First and 2 Samuel were originally a single work that was separated into two books centuries after composition. These books continue the historical narrative where Judges and Ruth end. Since the books of 1 and 2 Samuel cover a period in Israel’s history of about 150 years (1120 to 970 BC), it seems that several sources were used to put together the books in their final form. Scholars aren’t sure when 1 and 2 Samuel were finally composed, but a date between 800 and 700 BC seems likely.
The events in 1 and 2 Samuel center around three main figures—Samuel, Saul, and David. First Samuel opens with the narrative of Samuel’s birth, an event which occurred about 1120 BC, and 2 Samuel concludes with David on his deathbed, which is dated at 971 BC.
Robert Bergen writes in the Apologetics Study Bible,
The books of Samuel are especially valuable for Christians because they lay the foundation for the all-important doctrine of the Messiah, the ultimate descendant of David who would sit on an everlasting throne ruling over God’s people and bring deliverance and justice. The promises God made to David in 2 Samuel 7 created hopes and expectations that the NT writers understood to have been fulfilled by Jesus.
The book of 1 Samuel starts with the birth of Samuel, the greatest judge and prophet since Moses and Joshua lived. During the first six chapters of the book, while Samuel is growing up, Israel suffers defeat at the hands of the Philistines, and even loses the Ark of the Covenant to them.
God punishes the Philistines by bringing plagues against them until they finally return the ark to the Israelites 7 months later. The Israelites keep the ark at a place called Kiriath Jearim, a settlement 10 miles northwest of Jerusalem, since the place the ark had been kept during previous centuries, Shiloh, had been destroyed by the Philistines. The ark would reside there for 20 years before Samuel’s public ministry would begin in chapter 7, verse 2.
In verses 2-6, we learn that after 20 years of mourning and repentance (roughly 1084 BC), the Israelites have reached a point where they are truly seeking God. We can only surmise that those 20 years of “repentance” were not genuine in the eyes of God. The Israelites were likely calling out to God for rescue from the Philistines, while at the same time still worshiping the false gods of Canaan.
But, after 20 years, Samuel senses that Israel is ready to sincerely turn back to God and he instructs them to stop worshiping the gods of Canaan and only worship the one true God. They agree to do so, and to memorialize this new commitment to God, Samuel calls for an assembly at a place called Mizpah. At Mizpah Israel gathers to admit their sin before God and ask for his forgiveness. Samuel also becomes the official leader of Israel at this time.
In verses 7-11, the Philistines decide to attack the Israelites during their assembly at Mizpah. The people of Israel ask Samuel to cry out to God for protection, and God answers his prayers with loud thunderclaps which frighten the Philistines and cause them to turn around and flee. Israel chases after the Philistines and wins a significant military victory.
Samuel commemorates their victory with a stone monument, and the Philistines do not attack Israel again during the rule of Samuel (approximately 30 years).
Chapter 8 resumes the narrative some 30 years later when Samuel has become an old man. Samuel has appointed his two sons to be judges, but they are both corrupt and not servants of God, like their father. The leaders of Israel come to Samuel and demand that he appoint a king “such as all the other nations have.”
Samuel, knowing this request from the elders of Israel is misguided, prays to God about it. God reveals to Samuel that Israel is rejecting God’s leadership over them, not Samuel’s. Nevertheless, he commands Samuel to accede to their demand for a king, but he wants Samuel to first warn them what will happen when their new king takes charge.
In verses 10-18, Samuel describes to Israel exactly how a monarchy will work. The king will take the people’s sons to build up his military, he will take their daughters to serve him and the officials in his government, he will take their choicest land, their servants, and their livestock to give to his officials, and he will demand a tithe of 10% from everyone to build his treasury. They will effectively become slaves to the king.
After hearing Samuel’s warning, the leaders of Israel respond, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
God grants their wish and promises them a human king. How sad for Israel. It is God who promised throughout the Torah (Pentateuch) to fight their battles for them, to drive out the Canaanites, to defeat their enemies. And that is exactly what God did for Israel when the people were worshiping and obeying Him. Recall the victories under Moses and Joshua. Recall the defeat of the Philistines under Samuel. In every battle, God was leading the army of Israel to victory, not a human king.
The fundamental problem with Israel is that they want to be “like all the other nations” instead of the holy nation that God had called them to be.
Was it wrong for Israel to ever ask for a king? No, because Deuteronomy 17 makes provision for a human king to rule over Israel. But, Deuteronomy 17 also commands Israel to only accept a king who God chooses. This king will be different from the kings of all the other nations, as he will be completely dedicated to serving God. He will not multiply his wealth, he will not multiply his wives, he will not build a bloated military, and he will study God’s word every day of his life. But Israel did not care about finding a king who loved God. They wanted to rush the process and find someone ahead of God’s timing.
Israel will have to suffer through a king not of God’s choosing to get to a king of God’s choosing. This king of God’s choosing would then become the ancestor of the King of kings, Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus will embody all the attributes that a king should have, ruling with perfect justice and mercy. All believers await the day when his reign begins!