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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 Samuel Overview




I. Samuel.



Dean of Gloucester.




Dr. Payne Smith, for reasons suggested in his Introduction to the First Book of Samuel, in the Pulpit Commentary. puts the date a little later—somewhere in the time of Jehoshaphat.

The Rabbinical view is that Jeremiah was the author. Grotius adopts this view.

Stähelin suggests Hezekiah’s reign as the period of this composition.

Haevernich prefers the early years of Solomon.

Ewald places the first production as late as the second half of the Babylonian exile, but assumes that this was only a partial revision of a much earlier history.

It was well, surely, that the renowned centres of Hebrew education should possess a connected story of that marvellous century which had witnessed so mighty a change in the people. In its first years, Israel, without culture, almost without religion, seemed fast degenerating into a loose aggregation of Bedouin tribes, perpetually harassed by the neighbouring races, especially by a growing and powerful nation—the Philistines—who were constantly recruited from countries beyond the seas.

The last years of the same century witnessed a different state of things. Israel, having completely vanquished the neighbouring races, had developed into a treat and united nation. Its tribes were no longer confined to the narrow limits of Canaan; its influence was acknowledged over a great extent of the continent of South-western Asia. It had become, strange to relate, one of the great world-kingdoms, and under David and Solomon scarcely acknowledged a rival power in the East. The internal life of the people had undergone no less a change. Arts and literature were cultivated; great prosperity and a comparatively high state of culture and learning were to be found in the dominion ruled by the famous Solomon. An elaborate system of government had been established, and a powerful standing army, of which the twelve tribes formed the nucleus, gave a seeming stability to the marvellous structure of Hebrew power. On one of the old sacred hills, in the centre of the land originally conquered by the tribes, on a spot hallowed among the race by primeval tradition, the great king had built a temple to their God—the unseen Protector of the people—a building of magnificence and grandeur never surpassed, probably never equalled, in any land, though some 3,000 years have passed over the world since the dedication morning.

What strange chain of events had led up to this marvellous change in the condition of the Hebrew people? The sacred “scribe” begins his story of these “events” about 170 years before the death of Solomon, with a picture of the life of the people in the days of the aged Eli, high priest and judge of Israel.

1. THE DAYS OF ELI.—The introduction is abrupt. It says nothing of the early history of the old priestly judge, who, however, in his youth and vigorous manhood, must have been a distinguished hero and administrator; for his high post, which he retained to the end of his days, was not inherited by him, but won: Eli belonged only to the younger branch of the house of Aaron, and therefore the transfer to him of the high-priestly and judicial office, of which the historian tells us nothing, must have been the result of his own merit.

In his old age, as represented in this book, he appears as a benevolent, kindly man, but utterly incapable of controlling the wild passions of the people. His own sons, themselves priests, are represented as being covetous and utterly lawless; and a terrible picture of the shame and degradation of the people is painted for us in the brief, but vivid, recital of the doings at Shiloh in the old age of Eli, the high priest—in Shiloh, the chief religious centre of the race.

But though the people, as a whole, were deeply tainted, even in the highest ranks, with all the vices most hateful to the pure religion of their God, yet there were some families in Israel pious, simple, honest folk. Of these the writer gives us a specimen in the account of the house of Elkanah, and especially in the carefully drawn picture of the inner life of his wife, Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

At this time Israel was still contending for bare existence with the neighbouring nations and tribes; its very life and existence as a people (as has been related in another compilation, called the “Judges”) had long been threatened. One of these neighbouring peoples—the warlike Philistines—as it grew in power, directed its energies especially to the conquest of the Hebrew race, whom they seem to have hated with a fierce and jealous hatred.

In the old age of Eli, each year the Philistine encroachments seem to have grown more intolerable; each year the people seem to have been less capable of offering to these encroachments any effectual resistance. The patriot scribe who compiled our history, with stern grief, very shortly recounts a terrible sequence of national disasters—the utter defeat of his people; the loss of their prized and sacred symbol, the Ark of the covenant; the death of Eli, the high priest and judge, caused by shame and grief.


The nation had now reached its lowest pitch of degradation. It appeared as though nothing could now save Israel from being wiped out from among nations: for even worse, we know, happened to the “chosen race” than our historian tells us in this Book of Samuel. He recounts enough, surely, in his sorrowful narrative, for us to picture Israel’s deep distress—her armies beaten, her strong places taken, her people little better than trodden-down subjects of the idolatrous Philistines—but here he pauses; he refrains from dwelling on the sacking of Shiloh, on the destruction of the sanctuary, on the awful scenes which evidently followed the taking of the Ark in battle, and the death, through shame, of the aged Eli. It was a horror too great for the patriot scribe to dwell on. But Asaph, the psalmist, darkly speaks of this dread period in his mournful poem, where it speaks so eloquently of the time “when God greatly abhorred His Israel, so that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh.” The psalmist draws with a few masterly strokes a vivid picture of the utter desolation of the land—a prey to fire and sword:—

“He was wroth,

And greatly abhorred Israel:

So that He rejected the tabernacle in Shiloh—

The tent (which) He pitched among men.

And He gave His strength into captivity,

And His beauty into the adversary’s hand.

Yea, He gave over His people to the sword,

And was wroth with His inheritance.

Their young men the fire devoured,

And their maidens were not praised in the marriage song.

Their priests fell by the sword,

And their widows made no lamentation.”—Psalms 78.

The memory of the awful disaster seems never to have been lost in Israel. Far on in the history of the chosen people the prophet Jeremiah refers to this terrible judgment, which inaugurates in so stern a manner the public career of Samuel: “For go now to my place which was in Shiloh, where I made my name to dwell at the first, and see what I have done to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel” (Jeremiah 7:12. See also Ruth 4:14 and 1 Samuel 26:6 of the same prophet).

2. THE DAYS OF SAMUEL.—The prophet-scribe proceeds then to give an account of the times which immediately succeed the catastrophe of Shiloh and the death of Eli. In the period of the deepest degradation of the people (again to use Asaph’s words in Psalms 78), “the Lord awakened as one out of sleep,” and gave them Samuel. To the divinely-guided labours of this prophet-judge—no doubt, after Moses, the greatest of the sons of Israel—was owing all the matchless prosperity which the people enjoyed in the latter part of David’s life, and during the reign of his son Solomon. Our historian—educated, no doubt, in one of Samuel’s prophet schools—gives us some account of the Restorer’s early days. Brought up by the high priest Eli, under the shadow of the sanctuary at Shiloh, the child Samuel was early trained to love the glorious national traditions of the past, and to share in the yet more glorious national hopes for the future. He was too—living as he did at Shiloh—a sorrowful witness of the moral degradation of the lives of the foremost men of the land. Their fatal example in Shiloh was but too faithfully copied in all the coasts of Israel. He shared, too, in the terrible disaster which overwhelmed high priest and sanctuary, and which threatened the total ruin of his nation. From that sad day Samuel, the pupil of Eli, became the foremost man among the scattered and disorganised tribes. For long years he laboured with all his great powers, ever helped with the consciousness that the Glorious Arm of the Holy One who loved Israel was beside him. For long years he laboured to restore the dying life of the people, by infusing into it the old trust in the Eternal Friend—by restoring throughout the harassed land a respect for morality, and a reverence for the religion of their fathers.

The instruction was essentially free, was open to all comers, and, when educated, the prophet might return to his farm, or to some occupation connected with city life. But he was from henceforth an educated man; and he had been taught too the nature of Jehovah: how He was to be worshipped, and what was the life which every member of a covenant nation ought to lead.

In one sense, they tilled the position which the priesthood ought to have occupied, had the representatives of that order done their duty, but who—as Samuel well knew, not only from the past sad history of the period of the judges, but from his own personal observation at Shiloh during the life-time of Eli—had been tried, and had been found miserably wanting.

This was the first part of the prophetic historian’s work. Up to 1 Samuel 7:14, the life and work of Samuel, the pupil of Eli, was his theme. Here a new period in the story of Israel begins. The king—the creation of Samuel—from henceforth fills the central position; on him now all eyes are turned. The judge of Israel—Samuel—with dignified composure quits the office he had so well filled, and makes room for the leader of the new Israel. In this place (1 Samuel 7:14-17) the historian summarily condenses all that had still to be said about Samuel, and in the succeeding chapters the great judge only fills the subordinate, but still important, position which he may be said to have created—that of chief of the prophetic order.

4. THE DAYS OF DAVID.—In this First Book of Samuel we have only the memoirs of some of the early days of the mighty king, the days of his hard and painful trials; but it was in these times that the foundation stories of that character, loved of God, were laid. It was in the long wanderings with the ever-increasing band of his devoted men, who followed him in his exile, that he first showed that firm and unshaken trust in the Lord, who had chosen him out of the sheepfolds to be His servant—that simple, pure striving never to be untrue to Him—those longing efforts to return to Him after error and transgression—the trust, the striving, and the efforts, which were the mainsprings of that chequered, but still glorious, golden-hued life. We see, too, in the prophet-scribe’s selection of passages out of the first period of David’s career (in the First Book of Samuel), how deep and true was the enthusiasm which the young chieftain kindled in all those Jewish heroes who—driven from Saul’s court by Saul’s fatal mistakes—rallied round the hero, the friend, and pupil of Samuel. With rare power, by a few master-touches in the simple narrative, the scribe-writer shows us how the name of David became dearer and ever dearer to the people; and although the last chapter of our book ends with the account of the great military disaster which closed the reign of Saul, the reader feels no apprehension any longer for the fate of the chosen people, knowing that David was ready to step into the breach, conscious that to such a hero-king—strong in the devoted love of the nation—a splendid future indeed lay before Israel. That future is painted in the Second Book of Samuel, which describes at length the splendour and glory of the reign of David, the man after God’s own heart.

In this inspired chronicle of our book the youth of Israel, in the days of the kings, would find an answer to the question, “What changed their nation from ‘the loose aggregate of Bedouin tribes’ of the days of Eli into the mighty, world-famed Israel of the magnificent Solomon?” It was a noble story, and one well fitted to inspire a new, bright confidence in the mighty arm of Jehovah.

II. The Original Sources of the Book.—Two well-known passages in the Book of Chronicles—referred to below—inform us of certain original writings which issued most probably from the prophetic schools founded by Samuel. These writings, or memoirs, without doubt, form the basis of the two Books of Samuel.

In 1 Chronicles 29:29 the following statement concerning contemporary literature occurs: “Now the acts of David the king, behold they are written in the acts of Samuel the seer (the Roëh), and in the acts of Nathan the prophet (the Nabi), and in the acts of Gad the seer (the Chozeh).” We conclude then that for the narrative of Eli’s times, for the details respecting himself, for much of Saul’s story, for many of the events related (in the First Book of Samuel) of David’s early career—the principal written authority was the Books of the Acts of Samuel the Seer (Roëh). The acts of Gad the seer (Chozeh) were, there is little doubt, the foundation of a large portion of the narrative of the desert wanderings of David. Nathan the prophet (Nabi) supplies materials for the life and work of David in the so-called Second Book of Samuel. Each of the prophets, it is evident, recorded the events of his own times. But besides these written contemporary memoirs, and the well-authenticated oral traditions which were current in his time, the prophet-writer has incorporated in his history certain songs and verses of songs from poems, such as the “Song of Hannah,” “the folk-song respecting the victories of Saul,” and the still more glorious deeds of David; and notably, in the second book, “the elegy of David on Saul and Jonathan,” taken directly from the Book of the Upright (Yashar); he has also made use of certain psalms and songs composed by David.

Guided by the “Spirit of the Lord,” the unknown son of the prophets in his college home—possibly in the Naioth of Ramah—out of these materials made his selection, and wrote down, for the teaching of the Israel of his own time and—unconsciously, no doubt, as far as he was concerned—for the instruction of a long series of generations yet unborn, the strange story of the rise of his people to grandeur and to power.

1. DATE OF WRITING.—In the first section of this Introduction the probable date has been assumed to be the reign of King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon (see too the Note on p. 1). There are a few notes of time in the two Books of Samuel, which were most probably written or compiled by one hand—for instance, the statement, “Ziklag pertaineth unto the kings of Judah unto this day” (1 Samuel 27:6), plainly tells us the separation of Israel had already taken place; in the six stories respecting some of the principal heroes of David’s army, at the end of the Second Book (1 Samuel 23:8-29), the compiler is evidently uncertain as to their proper place in the life of David: thus a considerable time must have elapsed before the tradition of the exact period when these events happened could have died out. The chronology, too, of Saul’s reign is also indefinite. All this points to a date for the composition some time after David’s death. But, on the other hand, the language is pure, and virtually free from Chaldaisms and later forms of Hebrew, being in this respect different from the Books of Kings, where the Hebrew used belonged evidently to a later date. There are absolutely no hints as to the subsequent disasters of the people and the exile. Thenius, Keil, and Erdmann place the composition in the times of Rehoboam; Dean Payne Smith, a little later, probably in the days of King Jehoshaphat. On the whole, it seems most probable that in the latter days of King Rehoboam our book was compiled in its present form.

His divinely appointed successor, in his first great deed of arms, and in his subsequent military successes. is ever assisted to victory by the “glorious arm” of the Lord; by the same protection he is preserved through numberless persecutions and deadly perils, and is led higher and higher by the same Almighty Hand, till, without crime or plotting, he mounts his fallen predecessor’s throne.

Throughout the book, the work and power of a new order or class in Israel is dwelt on with peculiar insistence. The first notice of this “order of prophets”—which was the name by which those enrolled in its ranks were known—is made in the compilation now under our consideration. And that great servant of the Lord, Samuel, who was the mainspring of all the mighty changes wrought at this period among the people, was undoubtedly the founder of the famous “order.” From the period of the death of Eli, related in the early chapters of this book, for more than 800 years, during all the changing fortunes of the people, the prophetic order continued an enduring public power. It acted as the mediating agency between God and His people, and was the organ of the Spirit of the Lord to the children of Israel during the whole period of the monarchy and the captivity. After the sorrowful return from Babylon, the priesthood—which from the days of Eli onward had continued to exist, though shorn of its old splendour and influence—seems to have recovered some of its ancient power and consideration, and during the last melancholy age of the existence of Israel as a people once more filled the chief position in the nation.

III. Messianic Teaching.—In the Book of Samuel there is little which directly touches upon Messianic hopes, although the history is frequently quoted in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St. Paul and St. Luke.

Two fine passages, written by contemporary theologians of our own Church of England, sum up the Messianic teaching of our book.

“It is the first book in Holy Scripture which declares the incarnation of Christ as King in a particular family—the family of David. It is the first book in Scripture which announced that the kingdom founded in Him, raised up from the seed of David, would be universal and everlasting. Here also the prophetic song of Hannah gives the clue to the interpretation of this history. ‘The Lord,’ she says, ‘shall judge the ends of the earth,’ that is, His kingdom shall be established in all nations. ‘He shall give strength unto His King, and exalt the horn of His Anointed’—the Messiah, or Christ, who was come of David—and sit on His throne for ever.”—Bishop Wordsworth.

“It was thus Samuel’s lot to sketch out two of the main lines of thought which converge in Christ. The idea of the prophet and the idea of the king gain under him their shape and proportion. This is especially true as regards the latter. The king is ever in Samuel’s eyes ‘the Messiah,’ Jehovah’s Anointed One. Again and again the word occurs with marked prominence. It was the pregnant germ of a great future with the Jew. He never lost the idea, but carried it onward and onward, with David’s portrait for its centre, as of one in whom Messiah’s lineaments were marked in outline—feebly indeed, and imperfectly, but with the certainty that a Messiah would come who would fill up with glorious beauty that faint, blurred sketch.”—Dean Payne Smith.

IV. The Name.—Abarbanel writes—“All the contents of both books may, in a certain sense, be referred to Samuel: even the deeds of Saul and David, because both, having been anointed by Samuel, were, so to speak, the works of his hands.” In other words, the writing is called after Samuel not because he wrote it all, but on account of it describing his great work for the chosen people. The two Books of Samuel really form one book. In Hebrew MSS. they form one undivided work, and are called “the Book of Samuel.” The present division in the Hebrew Bible into two books under the same name dates only from the sixteenth century, and was introduced by Daniel Bomberg, after the example of the LXX. and Vulg. Versions.

In the LXX. and Vulg., however, these books are reckoned as belonging to the Book of the Kings. In the LXX. they are called “the Book of the Kingdoms.”


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel:4 Overview". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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