The book of 1 Samuel opens with the last Judge and the first Prophet. At Samuel’s birth, his mother Hannah sings a song rich with deuteronomic theology, reiterating the great themes of God’s providential care of his people. When Samuel was older, Israel marched out to battle the Philistines and lost the first battle (1 Sam 3). In an attempt to gain God’s aid in the battle, the soldiers bring the Ark of the Covenant into their camp. In the resulting battle 30,000 Israelites are killed and the Ark is captured by the Philistines. However, the Philistines place the Ark before the statue of their god Dagon, and the statue promptly and repeatedly falls on its face before God’s Ark. Then the city housing the Ark suffers a plague of tumours. The elders of the Philistine cities decide to send the Ark back to Israel, and load it on a cart drawn by cattle, who head directly back to Israel without guidance. The first thing that the Israelites know of this is when they see a cart wander over the border carrying the Ark of the Lord. This (slightly farcical) series of events further highlights God’s complete sovereignty, and his ability to work his purposes without any interference by his people. Indeed, the initiative that God’s people took in bringing out the Ark in the first place (without any form of prophetic command to do so) only resulted in disaster.
However, Israel fails to learn the lesson of the dangers of innovation. In an historic moment, they reject God’s direct rule over them and ask for a king “like all the other nations” (1 Sam 8:20 HCSB). God gives them Saul, and he takes up the mantle of war-leader that had been filled by the Judges. Immediately following his coronation, Saul hears of an Ammonite siege against Jabesh-gilead. At that moment, “the Spirit of God suddenly took control of him, and his anger burned furiously” (1 Sam 11:6 HCSB) and he broke the Ammonite siege. However, it is not long before Saul heads off to pick a fight without the guidance of the Spirit. In chapter 13, his son Jonathan provokes the Philistines, and Israel lines up again for battle. Just like the Israelites at the beginning of Samuel, Saul recognises that he needs God’s blessing to win the battle and, just like those Israelites, he tried to get that blessing on his terms. After waiting for seven days for Samuel to come and perform a sacrifice, he takes the initiative and makes the sacrifice himself. Though they win the battle (with God’s help), Samuel tells Saul that his failure will result in him losing the crown to another man.
After another failure from Saul to obey God’s commands, God directs Samuel to anoint David as his replacement. David established his bona fides in his iconic confrontation with Goliath. The moment that a shepherd boy defeats the Philistine’s greatest warrior and, by extension, the whole nation, shows God’s ability to protect his people against any odds. However, Saul refuses to go quietly, and Israel is plunged into a cold civil war. The war is cold, because David shows incredible respect for his monarch – even when that monarch has been rejected by God. As David’s popularity increases, and men gather to him, Saul sends his army out to pursue him. Though God is clearly with David, he refuses to engage Saul’s armies, and instead he and his men live constantly on the run. On a number of occasions, David has the opportunity to kill Saul by his own hand and end the war, but he refuses, and instead constantly seeks reconciliation with Saul. Within this, God supernaturally protects David from Saul and his agents (1 Sam 19) and guides him (e.g. 1 Sam 23). David’s constant refusal to attack Saul continues after Saul’s death. When he hears of it, David mourns for his king, and executes the man who claims to have killed him (2 Sam 1).