The concluding scenes of the book of Judges emphasize the void of godly leadership in Israel. The first four chapters of 1 Samuel set out an initial solution. The Lord raised up Samuel as His prophet to speak His word and regulate worship. As the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel progresses, the spiritual vitality of both Samuel and David provide the stability necessary for Israel to be successful in the land.
The extensive account of Hannah’s barrenness in 1 Samuel 1 serves to reinforce a pattern of the Old Testament: the ability to conceive children comes from the Lord. Thus Hannah vowed, “LORD of Hosts, if You will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give Your servant a son, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut” (1 Sam 1:11). Hannah fulfilled her vow by presenting Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:24). The theology of Hannah’s prayer of victory (1 Sam 2:1-11) is reflected by the Psalmist who wrote: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the garbage pile…He gives the childless woman a household, making her the joyful mother of children. Hallelujah!” (Ps 113:7, 9).
While the boy Samuel “served the LORD in the presence of Eli the priest” (1 Sam 2:11), “Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD or for the priests share of the sacrifices from the people” (1 Sam 2:12). The Lord’s call on Samuel was evident (1 Sam 3:1-18), even giving Samuel boldness to announce to Eli that Eli’s family would be condemned. First Samuel 3:19-20 adds, “Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let nothing he said prove false. All Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a confirmed prophet of the LORD.”
The narrative of 1 Samuel 4 moves the reader’s attention from the events at Shiloh westward to the land of the Philistines. There the Israelites engaged their enemies but were defeated (1 Sam 4:2). Thinking the ark of the Lord’s covenant a relic that could ensure a more favorable outcome against their foes, Israel—under the immoral leadership of Hophni and Phinehas—brought the ark from Shiloh to their camp at Ebenezer (1 Sam 4:3-4). The Philistines defeated Israel, taking the ark as spoil (1 Sam 4:5-11). The remainder of 1 Samuel 4 reveals the truthfulness of Samuel’s word to Eli shortly after Samuel’s call experience: Eli died, and his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, died giving birth to a son (1 Sam 4:12-20). She named her son Ichabod saying, “The glory has departed from Israel…because the ark of God has been captured” (1 Sam 4:22).
The childbirth narratives in 1 Samuel 1-4 provide a rubric for understanding the glory of God in the storyline of Scripture. The countenance of Eli’s daughter-in-law in 1 Sam 4:19-22, and the choice of a name for her son, inform the reader that for many Israelites the glory of God was related to the ark of the covenant. Once it had been captured, they understood that God’s special care for the nation had likewise been taken captive by the Philistines.
God’s glory departed from Israel even after He had answered Hannah’s prayer for a son and set Samuel apart as a prophet. Hannah’s prayer and Samuel’s ministry in 1 Samuel 1-3 foreshadow the coming of Jesus Christ, who is the glory of God become man. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, she sang a song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) that echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Sam 2:1-11. Like Hannah, Mary rejoiced in God for looking upon the humble state of His people and raising the lowly in triumph over their enemies. But Mary’s song goes beyond Hannah’s, itself expressing the storyline of Scripture. Mary sang of God’s mercy upon Abraham and his descendants (Luke 1:54-55). When Gabriel announced to Mary that she was favored of God to give birth to Jesus, the angel told her that her Son would be great, sitting on the throne of His father David and ruling over the house of Jacob eternally (Luke 1:32-33). It is no wonder then that when Jesus was born, the heavenly angels appeared to the shepherds singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Luke 2:14). Jesus, like Samuel (1 Sam 2:26), grew in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52) but only Jesus was God’s Son, able to identify the temple in Jerusalem as His Father’s house (Luke 2:49).