Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 12:1-25) Samuel’s Defence of his past Career—He Rehearses the Story of Israel, and shows, in asking for an earthly King, how ungrateful the People are to the Heavenly King—The Miraculous Sign—Samuel urges them to be Loyal to God under their new Government.
And Samuel said unto all Israel, Behold, I have hearkened unto your voice in all that ye said unto me, and have made a king over you.(1) And Samuel said unto all Israel.—We believe we possess in this section of our history, in the report the compiler of these memoirs has given us of the dialogue between the judge Samuel and the elders of Israel at the solemn assembly of Gilgal, many of the very words spoken on this momentous occasion by the old man. It is doubtless a true and detailed account of all that took place on that day—the real inauguration of the earthly monarchy; that great change in the life of Israel which became of vast importance in the succeeding generations. In such a recital the words used by that grand old man, who belonged both to the old order of things and to the new, who was the link between the judges and the kings—the link which joined men like Eleazar, the grandson of Aaron, Gideon, and Jephthah, heroes half-veiled in the mists which so quickly gather round an unlettered past, with men like David and Solomon, round whose lives no mist will ever gather—the words used by that old man, who, according to the cherished tradition in Israel, was the accredited minister of the invisible King when the Eternal made over the sovereignty to Saul, would surely be treasured up with a jealous care. This gives an especial and peculiar interest to the present chapter, which contains the summary of the proceedings of the Gilgal assembly. The old judge Samuel, with the hero-king Saul standing by his side, presents the king to the people of the Lord under the title of the “Anointed of the Eternal,” and then in a few pathetic words speaks first of his own pure and upright past. The elders reply to his moving words. Then he rehearses the glorious acts of the Eternal King, and repeats how He, over and over again, delivered the people from the miseries into which their own sins had plunged them; and yet, in full memory of all this, says the indignant old man, “in the place of this invisible Ruler, so full of mercy and pity, you asked for an earthly king. The Lord has granted your petition now. Behold your king !” pointing to Saul at his side.—The old man continues: “Even after your ingratitude to the true King, still He will be with you and the man He has chosen for you, if only you and he are obedient to the old well-known Divine commandments.” At this juncture Samuel strengthens his argument by invoking a sign from heaven. Awe-struck and appalled, the assembled elders, confessing their sin, ask for Samuel’s prayers. The old prophet closes the solemn scene with a promise that his intercession for king and people shall never cease.
Behold, I have hearkened unto your voice in all that ye said unto me, and have made a king over you.—This should be compared with 1Samuel 8:7; 1Samuel 8:19-20; 1Samuel 8:22, where the proceedings of the deputation of the people to Samuel at Ramah are related at length. Their wishes expressed on that public occasion had been scrupulously carried out by him. He would now say a few words respecting the past, as regards his (Samuel’s) administration, would ask the assembled elders of the nation a few grave questions, and then would leave them with their king. The account, as we possess it, of these proceedings at Gilgal on the occasion of the national reception of Saul as king, is in the form of a dialogue between the prophet Samuel and the elders of the people.
And now, behold, the king walketh before you: and I am old and grayheaded; and, behold, my sons are with you: and I have walked before you from my childhood unto this day.(2) And now, behold, the king walketh before you.—No doubt, here pointing to Saul by his side. The term “walketh before you implied generally that the kingly office included the guiding and governing the people, as well as the especial duty of leading them in war; from henceforth they must accept his authority on all occasions, not merely in great emergencies. Both king and people must understand that the days when Saul could quietly betake himself to his old pursuits on the farm of the Ephraim hills were now past for ever. He must lead, and they must follow. The metaphor is taken from the usual place of a shepherd in the East, where he goes before his flock. Compare the words of our Lord, who uses the same image of a shepherd walking before his sheep (John 10:27): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
And I am old and grayheaded.—Here the prophet, with some pathos, refers to the elders’ own words at Ramah (chap 8:5). Yes, said the seer, I am old—grown grey in your service; listen to me while I ask you what manner of service that has been. Can any one find in it a flaw? has it not been pure and disinterested throughout?
My sons are with you.—Yes, old indeed, for my offspring are numbered now among the grown men of the people. Possibly, however, a tinge of mortified feeling at the rejection of himself and his family, mixed with a desire to recommend his sons to the favour and goodwill of the nation, is at the bottom of this mention of them.—Speaker’s Commentary. It is evident that these sons, whose conduct as Samuel’s deputies had excited the severest criticism on the part of the elders (1Samuel 8:5), had been reduced—with the full consent, of course, of their father, who up to this period exercised evidently supreme power in all the coasts of Israel—to the condition of mere private citizens.
From my childhood unto this day.—Samuel’s life had in truth been constantly before the public observation from very early days; well known to all were the details of his career—his early consecration under peculiar and exceptional circumstances to the sanctuary service, the fact of the “word of the Lord” coming directly to him when still a boy, his recognition by the people directly afterwards as a prophet, then his restless, unwearied work during the dark days which followed the fall of Shiloh. It was indeed a public life. He would have Israel, now they had virtually rejected his rule, think over that long busy life of his for a moment, and then pronounce a judgment on it.
Behold, here I am: witness against me before the LORD, and before his anointed: whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken? or whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed? or of whose hand have I received any bribe to blind mine eyes therewith? and I will restore it you.(3) Behold, here I am: witness against me before the Lord, and before his anointed.—I speak in a solemn presence, “before the Eternal,” went on the old man, looking up heavenward, “and before His anointed,” pointing with a reverent gesture to the kingly form by his side. “His Anointed”—this is the earliest instance of a king bearing this title of honour. The high priest, whose blessed office brought him in such close contact with the invisible and eternal King, is in the early Hebrew story styled now and again by this honoured name. But henceforth it seems to be limited to the man invested with the kingly dignity. The infinite charm which the name “Anointed of the Eternal” carried with it for centuries is, no doubt, due to the fact that one greater than any of the sons of men would, in the far future, assume the same sacred designation—“His Anointed,” or “His Christ.” (The words are synonymous, both being translations of the Hebrew word Messiah.)
Nor has this peculiar reverence for the “Lord’s Anointed “been limited to His own people. Since the seer in the early morning on the hill-side, looking on “Ramah of the Watchers,” poured out the holy oil on the young Saul’s head, and then before all Israel gathered at Gilgal styled the new king by the title of the “Anointed of the Eternal,” wherever the one true God has been worshipped, an infinite charm has gone with the name, a strange and peculiar reverence has surrounded every one who could fairly claim to bear it, and for many a century, among all peoples, an awful curse has at once attached itself to any one who would dare lift his hand against the “Lord’s Anointed.”
Whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken?—The ox and the ass are taken as representative possessions in this primitive age, in a country where agriculture formed the principal source of the national resources. Before the wars and conquests of David and Solomon, there was comparatively little of the precious metals among the Hebrew people, who seem to have traded in those early days but rarely with foreign nations; horses were, too, unknown among them. The law of Exodus 20:17 especially makes mention of the ox and the ass as things the Israelite was forbidden to covet. On these words of Samuel the Babylonian Talmud has an important note, which well illustrates the doctrine of the “Holy Spirit” as taught in Israel before the Christian era.
“Rabbi Elazer said, on three occasions did the Holy Spirit manifest Himself in a peculiar manner—in the judicial tribunal instituted by Shem, in that of Samuel the Ramathite, and in that of Solomon. In that of Shem, Judah declared, “She is righteous,” &c. How could he know it? Might not another man have come to her as well as he did? But an echo of a voice was heard exclaiming: Of me (the word ממגי is separated from the preceding word, and taken as a distinct utterance of the Holy Spirit); these things were overruled by me. Samuel said (1Samuel 12:3-5), “Behold, here I am: witness against me before the Lord, and before his anointed: whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken? . . . And he said unto them, The Lord is witness against you, &c . . . And he said, He is witness” (ו׳אמך). It ought to read, “And they said.” But it was the Holy Spirit that gave that answer. So with Solomon the words “She is the mother thereof (1Kings 3:27) were spoken by the Holy Spirit.”—Treatise Maccoth, fol. 23, Colossians 2.
Whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed?—Alluding, of course, to his conduct during his long continuance in office as supreme judge in Israel. The “bribe”—literally, ransom—alludes to that practice unhappily so common in the East of giving the judge a gift (usually of money) to buy his favour, and thus a criminal who had means was too often able to escape punishment.
The sons of Samuel, we know from 1Samuel 8:3, “took bribes, and perverted judgment.” This accusation, we know, had been preferred by the very elders of the nation before whom the seer was then speaking. The old judge must have been very confident of his own spotless integrity to venture upon such a solemn challenge. The elders had shown themselves by their bold accusation of the seer’s sons no respecters of persons, and from the tone of Samuel’s address, must have felt his words were but the prelude of some scathing reproaches they would have to listen to, and yet they were constrained with one voice to bear their witness to the perfect truth of his assertion that his long official life had been indeed pure and spotless. The Talmud has a curious tradition respecting the prophets, based apparently upon this saying of Samuel. “All the prophets were rich men. This we infer from the account of Moses, Samuel, Amos, and Jonah. Of Moses, as it is written (Numbers 16:15), ‘I have not taken one ass from them.’ Of Samuel, as it is written (1Samuel 12:3), ‘Behold, here I am; witness against me before the Lord, and before His anointed. Whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken?’ Of Amos, as it is written (Amos 7:14), ‘I was an herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit,’ i.e., I am proprietor of my herds and own sycamores in the valley. Of Jonah, as it is written (Jonah 1:3), ‘So he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it.’ Rabbi Yochanan says he hired the whole ship. Rabbi Rumanus says the hire of the ship amounted to four thousand golden denarii.”—Treatise Nedarim, fol. 38, Colossians 1.
And he said unto them, The LORD is witness against you, and his anointed is witness this day, that ye have not found ought in my hand. And they answered, He is witness.(5) The Lord is witness.—Then Samuel again, with increased solemnity, called the Eternal in the heavens above and His anointed king then standing by his side to witness what the people had just acknowledged concerning his scrupulously just rule.
And they answered, He is witness.—And the assembly of Israel, again with one voice, shouted, Yes, He is witness.
And Samuel said unto the people, It is the LORD that advanced Moses and Aaron, and that brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.(6) It is the Lord that advanced Moses and Aaron.—The Hebrew should be rendered, “even the Eternal that advanced Moses and Aaron.” The elders of Israel (1Samuel 12:5) had with one consent cried out, in reply to Samuel’s solemn calling God and the king to witness, He is witness. Then Samuel takes up their words with great emphasis, even the Eternal that advanced Moses, &c. The English rendering greatly weakens the dramatic force of the original Hebrew. The LXX. has caught accurately the thought by supplying the word “witness “: thus, The Lord is witness, &c.
The Exodus is mentioned in this and in many places in these ancient records of the people as the great call of love by which the Eternal assumed the sovereignty over Israel. The Talmud here comments: “It is the Lord that made Moses and Aaron” (1Samuel 12:6); and it is said (1Samuel 12:11), “And the Lord sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel.” Scripture balances in the same scale the three least important with the three most important personages, in order to teach thee that Jerrubbaal in his generation was like Moses in his, Bedan (said to be Samson) like Aaron, and Jephthah like Samuel. Hence the most insignificant man, if appointed a ruler of the congregation, has the same authority as the most important personage.—Treatise Rosh-Hashanah, fol. 25, Colossians 2.
Now therefore stand still, that I may reason with you before the LORD of all the righteous acts of the LORD, which he did to you and to your fathers.(7) Now therefore . . .—Samuel proceeds in his painful work. See now, he says, we have advanced thus far in my solemn pleading. Stand up now, ye elders, while I proceed. My innocence, as your judge, you have thus borne witness to, before God and the king, yet in spite of this you have wished to be quit of me, and of One who stood high above me—of One who has worked for you such mighty deeds, even the Eternal. See now, ye elders, what He has done for your fathers and for you, this invisible King, whom ye have just deliberately replaced by an earthly king.
When Jacob was come into Egypt, and your fathers cried unto the LORD, then the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, which brought forth your fathers out of Egypt, and made them dwell in this place.(8) When Jacob was come into Egypt.—Now, in order, Samuel rehearses the deeds of loving-kindness done for Israel by this Eternal King. And first he mentions the wonders of the Exodus, and how, under that Divine guidance, they were guided through so many dangers safe into the land of Canaan, this place.
And when they forgat the LORD their God, he sold them into the hand of Sisera, captain of the host of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought against them.(9) And when they forgot the Lord their God.—The idolatry of Israel, and the immorality and shame less wickedness which ever attended it, was simply an act of rebellion against the pure government of the invisible King, and was punished by the withdrawal of the Divine protection. The instances which are here adduced of the people being given up into the hands of strange hostile nations are prominent ones, quoted as they occurred to him, without any careful attention being paid to the order of events and times, which was here not necessary for the course of his argument. Three leading nations out of the neighbouring peoples are mentioned by him as having been allowed, in consequence of Israel’s rebellion against the Eternal, to oppress and harass, for a season, the tribes of God’s inheritance—the Canaanites, the Philistines, and the Moabites.
Captain of the host of Hazor.—Hazor is mentioned as the capital city of the Canaanites in Joshua 11:1; Joshua 11:10; Joshua 11:13, &c., and again as a royal residence in Judges 4:2. Sisera is specially named as the well-known commander of the army against which Israel fought, and as the victim of the sanguinary but patriotic deed of fury of Jael.
Into the hand of the Philistines.—These “Phœnicians,” who literally dwelt among the Israelites, were most formidable foes to the chosen people for a long series of years. We have before compared their many strongholds and fastnesses to those robber nests which in the stormy middle ages disturbed the peace, and were the scourge of the commerce and trade, of Central Europe. It was owing especially to these Philistines that for so long a period such slow progress in wealth and the arts of civilisation was made in Israel. The advance of the Hebrew nation, from the days of Samuel, who first really checked these Philistine robbers, was singularly rapid. In an almost incredibly short period, from being a poor, half-barbarous people, the Israelites became a highly cultured, wealthy, and powerful nation. In great measure this strangely rapid progress was owing to the complete subjugation of the Philistines under the rule of Samuel, Saul, and David.
The king of Moab.—The king referred to here is Eglon, who was slain by Ehud. (See Judges 3)
And they cried unto the LORD, and said, We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve thee.(10) And they cried unto the Lord.—As soon as they were convinced of their sin and rebellion, and accused themselves, and returned to their old allegiance, their invisible King, ever full of pity and tender compassion, forgave them, and sent them quick deliverance.
And have served Baalim and Ashtaroth.—Baal and Ashtaroth were the well-known leading Phœnician deities; the worship, with most of its details, was imported probably from Carthage, the great Phœnician centre. The temple of Baal-shemesh, the Sun god, at Carthage, was renowned in that luxurious and splendid city. (For a detailed and picturesque account of the worship and ritual of Baal at Carthage, see M. Gustave Flaubert’s romance of Salômbo.) Baal and Ashtaroth, the Greek Astarté, were probably originally worshipped simply as the sun and moon. The plural form refers to the various personifications and different titles of the god and goddess.
And the LORD sent Jerubbaal, and Bedan, and Jephthah, and Samuel, and delivered you out of the hand of your enemies on every side, and ye dwelled safe.(11) And the Lord sent Jerubbaal.—Again the speaker only names a few of the God-sent deliverers, just the most prominent of their great and famous heroes. Gideon was surnamed Jerubbaal out of scorn and derision for the Phœnician deity: “Let Baal then strive or contend with me, Gideon.”
Bedan.—This name does not occur in the record of the “judges.” We meet with it only in 1Chronicles 7:17, as a name of one of the descendants of Machir the Manassite, but this Bedan of the Chronicles seems to have been a person of no importance. The LXX. and the Syriac, the two most ancient versions, read, instead of Bedan, Barak. The letters forming these two names in the Hebrew are very similar, and a scribe might easily have written the one for the other, and the mistake might well have been perpetuated—at least, this is probable. The famous Hebrew commentator, Rabbi D. Kimchi, suggests Bedan is written for Ben-Dan, the son of Dan the Danite. that is. Samson. The list of Hebrew heroes in Hebrews 11:32 noticeably connects Barak with Gideon and Jephthah. Wordsworth curiously prefers to leave the unknown name of Bedan in the hero catalogue, because he argues “that in this very obscurity of the name we have a confirmation of the genuineness of the speech. A forger would not have ventured to insert a name which occurs nowhere else.”
And Samuel.—The Syriac Version substitutes Samson for Samuel, finding, doubtless, a difficulty in the quotation of his own name by the speaker. But the other versions uniformly agree with the Hebrew text, and in truth Samuel could well cite himself a signal instance of God’s loving pity in sending deliverance, conscious as he was of his own high mission. No judge had accomplished such great things for the people, and none had received more general recognition. It was a most fitting name to bring in at the close of his list.
And when ye saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, ye said unto me, Nay; but a king shall reign over us: when the LORD your God was your king.(12) Nahash the king of the children of Ammon.—It has been suggested, with great probability, that Nahash and the Ammonites had invaded the trans-Jordanic territory of Israel in the period immediately preceding the demand addressed to Samuel for a king, and that the invasion which culminated in the siege of Jabesh-gilead was only one of a series of destructive forays and invasions.
Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and, behold, the LORD hath set a king over you.(13) Now therefore, behold the king whom ye have chosen.—The seer now turns from the story of the past and its sad lessons to the present. “You now have your wish—behold your king. The Eternal has seen fit to grant your petition. His—again pointing to Saul—election rests on the will of the invisible King, whom virtually you have rejected.”
If ye will fear the LORD, and serve him, and obey his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then shall both ye and also the king that reigneth over you continue following the LORD your God:(14) If ye will fear the Lord . . .—The English Version has missed the point of the original Hebrew of this passage. It should run, “If ye will fear the Lord, &c., . . . and if both ye and the king that reigneth over you will follow the Lord your God, it shall be well with you.” Dean Payne Smith has well caught the spirit of the passage in his note: “Samuel piled up one upon another the conditions of their happiness, and then from the depth of his emotion breaks off, leaving the blessed consequences of their obedience unsaid.” The intense wish, “O that you would only fear the Lord! O that you and your king would only continue following!” is contained in the Hebrew particle which introduces these ejaculatory sentences. A similar unfinished sentence will be found in St. Luke 19:42, where the apodosis is left to be supplied.
Samuel, with mournful earnestness, would drive home to the hearts of the people and their new king the great truth that the past, full of sin and sorrow, was forgiven—that even their present act, which seemed to border on ingratitude to that Mighty One who deigned to concern Himself with the interests of this fickle people, would bring no evil consequences in its track, if only the people and their king would in the future obey the glorious voice of the Eternal.
But if ye will not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then shall the hand of the LORD be against you, as it was against your fathers.(15) But if ye will not obey.—The English translation here, with several of the versions, accurately and happily understands the Hebrew in the sense of “as:” “as it was against your fathers.” Rabbi D. Kimchi prefers to understand “fathers” as put for “kings”: “the hand of the Lord shall be against you and your kings.” The LXX. reads, “against you and your king.”
Now therefore stand and see this great thing, which the LORD will do before your eyes.(16) This great thing, which the Lord will do.—Then, to give greater emphasis to his warning words, Samuel adds: “O, ye elders, stand forth. I will show you by means of a Voice from heaven that this very asking for a king, though the Eternal has granted your prayer, is evil in His sight.” Their wishing for an earthly king was the crown of a long course of rebellion against the Supreme will. It was, in fact, the breaking up for ever of the glorious ideal which had been for so long before the eyes of the noblest spirits in Israel.
Is it not wheat harvest to day? I will call unto the LORD, and he shall send thunder and rain; that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking you a king.(17) Is it not wheat harvest day?—The Canaan wheat harvest is between the middle of May and the middle of June. Rain in that season seldom or never falls, but if it does it is usually severe. This is the testimony of one who spoke as a resident, and his statement is confirmed by the observations of the latest travellers and scholars. The terrible storm of rain accompanied with thunder, at a time of year when these storms of thunder and rain rarely took place, coming, as it did, in direct answer to the seer’s invocation, struck the people naturally with great fear, and for the moment they thoroughly repented of the past, and entreated Samuel—who, they felt, stood on strangely familiar terms with that awful yet loving Eternal—to intercede for them.
And Samuel said unto the people, Fear not: ye have done all this wickedness: yet turn not aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart;(20) Fear not: ye have done all this wickedness.—A very great and precious evangelical truth is contained in these comforting words of the great and good seer. They show how deeply this eminent servant of the Most High had entered into the Eternal thought. No sin or course of sin was too great to be repented of. Afar off these true ministers of the Lord saw, though, perhaps, “in a glass’ darkly,” the Lamb of God, whose blood cleanseth from all sin. Isaiah often pressed home the same truth to the sinning Israel of his own day in such terms as, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow;” and Samuel’s words—bidding the people, in spite of the guilty past, yet press on, following the Lord and serving Him with all the heart—were taken up by Samuel’s prophet-successors, and repeated in coming ages again and again in such moving exhortations as, “O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God” (Hosea 14:1). They were re-echoed by men like Paul, who, with stirring loving words, bade their hearers, forgetting all the things that were behind, their past guilt and failure, press on still fearlessly for the real prize of life.
And turn ye not aside: for then should ye go after vain things, which cannot profit nor deliver; for they are vain.(21) For then should ye go after vain things.—The passage is more forcible without the “for” and the words in italics supplied in the English translation. The verse without it would run thus: “Turn ye not aside after vain things which cannot profit,” &c. Singularly enough, not one of the ancient versions translate the Hebrew ki, “for”: they all omit it. It is therefore clear that this “for” has, through some copyist’s error, got into the text since the versions were made.
For the LORD will not forsake his people for his great name's sake: because it hath pleased the LORD to make you his people.(22) It hath pleased the Lord to make you his people.—The simple doctrine of election—as far as we can see, based alone on the arbitrary will of God (though, no doubt, unseen by us, deep reasons exist for every seemingly arbitrary choice)—is here enunciated. The analogy of every-day life teaches the same truth. “He maketh one vessel to honour and another to dishonour.” These things are to us inscrutable.
Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way:(23) Moreover, as for me.—“In this he sets a glorious example to all rulers, showing them that they should not be led astray by the ingratitude of their subordinates or subjects; and give up on that account all interest in their welfare, but should rather persevere all the more in their anxiety for them.”—Berleb. Bible, quoted in Lange. Moses and Samuel, wrote S. Gregory, are especially brought forward by the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:1) as having extraordinary power with Him, and why? because they prayed for their enemies. Samuel’s impassioned answer when the Elders asked his prayers, “Pray for you!” God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you.
I will teach you.—The old man felt that in the future, although his powers as Judge were not abrogated yet, there would be, comparatively speaking, save on special occasions, but little opportunity for their exercise. In the presence of the regular authority of a king surrounded by armed men, such authority as he had wielded as Judge over the hearts of Israel must fall into abeyance.
But one, and that a still higher office, still remained to him untouched by the great constitutional change that had passed over Israel—that of prophet. In this sphere, while he lived, he said he would work ceaselessly on; and the words he used on this solemn occasion tell out to all ages that the true function of the prophet or the preacher of the Eternal is to teach the people the good and the right way; and Samuel’s own life of brave self-denial and noble self-effacement showed men that this teaching must be pressed home by something more than mere words. “Only a Samuel could thus quit office, proudly challenging all to convict him of one single injustice in his past career; and by the act of resignation gaining, not losing, greatness. No longer judge and ruler, but simple prophet, he is able now to discourse with greater freedom of the monarchy about to be introduced, and he seizes the moment to cast a more distant glance into all the past and future of the community.”—Ewald: History of Israel, Book III., 1-3.