The Portrayal of Samuel, Saul, and David

There are three main characters within the books of Samuel: Samuel, King Saul, and King David. Everyone else is a supporting character, and as M. J. Evans indicated, “Samuel might well be seen as the winner of the award for ‘best supporting actor’ in the Old Testament.”[1] That is quite a statement, but it derives from how the author of the books of Samuel wrote about him. From the fashion in which he was conceived and birthed—through prayer and prophecy—to his rearing by the priest Eli, there is nothing disparagingly written about his childhood. In fact, he is displayed most dramatically and favorably in 1 Samuel 3 when he hears from the Lord for the first time. “It may be that Samuel had to get up several times every night to help the aged Eli, and that it was not unusual for the old man to forget why he had called, but Samuel apparently responds every time with cheerfulness and patience.”[2] Though, it was not Eli, but the Lord, one can still see that he is a young man of service, and according to the author, he would always be a man of service.

That being said: while Samuel’s character does not change, his influence does. Because of his appointment of his self-absorbed sons as priests, the people reject his dynasty of leadership. Instead they want a king. Though he sought to dissuade them vehemently listing offenses the kings will do toward the people, ending his speech with, “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day,” (1 Sam 8:18)[3], the people “refused to obey the voice of Samuel,” (v. 19). That is not to say that he had lost all influence. After all, the people did come to Samuel.[4] At minimum, they sought his blessing, but more likely sought him to do the work only as Samuel would be able—to go to God on their behalf and make such a request. “The fact that Samuel, in spite of his own qualms about what they were asking, was prepared to take it to God, was able to recognize that God was going to grant their request, and therefore was willing to carry it forward is a great tribute to his integrity.”[5]

Samuel was not given the privilege of anointing one king, but two kings! Not since Moses had someone represented Yahweh with such accuracy and faithfulness. In fact, one could almost say that Samuel’s family life is an allusion to God and Israel. God had called Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:6), but instead they were just as foul and wicked as Samuel’s sons. Wicked children are wicked due to the sin nature within them, and their level of wickedness cannot always be directed back to the parents. Unlike Eli, the Lord never chastised Samuel for the behavior of his sons. Instead, the text informs, “Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice,” (1 Sam 8:3), laying the fault squarely on the sons and not their father.

Throughout his life, Samuel was a servant to God, the people, and the kings. The author of Samuel clearly portrayed Samuel favorably and thus can be said to have a high opinion of such a man. In fact, almost all one knows of Samuel is contained within this book. Other mentions within Scripture of him are informed by this book as well, and every single one portrays him favorably as a man of faith and a great prophet. Thus, others’ opinions have been shaped by the opinion of Samuel’s author.

Saul on the other hand, in a book of heroes, could almost be considered as the anti-hero. He looks the part of the hero, but he does not seem to act heroically. He is often portrayed as a coward, a maniacal, paranoid despot, and an impetuous and unwise king. This is not to say that there was no good that King Saul accomplished. “Saul was a strong military leader of religious and economic importance.”[6] S. Shalom Brooks gives credence to his military prowess by telling of a brigade major who captured Micmash using the same methods of King Saul thousands of years earlier.[7] The story apparently goes that upon reading the account in 1 Samuel 13-14,

The brigade major reflected that there must still be this narrow passage through the rocks, between the two spurs, and at the end of it the ‘half acre of land.’ He woke the commander and they read the passage through together once more. Patrols were sent out. They found the pass, which was thinly held by the Turks, and which led past two jagged rocks–obviously Bozez and Seneh. Up on top, beside Michmash, they could see by the light of the moon a small flat field.

The brigadier altered his plan of attack. Instead of deploying the whole brigade he sent one company through the pass under cover of darkness. On Feb 18th 1918, The few Turks whom they met were overpowered without a sound, the cliffs were scaled, and shortly before daybreak the company had taken up a position on the ‘half acre of land.’

The Turks woke up and took to their heels in disorder since they thought they were being surrounded by Allenby’s army. They were all killed or taken prisoner.

“And so,” concludes Major Gilbert, “after thousands of years British troops successfully copied the tactics of Saul and Jonathan.”[8]

His ability to delegate and set into place quality men and leaders is commendable. “Doeg’s [an Edomite] position perhaps reflects the establishment of a loyal relationship between Saul’s administrative office and his non-Israelite subjects and suggests that Saul emerged as a successful king not only among the Israelites, but also among non-Israelites.”[9] And the fact that most of Israel followed after his son Ish-boseth rather than David shows their loyalty to him. Thus, while Saul’s character quickly changes, his influence does not.

Still, the three themes mentioned above continually show themselves throughout the narrative in the books of Samuel. When the lots were cast, which eventually led to Saul’s name being chosen for king, the people could not find him. They had to pray for God to reveal his whereabouts. “[T]he LORD said, ‘Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage,” (1 Sam 10:22b). Though, Saul would lead his men in battle, one cannot help but notice the King’s composure when facing the Philistines. One must remember that Saul was chosen to defeat the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16). Yet having the promise of victory, the prophecy was ignored, while Goliath was heeded. “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid,” (1 Sam 17:11). Often, the text tells that Saul was afraid of David (though this lends itself closer to his paranoia than cowardice). It was also fear that led Saul to find the witch at En-dor (1 Sam 28:4) and fear gripped Saul once again after hearing from Samuel (1 Sam 28:20). Finally, while some would consider it to be honorable, one could also make an argument for cowardice when King Saul committed suicide on the battlefield.

It does not take the casual reader of 1 Samuel long to see that something was greatly wrong with King Saul’s soul, his psyche. While one can see snippets of wisdom at the beginning of his reign (1 Sam 10:26-27; 1 Sam 13), his latter years were fraught with paranoia and maniacal tendencies. An evil spirit came upon him causing these moments to be usually aimed at David—literally as he sought to spear him (1 Sam 18:11; 19:10). The king spent much time as he sought David through caves and wilderness (1 Sam 23:25; 26:2). However not all of his maniacal episodes were against David; they were also aimed at his own son Jonathan (1 Sam 20:33) and at Ahimelech the priest and those priests with him (1 Sam 22:17-18).

On top of all this, Saul was impetuous and unwise in his dealings. His refusal to wait for Samuel and making a sacrifice himself (1 Sam 13:8-14), ends with Samuel telling the king just how bad things were: “And Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you,’” (1 Sam 13:13a). Later one reads that Saul, once again, took matters into his own hands. Though God had told Saul to kill every living thing (men, women, children, animals, etc.), Saul did what he thought was right. He destroyed part of the Amalekites but saved the king and other aspects of the kingdom as well. Once again Samuel came to confront him. Though Saul repented, he did not repent. As Paul wrote, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what earnestness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter,” (2 Cor 7:10-11). Unlike the Corinthians whose repentance led to a desire to show their being back on track with God and his plan, personal pain from the hurt, fear of their sin against God, a longing and zeal to make things right with those whom they had wronged, etc., Saul accepted his sin but then sought to excuse it.

His confession is coerced by the prophet bit by bit, and even then it is disingenuous. He acknowledges wrongdoing instead of repudiating it; Saul regrets his actions because they leave him vulnerable, not because they were self-destructive and wrong. His words of confession are the same as Israel’s at Mizpah: “I have sinned”. . . However, he fails to exemplify the same wholehearted repentance that Israel illustrates. Instead, his words are followed by more words of defensive argumentation, deflection and rationalization.[10]

In the end, when one compares Saul with Samuel, he cannot help but think the author intended his reader to come away thinking of Saul in an unfavorable light. It is abundantly clear, that the author has disdain for Saul.

King David seems to lie somewhere in between Samuel and King Saul, though he is without a doubt beloved and set up as a sign of Israel’s greatest example of a king. The author of the books of Samuel spends more time on David than Samuel and Saul combined. In the Christian Bible he receives one and one half of the books named after Samuel. While the writer of the books seems to have written most favorably of Samuel and most disparagingly of Saul, he wrote very openly about David’s favorable moments and just as much about his disparaging moments. David resembles Samuel in his devotion to God. He is after all the one which Samuel prophesied to Saul, “But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be a prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you,” (1 Sam 13:14). This plays into Samuel’s seeking of Jesse’s sons the one who would be king. God told Samuel that Samuel is only looking to the outside appearance, but God was looking to the heart, the heart that is like His own. The stark comparison between Saul and David is laid out for all to notice. David would be what Saul never was. Most clearly seen not only in David’s being a man after God’s own heart, but upon the realization that David received the Spirit of God at the moment Saul lost Him (1 Samuel 16:13-14).

As one continues to read, he will find David consistently and continually seeking the Lord’s counsel (1 Sam 23:2, 4, 10; 30:7; 2 Sam 2:1; 5:19. . .). At the same time, David clearly loves the Lord as he danced before him (2 Sam 6:14), sought to build him a permanent dwelling place (2 Sam 7:2), and trusted him to always take care of his life and affairs (2 Sam 10:13; 16:10). “He is zealous for God’s honor, talented and brave, and at his best represents an ideal of Israelite kingship, but he does not always live up to that ideal, and the disappointments of his later years point up some of the problems that later come to haunt the monarchy.”[11]

The sins that David sinned were what could only be considered grievous sins. He committed adultery (2 Samuel 11:1-5); he committed murder (2 Sam 11:14-21); he took an unlawful census causing the death of tens of thousands (2 Samuel 24:1-16). For these he confessed and repented of his sins. In reference to Nathan’s confrontation about his adultery and murder, Bill Arnold wrote: “David’s ‘I have sinned’. . . is not followed by recrimination or self-vindication. His words stand alone—exposed, naked, vulnerable. . . Nathan’s prophetic pronouncement of forgiveness was just as gripping and profound as the announcement of guilt (2 Sam 12:13b).[12] He was loyal to a fault and yet at the same time if one showed no loyalty to him he could exact revenge when it was to his benefit (Nabal – 1 Sam 25, the Amalekite taking credit for Saul’s death – 2 Sam 2:1-16, Joab and Shemei—1 Kings 2:6-9).

The writer of Samuel never portrayed King David as fearful though he often told stories of David on the run. Rather than being fearful or cowardice, David was self-protective. He was neither cowardice nor willing to test God by staying in a dangerous and vulnerable situation. He was being sensible and wise taking to flight. He never seems to doubt the covenant that God made with him in 2 Samuel 7. The fact that the author continually brings the covenant to light through narrative, poems and songs, or passing expressions shows that this was a critical moment in the Davidic monarchy, and perhaps the most glorious moment for David. “The Davidic covenant is a vital link in the singular and organic covenantal trajectory building on Noah, Abraham, and Moses in biblical theology, and it becomes programmatic for NT authors when defining Jesus as the ‘Son of David.’”[13] While the author could not have known what the New Testament authors knew, he does seem to understand its importance as he would refer to the covenant not only when it was made but reminding the reader at the very end of his book as well (2 Sam 23:5).

In conclusion, the author in no way colored the story of David in some heroic tale where the hero could do no wrong. In fact, he does just the opposite by exposing the failures of such a beloved and lofty king, thus making this account go beyond the tales of Homer or epics of the Canaanite heroes. “The very ambivalence of the account toward David is an argument for its historical reliability.”[14] This ambivalence demonstrates that the writer was indeed conflicted. Knowing who David was and would be in all of Israelite history and knowing his short-comings led the writer to rejoice in the king’s accomplishments and nearly weep tears through the pages with his failures.

The author loved Samuel. He tended to despise Saul. But there was a love-hate relationship with David.


[1] Bill T. Arnold and H. M. T. Williamson, editors, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 866.

[2] Ibid., 864.

[3] Throughout this post, The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007) shall be cited unless otherwise stated.

[4] Arnold and Williamson, Dictionary: Historical Books, 865.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 880.

[7] Ibid., 882.

[8] cited as of 2/21/19

[9] Arnold and Williamson, Dictionary: Historical Books, 884.

[10] Ibid., 875.

[11] Ibid., 201.

[12] Ibid., 875.

[13] Ibid., 874.

[14] Ibid., 201.

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