The trajectory of ancient Israelite history turns now toward the centralization of power, toward a monarchy. This is tragically common to all revolutions and movements that include an element of liberation from the abuse of centralized power. It is borne out of a need for something, or someone, more enduring, authoritative and pan-tribal than were the judges before Saul. And yet this will only replace one set of problems with another, as so eloquently foretold by the prophet Samuel, in chapter 8: 11-18. Saul, the first king, will demonstrate both the good and the bad of kings and kingship, as he increasingly forgets who is in charge: God, through the priests and the prophets. Saul even usurps a priestly duty, by offering a sacrifice (I Samuel 13). While it looks like an act of headstrong defiance, we’ll see that Saul is actually also something of a people-pleaser, afraid of people abandoning or betraying him. Such faults and their expressions lead to the rejection of Saul and his dynasty. His fatal flaws will only be exacerbated through contact with David, who is previewed in this section as Saul’s replacement. Key features of David’s character, good and questionable, show in his first encounters with Saul, and with Goliath: his courage, confidence, faith and devotion to God, both musical and military. But the cockeyness with which he approaches Goliath will not always serve him in good stead.
Some other key developments in I Samuel:
- A very important biblical name for God: YHWH Sabaoth, first appears in I Samuel. It often translated “The Lord of Hosts,” is especially appropriate to I and II Samuel and its focus on military and political developments. The hosts will prove to be both heavenly and earthly.
- The increasing role in the Bible of God’s Spirit, in the life and ministry of Samuel, as well as over the prophets with whom Samuel is connected, perhaps as a teacher and leader. God’s Spirit had previously given some of the judges, like Samson, great strength, skill and courage. Now He is recorded as being directly involved in giving prophecy and inspiring ecstatic worship (I Sam. 10:9ff).
ABOUT THE PHILISTINES: In I Samuel, they appear to be the dominant threat to Israel, subjugating them even to the point of being able to effectively disarm them of all potentially dangerous iron working. As in other Biblical battles, Israel throws off their yoke through faithfulness to God and without anything comparable to their numbers and military technology, like chariots. The supreme example of this is David going against Goliath, with his slingshot. But in an earlier battle, God sends thunder against them, to panic them, so that all Israel need do is pursue them (I Sam. 7), to cut them down. Historians and archaeologists record that the Philistines were “sea people,” invaders probably from Greece or Cyprus, who first tried to settle in Egypt, but were defeated and settled in what is now Gaza. There they were effectively a client, vassal kingdom under Egypt’s suzerainty, making the wars between Israel and the Philistines a continuation of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian servitude.
If you, the reader, have not yet memorized this Psalm, it is highly recommended for its simplicity, profundity, rhythmic nature, and its powerful, connected images. I often recite it repeatedly during times of anxiety or sleeplessness (which are sometimes overlapping). There are 14 simple prhases, or verbal images, most of which relate directly to shepherding and sheep. “My Shepherd” is a name for God in keeping with other, similar names, such as “Shepherd of Israel” and “The Good Shepherd” (John 10). It has been one that I have recited and prayed with people in the hospital or even on their death beds, or with their families when they were unable to say anything or even respond to our presence. The words, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” are the words I have seen most commonly printed on bulletin covers for funerals and memorial services. But the words, promises and images apply to every step of life, in good times and bad. It perfectly blends faith with prayer, making it the perfect “prayer of faith.”
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