Times and Seasons
7. The Period of the Judges (Part c)
With the birth of Samuel the story passes from the Book of Judges to the First Book of Samuel. The time, a little over a century before the accession of King David, and a few years prior to Jephthah's deliverance of Israel from the Ammonites. Samson was just getting into his stride in his incursions against the Philistines but his exploits and influence only affected the south‑west of the country and it is unlikely that Eli at Shiloh knew much about what was going on down there. From the First book of Samuel it would seem that there was no trouble from the Philistines until Samuel was at least in his twenties and this would be probably ten years or so after the death of Samson, so this all fits in.
The life of Samuel had three phases. First came his boyhood and attendance upon Eli to the latter's death, about twenty‑five years. Next was the period he ruled Israel as its last Judge and turned them from idolatry to allegiance to God, about thirty‑five years. Finally came his progressive relinquishing of power to Saul during the latter's reign of forty years. With the death of Samuel the period of the Judges comes to an end, and that of the Kings, in the person of David, commences.
Samuel could well have been brought to Eli by his mother as a six‑year‑old boy; unlikely any earlier. He was perhaps twelve when the Lord spoke to him in the sanctuary. At the time alluded to in 1 Sam.3:19‑21 when all Israel realised that he was established to be a prophet, and the Lord "appeared again in Shiloh" he was probably about twenty years of age. At this time, about 1090 BC, there could have been no interference in the affairs of Israel by other nations. Egypt had sunk into a period of decline under a succession of effeminate Pharaohs, the Ramessides; not until the time of Solomon did they count for anything in international affairs. The Hittites had been extinguished as a military power half a century earlier in the time of Gideon and Israel's northern borders were secure. Assyria, the other great oppressor, was fully occupied resisting the rising power of Babylon and in no mood for adventures in Israel. All this accounts for the fact that the narrative of Samuel's early life contains no hint of foreign invasion or oppression. The first intimation of that is in 1 Sam.4:1, when the Philistines launched an invasion which resulted in the Israelites taking the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle and losing it to the enemy. Samuel might have been about twenty‑five at that time, and Eli dying, as stated in the narrative, at ninety‑eight.
Israel was now back under the dominion of the Philistines. Such deliverance as Samson had given them had not lasted many years. The Ark had been restored by the Philistines because of its disastrous effects upon them (1 Sam.5 & 6), but it did not go back to Shiloh. It remained in a house at Kirjath‑Jearim for the next twenty years (1 Sam.7:2) until under Samuel's leadership the nation came to a state of repentance before the Lord and Samuel called a great conference at Mizpeh to supplicate the Lord for deliverance. The Philistines, scenting sedition, came up against them, and this time the faith of Israel did not fail. This time they eschewed their weapons of war and trusted in the Lord that He would deliver. True to his word, He came out against the Philistines and with the forces of Nature so utterly defeated the invaders that they "came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel" (1 Sam.7:10‑14). What Samson forty or so years earlier had failed to do by his armed might, Samuel had achieved by the power of faith. For a short space, perhaps fifteen or twenty years, all Israel was at peace with no threat from enemies, and Samuel travelled from place to place in circuit, to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, in turn, to judge and administer the affairs of Israel. He was the undisputed Head of State, and all Israel acknowledged his leadership and followed him in serving the Lord.
But Samuel was now growing old—he would have been about seventy by now—and although he had associated his two sons, Joel and Abiah, with him in the ruler‑ship, they did not follow in his ways. Like the renegade sons of Eli his predecessor, they "turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment" (1 Sam.8:3). It is a sad thing to say, but the man who had converted and kept faithful to God a whole nation of several millions completely failed to do the same with his own sons. It happens so often, and the explanation seems so elusive, locked in the inscrutable mysteries of God. But the senior men of Israel were under no illusion. They knew that when their revered leader went the way of all flesh they would be leaderless as they had been before and they began to make plans for their national safety which looked back again to the arm of flesh. "Behold" they said to him, "thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations" (1 Sam.8:5).
Samuel was despondent. He sensed the changing mood of the nation. A relatively long period of peace and prosperity was bringing back the old arrogance and they began to forget that their freedom from enemy interference had been due to the intervention of God on their behalf. They began to long for military adventure, to go out and harry other nations as they themselves had been harried. "Nay", they said "but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the (other) nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (1 Sam.8:19‑20). So Samuel went to the Lord with his problem.
The answer was probably unexpected. He was told to accede (consent) to the peoples' wish and give them a king. He did not know that in the wisdom and purposes of God the time of the Judges was now to come to an end and be succeeded by a monarchy. Israel was to learn that without loyalty to God the institution of a king would only bring disaster, as in fact it did four hundred years later when the monarchy in its turn came to an end. So Samuel, faithful to his God as ever, did as he was instructed and found a man for the purpose. Saul the son of Kish, a man of Benjamin, became Israel's first king.
Saul proved a failure. His early promise changed to arrogance and self‑will, a refusal to heed the word of the Lord or to accept Samuel's still considerable authority in affairs of state. In fact, throughout his forty years' reign, he was really little more than the leader of the army, spending most of his time fighting enemies who seemed increasingly to come against him the more he departed from the Lord. Amalekites, Ammonites, Philistines, they all rose up against him almost as if they sensed that the Lord's protecting hand was steadily being withdrawn. Sometimes he won the day and sometimes he lost. There is not much doubt that the civil administration of the nation was still largely in the hands of Samuel. And after about twenty‑five years of increasingly unsatisfactory kingship Samuel received the Divine commission to seek out and anoint as future king a man whom God had chosen—David the shepherd boy.
With that act Samuel, the last of the Judges, began to sink into obscurity. With his death some ten years later at the advanced age of something like a hundred and five, and Saul's death in battle a couple of years or so afterwards, the period of the Judges came to an end. The acceptance of David as king over Judah at Hebron immediately upon Saul's death commenced the Period of the Kings, the monarchy. From the Entry of Israel into the Promised Land under Joshua to the enthronement of David at Hebron was a period of three hundred and eighty‑five years. For something in the region of three‑quarters of that time Israel was given over to idolatry, the worship of other gods, and to every possible violation of the Covenant. But there must have been a remnant, a loyal God‑ fearing residue which kept the faith alive through those dark years. When the light did break through during the forty years reign of the good king David, the Scriptures were still intact, the Books of the Law recording the ways of God from the time of creation up to David's own time, preserved by faithful souls through the years of unbelief for the benefit of generations yet unborn. At no time does God leave himself without a witness, and when the story did come to be read, it revealed faithfully and dispassionately the failures and the shortcomings of the people of God just as it dwelt upon their successes and their virtues.
The time of the Judges was a dark and tragic phase of Israel's history, but it was a necessary one in their development, and with all their later faults and backslidings they never fell quite so low again as they did do in the days intervening between Joshua and Samuel.
To be continued