I recently had the opportunity (obligation) to interact with some passages in 1 Samuel for a class I was sitting in on Preaching Narratives.
What struck me is that in this class of pastors who had interacted exegetically and homiletically with the same passages in 1 Samuel there was very little seeming awareness of the historical context of the writing of 1 and 2 Samuel. The main themes in preaching were about moralistic and illustrative examples, most with some form of Jesus tacked on the end as the “Greater David” or the one who fights for us, or some such, all of which miss the point. The stories were viewed almost as isolated vignettes of fascinating story rather than a single narrative to make a bigger point.
I think the point of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings is pretty easy. It is a defense of the Davidic monarchy. 1 and 2 Samuel was written probably after the death of Solomon, in the days when people would begin to forget the reign of Saul. So these histories were written to explain how it came to be that Saul, the first king, had no reigning son (as should have been expected), and how David, the second king, was the one who had and would have reigning sons so long as there was a kingdom culminating in Jesus and the restoration of the kingdom.
Here’s an example from the story of David and Goliath which was one of the passages we interacted on.
But what is it about? Let me cut to the chase: David and Goliath is not about David and Goliath but about David and Saul. It really has nothing to do with how to defeat giants in your life, or how Jesus defeats your giants for you. It is about the failure of leadership and conviction by Saul compared to the leadership and conviction demonstrated by David.
Goliath is the antagonist, but he’s not really the point. He is a side issue that brings the real issue to the fore.
The real issue is leadership of God’s people. Saul was weak and vacillating. He was fearful. He was willing to stand back and ask for people to go fight, and give them rewards if they would.
In contrast, David was convinced that God’s name was at stake and was willing to die to defend it. He spoke up, to the discomfort of others. He was amazed no one else had this conviction. He got up and went to the amazement of others, even going without armor. He boldly confronted the enemy face to face rather than ask someone else to go do it.
So the events of David and Goliath are intended to highlight how God switches the loyalties from Saul to David.
This is most clearly seen, not in the events of 1 Samuel 17 but in the events of 1 Samuel 18. The crowds cheer, “Saul has slain his thousands but David has slain his tens of thousands.” It was a bit of hyperbole to be sure. But it was clear that the people were far more impressed by David than by Saul. He was a man they were willing (at that time) to follow into battle. Saul had lost favor.
The key phrase of the whole story pops up in 1 Samuel 18:8 where Saul, in his anger says, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?”
The answer: He shall have the kingdom too.
The people of Israel did not need to know how to fight giants in the Valley of Elah, or in their personal lives. They needed to know why David was the man, the king, the one that they should follow. They needed to know why David’s sons were the legitimate rulers in Israel.
So I suggested this in class.
It was met with, “I think all that is true, but I don’t know how you preach that.”
But I think how you preach it is secondary; what the text means is primary.
We cannot avoid the purpose and meaning of a text simply because it we think it doesn’t preach well. And we cannot seek the meaning which preaches well. We have to ask many of the same questions of narrative that we ask of the epistles: Why was this written? What problem was it intended to address?
Of course, as a dispensationalist, I can preach this differently because I can preach the future reign of a Davidic king, Jesus, which is the fulfillment of everything God started in 1 Samuel 17 with a boastful giant.
I don’t need to charge out and fight some giants. I need to know that Jesus is the Davidic ruler who will sit on the throne of David, and 1 Samuel 17 is where it started.