It’s only natural for Christians to take their role models from times of revival, but periods between revivals also provide deeply inspiring examples of God’s servants.
In times of spiritual declension, one of the church’s greatest needs is for those who will stand as ‘pillars’ in (Galatians 2:9), or (to change the metaphor) serve as anchors for, a weak church. Samuel is a supreme Old Testament example of such a person.
At various times prophet, priest and king (judge), he anticipated and adumbrated the roles of Messiah himself, at a time when Israel’s foundations were shaking.
When Samuel arrived on the scene, Israel was on the verge of spiritual and political collapse. Eli, the high priest, although personally possessing spiritual life (1 Samuel 3:18) was slow to detect it in others (1:13; 3:3-8). Moreover, he placed no restraint on his sons, Hophni and Phinehas — ‘sons of Belial’ — whose immorality had brought the priesthood into disrepute (2:12, 22).
Israel’s idolatry resulted in abject defeat by the Philistine army, although not before Israel’s elders had in desperation called for the ark of the covenant to be fetched in from Shiloh, so that ‘it may save us from the hand of our enemies’ (4:4). To them Yahweh had become just another minor deity, only one housed in a wooden box.
Little wonder that Israel was smitten with a ‘great slaughter’, the ark captured and Hophni and Phinehas slain, for the ‘glory had departed’ (4:21). For 20 years the nation lived in the shadow of defeat until at last it was driven to lament after the Lord (7:2).
Against this background, God’s covenant faithfulness shone forth. He whose historic victory over the Egyptians still terrified pagan nations (6:6) demonstrated his contempt for Philistine’s gods (1 Samuel 5) as he sovereignly brought back the ark and vindicated his own theocratic law (6:19-20).
Indeed, long before all this, God had been preparing the ground for this hour. A Nazarite from birth, Samuel’s birth was greeted with a paean of praise from godly Hannah — praise that forms a template for Mary’s Magnificat: ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation’ (2:1). Himself an answer to prayer (1:20), Samuel was to exercise a ministry of intercession paralleled only by Moses (Jeremiah 15:1; Psalm 99:6). And just as Moses was the one through whom the theocracy came into being, so Samuel would be the one by whom the theocracy would be resurrected from a near-death experience.
From a very early stage in Samuel’s ministry, it became clear that Israel had a true prophet once more, for ‘none of his words [fell] to the ground’ (3:19).
He was faithful in proclaiming God’s Word, first to Eli and then to the nation: ‘If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines’ (7:3).
Israel wanted to be ruled by a king rather than by judges. Samuel discerned what lay behind this: Israel longed for a human king ‘to judge us like all the nations’, because it wanted to exchange divine rule (8:5-7) for a Canaanite-style monarchy.
Samuel’s warning was that Israel would certainly end up with that kind of king, but the promised ‘liberty’ would turn into a Canaanite-style tyranny (8:13-17).
In the face of increasing apostasy, Samuel’s prophetic activity increased rather than diminished. Even when Saul, the first king, became estranged from God, Samuel gathered and consolidated the schools of prophetism.
In the absence of a central sanctuary, Spirit-filled men belonging to these schools gathered round Samuel (10:5; 22:5) and helped to uphold the Mosaic covenant.
Their writings later formed a corpus, from which the scriptures of the period were partly drawn (1 Chronicles 29:29). Their distinctively biblical view of Israel’s history became, in itself, a motivation for Israel to yield to Yahweh as her king.
By his role as kingmaker and God’s mouthpiece to Saul, Samuel exercised the ministry of a judge. He anointed Saul and David for kingship. As judge, he poured anointing oil upon their heads and the reality of this rite was attested by the Spirit.
‘And it was so, that when [Saul] had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart … and … he prophesied among the prophets’ (10:9-11); ‘and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward’ (16:13).
Samuel’s ‘kingly’ influence was nationwide. ‘He went from year to year in circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places’ (3:20; 7:16). The elders of Bethlehem trembled at his coming (16:4) and even Saul thought it wiser first to send messengers when he learnt that David was seeking asylum with Samuel (19:18 ff). Ebenezer, ‘the stone of help’, commemorated victories over the Philistines to which Samuel, as God’s ordained deliverer, led Israel (1 Samuel 7:10-12). It was to be Samuel rather than Saul whose death Israel lamented (28:3), with Samuel counted above Saul despite the latter’s royalty (1 Samuel 7:13b).
The spiritual responsibilities of theocratic kingship — kingship under God’s rule — required that only an Israelite could be king. It forbad the king from retaining a personal army, practising polygamy or causing the people to return to Egypt. Above all, it spelled out that he should be someone whom the Lord himself should choose (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Samuel would not allow Saul to deviate from this theocratic understanding (10:25). So, when Saul arrogated the right to offer burnt offerings, Samuel’s action was decisive: he recognised that Saul was reaching out for sacral kingship and must, therefore, forfeit the monarchy altogether — ‘But now your kingdom shall not continue’ (13:14).
Saul plunged ever deeper into disobedience. He accumulated a standing army and then, contrary to God’s express command, spared from death Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the Amalekite sheep and oxen.
In the face of this flagrant disobedience, Samuel declared: ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.
‘For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he also has rejected you from being king’ (15:22-23).
When Saul descended into witchcraft, Samuel returned from the dead to utter a final judgement against him: ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbour, David’ (28:17).
As a theocratic king, Saul had been an abject failure and one with whom Samuel had had to cope through most of his ministry. But Samuel’s ministry was also priestly. It was only God’s intervention that caused him to stop praying for Saul (15:34‒16:1).
Like the Lord Jesus Christ himself (Luke 13:34), his soul was burdened for those who opposed him. When the people requested a king, he denounced their sin but did not hold personal grudges against them. The nation assembled to hear him intercede publicly for their deliverance (1 Samuel 7:5-9), and later Samuel could say to Israel, ‘Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you’ (12:23).
With the collapse of official worship, Samuel sometimes fulfilled the role of a sacrificing priest (7:9). He later helped to reorganise the tabernacle service and dedicate furniture for the house of God (1 Chronicles 9:22; 26:28).
The influence of Samuel’s ministry was far-reaching and pervasive, but he did not live to see the blessing and deliverance that would one day emerge. He had to labour on amidst heartache and disappointment, but he never ceased serving the Lord and his people.
Samuel’s life work began in the unpromising era of Eli. It absorbed the crushing disappointment of Saul, and it ended up with David, ‘the man after God’s own heart’, being hunted by Saul like a wild animal. Yet, through Samuel, God kept Israel’s dimly burning fires of covenant faithfulness alive. Samuel was God’s anchorman for his day and he reminds us just how much one faithful man can achieve, even if he doesn’t live to see the blessing. The day would come when Israel would again renounce Canaanite idolatry and submit to King David, whose reign would be typical of Messiah’s (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 72).
Humanly speaking, that could never have happened if Samuel had not held fast against all the odds. Samuel, in his faithfulness, is an outstanding role model for today.