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 10:11).

The things recorded happened to teach us about God's requirements for his people. We can learn a lot from reading the Old Testament, but we must not assume that because a situation is recorded that God approved the actions taken. Some incidents were recorded as warnings of wrong behaviour.

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 victory.

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 Philistines.

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 Sam 7:10).

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 a 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 to cry out the Lord, and the Lord answered his prayers, because Israel had repented. However, Samuel came from the tribe of Ephraim (1 Sam 1:1) and was a descendant of Levi (1 Chron 6:26) but he was not in Aaron's line. Only the descendants 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 a 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 Ramah.

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 to decide.

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 made himself vulnerable to the sins that he had 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 Testament.

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 no 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. The 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.

False Retirement

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 grey, 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 he would no longer be the judge for the nation, but God had never intended him 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 grey, 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 a priest, because he was from the tribe of Benjamin. However, there are a couple of other 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 forever.

Samuel then left Saul to his own devices with a rapidly diminishing army.

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 Sam 13:15).

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 it.

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.

Gods Word

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 Sam 15:17-19)?

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 attitude.

And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal (1 Sam 15:33).

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 a 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 Agag.

These events are a serious warning to all prophets. They must be careful to 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 surprising 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.


The relationship between Saul and Samuel was a difficult one.  Samuel knew the people of Israel were making a mistake when they demanded a king.  Their failure to trust God was an insult to his ministry.   However, God had used Samuel to anoint Saul, so he felt a bond with him.  On one hand, he wanted the kingship to fail, so that his warnings would be vindicated.  On the other hand, he had chosen Saul, so he would like to see him succeed. 

This ambiguity explains Samuels strange behaviour towards Saul.  When Saul was preparing for battle, Samuel made him wait for a week, become coming to make an offering to God on behalf of the army.   Even when he came, he was later than he had promised.  Because his men were fleeing, Saul made the offering to God instead of waiting for Samuel.  This is the first step of disobedience that caused God to withdraw his blessing.

I have always felt a bit sorry for Saul.  It was almost like Samuel set him up to fail.  So, Samuel was partly responsible for Saul’s failure.  The prophet of the nation had the responsibility to keep him on the right track.  I suspect that Samuel had deliberately put Saul in a place where he would fail, because he unconsciously wanted the kingship to be a failure.

Prophets must be careful that loyalty to their word does not cause them to slip into perverse behaviour.

Medium at Endor

Towards the end of his life, Saul faced a crisis when Israel was invaded by the Philistine army.  Saul was terrified and uncertain about what to do.  When he sought the Lord, he received no answer. 

He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets (1 Sam 28:6).

Samuel was dead, so he could not ask  him for guidance.  In desperation, he entertained a foolish idea to communicate with Samuel through a spiritualist.  This proved to be hard, because Saul had removed all spiritists and mediums out of the land (1 Sam 28:9).  However, Saul’s servants found a medium at Endor, and Saul went to consult with her.  During the consultation, a man in a cloak appeared and rebuked Samuel.

And the woman said to Saul, “I see a spirit coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.” And Saul perceived it as Samuel (1 Sam 28:13-14).

Bible interpreters have disagreed about this passage.  Many believe that it is not possible for a dead person to return to earth.  Others believe that God allowed it in this situation.  I agree with the first view.  God does not usually allow people who have died to return and speak to those who are living.  In experiences of this type, it is usually an evil spirit pretending to be the dead person.  This was the situation with Saul and Samuel.  An evil spirit appeared to Saul by pretending to be Samuel.  There are several reasons why this is the case.

  • The woman was filled with fear when the spirit appeared (1 Sam 28:12-13).  This is a sign that it was evil.  The words that the spirit spoke filled Saul with fear (1 Sam 28:20).  God’s words produce peace, not fear.  Evil spirits create fear.

  • The spirit built up Samuel’s name.

    The Lord has done what he predicted through me (1 Sam 28:17).

    If Samuel had gone to paradise, he would not feel the need to say “I told you so”.  He would have been honouring God.

  • The spirit said that God had taken the kingdom off Saul because he had refused to execute judgement against the Amalekites.

    The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David.  Because you did not obey the Lord and carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today (1 Sam 28:17-18).

    This is not correct.  God took the Kingdom out of Saul’s hands when he offered sacrifices to God at Gilgal (1 Sam 13:7-12).  This was something that only a descendant of Levi should have done.  Samuel warned Saul that this disobedience would cost him the kingdom.

    You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “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; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command” (1 Sam 13:13-14).

    Saul lost his Kingdom because he offered a sacrifice when the prophet had told him to wait.

    I have explained above that Samuel was obsessed with the Amalekites and went beyond his prophetic role by killing this king.  The evil spirit that had prompted him to do this was probably the same one that now appeared to Saul pretending to be Samuel.  This spirit had spoken on behalf of Samuel before.

    The spirit declared that Saul and his sons would die.  A spirit expressing a death wish is usually not from God.  If God intended Saul to be killed, he would most likely have sent a prophet to warn him.  He did not, so the evil spirit took the opportunity to tell Saul that he would die.

    The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me (1 Sam 13:19).

    Saul accepted the evil spirits word.  When we agree with the word of an evil spirit, we give it permission to do what it has predicted.  By accepting the word of the evil spirit, Saul allowed the spiritual powers of evil to fulfil it.  The Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, his three sons were killed, and Saul was struck by enemy arrows (1 Sam 31:3).  Saul’s time as king may not have been complete, but the powers of evil brought it to an end, because he accepted a word of evil against him.

  • Saul took his own life, after he was injured critically by enemy arrows (1 Sam 31:3).

    Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through,or these uncircumcised men will come and run me through and abuse me.”  But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it (1 Sam 31:4).

    I doubt that God wanted Saul to die this way.  Taking one's own life is contrary to his will.  The nature of his death confirms that he was spoken to by an evil spirit.

  • The scriptures say that Saul tried to contact a spirit.

    Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord.
    Because Saul went to a medium, he got a word from and evil spirit.

Christians should not contact the dead by consulting mediums or spiritism.  Some people have used the incident with Saul and Samuel to justify these activities.  If we understand that this was an evil spirit pretending to be Samuel, then the dangers of this activity are confirmed.

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 the prophetic business, so Samuel was acting within his calling.

Once again, Samuel nearly fell into the trap by acting on his own ideas.

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 prophetic event.


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 the scriptures.

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 he got a few things wrong. Given that he preceded Jesus and had no written scripture to guide him, it is amazing that he 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.

Return to God and Violence.