Book review: “1 Samuel – Looking for a leader”

1 Samuel

1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader

John Woodhouse

Crossway, Wheaton, 2008. 672pp.


The rise of President Barack Obama and the adulation he’s received says a lot about the way we view leaders. They inspire us. We look to them for hope and security. We believe that if we find the right leader, all will be well and we’ll be in good hands.

This is also true when it comes to our churches. Have you ever found yourself thinking or saying, “If only we had the right minister/rector/moderator/bishop/archbishop, things would finally be okay”? If you have, this book is for you.

Looking for a Leader, John Woodhouse’s commentary on 1 Samuel, argues that the dominant theme of 1 Samuel is leadership—not only in terms of “What kind of leaders should we be?”, but also in terms of “What kind of leaders should we follow?” (p. 18). As a commentary, it’s different to the ones I’m used to as it reads far more like a collection of sermons than a textbook. Each chapter begins with an introduction that raises an issue or a question, before moving through the text like a three-point sermon and coming to a conclusion that points us to the Lord Jesus.

For example, when addressing 1 Samuel 22:1-5, Woodhouse raises the question, “Who would want to be a Christian in today’s world?” (p. 426), before moving through the verses and answering the question in the concluding paragraphs by drawing our attention to the similarity in the situation between those who came to David and those who come to Jesus today. As a result, not only does this book serve as a commentary, it could also easily enrich quiet times for the mature Christian.

However, Looking for a Leader is still a commentary and more than just a collection of sermons. There is still a wealth of detail and insight to be uncovered. Some of it is hidden in the footnotes, included in the back section. But much is there in the main body, and is carefully presented and only highlighted on those occasions where it adds to what is being said.

For example, did you know that when the elders of Israel ask for a king like all the nations in 1 Samuel 8:5, in the very next chapter, we’re introduced to Saul, whose name means “Asked For” (p. 155)? Or did you know that the word for ‘glory’ can also refer to one’s weight, which adds extra poignancy to the question, “Where is the glory?” when Eli dies in 1 Samuel 4:18?

But not only does Woodhouse bring keen insight to the text, he also challenges some long-held views about what some of our favourite verses are saying. One notable example is 1 Samuel 16:7, which we normally read as saying that God looks at us according to our hearts, rather than according to outward appearances. Woodhouse argues for a more literal translation: “For the Lord sees not as man sees, for man sees according to the eyes, but the Lord sees according to the heart” (p. 286)—not according to our heart, but his own. In other words, God chooses David not on the basis of David’s heart, but God’s own heart—his will and purpose.

Most of what Woodhouse says makes a lot of sense, which testifies to the time and care he has taken to explain the text. One of the things you’ll discover is that there is so much more to the story than first meets the eye; 1 Samuel is filled with tension, drama, pathos and irony, as well as deep theological insight. With Woodhouse’s aid, all this is brought to the surface for our edification.

If I were to make any critical comments about Looking for a Leader, it would be that it’s almost too good a read. Firstly, it functions far better as a book than a reference—not only in terms of the things it leaves out (like detailed background information and structural diagrams), but also in terms of not being able to dip into it with a specific question. It’s best read as a whole, or chapter by chapter.

Secondly, it’s a dangerous book for preachers. That sounds strange, given my glowing review. But when I read it, I found it so compelling, it became hard to think how else I would preach the text! There were times when I wanted more distance between the commentary and my sermon, which is difficult when the commentary is presented like a sermon.

In the end, however, these concerns are relatively minor, and anyone who reads this book will be greatly blessed. Even though many of us have been told that “commentaries are poison” and that we need to work hard at personal Bible reading, let me encourage you to make Looking for a Leader your first choice in commentaries on 1 Samuel.

Can we find a 1 Samuel commentary that is both edifying and easy to read? Yes we can.

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