Samuel : Israel Under Judges – Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets

Abraham : Religious Faith
Joseph : Israel in Egypt
Moses : Jewish Jurisprudence
Samuel : Israel Under Judges
David : Israelitish Conquests
Solomon : Glory of The Monarchy
Elijah : Division of The Kingdom
Isaiah : National Degeneracy
Jeremiah : Fall of Jerusalem
Judas Maccabaeus : Restoration of The Jewish Commonwealth
Saint Paul : The Spread of Christianity

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets
John Lord

Topics Covered
Condition of the Israelites on the death of Joshua
The Judges
Birth and youth of Samuel
The Jewish Theocracy
Eli and his sons
Samuel called to be judge
His efforts to rekindle religious life
The school of the prophets
The people want a king
Views of Samuel as to a change of government
He tells the people the consequences
Persistency of the Israelites
Condition of the nation
Saul privately anointed king
Clothed with regal power
Mistakes and wars of Saul
Spares Agag
Rebuked by Samuel
Samuel withdraws into retirement
Seeks a successor to Saul
Jehovah indicates the selection of David
Saul becomes proud and jealous
His wars with the Philistines
Great victory at Michmash
Death of Samuel
Universal mourning
His character as Prophet
His moral greatness
His transcendent influence

Samuel : Israel Under Judges

1100 B.C.

After Moses, and until David arose, it would be difficult to select any man who rendered greater services to the Israelitish nation than Samuel. He does not stand out in history as a man of dazzling intellectual qualities; but during a long life he efficiently labored to give to the nation political unity and power, and to reclaim it from idolatries. He was both a political and moral reformer,–an organizer of new forces, a man of great executive ability, a judge and a prophet. He made no mistakes, and committed no crimes. In view of his wisdom and sanctity it is evident that he would have adorned the office of high-priest; but as he did not belong to the family of Aaron, this great dignity could not be conferred on him. His character was reproachless. He was, indeed, one of the best men that ever lived, universally revered while living, and equally mourned when he died. He ruled the nation in a great crisis, and his influence was irresistible, because favored alike by God and man.

Samuel lived in one of the most tumultuous and unsettled periods of Jewish history, when the nation was in a transition state from anarchy to law, from political slavery to national independence. When he appeared, there was no settled government; the surrounding nations were still unconquered, and had reduced the Israelites to humiliating dependence. Deliverers had arisen occasionally from the time of Joshua,–like Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson,–but their victories were not decisive or permanent. Midianites, Amorites, and Philistines successively oppressed Israel, from generation to generation; they even succeeded in taking away their weapons of war. Resistance to this tyranny was apparently hopeless, and the nation would have sunk into despair but for occasional providential aid. The sacred ark was for a time in the hands of enemies, and Shiloh, the religious capital,–abode of the tabernacle and the ark,–had been burned. Every smith’s forge where a sword or a spear-head could be rudely made was shut up, and the people were forced to go to the forges of their oppressors to get even their ploughshares sharpened.

On the death of Joshua (about 1350 B.C.), who had succeeded Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan, “nearly the whole of the sea-coast, all the strongholds in the rich plain of Esdraelon, and, in the heart of the country, the invincible fortress of Jebus [later site of Jerusalem], were still in the hands of the unbelievers.” The conquest therefore was yet imperfect, like that of the Christianized Saxons in the time of Alfred over the pagan Danes in England. The times were full of peril and fear. They developed the military energies of the Israelites, but bred license, robbery, and crime,–a wild spirit of personal independence unfavorable to law and order. In those days “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” It was a period of utter disorder, anarchy, and lawlessness, like the condition of Germany and Italy in the Middle Ages. The persons who bore rule permanently were the princes or heads of the several tribes, the judges, and the high-priest; and in that primitive state of society these dignitaries rode on asses, and lived in tents. The virtues of the people were rough, and their habits warlike. Their great men were fighters. Samson was a sort of Hercules, and Jephthah an Idomeneus,–a lawless freebooter. The house of Micah was like a feudal castle; the Benjamite war was like the strife of Highland clans. Jael was a Hebrew Boadicea; Gideon, at the head of his three hundred men, might have been a hero of mediaeval romance.

The saddest thing among these social and political evils was a great decline of religious life. The priesthood was disgraced by the prevailing vices of the times. The Mosaic rites may have been technically observed, but the officiating priests were sensual and worldly, while gross darkness covered the land. The high-priests exercised but a feeble influence; and even Eli could not, or did not, restrain the glaring immoralities of his own sons. In those evil days there were no revelations from Jehovah, and there was no divine vision among the prophets. Never did a nation have greater need of a deliverer.

It was then that Samuel arose, and he first appears as a pious boy, consecrated to priestly duties by a remarkable mother. His childhood was passed in the sacred tent of Shiloh, as an attendant, or servant, of the aged high-priest, or what would be called by the Catholic Church an acolyte. He belonged to the great tribe of Ephraim, being the son of Elkanah, of whom nothing is worthy of notice except that he was a polygamist. His mother Hannah (or Anna), however, was a Hebrew Saint Theresa, almost a Nazarite in her asceticism and a prophetess in her gifts; her song of thanksgiving on the birth of Samuel, for a special answer to her prayer, is one of the most beautiful remains of Hebrew poetry. From his infancy Samuel was especially dedicated to the service of God. He was not a priest, since he did not belong to the priestly caste; but the Lord was with him, and raised him up to be more than priest,–even a prophet and a judge. When a mere child, it was he who declared to Eli the ruin of his house, since he had not restrained the wickedness and cruelty of his sons. From that time the prophetic character of Samuel was established, and his influence constantly increased until he became the foremost man of his nation, second to no one in power and dignity since the time of Moses.

But there is not much recorded of him until twenty years after the death of Eli, who lived to be ninety. It was during this period that the Philistines had carried away the sacred ark from Shiloh, and had overrun the country and oppressed the Hebrews, who it seems had fallen into idolatry, worshipping Ashtaroth and other strange gods. It was Samuel, already recognized as a great prophet and judge, who aroused the nation from its idolatry and delivered it from the hand of the Philistines at Mizpeh, where a great battle was fought, so that these terrible foes were subdued, and came no more into the borders of Israel during the days of Samuel; and all the cities they had taken, from Ekron unto Gath, were restored. The subjection of the Philistines was followed by the undisputed rule of Samuel, under the name of Judge, during his life, even after the consecration of Saul.

The Israelitish Judge seems to have been a sort of dictator, called to power by the will of the people in times of great emergency and peril, as among the Romans. “The Theocracy,” says Ewald, “by pronouncing any human ruler unnecessary as a permanent element of the State, lapsed into anarchy and weakness. When a nation is without a government strong enough to repress lawlessness within and to protect from foes without, the whole people very soon divides once more into the two ranks of master and servant. In Deborah’s songs all Israel, so far as lay in her circle of vision, was divided into princes and people. Hence the nation consisted of innumerable self-constituted and self-sustained kingdoms, formed whenever some chieftain elevated himself whom individuals or the body of citizens in a town were willing to serve. Gaal, son of Zobah, entered Shechem with troops raised by himself, just like a condottiere in Italy in the Middle Ages. As it became evident that the nation could not permanently dispense with an earthly government, it was forced to rally round some powerful leader; and as the Theocracy was still acknowledged by the best of the nation, these leaders, who owed their power to circumstances, could not easily be transformed into regular kings, but to exceptional dictators the State offered no strong resistance.”

And yet these rulers arose not solely by force of individual prowess, but were expressly raised up by God as deliverers of the nation in times of peculiar peril. And further, the spirit of Jehovah came upon them, as it did upon Deborah the prophetess, and as it did still more remarkably upon Moses himself.

The last and greatest of these extemporized leaders called Judges, was Samuel. In him the people learned to put their trust; and the national assembly which he summoned was completely guided by him. No one of the Judges, it would seem, had his seat of government in any central city, but where he happened to live. So the residence of Samuel was at his native town of Ramah, where he married. It would seem that he travelled from city to city to administer justice, like the judges of England on their circuits; but, unlike them, on his own supreme authority,–not with power delegated by a king, but acknowledging no superior except God himself, from whom he received his commission. We know not at what time and whom he married; but his two sons, who in his old age shared power with him, did not discharge their delegated functions more honorably than the sons of Eli, who had been a disgrace to their office, to their father, and to the nation. One of the greatest mysteries of human life is the seeming inability of pious fathers to check the vices of their children, who often go astray under an apparently irresistible impulse or innate depravity, in spite of parental precept and example,–thus seeming to show that neither virtue nor vice can be surely transmitted, and that every human being stands on his individual responsibility, with peculiar temptations to combat, and peculiar circumstances to influence him. The son of a saint becomes mysteriously a drunkard or a fraud, and the son of a sensualist becomes an ascetic. This does not uniformly occur: in fact, the sons of good men are more likely to be an honor to their families than the sons of the wicked; but why are exceptions so common as to be proverbial?

It was no light work which was imposed on the shoulders of Samuel,–to establish law and order among the demoralized tribes of the Jews, and to prepare them for political independence; and it was a still greater labor to effect a moral reformation and reintroduce the worship of Jehovah. Both of these objects he seems to have accomplished; and his success places him in the list of great reformers, like Mohammed and Luther,–but greater and better than either, since he did not attempt, like the former, to bring about a good end by bad means; nor was he stained by personal defects, like the latter. “It was his object to re-enkindle the national life of the nation, so as to combat successfully its enemies in the field, which could be attained by rousing a common religious feeling;” for he saw that there could be no true enthusiasm without a sense of dependence on the God of battles, and that heroism could be stimulated only by exalted sentiments, both of patriotism and religion.

But how was Samuel to rekindle a fervent religious life among the degenerate Israelites in such unsettled times? Only by rousing the people by his teachings and his eloquence. He was a preacher of righteousness, and in all probability went from city to city and village to village,–as Saint Bernard did when he preached a crusade against the infidels, as John the Baptist did when he preached repentance, as Whitefield did when he sought to kindle religious enthusiasm in England. So he set himself to educate his countrymen in the great truths which appealed to the inner life,–to the heart and conscience. This he did, first, by rousing the slumbering spirits of the elders of tribes when they sought his counsel as a prophet, the like of whom had not appeared since Moses, so gifted and so earnest; and secondly, by founding a school for the education of young men who should go with his instructions wherever he chose to send them, like the early missionaries, to hamlets and villages which he was unable to visit in person. The first “school of the prophets” was a seminary of missionaries, animated by the spirit of a teacher whom they feared and admired as no prophet had been revered in the whole history of the nation since Moses.

Samuel communicated his own burning spirit wherever he went, and the burden of his eloquence was zeal and loyalty for Jehovah. Before his time the prophets had been known as seers; but Samuel superadded the duties of a religious teacher,–the spokesman of the Almighty. The number of his disciples, whom he doubtless commissioned as evangelists, must have been very large. They lived in communities and ate in common, like the primitive monks. They probably resembled the early Dominican and Franciscan friars of the Middle Ages, who were kindled to enthusiasm by such teachers as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura. Like them they were ascetics in their habits and dress, wearing sheepskins, and living on locusts and wild honey,–on the fruits which grew spontaneously in the rich valleys of their well-watered country. It did not require much learning to arouse the common people to new duties and a higher religious life. The Bible does not inform us as to the details by which Samuel made his influence felt, but there can be no doubt that by some means he kindled a religious life before unknown among his countrymen. He infused courage and hope into their despairing hearts, and laid the foundation of military enthusiasm by combining with it religious ardor; so that by the discipline of forty years,–the same period employed by Moses in transmuting a horde of slaves into a national host of warriors; a period long enough to drop out the corrupted elements and replace them with the better trained rising generation,–the nation was prepared for accomplishing the victories of Saul and David. But for Samuel no great captains would have arisen to lead the scattered and dispirited hosts of Israel against the Philistines and other enemies. He was thus a political leader as well as a religious teacher, combining the offices of judge and prophet. Everybody felt that he was directly commissioned by God, and his words had the force of inspiration. He reigned with as much power as a king over all the tribes, though clad in the garments of humility. Who in all Israel was greater than he, even after he had anointed Saul to the kingly office?

The great outward event in the life of Samuel was the transition of the Israelites from a theocratic to a monarchical government. It was a political revolution, and like all revolutions was fraught with both good and evil, yet seemingly demanded by the spirit of the times,–in one sense an advance in civilization, in another a retrogression in primeval virtues. It resulted in a great progress in material arts, culture, and power, but also in a decline in those simplicities that favor a religious life, on which the strength of man is apparently built,–that is, a state of society in which man in his ordinary life draws nearest to his Maker, to his kindred, and his home; to which luxury and demoralizing pleasures are unknown; a life free from temptations and intellectual snares, from political ambition and social unrest, from recognized injustice and stinging inequalities. The historian with his theory of development might call this revolution the change from national youth to manhood, the emerging from the dark ages of Hebrew history to a period of national aggrandizement and growth in civilization,–one of the necessary changes which must take place if a nation would become strong, powerful, and cultivated. To the eye of the contemplative, conservative, and God-fearing Samuel this change of government seemed full of perils and dangers, for which the nation was not fully prepared. He felt it to be a change which might wean the Israelites from their new sense of dependence on God, the only hope of nations, and which might favor another lapse to pagan idolatries and a decline in household virtues, such as had been illustrated in the life of Ruth and Boaz,–and hence might prove a mere exchange of that rugged life which elevates the soul, for those gilded glories which adorn and pamper the mortal body. He certainly foresaw and knew that the change in government would produce tyranny, oppression, and injustice, from which there could be no escape and for which there could be no redress, for he told the people in detail just what they should suffer at the hands of any king whom they might have; and these were in his eyes evils which nothing could compensate,–the loss of liberty, the extinction of personal independence, and a probable rebellion against the Supreme Jehovah in the degrading worship of the gods of idolatrous nations.

When the people, therefore, under the guidance of so-called “progressive leaders,” hankered for a government which would make them like other nations, and demanded a king, the prophet was greatly moved and sore displeased; and this displeasure was heightened by a bitter humiliation when the elders reproached him because of the misgovernment of his own sons. He could not at first say a word, in view of a demand apparently justified by the conduct of the existing rulers. There was a just cause of complaint. If his own sons would take bribes in rendering judgment, who could be trusted? Civilization would say that there was needed a stronger arm to punish crime and enforce the laws.

So Samuel, perplexed and disheartened, fearing that the political changes would be evil rather than good, and yet feeling unable to combat the popular voice, sought wisdom in prayer. “And the Lord said, hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should reign over them. Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.” The Almighty would not take away the free-will of the people; but Samuel is required to show them the perversity of their will, and that if they should choose evil the consequences would be on their heads and the heads of their children, from generation to generation.

Samuel therefore spake unto the people,–probably the elders and leading men, for the aristocratic element of society prevailed, as in the Middle Ages of feudal Europe, when even royal power was merely nominal, and barons and bishops ruled,–and said: “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He shall take your sons and appoint them for himself for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots; and he shall appoint captains over thousands and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear [plough] his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectioners [or perfumers] and cooks and bakers. And he will take your fields and your vineyards and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants; and he will take the tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. And he will take the tenth of your sheep; and ye shall be his servants. And ye will cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” It would thus appear that the monarchy which the people sought would necessarily become nearly absolute, limited only by the will of God as interpreted by priests and prophets,–for the theocracy was not to be destroyed, but still maintained as even superior to the royal authority. The future king was to be supreme in affairs of state, in the direction of armies, in the appointment of captains and commanders, in the general superintendence of the realm in worldly matters; but he could not go contrary to the divine commands as they would be revealed to him, without incurring a fearful penalty. He could not interfere with the functions of the priesthood under any pretence whatever; and further, he was required to rule on principles of equity and immutable justice. He could not repel the divine voice, whether it spake to his consciousness or was revealed to him by divinely commissioned prophets, without the certainty of divine chastisement. Thus was his power limited, even by invisible forces superior to his own; for Jehovah had not withdrawn his special jurisdiction over the chosen people for whom he was preparing a splendid destiny,–that is, through them, the redemption of the world.

Whether the people of Israel did not believe the predictions of the prophet, or wished to have a kingly government in spite of its evils, in order to become more powerful as a nation, we do not know. All that we know is that they persisted in their demand, and that God granted their request. With all the memories and traditions of their slavery in the land of Egypt, and the grinding despotism incident to an absolute monarchy of which their ancestors bore witness, they preferred despotism with its evils to the independence they had enjoyed under the Judges; for nationality, to which the Jewish people were casting longing eyes, demands law and order as the first condition of society. In obedience to this same principle the grinding monarchy of Louis XIV. seemed preferable to the turbulence and anarchy of the Middle Ages, since unarmed and obscure citizens felt safe in their humble avocations. In like manner, after the license of the French Revolution the people said, “Give us a king once more!” and seated Napoleon on the throne of the Bourbons,–a ruler who took one man out of every five adults to recruit his armies and consolidate his power, which he called the glory of France. Thus kings have reigned by the will of the people,–or, as they call it, by the grace of God,–from Saul and David to our own times, except in those few countries where liberty is preferred to material power and military laurels.

The peculiar situation of the Israelites in a narrow strip of territory which was the highway between Syria and Egypt, likely to be overrun by Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, to say nothing of the hostile nations which surrounded them, such as Moabites and Philistines, necessarily made them a warlike people (like the inhabitants of the Swiss Cantons five or six hundred years ago), and they were hence led to put a high estimate on military qualities, especially on the general who led them to battle. They accordingly desired a greater centralized power than the Judges wielded, which could be exercised only by a king, intrenched in a strong capital. Their desire for a king was natural, and almost excusable if they were willing to pay the inevitable price. They simply wished to surrender liberty for protection and political safety. They did not repudiate the fundamental doctrine of their religion; they simply wanted a change of government,–a more efficient administration.

The selection of a king did not rest with the people, however, but with the great prophet who had ruled them with so much wisdom and ability, and who was regarded as the interpreter of the will of God.

Samuel, by the direction of God, did not go into the powerful tribe of Ephraim, which possessed one half of the Israelitish territory, to select a sovereign, but to the smallest of the tribes, that of Benjamin,–the most warlike, however,–and to one of the least of the families of that tribe, dwelling in very humble life. Kish, the Benjamite, had sent out his son Saul in quest of three asses which had strayed away from the farm,–a man so poor that he had no money to give to the seer who should direct his search, as was customary, and was obliged to borrow a quarter of a shekel from his servant when they went together to seek the counsel of Samuel. But this obscure youth was “a choice young man, and a goodly.” He had a commanding presence, was very beautiful, and was head and shoulders taller than any other man of his tribe,–a man every way likely to succeed in war. Samuel no sooner saw the commanding figure and intelligent countenance of Saul than he was assured that this was the man whom the Lord had chosen to be the future captain and champion of Israel. He at once treated him with distinguished honor, and made him sit at his own table, much to the amazement of the thirty nobles who also were bidden to a banquet. The prophet took the young man aside, conducted him to the top of his house, anointed him with the sacred oil, kissed him (a form of allegiance), and communicated to him the will of God. But Saul was only privately consecrated, and with rare discretion told no man of his good fortune,–for he had not yet distinguished himself in any way, and would have been laughed to scorn by his relatives, as Joseph was by his brothers, had he revealed his destiny.

Nor did Samuel dare to tell the people of the man whom the Lord had chosen to rule over them, but assembled all the tribes, that the choice might be publicly indicated. Probably to their astonishment the little tribe of Benjamin was “taken,”–that is pointed out, presumably by lot, as was their custom when appealing for divine direction; and out of the tribe of Benjamin the family of Matri was chosen, and Saul the son of Kish was selected. But Saul could not be found. With rare modesty and humility he had hidden himself. When at length they brought him from his hiding-place Samuel said unto the people, “See ye him whom the Lord hath chosen, that there is none like him among all the people!” And such was the authority of Samuel that the people shouted, saying, “God save the king!”–a circumstance interesting as being the first recorded utterance of a cry that has been echoed the world over by many a loyal people.

Not yet, however, was Saul clothed with full power as a king. Samuel still remained the acknowledged ruler until Saul should distinguish himself in battle. This soon took place. With heroic valor he delivered Jabesh-Gilead from the hosts of the Ammonites when that city was about to fall into their hands, and silenced the envy of his enemies. In a burst of popular enthusiasm Samuel collected the people in Gilgal, and there formally installed Saul as King of Israel.

Samuel was now an old man, and was glad to lay down his heavy burden and put it on the shoulders of Saul. Yet he did not retire from the active government without making a memorable speech to the assembled nation, in which with transcendent dignity he appealed to the people in attestation of his incorruptible integrity as a judge and ruler. “Behold, here I am! Witness against me before the Lord, and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Or of whose hand have I received any bribe to blind my eyes therewith? And they said, Thou hast not defrauded us, nor oppressed us; neither hast thou taken aught of any man’s hand.” Then Samuel closed his address with an injunction to both king and people to obey the commandments of God, and denouncing the penalty of disobedience: “Only fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth and with all your heart, for consider what great things He hath done for you; but if ye shall do wickedly, ye shall be consumed,–both ye and your king.”

Saul for a time gave no offence worthy of rebuke, but was a valiant captain, smiting the Philistines, who were the most powerful enemies that the Israelites had yet encountered. But in an evil day he forgot his true vocation, and took upon himself the function of a priest by offering burnt sacrifices, which was not lawful but for the priest alone. For this he was rebuked by Samuel. “Thou hast done foolishly,” he said to the King; “for which thy kingdom shall not continue. The Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee.” We here see the blending of the theocratic with the kingly rule.

Nevertheless Saul was prospered in his wars. He fought successfully the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Amalekites, and the Philistines, aided by his cousin Abner, whom he made captain of his host. He did much to establish the kingdom; but he was rather a great captain than a great man. He did not fully perceive his mission, which was to fight, but meddled with affairs which belonged to the priests. Nor was he always true to his mission as a warrior. He weakly spared Agag, King of the Amalekites, which again called forth the displeasure and denunciation of Samuel, who regarded the conduct of the King as direct rebellion against God, since he was commanded to spare none of that people, they having shown an uncompromising hostility to the Israelites in their days of weakness, when first entering Canaan. This, and similar commands laid upon the Israelites at various times, to “utterly destroy” certain tribes or individuals and all of their possessions, have been justified on the ground of the bestial grossness and corruption of those pagan idolaters and the vileness of their religious rites and social customs, which unfortunately always found a temptable side on the part of the Israelites, and repeatedly brought to nought the efforts of Jehovah’s prophets to bring up their people in the fear of the Lord, to recognize Him, only, as God. It was not easy for that sensual race to stand on the height of Moses, and “endure as seeing him who is invisible.” They too easily fell into idolatry; hence the necessity of the extermination of some of the nests of iniquity in Canaan.

Whether Saul spared Agag because of his personal beauty, to grace his royal triumph, or whatever the motive, it was a direct disobedience; and when the king attempted to exculpate himself, inasmuch as he had made a sacrifice of the spoil to the Lord, Samuel replied: “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in obeying his voice?… Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams,–for rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as an iniquity and idolatry.” The prophet here sets forth, as did Isaiah in later times, the great principles of moral obligation as paramount over all ceremonial observances. He strikes a blow at all pharisaism and all self-righteousness, and inculcates obedience to direct commands as the highest duty of man.

Saul, perceiving that he had sinned, confessed his transgression, but palliated it by saying that he feared the people. But this policy of expediency had no weight with the prophet, although Saul repented and sought pardon. Samuel continued his stern rebuke, and uttered his fearful message, saying, “Jehovah hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine that is better than thou.” Furthermore Samuel demanded that Agag, whom Saul had spared, should be brought before him; and he took upon himself with his aged hand the work of executioner, and hewed the king of the Amalekites in pieces in Gilgal. He then finally departed from Saul, and mournfully went to his own house in Ramah, and Saul saw him no more. As the king was the “Lord’s anointed,” Samuel could not openly rebel against kingly authority, but he would henceforth have nothing to do with the headstrong ruler. He withdrew from him all spiritual guidance, and left him to his follies and madness; for the inextinguishable jealousy of Saul, that now began to appear, was a species of insanity, which poisoned his whole subsequent life. The people continued loyal to a king whom God had selected, but Samuel “came no more to see Saul until the day of his death.” To be deserted by such a counsellor as Samuel, was no small calamity.

Meanwhile, in obedience to instructions from God, Samuel proceeded to Bethlehem, to the humble abode of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah, one of whose sons he was required to anoint as the future king of Israel. He naturally was about to select the largest and finest looking of the seven sons; but God looketh on the heart rather than the outward appearance, and David, a mere youth, and the youngest of the family, was the one indicated by Jehovah, and was privately anointed by the prophet.

David Kills Goliath After the painting by W.L. Dodge

Saul, of course, did not know on whom the choice had fallen as his successor, but from that day on which he was warned of the penalty of his disobedience divine favor departed from him, and he became jealous, fitful, and cruel. He presented a striking contrast to the character he had shown in his early days,–being no longer modest and humble, but proud and tyrannical. Prosperity and power had turned his head, and developed all that was evil in him. Nero was not more unreasonable and bloodthirsty than was Saul in his latter days. Prosperity developed in Solomon a love of magnificence, in Nebuchadnezzar a towering vanity, but in Saul a malignant envy of all extraordinary merit, and a sullen determination to destroy the persons it adorned. The last person in his kingdom of whom apparently he had reason to be jealous, was the ruddy and beardless youth whom he had sent for to drive away his melancholy by his songs and music. Nor was it until David killed Goliath that Saul became jealous; before this he had no cause of envy, for kings do not envy musicians, but reward them. David’s reward was as extravagant as that which Russian emperors shower upon singers and dancers: he was made armor-bearer to the King,–an office bestowed only upon favorites and those who were implicitly trusted and beloved. Little did the moody and jealous King imagine that the youth whom he had brought from obscurity to amuse his melancholy hours by his music, and probably his wit and humor, would so soon, by his own sanction, become the champion of Israel, and ultimately his successor on the throne.

In the latter part of the reign of Saul the enemies with whom he had to contend were the various Canaanitish nations that had remained unconquered during the hard struggle of four hundred years after the Hebrews had been led by Joshua to the promised land. The most powerful of these nations were the Philistines. “Strong in their military organization, fierce in their warlike spirit, and rich by their position and commercial instincts, they even threatened the ancient supremacy of the Phoenicians of the north. Their cities were the restless centres of every form of activity. Ashdod and Gaza, as the keys of Egypt, commanded the carrying trade to and from the Nile, and formed the great depots for its imports and exports. All the cities, moreover, traded in slaves with Edom and southern Arabia, and their commerce in other directions flourished so greatly as to gain for the people at large the name of Canaanites,–which was synonymous with ‘merchant,’ Even the word ‘Palestine’ is derived from the Philistines. Their skill as smiths and armorers was noted; the strength of their cities attest their strength as builders, and their idols and golden mice and emerods show their respect for the arts of peace.” It is supposed that they had settled in Canaan about the time of Abraham, and were originally a pastoral people in the neighborhood of Gesar, or emigrants from Crete. When the Israelites under Joshua arrived, they were in full possession of the southern part of Palestine, and had formed a confederacy of five powerful cities,–Gaza, Ashdod, Askelon, Gath, and Ekron. In the time of the Judges they had become so prosperous and powerful that they held the Israelites in partial subjection, broken at intervals by heroes like Shamgar and Samson. Under Eli there was an organized but unsuccessful resistance to these prosperous and warlike heathen. Under Samuel the tide of success was turned in Israel’s favor at the battle of Mizpeh, when the Israelites erected their pillar at Ebenezer as a token of victory. The battle of Michmash, gained by Saul and Jonathan after an immense slaughter of their foes, was so decisive that for twenty-five years the Israelites were unmolested. In the latter part of the reign of Saul the Philistines attempted to regain their ascendency, but on the death of Goliath at the hand of David they were driven to their own territories. The battle of Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan were slain, again turned the scale in favor of the Philistines. Under David the Israelites resumed the aggressive, took Gath, and completely broke forever the ascendency of their powerful foes. Under Solomon it would appear that the whole of Philistia was incorporated with the Hebrew monarchy, and remained so until the calamities of the Jews gave Philistia to the Assyrian conquerors of Jerusalem, and finally it fell into the hands of the Romans. The Philistines were zealous idolaters, and in times of great religious apostasy they succeeded in introducing the worship of their gods among the Israelites, especially that of Baal and Ashtaroth.

Samuel did not live to see the complete humiliation of his nation which succeeded the bloody battle when Saul was slain; but he lived to a good old age, and never lost his influence over the Israelites, whom he had rescued from idolatry and to whom he had given political unity. Although Saul was king, we are told that Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. He died universally lamented. There is no record in the Scriptures of a death attended with such profound and general mourning. All Israel mourned for him. They mourned because he was a good man, unstained by crime or folly; they mourned because their judge and oracle and friend had passed away; they mourned because he had been their intercessor with God himself, and the interpreter of the divine will. His like would never appear again in Israel. “He represents the independence of the moral law, as distinct from regal and sacerdotal enactments. If a Levite, he was not a priest. He was a prophet, the first in the regular succession of prophets. He was also the founder of the first regular institutions of religious instruction, and communities for the purposes of education. From these institutions were developed the universities of Christendom.”

In a spiritual and religious sense the prophet takes the highest rank in the kingdom of God on earth. Among the Hebrews he was the interpreter of the divine will; he predicted future events. He was a preacher of righteousness; he was the counsellor of kings and princes; he was a sage and oracle among the people. He was a reformer, teaching the highest truths and restoring the worship of God when nations were sunk in idolatry; he was the mouth-piece of the Eternal, for warning, for rebuke, for encouragement, for chastisement. He was divinely inspired, armed with supernatural powers,–a man whom the people feared and obeyed, sometimes honored, sometimes stoned; one who bore heavy responsibilities, and of whom were demanded disagreeable duties. We associate with the idea of a prophet both wisdom and virtue, great gifts and great personal piety. We think of him as a man who lived a secluded life of meditation and prayer, in constant communion with God and removed from all worldly rewards,–a man indifferent to ordinary pleasures, to outward pomp and show, free from personal vanity, lofty in his bearing, independent in his mode of life, spiritual in his aims, fervent and earnest in his exhortations, living above the world in the higher regions of faith and love, disdaining praises and honors, soft raiment and luxurious food, and maintaining a proud equality with the greatest personages; a man not to be bought, and not to be deterred from his purpose by threatenings or intimidation or flatteries, commanding reverence, and exalted as a favorite of heaven. It was not necessary that the prophet should be a priest or even a Levite. He was greater than any impersonation of sacerdotalism, sacred in his person and awful in his utterances, unassisted by ritualistic forms, declaring truths which appealed to consciousness,–a kind of spiritual dictator who inspired awe and reverence.

In one sense or another most of the august characters of the Old Testament were prophets,–Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, Elijah, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. They either foretold the future, or rebuked kings as messengers of omnipotence, or taught the people great truths, or uttered inspired melodies, or interpreted dreams, or in some way revealed the ways and will of God. Among them were patriarchs, kings, and priests, and sages uninvested with official functions. Some lived in cities and others in villages, and others again in the wilderness and desert places; some reigned in the palaces of pride, and others in the huts of poverty,–yet all alike exercised a tremendous moral power. They were the national poets and historians of Judaea, preachers of patriotism as well as of religion and morals, exercising political as well as spiritual power. Those who stand out pre-eminently in the sacred writings were gifted with the power of revealing the future destinies of nations, and above all other things the peculiarities of the Messianic reign.

Samuel was not called to declare those profound truths which relate to the appearance and reign of Christ as the Saviour of mankind, nor the fate of idolatrous nations, nor even the future vicissitudes connected with the Hebrew nation, but to found a school of religious teachers, to revive the worship of Jehovah, guide the conduct of princes, and direct the general affairs of the nation as commanded by God. He was the first and most favored of the great prophets, and exercised an influence as a prophet never equalled by any who succeeded him. He was a great prophet, since for forty years he ruled Israel by direct divine illumination,–a holy man who communed with God, great in speech and great in action. He did not rise to the lofty eloquence of Isaiah, nor foresee the fate of nations like Daniel and Ezekiel; but he was consulted and obeyed as a man who knew the divine will, gifted beyond any other man of his age in spiritual insight, and trusted implicitly for his wisdom and sanctity. These were the excellences which made him one of the most extraordinary men in Jewish history, rendering services to his nation which cannot easily be exaggerated.

David : Israelitish Conquests

Beacon Lights of History, Volume II : Jewish Heroes and Prophets