resolved and people are blessed through their faithfulness to a sovereign Lord.

Kingship and human failure

Kingship is another primary theme of the book of Samuel. The ultimate king of Israel is Yahweh and as Samuel was acting as a prophetic, priestly leader or even judge over Israel, he did not want to anoint a king over Israel at this time.[3] Kingship can be described as a major theme because much of the narrative concentrates on the two kings (Saul and David); those who want to be king (Absolom, Ish-Bosheth) and those who are close to them, not on the lower echelons of society and the general people.  When Samuel’s sons did not follow the ways of the Lord, the elders willfully rejected Yahweh’s plan that a human ruler would be subject toYahweh as King forever and asked for a human king to rule over them. Would this king be autonomous or theocratic? Samuel warned the people but they would not listen, so he sought Yahweh and anointed Saul as their king. Samuel wrote the rights and duties of kingship on a scroll and put it before Yahweh. The kingship was intended to be a theocratic monarchy in which the king would seek wisdom and discernment from Yahweh (through Samuel initially) and rule accordingly. However, this did not always work in practice as the people wanted a king to rule over them in the manner of the kings of other nations they had seen.

Saul was a king who often listened to and obeyed his people but his people did not listen to him.[4] We can see this in Saul’s reign in 1 Sam 15 where Yahweh (through Samuel) told Saul to attack the Amalekites and destroy everything; Saul disobeyed Yahweh and did not destroy King Agag or the best of the sheep and cattle. Samuel confronted Saul and when Saul made excuses about listening to the people[5] and sacrifices, Samuel told him that obeying Yahweh was better than offering sacrifices. ‘And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel’ (1 Sam15:35b). The Lord anointed David as king as he could see that David was a man after Yahweh’s own heart. However, David had to wait a long time for Saul to die and he could finally become king. David was a man after Yahweh’s own heart when he had chances to kill Saul and become king sooner but instead he chose the right path: ‘But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed.’ (1 Sam 26:11)

Saul pursued David and tried to kill him, turning away from Yahweh so far that he sought out a medium at Endor (1 Sam 28) and we can see why God regretted making Saul king.

As a king, David seeks Yahweh right from the beginning of his reign when he asks Yahweh where he should go and is told to go to Hebron. David is considered one of the greatest kings as he seeks and obeys Yahweh which emphasises the theme of kingship. Auld says: ‘This book is about David: all the other personalities are there so that we may see and know David better;’[6]. As king, Yahweh protects him and gives him mighty victories over his enemies. However, even David is not perfect in his human form as is shown in the narrative of 2 Sam 11. When David sleeps with Bathsheba and then contrives for Uriah to be killed in battle to cover up his wrongdoing, he needs to have his sin pointed out to him by the prophet Nathan before he repents and turns whole-heartedly back to Yahweh: ‘Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’’ (2 Sam 12:13). David’s human failure ultimately leads to his downfall and Yahweh says that he will bring calamity on David. David repents and although he still wins battles and appears powerful, his personal life spirals downwards, he loses members of his family and eventually breaks down needing Joab to persuade him to return to Jerusalem. Brueggemann contrasts David’s responses to the deaths of Uriah and Absalom comparing the former public reaction from a time when he appeared powerful, with the deeply emotional response of the latter as his life spirals downwards: ‘In one critical moment David is an unflappable public man, in the other he is moved in a deeply personal way.’[7]

At the end of the book of Samuel we can see David’s downfall, despite having been a man after God’s heart, showing the human failure of the kings and so the promised Messiah will have to come to reconcile Yahweh with his people.

Promise of a Messiah

The third primary theme expounded in Samuel is the promise of a Messiah. Both Hannah’s thanksgiving song (1 Sam 2) and David’s song of praise (2 Sam 22) point towards the promise of a future Messiah. The end of Hannah’s song speaks in a language that anticipates divine power in a new world. As Stephen Dempster states: ‘a new world order (2:8b), based not on human strength (2:9) but on divine power. Yahweh will impart that power to his Messiah to rule the world ‘. [8]

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David’s song of praise talks of Yahweh showing ‘unfailing kindness to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.”’ (2 Sam 22:51b). Previously, Yahweh did not allow David to build a temple (2 Sam 7) but instead promises to establish a house for David and the throne of his kingdom forever through his descendants, leading ultimately to Jesus as we can see in the genealogy in Matthew (Matt 1:7-16).

James M Hamilton presents the typological points of contact between Samuel and Mark in his essay[9] and whilst I can see the merit in the links that he makes, I feel that the promise of a true Messiah (who is fully divine and will save his people), made through Hannah and David is more demonstrative in the way that Yahweh has yet again shown his love for his people with whom he wants a relationship above all else.

In affirmation of this, there are many passages in the New Testament which help us to see that the Old Testament promises of Yahweh are fulfilled in Jesus. One of these passages specifically references Samuel ‘“Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days.’(Acts 3:24). 

Conclusion

In conclusion, throughout the book of Samuel we can see the main message given to us in the narrative: Yahweh’s sovereignty and faithfulness towards his people, even when they fail, which leads to the promise of a Messiah. Hannah’s and David’s poems at the beginning and end of the book really outline this message to us as shown above. The love of Yahweh for his people is shown powerfully through his love and faithfulness and the promise of his Messiah to come and rescue them.

Bibliography


[1] Walter Brueggemann, “I Samuel 1: A Sense of a Beginning,” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1990, http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/zatw.1990.102.1.33.http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/zatw.1990.102.1.33Brueggemann, “I Samuel 1: A Sense of a Beginning,” 102. p11

[2] Andrew David Naselli, NIV, Biblical Theology Study Bible, Bonded Leather, Black, Indexed, Comfort Print: Follow God’s Redemptive Plan As It Unfolds Throughout Scripture, 2018. p437

[3] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Zondervan Academic, 2010).Very large commentary….. p261

[4] Tony W. Cartledge, “A King without Respect: Insubordination as a Theme in 1 Samuel,” Review & Expositor, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0034637315579871.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0034637315579871Cartledge, “A King without Respect: Insubordination as a Theme in 1 Samuel,” 112. p217

[5] Cartledge, “A King without Respect: Insubordination as a Theme in 1 Samuel,” 112. p224

[6] Graeme Auld, “1 and 2 Samuel,” Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0086.http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0086Auld, “1 and 2 Samuel.” p2

[7] W. Brueggemann, “An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination” (2003), https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4Zl1BwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=an+introduction+to+Old+Testament&ots=B4mOZqKXs0&sig=Hn0IyHuFNe2vWmgcC0PRzrmlGwo.https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4Zl1BwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=an+introduction+to+Old+Testament&ots=B4mOZqKXs0&sig=Hn0IyHuFNe2vWmgcC0PRzrmlGwoBrueggemann, “An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.” p140

[8] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, vol. 15 (InterVarsity Press, 2014). p136

[9] James M. Hamilton, “The Typology of David’s Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel.”,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 16.2 (2012): 4–25.

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