Last night I had the privilege of walking through an overview of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles for a group of ladies devoted to the Word of God. In their preparation to study 2 Samuel, they graciously invited me to discuss the book in an introductory fashion. My notes from that study are below.
Introduction to 2 Samuel
The Approach to this Introduction
I’m going to discuss 2 Samuel in three categories in honor of the three horizons of interpretation: textual, epochal, and canonical (not that we’re doing exactly this form of interpretation, as this is only an overview). So first we’ll look at some of the textual issues like authority, dating, themes, some of the characters and David himself. Then we’ll zoom out and see how this book fits into this period in history, and the surrounding events and characters of this time. Finally, we’ll look at how this book fits into the overall canonical context of the Bible, including how David typologically and covenantally fits into the larger schema of redemptive history.
Authorship and Dating
1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book. So in order to understand 2 Samuel, you must first understand that you are picking up in the middle of a story.
Let’s talk first about authorship and the flow of 1 Samuel. The book as one unit covers about 135 years of history from 1105 BC to 971 BC and mostly focuses on the story of David as the central character.
The first 7 chapters of 1 Samuel are very focused on Samuel, who is the last man in a line of judges that have led Israel for hundreds of years. We learn about his upbringing, his parents, his lifestyle, his dedication, the plight of his mother Hannah, the state of the nation of Israel, the state of the priesthood, and other significant things as well.
Internal and external evidence seems to point to Kings having been written with a knowledge of what was written in Samuel, and Samuel seems to have been written with some knowledge of what occurred in Deuteronomy (Firth). However, the author is unknown. Traditionally the writing is ascribed to the namesake of the book by Jewish traditionalists, but that can’t be the case since Samuel’s death is recorded for us in 1 Sam. 25:1. Others say that Gad, and Nathan (both prophets during the time of David) wrote the book, but it is more likely that their writings helped serve as a foundation for the book since it is obvious the book was written after the kingdom was divided.
We don’t know the exact date of the writing, but MacArthur notes that it must have been post divided kingdom since there are distinct references to “Judah” and “Israel” as separate entities, and because the statement “to the kings of Judah to this day” (speaking of Ziklag belonging to Judah) in 1 Sam. 27:6 indicates that the writing must have been post-Solomonic rule. Some say that Samuel was written by the same author who wrote 1&2 Kings during the Babylonian Captivity, but as MacArthur notes, the writing style differs enough for that not to be a possibility, and therefore it was likely penned prior to the exile but during the era of the divided kingdom.
- Shiloh – the residence of Eli and the tabernacle
- Remah – the hometown of Samuel
- Gibeah – the headquarters of Saul
- Bethlehem – the birthplace of David
- Hebron – David’s capital when he ruled over Judah
- Jerusalem – the ultimate city where David ruled all of Israel
Philistines – these were one of two chief enemies of Israel during the time of Samuel/David. They had migrated from Asia Minor and settled along the Mediterranean cost of Palestine in the 12th century BC (to the west of Israel). They also controlled the iron in the region, so they had a distinct advantage over Israel in that way.
Ammonites – these people were settled to the east of Israel and were the second major source of trouble for the Israelites. As MacArthur notes, the Ammonites were descendants of Lot who lived on the Transjordan Plateau.
David conquered both the Ammonites (2 Sam. 12:29-31) and the Philistines (2 Sam. 8:1) during his reign.
The Themes in 1 Samuel
As we open the book of 2 Samuel its important to know what events were covered in the previous book. There are many issues brewing politically and spiritually in Israel. As MacArthur notes, “Israel was at a low point spiritually. The priesthood was corrupt, the Ark of the Covenant was not at the tabernacle, idolatry was practiced, and the judges were dishonest.”
There are four major themes that run throughout the books according the MacArthur:
- The Davidic covenant (1 Sam. 2:10 and 2 Sam. 22:51). This is the reference to the Messiah coming in the line of David. He wants to make a “house” for God, God ends up making him an eternal “house” (lineage – see Gentry for Hebrew play on words).
- The sovereignty of God – i.e. His power in brining about Samuel’s birth and David’s reign.
- The Work of the Holy Spirit – i.e. both Saul and David were anointed as king by the Holy Spirit. Victories in battle were won with the help of the Holy Spirit, and the power of the Holy Spirit brought forth prophesy (1 Sam. 10:6).
- The personal and national effects of sin. This ranges from the sins of Eli and his sons, to the sins of David, and the disobedience of Saul. These men all had to deal with the consequences of their sins.
I think I would add to these themes a nuance to number four called “the character of David” and here is what I would note about David’s character:
- He was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) (DeYoung says, “David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it”)
- He was a sinful man
- He was a humble man
- He was a man of great faith in God
- He came from nothing and God made him something
- He was a man of great courage and talent (see Kevin DeYoung’s article)
In an article entitled “What made David great”, Rev. Kevin DeYoung says that what made David great, in a nutshell, was that, “In particular, David was a great man because he was willing to overlook others’ sins but unwilling to overlook his own.” He continues, “More than anyone prior to Jesus, David loved his enemies. Like no other Old Testament king, David was willing to welcome rebels back to the fold and overlook the sins of those who had opposed him.”
Some Final Interesting textual notes:
- Three different pieces of Samuel were found in the Caves at Quomron – often referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were not entire books or even entire chapters, but rather just fragments of 1&2 Samuel (Firth).
- There is good reason to believe 1&2 Samuel were originally one book, and should probably be read as one volume. In the original masoretic texts they were one volume (Firth). It was only during the Greek versions of the OT (the Septuagint LXX) that a division occurred (MacArthur study notes). 1&2 Kings were called “3&4” Kings/Books of the Kingdom in the Vulgate and LXX.
- There are four citation of 2 Samuel in the New Testament, and 1 direct citation to 1 Samuel. However, there are also several allusions to instances within the book in the NT (Firth).
- There are four poetic texts in the writing. We know that at least one of them is drawn from the book of Jasher – 2 Sam. 1:17-27 (Firth).
The Epochal Context
Much of how we understand the framework of 1 Samuel comes through the prayer song of Hannah at the beginning of the book. Much like Mary’s Magnificat – which borrows greatly from its themes – Hannah’s prayer is predictive of the events in the book. The prayer is as follows:
2:1 And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.
2:2-8 “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.
2:9-10 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail.  The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
Stephen Dempster comments that, “Hannah and David not only echo each other’s desperate prayers at holy sites; they echo each other’s songs of thanksgiving, and these songs focus on a messianic king…These two figures, Hannah and David, are crucially important for understanding the book. Hannah’s song looks to the future for the overthrow of a tyrannical dominion that will be replaced by a just king, a Messiah, who will bring justice beyond Israel to the ends of the earth (1 Sam. 2:10). David looks back and sees how God has delivered him from all his enemies. David some them until they fell under his feet (2 Sam. 22:39-40). God gave him the neck of his enemies (22:41), and this becomes the pledge of a future in which God will magnify his salvation to his king and extend covenant loyalty to his Messiah, to David and his seed for over (22:51).”[i]
So “The poem begins with a renewed Hannah, but by its end there is a vision of a renewed cosmos.”[ii]
With that said, let’s back up even more…
By the time you have arrived at David, it’s roughly 1000 BC, and you’ve seen the slow – sometimes deathly slow – progress of this Middle Eastern nation as they go from 12 boys, to 70 family members traveling down to Egypt. When they come up out of Egypt they are over 600,000. The country is leaderless though, and they will not be ruled by the wise council of judges any longer. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
They’ve been given the Promised Land, and Abraham has more descendants than he ever imagined. Yet the blessing of a united nation, a prosperous people, has not yet come to pass. They are harangued by nations on every side that are stronger than they.
God placed them geographically in the midst of super powers so that they would be a light to the world, a people who would shine in the midst of darkness. They were to show mankind what it means to be in a right relationship with God – the God – and therefore what it meant to be truly human. To rule as God’s image bearers and representatives on earth.
But they failed.
Eventually they call for a king. Not because they want a righteous ruler, but because they want to be like everyone else. They want to look like the world. “No sooner is Saul installed as king than he sins and Yahweh rejects him. It is Israel at Sinai all over again, taking cultic matters into its own hands (1 Sam. 13:8-14).”[iii]
Samuel sees their request as a rejection of his leadership, but God sees it for what it is: a rejection of His divine kingship. So God gave them a king – one that fit exactly what they were hoping for.
That king – Saul – was a failure.
But God, in His everlasting mercy, raised up a man – a shepherd boy – named David. David’s first two acts were to 1. Be a servant of healing to Saul who was plagued by evil spirits who troubled him and 2. To liberate his people from the oppression of a giant enemy.
In the defeat of Goliath, some of the great themes from Hannah’s song are beginning to play out, as Dempster so adeptly tells us:
This clash between the giant and the boy vividly displays the theme of the song of Hannah. But it also does more. That song celebrates the birth of a child (Samuel), God’s demolition of the power structures of the world and the installation of his Messiah to bring justice to the ends of the earth. It thus reaches back to the creation of the world and the promise to restore world order at the beginning through the birth of a child, the seed of the woman. The genealogical focus has shifted from Adam to Seth, to Shem, to Abraham, to Israel, to Judah and finally to David. David has become the focus of world genealogy. The seed of the woman has arrived, and in David’s first action as king he is a warrior, an anointed one who conquers and beheads a monstrous giant, whose speech echoes the serpent’s voice. David will now become the main focus of the storyline and, with his coming, there will be a similar narrowing and expanding of the geographical focus. It will be David who will bring this about as he conquers the Canaanite enclave of Jebus, and it will be Jerusalem that becomes the centre of world geography.
God put David through many trials and tests. He was chased from cave to cave as Saul had a strong desire to put him to death. Saul’s madness eventually drove David away, and David joined the Philistines as a sort of rogue mercenary. While working on their behalf, David ended up plundering many of Israel’s enemies, sending that plunder to the elders of Israel. David did in exile what Saul failed to do from the throne.
Then the final day came for the Philistines to engage in battle against the Israelites. What would David do? He told the king of the Philistines that he would go into battle with him, but the king’s generals would not permit that to happen. They were concerned that in the heat of battle David would not be able to remain loyal to them.
In this brutal conflict, both Jonathan and Saul were slain on mount Gilboa. Jonathan was David’s best friend and soul mate.
Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa.  And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.  The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers.  Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.  And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him.  Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together.  And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them. (1 Samuel 31:1-7)
That is where 1 Samuel ends and 2 Samuel begins, and where you will pick up the story in the weeks ahead.
Dempster concludes his overview of Samuel by saying, “The lesson of Hannah’s song, however, is repeated again and again. The future belongs to the one who says, ‘I am abased (low) in my own eyes (and am not tall) (2 Sam. 6:22). The future does not lie with the strong and secure but, rather, the least likely of David’s sons will inherit a throne of glory (1 Sam. 2:8b). Michal will die childless (2 Sam. 6:23).”[iv]
The Canonical Context
The story of the Bible is a story of redemption. Ever since the Fall God has been executing His plan to reconcile man to Himself and restore what was lost on that day so long ago.
Now from the larger canonical perspective, when we get to David, we have arrived at a time when Israel as a nation is finally going to reach the very peak of the blessings God made to Abraham, and begin to once again fulfill what it looks like to subdue the earth.
In this time we see the kingdom of God seems settled politically, physically, and spiritually in the town of Jerusalem, in the kingship of God’s anointed servant, David, and in Solomon’s time in the temple in Jerusalem. The result is both physical blessing and spiritual intimacy with God. The key here is that His presence is with them – in the tabernacle and then in the temple. Redemptive history is moving from the separation experienced in the Garden of Eden to a restoration of the relationship between God and man, and God dwelling amongst His people in a way that is increasingly intimate. From Abraham to Moses to David this reconciliation of the relationship between God and man is steadily increasing.
The terms of the relationship are defined in terms of “covenant”, this is the framework God operates within as He’s dealing with His people. This framework will become extremely important in your study of 2 Samuel because God will make a covenant with David that is the latest in a series of covenants that began with Adam.
Grahame Goldsworthy says, “Central to the theology of the books of Samuel is the covenant made with David (2 Sam. 7:4-16). David expresses the desire to finish the glory of the city of God by building a permanent sanctuary for Yahweh. Nathan the prophet is instructed to tell David that, far from his building God a house, God will build him a house; that is, a dynasty. David’s son will build the sanctuary, and the throne of his kingdom will be established for ever. God declares of this son of David, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’ (vs. 14). There is a clear reference here to the covenant with Abraham and God’s intention ‘To be God to you’ (Gen. 17:7).”[v]
The Davidic Covenant is found in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17.
Both Goldsworthy and Stephen Wellum see that in the Davidic Covenant God has now embodied within the king the attributes previously attributed to the nation of Israel. The Israelites are still under the Mosaic Covenant, but now the king will represent them as their federal head. Just as the Israelites were regarded as God’s son (Exodus 4:22), and Adam before that (Luke’s genealogy) so now the Davidic ancestor is seen to be the Son of God – this will be uniquely fulfilled in David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who owns the title (Son of God) in a unique way (ontologically).
Goldsworthy sums up the lead up to this moment well:
Biblical history begins with creation and, after the Fall, as a new beginning with the call of Abraham and the covenant of grace that God makes with him. This covenant underpins the exodus from captivity in Egypt and the binding of the redeemed people to the covenant instruction given by Moses at Sinai. This, in turn, underpins the responsibility of the people of Israel toward their God as he brings them to the Promised Land, gives them possession of it, raises up a king and establishes Zion and its temple as the focal point representing God’s presence among his people.
So you can see that these covenants before David are layered and interlocking. God is progressively revealing Himself and His plan of redemption for His chosen people and for creation itself.
What we see then across these covenants, and in David as well, is a tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice. This is an outgrowth of His character, which we read about in Exodus 34:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
So within God’s character there is both a love for Mercy and for Justice. And God cannot deny Himself.
As the OT story unfolds, this tension grows.
You could say that the tension reaches its peak with the great blessings experienced during the reign of David and then Solomon, and that His justice is shown in the downfall of the kingdom and the exile to Babylon and Assyria.
What we see in the life of David is the very peak of God’s fulfillment specifically of the promises to Abraham: Land, Seed, and finally, worldwide Blessing. All of these elements have come to fruition in the time of David and Solomon. Yet not in a way that can fully usher in the kingdom of God. Why? Because these people are still covenant breakers. They still prefer to do things their own way and chase after the desire of their own heart.
Even in the time of great blessing, which will be seen in the life and rule of David and then Solomon, there is a very clear sense that this can’t be as good as it gets. Sin – even in David’s life – is still predominant, and the author of Samuel does not hide David’s character (warts and all!) from the reader.
Eventually the sin of the king leads to exile.
But even in exile the people believe exactly what David believed, namely that, 1. The Davidic reign would be forever and 2. All the earth and its kings would be ruled and subdued by the Davidic king.
The latter is drawn from David’s response to God’s covenant:
Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD. You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord GOD! (2 Samuel 7:18-19 ESV)
So the question in exile becomes: “How long oh Lord?”
The end of your study will leave you with this impression – of a need for a faithful convent partner who will obey God and desire to do His will, and the need for a Messianic king who will deliver His people from bondage.
This is why, by the way, the original arrangement of the OT ends with Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and then Chronicles because it anticipates a day soon to come when a glorious temple (a better temple) will be made, and a time when the city (God’s city) will be built with an everlasting foundation and strong walls, and finally a time when an everlasting king will come to sit upon the throne of David. All of these things point forward typologically to Jesus Christ, the everlasting king who is building a temple with living stones, and a city which John describes as a “bride adorned for her groom” – that’s us!
So as you study 2 Samuel and the 1 Chronicles, you must understand where you’re coming in on the story. This is Israel at its height. God’s faithfulness has remained despite years of the people going their own way. His love has lifted this people from nothing to the richest, most envied nation in the ancient world.
Yet unresolved tensions will point you forward toward a need for resolution. Let me end with a summary from Wellum and Gentry:
As one works across the covenants and the tension increases, there is only one answer to these questions: it is only if God himself, as the covenant maker and keeper, unilaterally acts to keep his own promise through the provision of a faithful covenant partner that a new and better covenant can be established. It is only in the giving of His Son and through the Son’s obedient life and death for us as God the Son incarnate that our redemption is secured, our sin is paid for, and the inauguration of an unshakeable new covenant is established.[vi]
[i] Stephen Dempster, ‘Dominion and Dynasty’ Pg. 134.
[ii] Dempster, Pg. 135.
[iii] Dempster, Pg. 138.
[iv] Dempster, Pg. 141.
[v] Grahame Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, Pg. 124.
[vi] Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, Pg. 611.