Leadership matters. As a society, we know this. When things go well, we praise the leader. When things go badly, we blame the leader. We’re certainly not always fair to these leaders — but, whether deserved or undeserved, we hold politicians, coaches, CEOs, managers, and even pastors to a higher standard.
Scripture reflects this truth. Although there are important exceptions — Ruth, Simeon, and some Galilean fishermen, to name a few examples — we learn far more about the priests, prophets, and kings of the Bible than common people. First Samuel is a book about several leaders. The first seven chapters are largely about Samuel as a judge and priest. Chapters 8-15 deal primarily with the reign of Saul. The author then introduces David at Chapter 16.
A vital aspect of 1 Samuel is how the leaders overlap. Samuel only judges Israel for two chapters (6-7) until he is looking to retire. He doesn’t die until Chapter 25, and then he makes an appearance after death in Chapter 28. Saul doesn’t really even reign for a chapter, before the Lord has found someone else to be king (13:14). Samuel anoints David as king in Chapter 16, but David doesn’t fully reign until 2 Samuel 5.
The uneven attention to each leader shows us, first, that we’re not reading a book that is simply informing us of historical events; otherwise, we’d see equal attention to Samuel, David, and Saul. Second, we’re also not reading a book only designed to teach us how to live. Can we learn life lessons from Samuel’s early eagerness as a boy to hear the word of the Lord? Yes. Can we learn life lessons from David’s refusal to take revenge on God’s chosen leader? Yes. Is the book about more than finding life application through the wise or foolish decisions of these leaders? Absolutely.
If we take 1 Samuel seriously, we should experience a longing. Samuel is in many ways almost the perfect judge, but God’s people want more. Samuel’s sons are failures, and God’s people longed for stability and expressed that longing sinfully. Saul is the people’s king. He looks the part and wins important victories. We would have celebrated with the people over his victories, but his ungodliness and later his paranoid, maniacal rage show the failures of the type of king that man chooses. We would have longed for another type of king — the type of king people often don’t know they need.
First Samuel leads us to David. The king we should long for is a “man after God’s own heart” (13:14). Christians know also that he is a forerunner of Christ. When we see David defeat Goliath in Chapter 17, the temptation is to think, “If I had faith and confidence like David, I could have defeated Goliath.” But there’s a key difference between David and us: David had just been anointed king one chapter earlier. The true message then is, “Only God’s anointed king can defeat God’s most intimidating enemy.”
The central challenge of this book for Christians is, “In whom or what are you trusting? For whom or what are you living?” Are we more like the characters who trust in the wrong leaders, or are we the type of people who trust in and live for God’s true King?
The Lord explained to His disciples on the road to Emmaus that the Old Testament was about Himself. We should look for Jesus in these stories. In 1 Samuel, it’s not hard to find Him.