Samuel the seer was the last of those leaders of Israel called judges, and the first of those spiritual leaders called prophets (or seers). He bridges the period of the judges and that of the kings, having anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. We don’t know when he was born, but it must have been the latter part of the 12th century B.C.E., since by the time Saul was anointed around 1050 Samuel was “old” (1 Sam. 8:1, 5, 10:2). Despite his advancing age, Samuel still lived and was somewhat active in leadership for about thirty more years.
Samuel began life as a child marked for consecration, an answer to his mother’s abject prayer (1 Sam. 1:1-2:11). His early experiences included separation from his family when he was about two years old, to be raised as a temple servant by Eli the high priest/judge of Israel. His parents were strongly religious and he saw them annually as they made their traditional trek to the temple at Shiloh for sacrifice. Thus Samuel would not have been close to his parents or siblings, and would have been most influenced by Eli, who was already an old man, and the environment of the Shiloh house of God, which included profound abuses of religious power by Eli’s sons (1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22-36, 3:10-14).
When Samuel was still a boy (Jewish tradition says he was 12, according to Josephus) the Lord revealed himself to him at the Shiloh temple one night (1 Sam. 3). This message of God was the first of many that Samuel would receive, and the Scripture says that the LORD was with him, and upheld his words, and that his influence as a true prophet of God was extended over all Israel (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1).
While Samuel was still young the Philistines attacked Israel, and as the Israelites failed to prevail they decided to carry the ark of the covenant from the sanctuary in Shiloh into the battle. The outcome was the loss of the battle, the capture of the ark, death for the sons of Eli, Eli’s own death, and destruction for Shiloh (1 Sam. 4, Jer. 7:12-14). The power of God compelled the Philistines to give up the ark, and it was ensconced in a house at Kiriath-jearim for years, until David finally brought it into Jerusalem (1 Sam. 5:1-7:2, 2 Sam. 6). For about 20 years Israel was oppressed by the Philistines, until Samuel rose up to lead a repentant people into victory (1 Sam. 7:2-14). Having thus established his leadership as both prophet and war general, Samuel effectively ruled central Israel as judge “all the days of his life” (1 Sam. 7:15), yielding leadership to Saul but reserving the right to tell even Saul what the LORD commanded.
As a religious leader, Samuel demanded committed hearts – obedience – rather than external ritual (1 Sam. 7:3, 12:14-15, 20-21, 15:22-23). Himself a Levite (though not born a priest, 1 Chron. 6:28), Samuel officiated at regular and special sacrifices (1 Sam. 7:17, 13:8-15).
Samuel’s love for his God and his people lived on in his pupil David, and his grandson Heman.
How it was in the Israel of Samuel’s time
Heb. 11:32, Samuel is remembered as being a man of faith who, like some of his contemporaries, accomplished great things by faith (see also Heb. 11:33-38).
Judges 21:25 (and 17:6, 18:1, 19:1), Samuel’s time climaxed a period of chaos, anarchy, and religious and civil disorder.
1 Sam. 1:1-3, to the extent that there was a religious center for Israel, it was at Shiloh (see also Judges 21:19 and various references to “Bethel” or “the House of God” in Judges, which may refer to the house of God at Shiloh rather than the town named Bethel.).
Jer. 7:12-15, God’s name “dwelt” at Shiloh, prior to its destruction. It was the place chosen by God (Deut. 12:10-14 and Josh. 18:1, 22:12, Judges 18:31, 22:18, 26-28). The ark of God was located at Shiloh until the destruction of the sanctuary there (1 Sam. 4, and later the location of the ark apart from the tabernacle, 1 Chron. 16:37-42).
1 Sam. 1:7, In Samuel’s youth there was a “house of the Lord” at Shiloh, not a tabernacle but a temple of some sort (Heb. heykal – temple or palace). It had sleeping quarters and doors (1 Sam. 3:1-4, 15). Samuel lived through the destruction of this sanctuary (1 Sam. 4ff, Jer. 7:12ff).
and Samuel was among those
who called upon His name;
they called upon the LORD,
and He answered them.
He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar;
they kept His testimonies
and the ordinance He gave them.
You answered them, O LORD our God;
you were to them God-Who-Forgives,
though You took vengeance on their deeds.
2 Sam. 7:6-7, God’s message to David would indicate that the temple at Shiloh had not been prescribed by God nor wholly sanctioned by him, though Shiloh itself had been chosen as the place for his name (see above) and the Lord had revealed himself there (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1).
1 Sam. 2:11-17, Priestly behavior at Shiloh departed far from that called for in the law. The lack of restraint on the part of High Priest Eli resulted in condemnation and judgment against both the family of Eli and the sanctuary itself (1 Sam. 2:22-36, 3:11-14).
The “house of God” at Shiloh in Samuel’s youth is obscure, basically an historical footnote. There was no attempt to rebuild it after its destruction, even when Israel successfully repulsed the Philistines under Samuel’s leadership (1 Sam. 7). It contributed nothing we know of to the methodology of types and patterns in the Bible, which always draw from either the tabernacle of Moses or the temple of Solomon. We know nothing of its builder or its pattern. After Shiloh was lost to the Philistines Israel continued in religious disorder and fragmentation, “temporarily” lodging the Ark of The Covenant in a home (1 Sam. 7:1-2) while the tabernacle came to be settled at Gibeon (1 Chron. 16:39) and sacrifices were conducted in various places (1 Sam. 7:7-10, 17). Samuel himself was a sign of the disorder of the times as he officiated over sacrificial ritual (with God’s sanction) though he was not a priest (Samuel is included among the Kohath family of Levi, not the descendants of Aaron, 1 Chron. 6:16-28).
Israelite attitudes in Samuel’s declining years
Jer. 15:1, The attitude and needs of Israel in the days of Moses and Samuel and Jeremiah were similar. Israel needed a priestly mediator and a changed heart.
Ex. 19:6, At Mt. Sinai when Moses led Israel, the people had first embraced the idea of personal priesthood, the kingdom of priests, and subsequently rejected the priesthood (and therefore the kingdom) in fear (Ex. 20:18-21).
1 Sam. 8:1-9, In Samuel’s old age the request for a king is specifically linked to the rejection of God’s kingship at Mt. Sinai. The cause may not have been fear of the supernatural this time, but the attitude of rejection is nevertheless the same. At root is surely a lack of faith. The people had no confidence in God on a day by day basis, and wanted a human focus.
Heb. 12:25-29, Those who previously “refused” God’s personal involvement in their lives were condemned, both those of Moses’ generation and those of Samuel’s. The same attitude, the rejection of personal priesthood, is warned against in the Christian era.
Samuel was first and foremost a religious leader in Israel, remembered for his faith (Heb. 11:32), his prayers (Psalm 99:6-8), his obedience (Psalm 99:7), his intercession (Jer. 15:1), and his observance of sacred ritual (2 Chron. 35:18). He is usually “the prophet” Samuel.
Samuel’s prophetic ministry began in his youth (1 Sam. 3:1-18). A thousand years later the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Samuel was twelve at this time. Samuel’s prophetic service continued throughout the rest of his life, throughout much of Saul’s kingship (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1, 19:18ff).
When the Philistines prevailed against Israel, capturing the ark of the covenant and killing Eli’s sons, causing Eli’s death, and probably destroying Shiloh (1 Sam. 4:1b-7:2), Samuel himself may have already moved on from Shiloh to speak to all Israel as a traveling prophet (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1), but the chronology of Samuel’s early life is not clearly set forth. Sometime after the return of the ark to Israel the nation expressed her desire for God’s help in the pattern typical of the days of the judges (1 Sam. 7:2, Judges 2:14-19) and Samuel the prophet stepped forth as Samuel the judge (deliverer) of Israel (1 Sam. 7:3-17).
Samuel became a war leader when God’s people needed him in that role, but the brief summary of Samuel’s role as general begins and ends with sacrifice (1 Sam. 7:3-6/15-17). The Israelite victory over Philistia was wholly dependent on Samuel’s intercession and sacrifice (7:8-10). The victory at Mizpah was memorialized in the same pattern as earlier accomplishments under Joshua had been (7:12, Josh. 4:1ff). Samuel was apparently very successful as war leader/judge/deliverer (7:13-15) since he both defeated the Philistines and won a lasting peace with them and Israel’s other neighbors, the Amorites.
During the years of Samuel’s judgeship he traveled a circuit in central Israel*1 the longest portion of which (Mizpah to Gilgal) was less than 25 miles in a direct line (1 Sam. 7:15-17). He evidently performed civil functions as well as prophetic and sacrificial rituals on this circuit. The fact that he didn’t travel far didn’t necessarily mean that his influence was localized though, as he was able to appoint his sons to judge in Beersheba (1 Sam. 8:1-3), more than fifty miles south of his regular circuit, and in his old age leaders from “all Israel” gathered to him at Ramah with a petition to have a king (8:4-5). After the appointment of Saul as king Samuel may have stepped away from civil authority, but his ministry as prophet, his priestly functions, and his role as teacher of Israel continued long into the reign of Saul (1 Sam. 11:12-12:2, 12:19-23, 13:9-15, 15:1ff). King Saul always stood in awe of Samuel, and in Saul’s final desperation he sought the dead Samuel as his only resource for access to God’s power (1 Sam. 28).
Samuel’s leadership included writings that would guide and influence later generations (1 Sam. 10:25, 1 Chron. 29:29). He was regarded as a the first of many God-sent prophets and a prophetic resource for recognizing the unfolding plan of God in the person of Christ (Acts 3:24).
In Samuel’s old age Israel demanded a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:1-9). Samuel was very displeased and even hurt by this request but prayerfully let God make the decision. Samuel was instructed by God to grant their request, but also to warn them of the consequences.
Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of having a human king, and they chose to proceed, refusing to take warning. God instructed Samuel to proceed, to allow them their choice (1 Sam. 8:10-22). Note that Christians are often in this predicament of warning people about consequences and accountability, but allowing them to make their own decisions.
God chose a handsome young man, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, to be Israel’s first king (1 Sam. 9:1-2). Saul was a man of some determination (1 Sam. 9:3-5), conscious of his obligations toward his father. When Saul approached Samuel he demonstrated polite directness and honest humility – he didn’t think himself anything special (1 Sam. 9:18-21). After signs promised by Samuel had been fulfilled (1 Sam. 10:1-13), Saul returned home but said nothing of Samuel’s promises or his anointing (1 Sam. 10:14-16). When the time came for Saul’s public presentation as the first king of Israel he again showed his basic shyness and humility by hiding (1 Sam. 10:17-27), and was not quick to seize power.
When Saul had succeeded in his first test as king/war leader, he still showed humility and tolerance (1 Sam. 11:11-15).
Even with a king, Samuel still had a leadership role in Israel, though not as war leader or civil governor (1 Sam. 12:16-25). He would still pray for and instruct Israel, and inform the king of God’s will and judgments (1 Sam. 13:13-14; 15:1-3, 7-19). Saul acknowledged Samuel’s role and authority, and was answerable to him (1 Sam. 15:20-31). After pronouncing judgment against Saul Samuel mourned for him but never went to him again with a message from God (1 Sam. 15:34-35).
Samuel was subsequently told by God to appoint another man as king of Israel, David, son of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1-13). God directed Samuel to misinform people about his real purpose in going to the house of Jesse because Samuel felt that Saul might kill him if he knew the truth, despite Samuel’s position in Israel, though later when Saul pursued David he would slay priests, but never actually threatened Samuel (1 Sam. 19:18-24/22:11-19). Like Saul, David was characterized as attractive (16:12) but was chosen by God on the basis of his heart (16:7 and 13:14), not his looks. Samuel did not at this time instruct David (probably for fear of Saul, 16:13) but there were other contacts prior to Samuel’s death in which he may have done so (1 Sam. 19:18-24, 1 Sam. 25:1).
Even in death, Samuel had a final impact on the kings of Israel, pronouncing Saul’s doom when Saul sought contact with Samuel’s spirit through a medium (1 Sam. 28:3-19), and Saul showed that despite his rejection of Samuel’s instructions he knew Samuel’s Godly authority was real and his pronouncements valid (1 Sam. 28:20 & recall 15:24-26). Saul had never come to know God on a personal level, but only through Samuel’s mediation. His great failure was a failure to obey the word of God when he knew beyond doubt that it truly was the word of God. He chose to defy God and attempt to overcome the consequences, knowing that it was God he was defying. Neither Samuel nor anyone else could prevail against such stubbornness in Saul, or in anyone.
Remember that Samuel was a judge and prophet who bridged the time between Eli the judge-priest and Saul the king. The house of God at Shiloh had been destroyed at the end of Eli’s life, and subsequently the Ark of the Covenant was not associated with the tabernacle again until the days of David’s reign, a span probably exceeding eighty years. During this period Samuel erected an altar at Ramah (1 Sam. 7:17) and presided over sacrifices at various places (1 Sam. 9:11-12, 10:8, 7:5 7 9, 16:1-2), while the Ark was kept at Kiriath-Jearim (1 Sam. 7:2, 2 Sam. 6:3) in the home of Abinadab. The other parts of the tabernacle may have moved about somewhat, perhaps to Nob (1 Sam. 21), but finally came to rest at Gibeon (1 Chr. 16:39-40, 2 Chr. 1:3-6) during the latter days of David and early days of Solomon. There is no indication that Samuel ever associated himself either with the Ark or the tabernacle after the fall of Shiloh to the Philistines, nor that he attempted in any way to revive or restore tabernacle worship to the significance it had held in the early days of Israel. It may be that Samuel perceived too many other needs to be dealt with first so that a better tabernacle/temple worship could be instituted at the appropriate time. Despite Samuel’s lack of involvement with the tabernacle in his life, there is evidence that he dreamed of a better day for Israel when she would worship God in a way that once again utilized the full resources of priest and Levite and the offerings of the people. Remember too that in Samuel’s lifetime the leading priests had been the family of Eli, corrupt and under a curse from God, and that the senior priests and their families were slain on two different occasions (1 Sam. 4:11ff, 22:6ff). Saul also, in his alienation from God, was actively hostile against the priests, and when he murdered their families the survivors fled to live as fugitives with David (1 Sam. 22:20).
When Chronicles was written (the earlier records selectively collected into a continuous narrative), more that 600 years after the time of Samuel, Ezra and Nehemiah were trying to lead the people in a revival and restoration of temple worship as it had first been instituted. What is remarkable is that it is not Solomon, the builder of the first temple, who is credited with the early organization of that temple, but David and Samuel (1 Chron. 9:22). None of the organization and assignments recorded here could have been implemented during the lifetime of Samuel, who died while David was still a fugitive living in exile (1 Sam. 25:1), but the plans must have been made by David and Samuel in the days they spent together (1 Sam. 19:18). David and Samuel would likely have mused over the wretched state of both civil and religious affairs in Israel, and “day dreamed” together of how things ought to be, and some day could be, when David became king and was able to initiate reforms. Samuel did not live to see any of his plans or instructions about the temple come to pass, but had an active role in the planning of how the Levites would function at the temple more than forty years before it was even built.
Besides his contributions to the organization of restored Levitical service, Samuel also planned ahead in a material way for the eventual building of the temple. In this Samuel established a pattern that was followed by subsequent war leaders of setting aside spoils of war as dedicated to the LORD, even though during his days of leadership there was no regular tabernacle service to maintain. The goods dedicated by Samuel, Saul, Abner, Joab, and David were laid up and finally used as contributions for the building of the temple when its construction began (1 Chr. 26:26-28).
Being a dreamer like Samuel and David evidently were requires several things.
Seeing that things as they are aren’t ideal (Eph. 5:15-16). But Samuel and David were not complainers, they were doers.
Imagining how things could be better, how they ought to be (Eph. 5:27). But David and Samuel were not idealists, they were practical, tackling problems as they could handle them.
Working on immediate problems and needs, but patiently pursuing long range goals (Eph. 6:13). David and Samuel did not lose sight of the important in doing the urgent.
Consciously developing succeeding generations of leaders and willingly turning over responsibility and opportunity to them (Eph. 6:21-22, 2 Tim. 2:1-2). David and Samuel both prepared, but it was Solomon who had to implement most of their plans and use the resources they had provided.
Always believing in the plan and power of God to accomplish what needs to be accomplished (Eph. 2:10). Samuel and David had dark times during Saul’s days, but held on to God’s promises with conviction.
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.