To read the Old Testament is to read about the God who created the world, who saw His creatures commit treason against their Maker, and who enacted a rescue mission to “reconcile everything to Himself by making peace” through the blood of His one and only Son, Jesus the Messiah (Col 1:20). Jesus is the King. He is the secret of heaven and earth, the secret of Scripture, the clue that unlocks the confusion of our lives. To know and love God, to know and love ourselves, to know and love our fellow humans, and to know and love our world, we must first know this King, Jesus the Messiah. There are many beautiful but troubling things about the theology of Karl Barth, but on this point he gets things right about Jesus:
This man is the secret of heaven and earth, of the cosmos created by God. To know Him is to know heaven and earth in their diversity, unity and createdness, and to know God as their Creator. The Old Testament insight into this matter can thus be understood as meaningful and practicable only if it is understood as the promise, or prototype, of the knowledge of the Messiah. (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1: 21–22)
To read Scripture in this way means we must learn to read the Bible front-to-back and back-to-front. Both practices are vitally important. Reading the Bible front-to-back means beginning at the beginning (Gen 1) and then going to the end (Revelation). As we do, we will discover a God who created everything and who has redeemed everything in His Son, Jesus. As we read front-to-back, we discover God, the One on whom everything depends and the One who deserves all allegiance and worship. We discover His virtues and values. We discover all the major stories, images, and themes present in Israel’s history, the roles each major person in Israel’s history plays, and how the stories of Israel find their fulfillment in Jesus. We see how Jesus really is the culmination and crest of Scripture.
But this way of reading is still not complete. We must learn to read the Bible back-to-front as well. This means that once we see Jesus in the New Testament, we then turn back to the stories of the Old Testament in the light of Jesus and find that He was always there. He is there at creation, and everything is made through Him and for Him. He is the exodus from slavery to freedom. He is the deliverance at the waters of the Red Sea. He is the promised rest for Israel. He is the judge, prophet, priest, and king. Jesus is the temple and the sacrifice. Jesus is the all in all, the beginning and the end, the secret of heaven and earth. Both movements are necessary for a truly evangelical (sometimes called “Gospel-centered” or “Christ-centered”) reading of Scripture. As we read in this way, we will find Christ exalted in the Scriptures, and we will proclaim Christ from them! As we read in this way, we will discover God’s plan for the coming and reigning King.
As a unified narrative, 1–2 Samuel reveals God’s plan for this King. We cannot avoid this fact, and we must understand the significance of the King’s story. The coming of Israel’s king to the world stage marks a watershed moment in history.
The monumental nature of this moment is not due to the nobility, wisdom, or greatness of the kings of Israel, especially when one compares them to other kings in history. In many (perhaps most) ways, the kings of Israel played marginal roles in the political and national goings on in the ancient world. Israel’s kings found themselves caught between major players on the world stage: the hammer of Egypt and the anvil of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley nation-states. Babylon was known for law. Egypt was known for wisdom. Assyria was known for brutal power. The gleam of Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian warlords, and Assyrian kings shone more brightly in history than did the dim light of the kings of the people of Israel. Yet appearances can be deceiving.
As we will see in this commentary, while nations prize visible strength and great wealth, true power comes from the hand of God. The greatness of Israel’s kings has little to do with human greatness at all. What makes the advent of Israel’s king so significant in world history is what God would do with and through him. And this is the story 1–2 Samuel tells.
Readers will notice that in their (English) Bibles, 1–2 Samuel appears to be two books. However 1–2 Samuel is not really two separate books but one book. That is not to say it is seamless and was composed at one time. Clearly there are different portions of the book. Still, these different parts have come together and been incorporated into a unified whole.
In ancient times our two books appear together on one scroll, and they tell one story of major transitions in the life of God’s people. It tells of the transition of Israelite worship at God’s shrine in Shiloh to His worship in Jerusalem, at the central sanctuary. It tells the story of the transition to kingship under Saul, the first king of Israel. It proclaims the transition from Saul’s reign to the reign of David, God’s appointed king. And it shows the story of the transition from Israelite tribal confederacy (as in the book of Judges) to a monarchy. But each of these transitions occurs in one unified and unfolding story. So in this commentary we will be using the language the “book” of Samuel or “1–2 Samuel” to describe the entire account.
Taking stock of the full story of 1–2 Samuel is important for reading and preaching the book. If we exalt Christ in 1–2 Samuel, we should not be content to pick out a story here or there, or a verse here or there, and show how it connects to Jesus, His life, and ministry. Rather, the whole freight of 1–2 Samuel draws us to Jesus, helps us see His beauty and glory, and helps us fit into His story.
In so many ways 1–2 Samuel is like a mirror to the modern world. It shows us a society with serious trouble. Among other things this text puts on display
men abusing women,
wives betrayed by husbands,
children gone wild,
corrupt religious leaders,
conspiracy to murder,
and the horrors of war.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The realities in 1–2 Samuel remind us of the modern world because we see them over and over again in our neighborhoods and friendships! You see, we all share the common problem of sin. Sin is, at its root, rebellion against God. It is our way of saying to our Creator that we know more than He does, and as a result we can live as we want rather than living according to His best plan. This was true for ancient Israel, and it is true for us today. So 1–2 Samuel mirrors the modern world.
And as a mirror 1–2 Samuel reveals something else profound: as people turn their backs on God and His ways, the results are catastrophic. What was true for their day is true for ours. Except for God’s gracious help, our sin would swallow us whole.
This point on the persistence and consequences of sin in the book of Samuel stands out because it reminds us of the realism of the biblical books. The actions of the leaders of Israel in the book of Samuel often are atrocious and immoral, and they help expose the foibles of our own leaders. Families, too, appear as dysfunctional as modern families. In the light of the earthiness and messiness of the biblical texts, we should not try to read or preach them by making them more palatable for a religious audience. Nor should we whitewash the problems of the characters presented therein so that we get a sanitized picture of life.
Reading the book of Samuel, we see life in all its gory detail. And as a result, readers who become familiar with the horrors of Scripture discover the vocabulary to speak about the horrors of our own world. God did not give 1–2 Samuel to show us the perfect world or even the best world. That is more the realm of science fiction or utopian novels. First and Second Samuel expose for careful readers the horrors and hope of the real world.
Eugene Peterson reminds us that 1–2 Samuel presents a story with realism and power but that we should not underestimate its power as a story:
Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation. A good storyteller gathers us into the story. We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked, realize there is more to this business of being human than we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, doors and windows open. The Hebrews were good storytellers, good in both the artistic and moral senses. (First and Second Samuel, 2)
Peterson hits the nail on the head. We would take his point one step further: how the author tells the story of 1–2 Samuel is as important as the fact that it is a good story! So, how does this book present the story? We touch on two dialectics: specificity and detail, story and divine redemption.
The author of Samuel presents the narrative with a certain specificity of detail. By using the term specificity, we do not mean that the author gives us all the details. Rather, the author gives only details that carry the story forward to present the message the author wants to convey.
It is similar to the way the Gospels present their stories of Jesus. The apostle John concludes his Gospel by saying,