First Samuel brings us out of the anarchy and moral decline of the period of the Judges and into the period of Israel's kings. The pivotal character in this transition is the prophet and judge Samuel, who anoints Israel's first two kings, Saul and David. The history of First Samuel unfolds largely through the lives of these three men: a mighty prophet, the promising but tragic life of Israels first king Saul, and his faithful successor David.
First and Samuel were originally one book, "The Book of Samuel" in the Hebrew Scriptures. This book is named after him because of his important role in its events and also because he probably wrote much of First Samuel. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 150 BC, the book of Samuel was combined with First and Second Kings to form a complete history of the Hebrew monarchy consisting of four sections. Kings and Samuel were later separated, but the divisions persisted, leaving us with First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings.
As First Samuel begins, the nation of Israel was at a religious low point. The priesthood was corrupt: the sons of Eli the high priest were selfishly appropriating the people's sacrifices for themselves and even committing sexual immorality in the environs of the tabernacle. The lives of these priests and their line will soon ended in death via God's judgment, but against this dark backdrop God intervenes in the life of a godly but barren woman named Hannah. She promises that if God will give her a son she will give him back to the Lord to serve the Lord all his life at the tabernacle. God grants her request and she keeps her promise. Samuel grows up to be a prophet, a man of prayer and the first of the prophets in a formal sense. The people press him to give them a king like the nations around them. Samuel hesitates, feeling that the people have rejected God's kingship in their request. God agrees, but tells him to grant their request. The result is the anointing of Saul, a tall, handsome man who seems to be a natural leader.
What follows is initial success marred by repeated fear and disobedience on Saul's part until he finally is removed in judgment and the young godly leader David is established as king. Saul failed God in several ways:
1. His presumption at God's altar (1 Samuel 13:11-13)
2. His cruelty to his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:44)
3. His disobedience in the matter of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:23)
4. His jealousy and hatred of David (1 Samuel 18:290
5. His sinful appeal to the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7).
Embedded in Saul's tragic story is the story of a brave young soldier in Saul's army. From humble beginnings as a shepherd, David rises to prominence as a warrior and a leader. Despite Saul's jealous attempts to kill him, David survives and thrives, and after years of testing, becomes Israel's king and establishes a new monarchy. Of the tribe of Judah, he will establish a throne upon which eventually one of his descendants, Jesus, will reign as Messiah forever. Though he had his faults, David was "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14) who sought God in prayer and wrote many Psalms we still read today. They endure as examples of a transparently God-absorbed man seeking the Lord amidst the pressures and trials of life. In them and in David's life we can see the reward of a life spent in passionate pursuit of God.