These three men (Samuel, Saul, and David) are the three main human characters in 1 Samuel. All three are leaders, so leadership is very naturally a theme of 1 Samuel. The prayer-song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in 1 Samuel 2 anticipates the lessons on leadership that will play out in the remaining pages of Samuel. She begins with the uniqueness of God (2:1-2) and, second, moves from that to the conclusion that God knows and assesses all human actions. Third, Yahweh is sovereign over the affairs of mankind and often reverses human situations based on His assessment (vv. 4-8). Finally, no one prevails apart from God’s favor, blessing, and empowering (vv. 9-10).
These four themes recur in the stories of 1 (and 2) Samuel. I cite a few examples below but hunt for more as you read through the book yourself.
God remains God even when Israel acquires her first king. Saul may be king but his actions are weighed in the balances and found wanting. A brother not even worth calling from the sheep pen is anointed as Israel’s next king in the midst of his seven older brothers (16:11-13). Saul loses God’s blessing when he chooses to disobey and his personal life and reign unravel. These are lessons that all leaders do well to remember!
These same lessons crop up in the lives of more minor characters in the book. Hannah herself experiences God as her Rock in His delivering her from the ignominy of barrenness (1:19-20; 2:1-2). Godly Eli finds himself rebuked by God for his failures as a father and sees the demise of his family. Samuel walks with God and rises from obscurity to nation-wide prominence as a prophet of God (3:20). Jonathan prevails in his battles with the Philistines because he fights with God’s favor (see chapter 14).
One issue that arises in 1 Samuel 8 is Israel’s request for a king. If it was God’s will for Israel to have a king, then why does God regard Israel’s request as a rejection of Him? The answer is twofold: the timing and the motive of the request. As we saw in Ruth, God was at work in providing a king for Israel. Israel jumped the gun. Samuel may have been old but he lived on for another couple of decades—long enough to anoint David as Saul’s replacement. Second, Israel’s motive in wanting a king was wrong. They wanted to be like all the nations (8:5, 20). They desired a king to fight their battles so they were not so directly dependent on God’s intervention. God, however, never intended Israel’s king to be his own man, ruling independent of Him.
Ultimately, Saul reveals himself to be exactly such a king. He may be physically impressive but he seems to lack any kind of genuine relationship with God. As you read about Saul, look for troubling signs: he does not even know who Samuel the prophet is. He takes his cue from what’s happening around him or what his people are saying rather than what God has commanded. He builds his first altar to the Lord in a time of desperation. He begs Samuel to worship with him primarily in order to save himself from embarrassment.
By contrast, God chose David because of what He saw in David’s heart. “Man looks on what his eyes can see, but Yahweh looks on the heart” (16:7). David is by no means perfect—as even the stories of 1 Samuel reveal—but his heart is wholly turned toward Yahweh and because of this he experiences the help, favor, intervention, protection, and empowering of the Lord. As you read of his harrowing days as a refugee, keep track of the many ways in which God providentially cared for him. David is a leader worth emulating and will ultimately become the standard by which all future kings of Israel were measured. David becomes the most mentioned human character in the Bible and a central figure in the lineage of Messiah.