Positive and negative portraits of kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel.

As the Old Testament narrative transitions out of the Pentateuchal era and shifts into the age of kings, one is confronted with a seismic shift in narrative tone and structure. This is particularly seen in the overall lack of editorial commentary accompanying each recorded pericope in the chronicles of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. “The books of Samuel,” writes B. T. Arnold, “narrate some of the most compelling and theologically significant episodes of the Bible, usually without interrupting the flow of the narrative to explain overtly the significance of the events.”1 The dearth of overt explanation affords one with a significant exegetical challenge, with the prevailing message of each story being shown rather than explicitly told.

This is made less frustrating, though, when the structure of 1 and 2 Samuel come into view. Unlike its predecessors, 1 and 2 Samuel contains a generally agreed upon organization of narratives. Indeed, one is aided by recognizing the five divisions which comprise these two books: Israel’s need for a king (1 Sam 1—7); Saul’s reign (1 Sam. 8—15); the ascension of David (1 Sam 16—2 Sam 4); David’s reign (2 Sam 5—20); and a compendium of appendices connected with David’s reign. (2 Sam 21—24)2 The juxtaposition between Saul and David, as it is seen throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, offers an enthralling look at Israel’s yearning for a monarchy through polar paradigms. This is predicated by the prophet Samuel’s articulation of God’s standard of repentance and forgiveness. (1 Sam 7:2–6) Samuel’s call for national repentance serves, then, as the appropriate prototype for kingship — a prototype which is illustrated in positive and negative ways throughout the rest of the annals of the kings.

Saul, for instance, is painted in predominantly negative hues. He is seen in mostly tragic forms, with the insinuation being that he and his kin’s time on the throne will be a temporary reality, despite fathering a son, Jonathan, who possessed qualities that would serve him well as Saul’s successor. The trajectory of his reign trends downward, with Saul withdrawing himself from Samuel’s prophetic standard. Rather than committing himself to the prescribed means of divine counsel, he is seen entertaining dark arts in his consultation with the medium of Endor. (1 Sam 28:7) This is an indication, continues Arnold, that “Saul was no longer capable of discerning Yahweh’s will through legitimate, authorized means of inquiry.”3 This epitomizes Saul’s departure from God, signaling his demise.

In stark contrast stands the career of King David, who “consistently and commendably relied on the prophetic word of Yahweh.”4 (1 Sam 22:10; 23:2, 4; 30:7–8; 2 Sam 2:1; 5:23) David’s kingship is seen as favorable from the moment he is anointed by Samuel, with the text affirming that “the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward.” (1 Sam 16:13) Conversely, “the Spirit of the Lord” leaves Saul and, in its stead, an evil spirit begins to torment him. (1 Sam 16:14) This becomes paradigmatic for the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel with David being shown to be “all that Saul should have been.”5 One can see this displayed quite clearly in Saul’s inability to deliver Israel from the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16), while David is able to achieve a crushing defeat of Israel’s formidable foe. (1 Sam 17:52–53)

Furthermore, David’s reign serves as the fulfillment of Samuel’s call for repentance. David’s glaring and appalling failure with Bathsheba presents a critical scandal with which one must reckon (2 Sam 10—12), especially considering that the preponderance of the Davidic narratives are depicted in predominantly positive tones. Therefore, when David carries out his dastardly, self-serving plot against Bathsheba and Uriah, one is given a moment in which David, likewise, listens to his own counsel rather than God’s, much like Saul. The remarkable difference, however, occurs when David is seen doing that which Saul did not: repent. (2 Sam 12:1–13) It is in that way, then, that he “serves as a paradigm of repentance and forgiveness.”6

David, therefore, epitomizes humanity’s imperfection, further revealing God’s compassionate concern to see his purposes fulfilled. This divine concern does not jettison the consequences from affecting the rest of David’s life (as is shown in 2 Sam 13—20), but it does indicate the merciful intent of the Godhead. Indeed, God’s redemptive plan would proceed through failure, repentance, and forgiveness.


B. T. Arnold, “Books of Samuel,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 866.


Ibid., 866–67.


Ibid., 869.


Ibid., 869.


Ibid., 869.


Ibid., 870.