History and Morality
God provided the Old Testament histories for our benefit.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as
warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come (1 Cor
The things recorded happened to teach us about God’s requirements
for his people. We can learn a lot from reading the Old Testament,
however we must not assume that because a situation is recorded that God
approved the actions taken. Some incidents were recorded as warnings of
In some histories, the Old Testament assesses the behaviour and
states whether it was good or evil. However, many other events are just
recorded without comment. In these cases, we need to assess the action
against the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments and against the
lifestyle of Jesus. I think that we accept too many of the stories
uncritically. We just assume that prophets always behaved correctly,
when there is no reason that that should be true.
The Old Testament prophets frequently misused their powers. One
example is Elisha and the cheeky children.
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the
road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on
up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!"
He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the
name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled
forty-two of the youths. (1 Kings 2:23-24).
This incident demonstrates the power of a curse, but there is nothing
in this passage to suggest that God approved Elisha’s use of the
curse. When James and John wanted to put a similar curse on a Samaritan
village that rejected them, Jesus challenged them.
When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord,
do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But
Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).
Putting these two passages together, we can conclude two things.
Words are powerful and curses have consequences. Prophets must be
careful about the way they speak, because their words can produce both
food and evil.
I have always been a fan of the prophet Samuel. Recently I read the
record of his ministry again using the approach described above. I also
came to the books named after him with a clearer understanding of the
role of kings in God’s plan. I began to see Samuel in a different
light. He is still a great prophet, but he was also very human. He made
several mistakes, when his humanity overpowered his prophetic gifting.
Samuel received a powerful calling to be a prophet to his nation.
The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words
fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that
Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to
appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his
word (1 Sam 3:19-21).
Defeating the Philistines
Samuel led the people to repentance and guided Israel to a great
And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are
returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the
foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and
serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the
Philistines" (1 Sam 7:3).
The people did repent, so the Lord delivered them from the
The Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day
the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw
them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites (1
This demonstrates the correct way for a Christian community to defend
itself. The first step is to repent of all sin. This releases God to
confuse the enemies and make them flee.
The victory over the Philistines was a wonderful prophetic incident,
but closer reading reveals several blemishes. Firstly, the Israelites
responded to God’s victory, by slaughtering the fleeing Philistines.
The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines,
slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car (1 Sam 7:11).
God had not commanded the people of Israel to engage in this
destruction. He had promised that he would deliver Israel, so their
actions added human works to God grace. A great victory by God was
spoiled by unnecessary vindictiveness.
The second blemish on this incident was Samuel’s behaviour.
Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt
offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel's behalf, and
the LORD answered him (1 Sam 7:9).
Samuel was correct of cry out the Lord, and the Lord answered his
prayers, because Israel had repented. However, Samuel lived among from
the tribe of Ephraim (1 Sam 1:1) and was a descendent of Levi (1 Chron
6:26) but he was not in Aaron’s line. Only the descendents of Aaron
were authorised to offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel, so Samuel was
acting presumptuously, when he offered the sacrifice. Although Samuel
was called to be a prophet, he slipped into the role of high priest.
This is the flaw in Samuel’s character. When he was successful as a
prophet, he began to take on other ministries that were not assigned to
him. A prophet must be careful not to go beyond their calling by acting
as priest or judge.
One Man Band
Samuel’s tendency to take on additional roles led to his becoming
judge over all Israel.
Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From
year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah,
judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah,
where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an
altar there to the LORD (1 Sam 7:15-17).
Having one judge over the entire nation was not part of God’s plan.
His plan was to have numerous judges in local communities (Deut
1:15-18). Local people would go to judges they trusted to get their
cases resolved. If a local judge made a bad decision, they could appeal
to a more experienced judge. Having many judges strengthened local
communities and prevented the aggregation of political power.
A prophet like Samuel would have a role in assisting with any really
difficult cases that needed the wisdom of God. However, Samuel went
beyond this role and set himself up as a circuit judge for the entire
nation. He also set himself up as high priest by building an altar at
Sons of Samuel
The consequence of Samuel’s aggrandizement of power was manifested
in his family.
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. The
name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah,
and they served at Beersheba (1 Sam 8:1-2).
Samuel was wrong to appoint his sons as judges, because God had not
commanded him to set up a ruling dynasty. The prophetic calling was not
hereditary, so Samuel should not have been appointing his sons as his
successors. By taking this action, he contributed to the nation’s
desire to have a king, because he trained them to be ruled by one man
and created the expectation that this role was hereditary.
Bad appointments produced bad behaviour.
But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after
dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice (1 Sam 8:3).
Samuel’s sons were dishonest and perverted justice. This is what
happens when a few people are given a monopoly over justice. Monopoly
power makes them vulnerable to greed and corruption. In God’s system
of decentralised judges, no one has a monopoly position, because people
are free to choose which judge they will ask to adjudicate. If a judge
becomes corrupt, they will become redundant, as they will have no cases
There great irony in the corruption of Samuel’s sons is that his
first prophet word had been a challenge to Eli, the High Priest who had
turned a blind eye to the corruption of his own sons. By ignoring the
failings of his sons, Samuel fell victim to the first sin that he had
called. This is a warning to prophets to stay within their calling. By
taking on the role of judge and priest that were not part of this
prophetic calling, Samuel make himself vulnerable to the sins that he
have seen in others. Samuel should have stuck to being a prophet.
Samuel and the King
The greatest prophetic incident in Samuel’s life occurred when
Israel demanded a king. The Lord spoke clearly to Samuel about the evils
of kingship and Moses gave a clear warning to the people. This is
probably one of the most important prophetic messages in the entire Old
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take….
He will take… He will take… He will take… He will take … and you
yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out
for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer
you in that day (1 Sam 8:11-18 truncated).
The prophecy has been fulfilled again and again through history. The
warning should ring in the ears of every generation in every nation.
Choosing a human ruler is rejection of God. Human rulers will take and
take and take, regardless of how they have been appointed or elected.
They make free people into slaves. Human government is not God’s plan
for his people. He wants us to be free to trust and serve him.
The irony is that Christians have become so used to human government
that we not longer heed Samuel’s warning. He said that they would “cry
out for relief” to the Lord. Christians no longer do this. They have
some much faith in human government, they think that if they can just
get the right human government, then everything will fine. They believe
that the problem will be solved at the next election. This is not true.
Human government is never the solution. They only solution is to cry out
to God for relief.
Samuel and Saul
Although Samuel knew that Israel did not need a king, he obeyed the
Lord. He received a very clear word about who should be king.
Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed this to Samuel:
"About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of
Benjamin. Anoint him leader over my people Israel; he will deliver my
people from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked upon my people,
for their cry has reached me (1 Sam 9:15-16).
Samuel obeyed God even though he knew a king would bring harm to the
people he loved. Sometimes prophets have to take tough actions.
After Saul was appointed, Samuel made a retirement speech.
Samuel said to all Israel, "I have listened to everything you
said to me and have set a king over you. Now you have a king as your
leader. As for me, I am old and gray, and my sons are here with you. I
have been your leader from my youth until this day (1 Sam 12:1-2).
This speech suggests that he did not fully understand his calling. It
was true that his would no longer be the judge for the nation, but God
had never intended to have that role anyway. More important, you cannot
retire from being a prophet. God was not finished with Samuel in this
role. Although, he was old and gray, he would have several prophetic
words to bring in the future. He pointed to his sons, but they were not
prophets. Samuel was still the prophet to the nation, not his sons. He
should not have been retiring.
The second part of his speech was all about money.
Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I
accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these, I
will make it right." (1 Sam 12:3).
This was a bit rich. It was true that Samuel had never accepted
bribes or cheated anyone, but he had allowed his sons to take bribes and
pervert justice, so he was being a bit precious in demanding that the
people give witness to his innocence.
Saul and Samuel Stumble
When the Philistines came against Israel with three thousand chariots
and a huge army, Saul gathered selected three thousand men and sent the
rest home. It seems that he was trying to trust the Lord.
Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking
with fear. He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did
not come to Gilgal, and Saul's men began to scatter (1 Sam 13:8-9).
When the troops began to scatter, Saul got tired of waiting and
offered a sacrifice to the Lord. Saul was wrong to act as priest,
because he was from the tribe of Benjamin. However, there are a couple
of others things we should note. Samuel was not a priest either, so Saul
was just doing what Samuel had done before him, when he added a priestly
role to his legitimate calling.
The other thing to note is that Samuel seemed to be miffed with Saul
and set him up to fail. He told Saul to wait for seven days, but did not
turn up when the seven days were ended. There is no suggestion that God
delayed Samuel, so he seemed to be being a bit mischievous. Then as soon
as Saul sinned, Samuel turned up, just like he was waiting for him to
get into trouble.
Samuel rebuked Saul.
You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had,
he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now
your kingdom will not endure.
This rebuke is interesting as it seemed to come from Samuel. There is
no evidence that the Lord told him to speak these words. Samuel told
Saul that his kingdom could have lasted for all time, but that was not
true. Only Jesus could have a kingdom that would last forever. However,
Samuel was correct in saying that Saul’s kingdom would not last
Samuel then left Saul to his own devices with a rapidly diminishing
Then Samuel left Gilgal and went up to Gibeah in Benjamin, and Saul
counted the men who were with him. They numbered about six hundred (1
However, the Lord had not deserted Israel. When Jonathon took the
initiative, the Lord intervened.
Then panic struck the whole army—those in the camp and field, and
those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was
a panic sent by God (1 Sam 14:15).
The Lord rescued Israel, despite the failings of Saul and Samuel.
Saul and the Amalekites
The next intervention by Samuel in Saul’s life was quite strange
Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you
king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD
(1 Sam 15:1).
Saul knew who Samuel was and that he was a prophet, so Saul had no
need to be reminded that Samuel had anointed him as king. There is no
evidence in the passage that the Lord told Samuel to speak to Saul, so
it seems like he was acting on his own initiative. Maybe Samuel reminded
Saul of his role as kingmaker to build up his personal authority,
because he did not have authority from God.
Samuel told Saul that God wanted him to attack the Amalekites.
This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites
for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from
Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that
belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children
and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'
This was a ruthless message straight out of the blue. Samuel said
that he spoke in the Lord’s name, but his strange introduction
suggests that this was not true. God had promised that he would wipe out
the Amalekites (Ex 17:14), but he did not say how he would do it. There
is nothing in the scriptures to indicate that God intended Saul to do
Telling Saul to totally destroy everyone, including women and
children was really drastic. This command has given God a bad name,
because it does not seem to be justified and is inconsistent with
Deuteronomy 20:14. This was not a command from God, but Samuel was
acting on his own initiative.
Saul gathered a large army and attacked the Amalekites. He captured
their king and totally destroyed all the people. Then the Lord spoke.
Unlike in the early part of the chapter, this time the word of the Lord
did come to Samuel.
Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, “I greatly regret
that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following
Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and
he cried out to the LORD all night (1 Sam 15:10-11).
The usual interpretation is that the Lord was upset, because Saul had
allowed the King to live, but this is not what the word of the Lord
said. The word was that Saul had not performed or kept his commandments.
The reality was that Saul had not observed God’s commandments for
kings. This was the reason that God rejected Saul’s kingship.
It is interesting that Samuel grieved all night. In the earlier
events, he seemed to undermine Saul’s kingship, so I doubt that he was
grieving about Saul’s fate. I suspect that he was upset, because he
was beginning to realise that he had given bad advice to Saul. Usually
when the Lord initiates something, his word comes to the prophet to get
things started. The word of the Lord coming after an event is a sign
that Samuel had been out of order in stirring Saul up to fight.
The other interesting issue is that when Samuel spoke to Saul the
next day he did not repeat the word that Lord had spoken. He said
something quite different.
Samuel said, "Although you were once small in your own eyes, did
you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you
king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, 'Go and
completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them
until you have wiped them out.' Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did
you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD " (1
The Lord had not mentioned the Amalekites or the plunder, but this is
what Samuel focused on. He put a different spin on the word of the Lord.
After some argument Saul admitted that he was wrong.
Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned. I violated the LORD's
command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave
in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that
I may worship the LORD” (1 Sam 15:24-25).
It is interesting that Saul confessed to violating the commandments
of God and disobeying Samuel’s instructions. This is a hint that
Samuels instructions went beyond the Lord’s commandments.
Despite Saul repenting, Samuel did not offer to intercede with the
Lord for him. This is strange because the Lord usually responded
positively to repentance. When Samuel left Saul that day he never spoke
with Saul again.
Death of Agag
Samuel asked for Agag the king of the Amalekites to be brought to
him. Agag thought this was good news, but Samuel had a different
And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal (1 Sam
Most commentators applaud Samuel for doing what God commanded,
whereas Saul is condemned. I am not sure that we have got this right.
Saul had certainly lost touch with God (1 Sam 15:11), but there is no
evidence from the scriptures of God commanding Samuel to slaughter Agag.
The impression I get is that Samuel acted on his own initiative. The
expression “before the Lord” could be translated “against the Lord”.
This would confirm that Samuel was not acting in obedience to the Lord.
Even if God did want Saul to kill Agag, that did not make it right
for Samuel to do it. A prophet must not act as judge or military
commander. A true prophet should be totally separated to God, so they
should not be acting as the executioner of criminals or military
prisoners. Samuel went beyond his calling as a prophet by executing
These events are a serious warning to all prophets. They must be
careful stay within there calling. When a prophet thinks they are being
ignored, they can be tempted to fulfil their own prophecies. This is a
dangerous thing for any prophet.
Many people are disturbed by the description of Samuel hacking Agag
into pieces. They say that a God who would order this is not very nice.
I agree with this view, but I am also fairly certain that God did not
order this violent death. If I have interpreted this passage correctly,
then God did not command that Agag be hacked to hamburger.
This paints Samuel in a lesser light, but we should not cast
aspersions on God just to protect Samuel’s reputation. Samuel did not
have the benefit of knowing Jesus, so it is not surprised that he was
influenced by the culture of the time. On the other hand, we cannot
condemn him by Christian standards, because he did not have the benefits
of the life and teaching of Jesus.
Samuel and David
Samuel retired to his home, but there is no retirement in God’s
book. He soon stirred Samuel up again.
The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul,
since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil
and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have
chosen one of his sons to be king" (1 Sam 16:1).
The Lord spoke at the beginning of the action, so Samuel was in a
safer mode of operation. Anointing leaders is part of prophetic
business, so Samuel was acting within his calling.
Once again, Samuel nearly fell into the trap by acting on his own
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the
LORD's anointed stands here before the LORD." But the LORD said to
Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have
rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man
looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart"
(1 Sam 16:6-7).
God had to correct Samuel to prevent him from anointing the wrong
person. When Samuel discovered David, the Lord spoke clearly.
He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the
LORD said, "Rise and anoint him; he is the one." So Samuel
took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers,
and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power.
Samuel heard the Lord speak clearly. He anointed a very special man
and released the anointing of the Spirit on him. This was another great
Samuel was a great prophet in a time when Israel was still confused
about the role of the prophetic ministry. This confusion is recorded in
Formerly in Israel, if a man went to inquire of God, he would say,
"Come, let us go to the seer," because the prophet of today
used to be called a seer (1 Sam 9:9).
Samuel was the first real prophet in a time when Israel had wandered
away from the Lord. He developed into this ministry without anyone to
mentor him. He had no prophetic example to follow. He grew into this
ministry by listening to God. In this situation, we should not be
surprised that the got a few things wrong. Given that he preceded Jesus
and had no written scripture to guide him, it is amazing that the made
so few mistakes.
His life is recorded for our benefit. We can learn from his mistakes
and we should be inspired by his example.