The Global Message of 1 Samuel

First Samuel in Redemptive History

God’s purpose in setting apart Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites, was to bless the nations of the world. The way we see this purpose move forward in 1 Samuel is through the beginning of the kingship in Israel. While on one level it was an act of faithlessness when Israel clamored to have a king like all the other nations of the world (1 Sam. 8:4–22), God used their wayward request to begin a succession of kings that would ultimately be fulfilled in the true and final king, Jesus himself.

In this way 1 Samuel demonstrates God’s continued care for his people, raising up for them a king who would be Israel’s champion, representative, and example. Saul, the first king, was outwardly impressive but failed to trust God truly. He proved himself to be a flawed, headstrong, and unworthy king. David, however, in spite of his profound moral failures, was God’s choice to be the start of a dynasty that will never end. Indeed, while this dynasty proved to produce one failed king after another, these failures served to heighten the longing for a true king who would not fail but would prove himself the ultimate champion, representative, and example for God’s people.

In God’s miraculous mercy, in the fullness of time, this dynasty did indeed bring forth a Ruler to lead God’s people in bringing blessing to all the nations of the earth.

The Folly of Superstition

Superstition today. The book of 1 Samuel provides the most systematic teaching in the Old Testament about the phenomenon of superstition. Though some might define superstition narrowly as social taboos or irrational beliefs, superstition is not limited to these things. At the heart of superstition is simply fear of the unknown. Any attempt to manipulate an unknown deity or the powers that supposedly control the world counts as a form of superstition. Understood in this broader sense, it becomes evident that superstition is still found around the world today, even among those with a Christian background. Believers sometimes think that daily Bible reading and prayer will bring predictable blessings, or that God may be bargained with through giving a bigger offering, or that wearing Christian symbols brings protection from harm. All this is superstition.

Superstition in 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 4–7, the story of the ark of the covenant (which represented God’s presence; see Ex. 25:10–22) demonstrates how a missionary God responds to superstitious people. In a battle against the Philistines, the Israelites believe that the presence of the ark can guarantee victory in battle: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Sam. 4:3). But the presence of the ark among them makes no difference. Not only is Israel defeated by the Philistines, but two tragedies follow: “The ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (4:11). Here is the greatest crisis so far in Israel’s history. The ark, which symbolized God’s presence and accompanied Israel into the Promised Land, has been taken. And the priest’s two sons, the future leaders of Israel, are both dead. To the Israelites, these setbacks mean nothing less than the collapse of their nation. Their divine leadership and their human leadership have both been lost.

God’s Grace to Israel and to the World

God’s greater purposes. The rest of 1 Samuel 4–7 reveals, however, that God often allows the superstitions of his people to fail so that they might learn that he remains sovereign even in defeat. Israel has given up hope because their false reliance on the ark has failed. But the battle over superstition is just getting started—the Philistines will soon see how a missionary God also defeats their superstition about the ark. They do what victorious armies in the ancient world typically did, moving the symbol of their enemy’s god into the temple of their own god: “Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon” (1 Sam. 5:2).

To the Philistines it is clear that Dagon, their god of fertility, is stronger than the God of Israel, because Israel lost the battle. On this point the Israelites would perhaps have agreed. But the next morning, the Philistines wake up to find Dagon flat on his face before the ark of the Lord. The Philistines wonder if perhaps Dagon was positioned improperly on his throne, so they return Dagon to his place. Once more, however, they find Dagon lying prostrate, this time with his head and hands cut off (1 Sam. 5:4).

Drawing all people to himself. Israel is defeated, but the God of Israel certainly is not. He has allowed the ark to be taken by the Philistines because of the superstition of the Israelites, but now the ark defeats the superstition of the Philistines! This account shows that when God’s people are faithless and attempt to manipulate God through their superstitions, he may allow their superstitions to succeed before then using his power to humble them. The humbled Philistines show more respect to the ark than the Israelites had done: “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” (1 Sam. 5:8; compare 4:3). God has hidden his power in Israel but reveals his power in Philistia—the Israelites give up on their God because superstition has led to defeat, yet due to the same superstition and its effects in Philistia, the Philistines give up on Dagon and acknowledge the God of Israel. Thus the superstitious world of both the Israelites and Philistines has been turned upside down by a missionary God who is creatively drawing all peoples to himself.

The Global Message of 1 Samuel for Today

Rejecting superstition. The God of the Bible, the one true God, is not a fickle tribal deity. He cannot be manipulated. When God’s people are superstitious, they show a lack of heartfelt faith in the God who orders all things according to his infinite wisdom. We can pray and act in confidence, not in the fear that drives superstition. Like the mobile ark in 1 Samuel 4–7, the sovereign God of the world is not captive to any particular place or human agenda or superstition.

God’s wisdom through human folly. God is at work not only in victory but also in defeat. His redemptive purposes are accomplished despite, and even through, human weakness and sinfulness. The supreme example of this is the cross of Christ. The world thought that it was defeating God by nailing his Son Jesus to a Roman cross, yet in that moment God was accomplishing his greatest victory (1 Cor. 1:18–2:16). As we confess our sinfulness and place our trust in Jesus alone, the missionary God who has overcome the powers of this world exchanges our sins and superstitions for the righteousness of Christ himself (2 Cor. 5:21) and the abiding presence of his Spirit, who never leaves us (John 14:16–17).