Who Was Samuel in the Bible? Meet Your Instructor in Resisting Cynicism.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? Samuel was a prophet in ancient Israel who served as the hinge between the time of the judges and reign of the kings. He stabilized the nation after a period of national chaos and religious corruption. He led his nation for many years as judge and prophetic compass. Even after anointing Israel’s first king, he continued to be trusted as the nation’s moral head.
Samuel’s life in leadership gave him opportunity after opportunity to become cynical. He got an insider’s perspective on tabernacle life, religious leadership, the fickleness of people, and the treachery of power. Though he experienced seasons of frustration and grief, he never became a cynic. He kept seeking God and speaking truth even when he could easily have become disillusioned.
An Outline of Samuel’s Life
We’re going to outline Samuel’s life with the acrostic DEDICATED. Why the word “dedicated”? It’s because, when Samuel’s mother, Hannah, asked God for a child after years of barrenness, she promised that, if he gave her a child, she would dedicate him to God. Dedication to God and to his work characterized Samuel throughout his entire life.
Yet he remained dedicated to God amid a life of frustration that could have led to cynicism. This acronym outlines Samuel’s life according to disillusioning seasons experienced along the way. There was time after time he could have succumbed to bitterness and cynicism, and these are the major reasons, in chronological order:
Samuel’s story begins with a barren woman desperately longing to have a child. Hannah was one of two wives of a Jewish man named Elkanah. Elkanah and his wives lived in the hill country of Ephraim in northern Israel. According to 1 Chronicles 6:22-28, Elkanah was a Levite (specifically a Kohathite).
A bit on the historical context of this story in the Bible: After the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people entered the promised land under Joshua. When they settled in the land, they experienced a back-and-forth between wartime with other inhabitants of the land and peacetime under the periodic rule of Jewish judges (such as Samson and Gideon). This story takes place at the very end of the period of the judges.
One of Elkanah’s wives, Peninnah, already had children and often took the opportunity to remind Hannah that God had given her, not Hannah, children. Each year, Elkanah would take his wives to the Jewish tabernacle in Shiloh, also in the region of Ephraim. And because of the disparity in fertility, this trip would become the site of no little drama. 1 Samuel 1:7 says that, year after year, “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.”
“Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.”
The husband wanted to cheer Hannah up but was clueless as to how: “Her husband would say to her, ‘Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’” (1 Sam. 1:8). Side note to husbands: He should have stopped after the questions and let his wife answer.
The high priest at the tabernacle was named Eli, and he seems to have been having one of those days. When he saw and heard the distraught woman loudly weeping in the sanctuary, he understood what must be happening. He formed his question into an accusation: “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine” (1 Sam. 1:14).
Hannah explained to Eli that she wasn’t drunk; she was just crying out to God from her deep desperation and anguish. Eli realized he had misjudged and responded with a blessing of sorts:
“Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (1 Sam. 1:17).
True to Eli’s blessing, Hannah went home and became pregnant, and true to her word, she dedicated Samuel to the Lord and to the Lord’s work at the tabernacle. She named him “Samuel,” which likely means “name of God” or “God heard.” Her song in 1 Samuel 2 is similar in tone to the Magnificat, lyrics which Mary composed after finding out she would bear the Messiah. The song describes a grand reversal, in which the low are brought high. After Samuel, God went on to give Hannah two more sons and two daughters.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “Hannah went home and became pregnant, and true to her word, she dedicated Samuel to the Lord and to the Lord’s work at the tabernacle.”
Imagine the high priest’s surprise when the woman over whom he had spoken the blessing was back—with a little boy she was dedicating to Lord’s work at the tabernacle. She left Samuel there in Shiloh, but each year she would visit him and bring him a homemade robe to wear, which would go on over his ephod (1 Sam. 2:18-19), the garment the priests wore. It’s a beautiful picture of a child dedicated to God, but even the nation’s high priest would have fallen far short of the love and nurture a dedicated mother brings.
Hannah must have envisioned this arrangement as being the best possible spiritual scenario for her son: Be raised in Shiloh at the tabernacle, trained by no less than the high priest, treated as one of the high priest’s own sons. What she might not have known was that she was sending her lamb into a den of corruption. After Hannah’s beautiful song, the text goes on to say bluntly,
“Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:12).
Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, regularly robbed from the tabernacle sacrifices. They would send a servant to disrupt a tabernacle sacrifice by going up and sticking a fork into the middle of the meat, before it was even boiled, bring the meat up, and take it back to Eli’s sons. Eli’s sons were also actively seducing the young women who were helping at the tabernacle’s entrance.
Their outright rebellion was met with passivity by the man who was supposed to be the nation’s religious leader, their dad. After enough reports from the people about his sons’ behavior, Eli would mildly rebuke them, and they wouldn’t listen. He never removed them from their positions, and they never stopped their actions. It was bad enough that God “was planning to put them to death” (1 Sam. 2:25b). He wouldn’t do that, we might think. Keep reading.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “By contrast to Eli’s sons, Samuel ‘continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people.'”
It was into this mix of exploitative and passive leadership that Samuel grew up. By contrast to Eli’s sons, Samuel “continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people” (1 Sam. 2:26), a verse which sounds familiar to the description of Jesus’ growing-up years in Luke 2:52. Surrounded by exploitation and passivity, it would have been easy for Samuel to become a cynic. Instead, he became a prophet.
Things got so corrupt that one day a man of God came to Eli and predicted that both of his sons would die the same day, and that would be a sign to Eli that God was raising up a faithful leader for his tabernacle. Then, later one night, God came with a similar message and delivered it to the young Samuel himself. At first Samuel thought that Eli was calling him, and twice he went to Eli asking why Eli was calling. After the second time, Eli told Samuel that God was trying to get his attention. Eli told him to go back, lie down, listen for the verse, and when it came again, respond with, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
This time, Samuel responded by asking God to speak. The message from God was that the doom predicted earlier was imminent. Because of his sons’ rebellion and Eli’s passivity, God was about to remove them from leadership. When morning came, Samuel was afraid to pass along the message, but Eli insisted upon hearing what God had spoken. Even this message was met with passivity instead of resolve: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Sam. 3:18b).
“Samuel was afraid to pass along the message, but Eli insisted upon hearing what God had spoken.”
Samuel’s reputation as a prophet began to spread, such that, “All Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (1 Sam. 3:20-21).
Then it happened. A battle with the Philistines went poorly, with 4,000 Israelite soldiers dead on the battlefield. When the Israelites wondered what had happened, they realized that they needed more God on the battlefield. So, they took the ark of the covenant out of the tabernacle, had Eli’s two sons accompany it, and they proceeded to go to battle with the Philistines, but now with these spiritual powerhouses as their weapons. They were totally going to win now, right?
Singing the Hebrew version of “We Will Rock You,” the Israelites marched into battle with the ark and high priest’s sons, and the Philistines were seriously intimidated. Yet the Philistines’ fear of being overrun by the people they had so often overpowered translated into resolve. By the end of the battle, 30,000 Israelite soldiers lay dead. Eli’s sons died too. And the ultimate nightmare came true: the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant.
“The ultimate nightmare came true: the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant.”
When a messenger from the battle arrived back to tell the 98-year-old Eli what had happened in the battle, the old man fell over backward, his neck broke, and he died. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, and at the news, she went into labor, and died shortly after giving birth. Before she died, she named her son “Ichabod,” meaning “no glory,” because the glory had departed from Israel.
Israel’s enthusiasm for their foolproof plan of defeating the Philistines using the ark of the covenant gave way to bitter national despair. That’s a recipe for cynicism. Yet with Eli and his sons gone, Israel needed a leader who could bring hope back. That’s exactly what Samuel did.
After Eli died, Samuel became the leader of Israel, acting as judge and prophet and priest (recall that he was from the tribe of Levi). Because of the plagues that befell the Philistines, the Philistines brought the ark back seven months later—complete with a guilt offering. However, it wouldn’t return to Shiloh, but would remain in a city further south, Kiriath Jearim, for twenty years (until King David retrieved it and brought it to the new capital, Jerusalem). With the ark returned to Jewish hands, Samuel led the people in turning their hearts back to God. He led them to get rid of their idols and commit wholeheartedly to God (1 Sam. 7:2-3). He led them to fast and confess their sins.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “Samuel led the people in turning their hearts back to God. He led them to get rid of their idols and commit wholeheartedly to God.”
The next time the Philistines attacked Israel, Samuel sacrificed a lamb to God and cried out for God to intervene. This time, at the Battle of Mizpah, the Israelites were victorious, and Samuel set up a stone to memorialize the event, naming the stone “Ebenezer” (literally “stone of help”), saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12). This event began a campaign in which many towns the Israelites had lost to the Philistines were restored to Israel, and they began enjoying a period of peace (1 Sam. 7:14).
For decades, Samuel continued as Israel’s leader (1 Sam. 7:15). His routine included a regular circuit in which he would travel from town and act as judge for the people. Home base for him was his first home, Ramah in Ephraim, in which he built at altar to God and held court (1 Sam. 7:17).
Yet, even after decades of serving God faithfully as prophet and judge, Samuel followed in the footsteps of his early mentor Eli when it came to raising sons. Like Eli, Samuel had two sons, Joel and Abijah, and they served further south in Beersheba. They didn’t follow Samuel’s ways, but “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3). Like Eli’s sons, Samuel’s sons developed a reputation that made it distasteful that they should succeed him as national leaders. This provides the context for the Israelites asking Samuel to anoint for them a king.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “Samuel’s sons developed a reputation that made it distasteful that they should succeed him as national leaders.”
It must have been disillusioning for Samuel to have a bitter history repeat itself in the corruption of his own two sons. I’m reminded of Elijah’s lament at a low point in his life: “Take my life,” he prayed, “I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4).
In Samuel’s farewell speech, during the transition of power from Samuel to Saul, Samuel summarized his ministry and reiterated his integrity:
“Now you have a king as your leader. As for me, I am old and gray, and my sons are here with you. I have been your leader from my youth until this day. Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these things, I will make it right.” (1 Sam. 12:2-3)
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “I have been your leader from my youth until this day.”
To these questions, the people assured him that he had done none of these sins. The weakness of Samuel’s legacy, then, wasn’t in what he did, but in what he did not do: he didn’t raise his sons to walk in the same integrity before the Lord.
Many of us are familiar with stories of the Israelite kings (Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), so the idea of ancient Israel as a monarchy feels right to us. It did not feel right to Samuel. It greatly unsettled him. He took the change personally (to which God assured him that, actually, it was God who had the right to take it personally). God had wanted to be their king. “They have rejected me as their king,” God explained to Samuel (1 Sam. 8:7).
It wasn’t a wise trade. As God described to Samuel, a king would tax them heavily and squander their sons and daughters for his own purposes. Yet, even as Samuel recounted for the people God’s warnings, they persisted, and Samuel gave them what they wanted. He anointed a kingly-looking Benjamite named Saul as their first king. In his farewell speech, Samuel reminded them to stay away from idols and to serve God with all their hearts. As a final reminder to follow God, Samuel publicly prayed that God would send thunder and rain on the harvest, which God did, provoking amazement among the people (1 Sam. 12:18).
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “In his farewell speech, Samuel reminded them to stay away from idols and to serve God with all their hearts.”
They would need to remember God, because being blessed with kings who followed God faithfully would prove to be the exception.
It looked as if Saul would be the fulfillment of the Israelites’ dreams. He stood tall yet spoke humbly. He began to lead his people in multiple military victories. The relationship between Saul and Samuel looked tight and his reign began with hallmarks of God’s approval. Samuel genuinely loved Saul as a father loves a son.
All this made it all the more disillusioning when Saul’s insecurities and obsession with control eclipsed his trust in God. Here are some examples:
Usurping Samuel’s Role
While preparing for a battle with the Philistines, Saul’s men became fearful. The longer Saul waited for Samuel to come and perform the sacrifice, the more troops began to scatter. Finally, after seven days, Saul performed the sacrifice himself. Just as he finished, guess who arrived? Samuel. Because of this impetuous act cost, Samuel informed Saul that his lineage would not persist. God would find “a man after his own heart” to lead the nation. This prediction planted a paranoia in Saul’s heart which would darken the rest of his tenure as king.
Disobeying God’s Command
Through Samuel, God told Saul to engage the Amalekites in battle and destroy everyone and everything, because of how the Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were vulnerable traveling out of Egypt. After winning the battle against the Amalekites, Saul decided to keep the best of the animals and spare the Amalekite king. God’s word came to Samuel that night explaining what Saul had done. Knowing that Saul had directly defied God’s orders, “Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night” (1 Sam. 15:11).
The next day, while Saul was congratulating himself on the victory by having a monument set up in his honor, Samuel approached him, called him out on his disobedience, and said, “Why did you not obey the lord?” When Saul explained that he was planning to offer those animals in sacrifice to God, Samuel responded that “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).
“To obey is better than sacrifice.”
The prognosis wasn’t good: “You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” (1 Sam. 15:26).
Hunting God’s Anointed
After rejecting Saul as king, God told Samuel to go anoint the next king even while Saul lived (and would remain king for many more years, 42 years in all). Samuel was still in mourning over the direction Saul had taken when this message from God came (1 Sam. 16:1). God had chosen the next king from among the sons of a Bethlehemite named Jesse.
When Samuel saw Jesse’s kingly-looking firstborn, he was sure that the next king stood before him, but, no, that’s not whom God had chosen. Six more sons passed by, and still God hadn’t chosen any of them. God told Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7b). Samuel asked Jesse if there were any other sons. This is when we first get introduced to David, Jesse’s youngest who had been tasked with tending the sheep during the meeting with Samuel. At God’s cue, Samuel anointed David as the next king, although it would be years between the anointing and David’s coronation after Saul’s death.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “Samuel anointed David as the next king.”
Although his anointing remained hidden, David got his foot in the door of palace life. Saul became increasingly paranoid, and David was a musician often called upon to play music for Saul and help lift him out of his dark moods. David also stepped forward to meet the mortal combat challenge from the Philistine champion Goliath. Killing Goliath catapulted David into renown as a warrior, and he continued to chalk up military victories for Israel. Although Saul initially appreciated David (and even gave his daughter Michal to David as a wife), he soon put two and two together: Mentally, he connected David’s successes with Samuel’s earlier prophecies. He began to see the loyal David as the next king—unless Saul could somehow stop it from happening.
The rising celebrity David became the object of a celebration tune the women sang to the warriors returning from battle. The lyrics provoked King Saul to enraged jealousy toward David: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). Eventually, the jealousy boiled over to where Saul tried to spear David in the palace. After David was forced to flee as a fugitive, Saul twice took an army to capture David, although he was unsuccessful both times. Saul must have watched this spiral within Saul with anguish.
For the rest of his life, Samuel would watch Saul from a distance, because Saul wanted no more prophetic voices guiding him (until the very end of his life, as we will see). After the episode with the Amalekites, we are told, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him” (1 Sam. 15:35a).
Thus, Samuel ended his days in danger from the king. Samuel was afraid for his life when God sent him to anoint the new king from the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:2), so God told him to position it as a matter of going to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice. Years later, when David was on the run from Saul, he went to Samuel at Ramah for refuge. When Saul got word that they were in Ramah, he sent three groups of soldiers to capture David, but each one was thwarted when the Spirit came upon them and they began prophesying. Frustrated, Saul himself set off for Ramah and himself started prophesying, so that David and Samuel escaped the king’s vengeance. This is the last we hear of Samuel before his death and his burial in Ramah.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “When David was on the run from Saul, he went to Samuel at Ramah for refuge.”
But Samuel’s death isn’t actually the last we hear from him. A fascinating story that puzzles theologians is how Saul, on the eve of a major battle with the Philistines, consulted a medium to bring up Samuel and get his guidance one last time. To do this, Saul had to disguise himself because he had expelled mediums and spiritists from his realm. To the medium’s surprise, the prophet Samuel appeared. Saul explained that he was in distress and felt completely alone and spiritually in the dark about what would happen. Samuel’s final message to Saul matches the tone and theme of his first prophesy to Eli decades before:
“Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” (1 Sam. 28:16-19)
Samuel was a pivotal figure in Israelite history. Consider this line from one of the apostle Paul’s sermons: “After [the Exodus], God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king” (Acts 13:20-21a). Samuel makes the Hebrews 11 list of faithful followers of God throughout history: “…Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets” (Heb. 11:32b).
At many points in his life, Samuel could have turned bitter and cynical, but he kept on following God and serving God’s people as a faithful prophet, committed to telling hard truth and urging them to follow God. Even as the infant kingdom under Saul spiraled, God gave Samuel a glimpse of a hopeful future in letting him anoint a better king—a king who would foreshadow the Messianic King of kings, who would come and rescue us all from our own shameful spirals.
Who was Samuel in the Bible? “He kept on following God and serving God’s people as a faithful prophet, committed to telling hard truth and urging them to follow God.”
How do you resist cynicism when you face seasons of desperation and estrangement? How do you stay dedicated to God’s work when you see corruption and treachery within the community of God’s people? For such scenarios, Samuel teaches us to grieve instead of hardening our hearts and to trust that God will still bring good out of awful situations. In a world of cynics who invite us to extinguish our hopes, let’s be prophetic voices who call us to return to God.
Into blurry seasons of disillusionment, if we look, we can see that God has sent us rays of hope. The young Samuel gave hope to a defeated Eli. The young David gave hope to a grieving Samuel. Can you spot the rays of hope amid seasons of disillusionment? Can you be a ray of hope for somebody?