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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

- 1 Samuel

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll

{e-Sword Note: This chapter was presented at the end of 2 Samuel in the printed edition. We are presenting this chapter as a book comment in the e-Sword edition.}



HAVING now surveyed the events of the history of Israel, one by one, during the whole of that memorable period which is embraced in the books of Samuel, it will be profitable, before we close, to cast a glance over the way by which we have traveled, and endeavour to gather up the leading lessons and impressions of the whole.

Let us bear in mind all along that the great object of these books, as of the other historical books of Scripture, is peculiar: it is not to trace the history of a nation, in the ordinary sense, but to trace the course of Divine revelation, to illustrate God’s manner of dealing with the nation whom He chose that He might instruct and train them in His ways, that He might train them to that righteousness which alone exalteth a people, and that He might lay a foundation for the work of Christ in future times, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. The history delineated is not that of the kingdom of Israel, but that of the kingdom of God.

The history falls into four divisions, like the acts of a drama. I. It opens with Eli as high-priest, when the state of the nation is far from satisfactory, and God’s holy purpose regarding it appears a failure. II. With Samuel as the Lord’s prophet, we see a remarkable revival of the spirit of God’s nation. III. With Saul a king, the fair promise under Samuel is darkened, and an evil spirit is again ascendant. IV. But with David, the conditions are again reversed; God’s purpose regarding the people is greatly advanced, but in the later part of his reign the sky again becomes overcast, through his infirmities and the people’s perversity, and the great forces of good and evil are left still contending, though not in the same proportion as before.

I. The opening scene, under the high-priesthood of Eli, is sad and painful. It is the sanctuary itself, the priestly establishment at Shiloh, that which ought to be the very centre and heart of the spiritual life of the nation, that is photographed for us; and it is a deplorable picture. The soul of religion has died out; little but the carcass is left. Formality and superstition are the chief forces at work, and a wretched business they make of it. Men still attend to religious service, for conscience and the force of habit have a wonderful tenacity; but what is the use? Religion does not even help morality. The acting priests are unblushing profligates, defiling the very precincts of God’s house with abominable wickedness. And what better could you expect of the people when their very spiritual guides set them such an example? "Men abhor the offering of the Lord." No wonder! It irritates them in the last degree to have to give their wealth ostensibly for religion, but really to feed the lusts of scoundrels. People feel that instead of getting help from religious services for anything good, it strains all that is best in them to endure contact with such things. How can belief in a living God prevail when the very priests show themselves practical atheists? The very idea of a personal God is blotted out of the people’s mind, and superstition takes its place. Men come to think that certain words, or things, or places have in some way a power to do them good. The object of religion is not to please God, but to get the mysterious good out of the words, or things, or places that have it in them. When they are going to war, they do not think how they may get the living God to be on their side, but they take hold of the dead ark, believing that there is some spell in it to frighten their enemies. Israelites who believe such things are no better than their pagan neighbours. The whole purpose of God to make them an enlightened, orderly, sanctified people seems grievously frustrated.

Even good men become comparatively useless under such a system. The very high-priest is a kind of nonentity. If Eli had asserted God’s claims with any vigour, Hophni and Phinehas would not have dared to live as they did. It is a mournful state of things when good men get reconciled to the evil that prevails, or content themselves with very feebly protesting against it. No doubt Eli most sincerely bewailed it. But the very atmosphere was drowsy, inviting to rest and quiet. There was no stir, no movement anywhere. Where all death lived, life died.

And yet, as in the days of Elijah, God had His faithful ones in the land. There were still men and women that believed in a living God, and in their closets prayed to their Father that seeth in secret. And God has wonderful ways of reviving His cause when it seems extinct. When all flesh had corrupted their way, there was yet one man left who was righteous and godly; and through Noah God peopled the world. When the new generation had become idolatrous, He chose one man, Abraham, and by him alone He built up a holy Church, and a consecrated nation. And now, when all Israel seems to be hopelessly corrupt, God finds in an obscure cottage a humble woman, through whose seed it is His purpose that His Church be revived, and the nation saved. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones. Be thankful for every man and woman, however insignificant, in whose heart there is a living faith in a living God. No one can tell what use God may not make of the poorest saint. For God’s power is unlimited. One man, one woman, one child, may be His instrument for arresting the decline of ages, and introducing a new era of spiritual revival and holy triumph.

II. For it was no less a change than this that was effected through Samuel, Hannah’s child. From his infancy Samuel was a consecrated person. Brought up as a child to reverence the sanctuary and all its worship, he learned betimes the true meaning of it all; and the reverence that he had been taught to give to His outward service, he learned to associate with the person of the living God. And Samuel had the courage of his convictions, and told the people of their sins, and of God’s claims. It was his function to revive belief in the spiritual God and in His relation to the people of Israel; and to summon the nation to honour and serve Him. What Samuel did in this way, he did mainly through his high personal character and intense convictions. In office he was neither priest nor king, though he had much of the influence of both. No doubt he judged Israel; but that function came to him not by formal appointment, but rather as the fruit of his high character and commanding influence. The whole position of Samuel and the influence which he wielded were due not to temporal but spiritual considerations. He manifestly walked with God; he was conspicuous for his fellowship with Jehovah, Israel’s Lord; and his life, and his character, and his words, all combined to exalt Him whose servant he evidently was.

And that was the work to which Samuel was appointed. It was to revive the faith of an unbelieving people in the reality of God’s existence in the first place, and in the second in the reality of His covenant relation to Israel. It was to rivet on their minds the truth that the supreme and only God was the God of their nation, and to get them to have regard to Him and to honour Him as such. He was to impress on them the great principle of national prosperity, to teach them that the one unfailing source of blessing was the active favour of God. It was their sin and their misery alike that they not only did not take the right means to secure God’s favour, but, on the contrary, provoked Him to anger by their sins.

Now there were two things about God that Samuel was most earnest in pressing. The one was His holiness, the other His spirituality. The righteous Lord loved righteousness. No amount of ritual service could compensate the want of moral obedience. "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." If they would enjoy His favour, they must search out their sins, and humble themselves for them before this holy God. The other earnest lesson was God’s spirituality. Not only was all idolatry and image-worship most obnoxious to Him, but no service was acceptable which did not come from the heart. Hence the great value of prayer. It was Samuel’s privilege to show the people what prayer could do. He showed them prayer, when it arose from a humble, penitent spirit, moving the Hand that moved the universe. He endeavoured to inspire them with heartfelt regard to God as their King, and with supreme honour for Him in all the transactions both of public and private life. That was the groove in which he tried to move the nation, for in that course alone he was persuaded that their true interest lay. To a large extent, Samuel was successful in this endeavour. His spirit was very different from the languid timidity of Eli. He spoke with a voice that evoked an echo. He raised the nation to a higher moral and spiritual platform, and brought them nearer to their heavenly King. Seldom has such proof been given of the almost unbounded moral power attainable by one man, if he but be of single eye and immovable will.

But, as we have said, Samuel was neither priest nor king; his conquests were the conquests of character alone. The people clamoured for a king, certainly from inferior motives, and Samuel yielded to their clamour. It would have been a splendid thing for the nation to have got an ideal king, a king adapted for such a kingdom, as deeply impressed as Samuel was with his obligation to honour God, and ruling over them with the same regard for the law and covenant of Israel. But such was not to be their first king. Some correction was due to them for having been impatient of God’s arrangements, and so eager to have their own wishes complied with. Saul was to be as much an instrument of humiliation as a source of blessing.

III. And this brings us to the third act of the drama. Saul the son of Kish begins well, but he turns aside soon. He has ability, he has activity, he has abundant opportunity to make the necessary external arrangements for the welfare of the nation; but he has no heart for the primary condition of blessing. At first he feels constrained to honour God; he accepts from Samuel the law of the kingdom and tries to govern accordingly. He could not well have done otherwise. He could not decently have accepted the office of king at the hands of Samuel without promising and without trying to have regard to the mode of ruling which the king-maker so earnestly pressed on him. But Saul’s efforts to honour God shared the fate of all similar efforts when the force that impels to them is pressure from without, not heartiness within. Like a rower pulling against wind and tide, he soon tired. And when he tired of trying to rule as God would have him, and fell back on his own way of it, he seemed all the more willful for the very fact that he had tried at first to repress his own will. Externally he was active and for a time successful, but internally he went from bad to worse. Under Saul, the process of training Israel to fear and honour God made no progress whatever. The whole force of the governing power was in the opposite direction. One thing is to be said in favour of Saul - he was no idolater. He did not encourage any outward departure from the worship of God. Neither Baal nor Ashtaroth, Moloch nor Chemosh, received any countenance at his hands. The Second Commandment was at least outwardly observed.

But for all that, Saul was the active, inveterate, and bitter persecutor of what we may call God’s interest in the kingdom. There was no real sympathy between him and Samuel; but as Samuel did not cross his path, he left him comparatively alone. It was very different in the case of David. In Saul’s relation to David we see the old antagonism - the antagonism of nature and grace, of the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, of those born after the flesh and those born after the Spirit. Here is the most painful feature of Saul’s administration. Knowing, as he did, that David enjoyed God’s favour in a very special degree, he ought to have respected him the more. In reality he hated him the more. Jealousy is a blind and stupid passion. It mattered nothing to Saul that David was a man after God’s own heart, except that it made him more fierce against him. How could a theocratic kingdom prosper when the head of it raged against God’s anointed one, and strained every nerve to destroy him? The whole policy of Saul was a fatal blunder. Under him, the nation, instead of being trained to serve God better, and realize the end of their selection more faithfully, were carried in the opposite direction. And Saul lived to see into what confusion and misery he had dragged them by his willful and godless rule. No man ever led himself into a more humiliating maze, and no man ever died in circumstances that proclaimed more clearly that his life had been both a failure and a crime.

IV. The fourth act of the drama is a great contrast to the third. It opens at Hebron, that place of venerable memories, where a young king, inheriting Abraham’s faith, sets himself, heart and soul, to make the nation of Israel what God would have it to be. Trained in the school of adversity, his feet had sometimes slipped; but on the whole he had profited by his teacher; he had learned a great lesson of trust, and knowing something of the treachery of his own heart, he had committed himself to God, and his whole desire and ambition was to be God’s servant. For a long time he is occupied in getting rid of enemies, and securing the tranquility of the kingdom. When that object is gained, he sets himself to the great business of his life. He places the symbol of God’s presence and covenant in the securest spot in the kingdom, and where it is at once most central and most conspicuous. He proposes, after his wars are over, and when he has not only become a great king, but amassed great treasure, to employ this treasure in building a stately temple for God’s worship, although he is not allowed to carry out that purpose. He remodels the economy of priests and Levites, making arrangements for the more orderly and effective celebration of all the service in the capital and throughout the kingdom for which they were designed. He places the whole administration of the kingdom under distinct departments, putting at the head of each the officer that is best fitted for the effective discharge of its duties. In all these arrangements, and in other arrangements more directly adapted to the end, he sought to promote throughout his kingdom the spirit that fears and honours God. And more especially did he labour for this in that most interesting field for which he was so well adapted - the writing of songs fitted for God’s public service, and accompanied by the instruments of music in which he so greatly delighted. Need we say how his whole soul was thrown into this service? Need we say how wonderfully he succeeded in it, not only in the songs which he wrote personally, but in the school of likeminded men which he originated, whose songs were worthy to rank with his own? The whole collection, for well-nigh three thousand years, has been by far the best aid to devotion the Church of God has ever known, and the best means of promoting that fellowship with God of which his own life and experience furnished the finest sample. No words can tell the effect of this step in guiding the nation to a due reverence for God, and stimulating them to the faithful discharge of the high ends for which they had been chosen.

Beautiful and most promising was the state of the nation at one period of his life. Unbounded prosperity had flowed into the country. Every enemy had been subdued. There was no division in the kingdom, and no one likely to cause any. The king was greatly honoured by his people, and highly popular. The arrangements which he had made, both for the civil and spiritual administration of the kingdom, were working beautifully, and producing their natural fruits. All things seemed to be advancing the great purpose of God in connection with Israel. Let this state of things but last, and surely the consummation will be reached. The promise to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will be fulfilled, and the promised Seed will come very speedily to diffuse His blessing over all the families of the earth.

But into this fair paradise the serpent contrived to creep, and the consequence was another fall. Never did the cause of God seem so strong as it was in Israel under David, and never did it seem more secure from harm. David was an absolute king, without an opponent, without a rival; his whole soul was on the side of the good cause; his influence was paramount; whence could danger come? Alas, it could come and it did come from David himself. His sin in the matter of Uriah was fraught with the most fatal consequences. It brought down the displeasure of God; it lowered the king in the eyes of his subjects; it caused the enemy to blaspheme; it made rebellion less difficult; it made the success of rebellion possible. It threw back the cause of God, we cannot tell for how long. Disaster followed disaster in the latter part of David’s reign; and though he bequeathed to his son a splendid and a peaceful empire, the seeds of division had been sown in it; the germ of disruption was at work; and when the disruption came, in the days of David’s grandson, no fewer than ten tribes broke away from their allegiance, and of the new kingdom which they founded idolatry was the established religion, and the worship of calves was set up by royal warrant from Bethel even to Dan.

It is sad indeed to dwell on the reverse which befell the cause of God in the latter part of the reign of David. But this event has been matched, over and over again, in the chequered history of religious movements. The story of Sisyphus has often been realized, rolling his stone up the hill, but finding it, near the top, slip from his hands and go thundering to the bottom. Or rather, to take a more Biblical similitude, the burden of the watchman of Dumah has time after time come true: "The morning cometh, and also the night." Strange and trying is often the order of Providence. The conflict between good and evil seems to go on forever, and just when the good appears to be on the eve of triumph something occurs to throw it back, and restore the balance. Was it not so after the Reformation? Did not the Catholic cause, by diplomacy and cruelty in too many cases, regain much of what Luther had taken from it? And have we not from time to time had revivals of the Church at home that have speedily been followed by counteracting forces that have thrown us back to where we were? What encouragement is there to labour for truth and righteousness when, even if we are apparently successful, we are sure to be overtaken by some counter-current that will sweep us back to our former position?

But let us not be too hasty or too summary in our inferences. When we examine carefully the history of David, we find that the evil that came in the end of his reign did not counteract all the good at the beginning. Who does not see that, after all, there was a clear balance of gain? The cause of God was stronger in Israel, its foundation firmer, its defenses surer, than it had ever been before. Why, even if nothing had remained but those immortal psalms that ever led the struggling Church to her refuge and her strength, the gain would have been remarkable. And so it will be found that the Romish reaction did not swallow up all the good of the Reformation, and that the free-thinking reaction of our day has not neutralized the evangelical revival of the nineteenth century. A decided gain remains, and for that gain let us ever be thankful.

And if the gain be less decided and less full than once it promised, and if Amalek gains upon Israel, and recovers part of the ground he had lost, let us mark well the lesson which God designs to teach us. In the first place, let us learn the lesson of vigilance. Let us watch against the decline of spiritual strength and against the decline of that fellowship with God from which all spiritual strength is derived. Let those who are prominent in the Church watch their personal conduct let them be intensely careful against those inconsistencies and indulgences by which, when they take place, such irreparable injury is done to the cause. And in the second place, let us learn the lesson of patient waiting and patient working. As the early Church had to wait for the promise of the Father, so let the Church wait in every age. As the early Church continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, so let each successive age ply with renewed earnestness its applications to the throne of grace. And let us be encouraged by the assurance that long though the tide has ebbed and flowed, and flowed and ebbed, it will not be so forever. To them that look for Him, the great Captain shall appear the second time without sin unto salvation. "The Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord. As for Me, this is My covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and forever" (Isaiah 59:20-21).

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