These two books were originally one, but they were later divided by the Greek translators of the Old Testament (Septuagint). The books are named after Samuel, who presided over Israel’s transition from a tribal league ruled by judges to a monarchy ruled by a king. Samuel—part prophet, priest, and judge himself—was God’s instrument for choosing a king for Israel.
These books tell the story of the beginning of Israel’s monarchy, stretching from the miraculous birth of Samuel to near the end of David’s reign, before the throne is transferred to his son, Solomon. Samuel’s birth is one of several miraculous birth stories in the Bible and is very similar to the story of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah. In the New Testament, the author of the Gospel of Luke incorporates portions of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 into both the songs of Mary and Zechariah, who, like Hannah, also rejoiced over the miraculous birth of their respective sons.
The book of 1 Samuel begins with a lengthy account of Samuel’s birth, calling, and life in war-torn Israel. When Samuel grows old, he appoints his sons as judges, but the people begin to clamor for a king. Samuel warns them that having a king has a down side: taxes, military conscription, and other things. The people want a king anyway, just like the other nations, and God reveals to Samuel that Saul from the tribe of Benjamin is his choice. The fact that Saul winds up being a horrible king suggests that God chose him to teach Israel a lesson about having a king “like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).
Eventually Saul is rejected as king and Samuel anoints David. He is from peasant stock, the youngest of his brothers, and an utterly unlikely candidate for kingship. Despite this, he is God’s choice, for “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 Samuel 16:7). The contrast between David the runt and the tall and handsome Saul is self-evident to any reader. After series of events where there were considerable tensions between Saul and David—Saul even tried to kill David but the kills himself at the end of 1 Samuel. 2 Samuel picks up with David anointed as king, who is then forced to quell the strife between his followers and those of Saul. Such political intrigue will follow David throughout his reign.
Under David, the territory reaches its most peaceful state, having defeated the Philistines, the Ammonites, and a number of other enemies. The high quickly turns to a low, however, when David sees Bathsheba bathing on a roof and commits adultery with her. To cover up his sin, David sends her husband Uriah to the front lines in the hope that he will be killed. David’s initial plan succeeds when Uriah dies in battle, and David takes Bathsheba for his wife. Even after God’s prophet uncovers David’s actions and David is restored before God, this murderous and adulterous act colors the rest of David’s reign. For example, after the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, Tamar’s full brother Absalom takes vengeance and kills Amnon. This results in Absalom fleeing and organizing a conspiracy against David, which is eventually defeated, but David’s reign is nonetheless continually marked by strife. This drama culminates in David’s sin of taking a census of his fighting men, which was apparently an act of self-reliant arrogance (even though God was the one who incited David to do it; see 2 Samuel 24:1). 2 Samuel ends with David building an altar “on the threshing floor of Araunah,” which would later become the site of the temple built by Solomon.
Once we come to the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, we are moving closer to what we today refer to as “history.” There is no question that the stories here are embellished for the purpose of driving home religious and political lessons. But, with the rise of a monarchy, we have arrived at an established nation with administrators and others who would record events for posterity. So, it is here, with the onset of the monarchy in the early first millennium BC that we see the Israelites beginning to be self-conscious of reflecting in writing on their own heritage. It was during this time that the writings that eventually became the Bible were first recorded. Israel’s early writing efforts were transmitted and transformed over the centuries that followed. This continued even until after Israel’s return from Babylonian exile in 539 BC, at which time the Bible as we know it began to take shape.
The books of 1-2 Samuel portray David as Israel’s ideal king, although far from flawless. He represented for later Israelites the “good old days” when the land was most at peace, Israel was united as one nation, and God’s blessings were most palpable. Israel would later look forward to a king—a messiah (which means anointed one)—who would lead Israel back to days of former glory. The Gospels present Jesus as that anointed son of David, who will lead a new Israel, made up of both Jews and Gentiles into a lasting kingdom of peace.
– Peter Enns