Samuel was a great prophet of the Old Testament. He was a bridge, a connecting link, between the patriarchs, judges and the kings. He was both the last of the judges and "the first of the later prophets." He lived at a pivotal point in the Lord's dealings with His chosen people as they demanded a king to replace the patriarch and judge governments which had been in place since the beginning. He was a witness of the first separation of church and state and of the change from a confederation of twelve tribes to a single united kingdom. He served the Lord at a time of an ever-weakening House of Israel as it started its downward spiral to eventual captivity and dispersal.
Perhaps in our minds he is always "the boy Samuel" and hardly ranks in the same category of importance as the patriarchs who preceded him. But like the others, Samuel was called by the Lord to serve an entire lifetime as His prophet. He knew as well as they did that Jesus Christ would come. Jacob, Nephi's brother, declared that "we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming: and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. . . . none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ." (Jac. 4:4; 7:11.)Centuries later in the Jerusalem Temple courtyard Peter bore witness that "all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days." (Acts 3:24, emphasis added.)
Some confusion may result from learning that Samuel was the "first" prophet. The word "prophet" occurs only incidentally before Samuel, but Latter-day Saints know that the Lord's people were governed from Adam to Joshua by prophetic divine direction from leaders usually referred to as the patriarchs. Samuel was the first of the "oral" prophets which included Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah and Elisha, who functioned for about 300 years before the time of the "literary" prophets who wrote the closing 17 books of the Old Testament.1
To more fully understand the magnitude of Samuel's calling we need to learn of the era preceding him.
The last of the judges
The reign of judges following the death of Joshua lasted more than 300 years.2 Joshua had firmly established the principle of government by prophecy (Judges 1:5), but under the twelve judges (not including Eli, Samuel and their sons) in this period of Israel's history there was no central government or authority recognized by all the tribes and no unified direction for the nation. The tribes of Israel still warred with the Canaanites, but they also fought among themselves, killing thousands of their own people on both sides.
Moses had warned the Lord's covenant people that if they were disobedient, they would be "smitten before their enemies," would "be oppressed and spoiled evermore," would "be oppressed and crushed always," and would "serve other gods" of "wood and stone." (Deut. 28:15-37.) The book of Judges identifies the fulfillment of these prophecies, similarly found in the Book of Mormon, in repeated cycles of disobedience, oppression, repentance and finally, deliverance from bondage by a righteous leader.
The people vacillated between following Jehovah and bowing to heathen gods, becoming increasingly rebellious and idolatrous. The final words of the book of Judges describe well Israel's condition of unrest and upheaval into which Samuel was born: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25.)
The first of the prophets
Some of the oft-told stories of childhood center on the prophet Samuel, told simply through his relationship with four people – Hannah, Eli, Saul and David.
- Hannah. A woman of great faith who grieved over her years of barren condition, Hannah was provoked by her husband's other wife, much as Sarah was tormented by Hagar, "and she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore" for a child. (1 Sam. 6:10.) It was in the temple at Shiloh that Hannah "vowed a vow" that if she were blessed with a son, she would "give him unto the Lord all the days of his life," and thus she joined other great women in the Bible in similar circumstances – Sarah; Rebekah; the wife of Manoah; and Elizabeth, who became mothers of Isaac, Jacob, Samson and John the Baptist.
Hannah kept her God-given son at home until he was weaned and then she brought the child to Eli, the priest at Shiloh where the ark of the covenant was kept. Each year she took him "a little coat" as a loving mother. And Samuel "ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod" (1 Sam. 2:18), a girdle which signified high priest authority. "And the word of the Lord was precious scarce in those days; there was no open vision." (1 Sam. 3:1.)
- Eli. Through Eli we learn the importance of righteousness and consistency. The night that "the Lord came, and stood" and wakened the boy Samuel, he spoke about Eli: "I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not." (1 Sam. 3:10, 13.) This condemnation against the house of Eli came to pass because of the sons' drunken and immoral behavior and sacrilegious feastings and Eli's failure to correct them. Later, when Eli learned his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines who stole the "Ark of God," he fell backward from his chair and broke his neck. He was 98 years old and had judged Israel 40 years, during which time "Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him . . . And all Israel . . . knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord . . . for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord." (1 Sam. 3:19-21.)
From his central headquarters in Ramah, Samuel traveled every year "in circuit to Bethel, and Gigal and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places" (1 Sam. 7:16.), which have been referred to by some as "schools of the Prophets." (It is interesting to note that Joseph Smith established such a school in Kirtland, Ohio, to instruct priesthood holders in their specific duties.) The priesthood had become quite degenerate; and, contemporaneous with the organization with the Kingdom, Samuel initiated these schools as a sort of moral check on both priests and kings."3
Samuel's two sons were made judges when Samuel became old. They "walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment." (1 Sam. 8:3.) Thus, Eli and Samuel joined the ranks of other righteous parents whose children are disobedient to the Lord's commandments.
- Saul and David. It was in the anointing of King Saul that Samuel witnessed a tragic turning point in ancient Israel, an opening wedge signaling their future apostasy. The people could see no heir apparent in Israel's judgeship since Samuel was "old and gray-headed" with apostate sons, and they asked "that our king
not the LordT may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles." (1 Sam. 8:20.)
Even after Samuel told the people what the Lord said would happen in their future life as a kingdom, the people demanded and got their king. "This speech of Samuel's against the institution of monarchy in Israel was used by George Washington in his rejection of the proposal that he become a king in the American colonies freed from England by the American Revolutionary War."4 The account of Samuel's words at Saul's coronation has a significant parallel with those of King Mosiah in the Book of Mormon. (See 1 Sam. 12:2-22 and Mosiah 2:12; 5:7.)
Samuel learned that an important part of his duty was to observe and discipline kings and the children of Israel. Saul disobeyed the Almighty and was rejected in the early part of his reign, yet he carried on defiantly for years. It was a continual confrontation between priesthood and monarchy (church and state), such as when Saul usurped Samuel's exclusive authority to offer sacrifice. (1 Sam. 13:8-14.) On another occasion Samuel spoke to Saul of "when thou wast little in thine own sight," an obvious reference to humility turned to pride.
The Lord sent Samuel to secretly anoint David, Jesse's young shepherd son, who then waited while being trained and fitted for his future kingly duties. Saul and David were connected in a living lesson of obedience and rebellion. As the narrative explains: "Now there was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker." (2 Sam. 3:1.) Samuel interceded between both kings and the Lord, as one writer has stated:
"The great power of Samuel as an intercessor is recalled in the Psalms, where he is regarded along with Moses and Aaron as one who was able to cry unto the Lord and be heard (Psalm 99:6), and by Jeremiah, who pointedly indicted Israel with the declaration of the Lord that `though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be turned toward this people.' " (Jer. 15:1.)5
Samuel died before David's problems with Bathsheba and Uriah surfaced, but his prophecies about the decadence and failure of rule by kings were eventually fulfilled.
Types of Christ
Within the scriptures are types and shadows – stories and teachings that testify of or refer symbolically to Christ in some way. The record of Samuel offers several such examples:
- Both Mary and Hannah willingly gave their sons to God's service and saw their sons teaching in the temple.
- Hannah's song of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2:1-10) after Samuel's birth may be compared with that of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zachariah (Luke 1:68-79) who were thankful for the approaching birth of their own sons.
Hannah says there is no "god like our God," a phrase echoed by Paul who later testified that "Christ is the God of Israel and the spiritual Rock that guided them." (1 Cor. 10:4.)
Hannah knows that "by him actions are weighed," which is reaffirmed in many places, such as, " . . . we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ." (Rom. 14:10.)
In her song, Hannah twice used the word "horn," which means "power," referring to herself as exalting the Lord through her son, and also to God's anointed Son Jesus Christ.
- Samuel is described much the same as the young Jesus: "And the child Samuel grew, and was in favour both with the Lord, and also with men." (1 Sam. 2:26. See Luke 2:52.)
- Both Samuel and the Savior were rejected by their own generations. (1 Sam. 7:7 and Luke 17:24.)
- David's calling and anointing by Samuel as future king of Israel, while yet a young shepherd, contains a Messianic prophecy. "Surely this story stood for all of Israel as a prophetic type announcing the manner in which their promised Messiah would come. Consider the shadow that it cast. Would not the promised Messiah also be found in Bethlehem? Would he not be the son of Jesse? Would he not be the overlooked one, the obscure one, but nonetheless the Good Shepherd? Would He not come while all of Israel was looking for a king – a king of temporal power and grace? And had not the Lord rejected such and sent to Israel one whose power was not at that time to be temporal but spiritual? And would he not bear the name David, an honored Hebrew name meaning
beloved' orwell-beloved' son? And was he not to be, as was David of old, the Lord's anointed? The English word Christ comes from a Greek word meaning anointed and is the equivalent of Messiah, which is the same as the Hebrew anointed. Thus, when David was anointed as king of Israel, it was to be understood that he was to be a type of Israel's ultimate King, the Christ."6
The witch of Endor
The account of Saul and the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:5-20) can be problematic. Faced with his impending last battle, troubled King Saul gets no direction from the usual sources of inspiration, including the Urim and Thummin, so he seeks counsel from the dead Samuel through a spiritualist medium. (See 1 Sam. 28:3-20.)
Joseph Smith's Inspired Translation clarifies some of these verses, noted here with the additions in boldface: "Then said the woman, The word of whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up the word of Samuel." (Verse 11.) Also, in verse 13 where the woman answered Saul about what she saw: "I saw the words of Samuel ascending out of the earth." Still later in verse 15, she explains, "And these are the words of Samuel unto Saul. . . ."7
Charles W. Penrose, counselor in the First Presidency to both Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant, declared: "It should be observed that in the seance with the king of Israel, Saul did not see Samuel or anybody but the medium or witch. She declared that she saw an old man coming up and that he was covered with a mantle. It was she who told Saul what Samuel was purported to have said. Saul "perceived that it was Samuel" through what the witch stated to him. The conversation that ensued between Samuel and Saul was conducted entirely without the presence of the prophet Samuel.8
The Bible Dictionary explains: "We may confidently be assured that if Samuel was present on that occasion, it was not due to conjuring of the witch. Either Samuel came in spite of and not because of the witch, or some other spirit came impersonating him."9
Examples for all
"Important lessons can be learned from these stories: the Lord answers prayers (of Hannah, David), the importance of religious leaders and their families in setting a good example (Eli and his sons, Samuel's sons), the calling of a young prophet (Samuel), having trust in the Lord (ark of the covenant and the Philistines), the dangers of centralized rule (Israel desires a king), the value of personal integrity and discipline (Saul's problems in his relationship with God), a young man grows in favor with the Lord (David), the evils of jealousy (Saul), trust in the Lord during periods of persecution (David), power and promises to the righteous (David), danger of evil thoughts and acts (David and Bathsheba), the frustrations of life without the Spirit of God (David), and the need to account for stewardships before death (Samuel and David)."9 We also need to consider wisely where and from whom we seek counsel (story of the witch of Endor).
The prophet Samuel faithfully served the Lord his entire life span, from early childhood until he was "old and gray-headed." The fact that the two books of Samuel are named for him, although they include events that occurred long after his death, indicates very high regard for him. He embodies a primary truth of the Old Testament: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (1 Sam. 15:22.) His message is the same for us today as it was for ancient Israel: "that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel." (1 Sam. 17:46.)
- Evelyn T. Marshall, a member of the Valley View 9th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake, is on a Church service mission in the Curriculum Department.
1 Pocket Bible Handbook, Henry H. Halley, Chicago, Ill., 1944, p. 167.
2 Bible Dictionary, 1979 LDS edition King James Bible.
3 Pocket Bible Handbook, p. 167.
4 Ellis T. Rasmussen quote in A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament, Daniel H. Ludlow, Deseret Book, 1981, pp. 216-217.
5 David R. Seely in Studies in Scripture, Vol. 3, Genesis to 2 Samuel, Ed. by Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, Deseret Book, 1989, p. 275.
6 The Spirit of Revelation, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Deseret Book, 1984, p. 56.
7 Three Kings of Israel, Mark E. Petersen, Deseret Book, 1980, p. 39.
8 The Improvement Era, 1 (1898), pp. 495-500.
9 Bible Dictionary, p. 769.
10 Unlocking the Old Testament, Victor L. Ludlow, Deseret Book, 1981, pp. 77-78.