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Empty Things: 1 Samuel 12:21

Lesson ▪ 2002
Tags: 1 Samuel 12:21; Fulfillment; Spiritual life; Tohu (Hebrew word)
Related Resources: Avoiding Spiritual AdulteryThe Soul of Israel: Spiritual Conditions during the Ministry of Elijah

Text in Context (KJV)

19 And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the LORD thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.
20 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;
21 And turn ye not aside: for then should ye go after vain [tohu] things, which cannot profit nor deliver; for they are vain [tohu].
22 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.
23 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:
24 Only fear the LORD, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you.
25 But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king.


In the midst of this text, which narrates Samuel’s response to Israel’s rejection of God as king, we find a most intriguing verse which speaks of “vain things.” The word rendered vain in the KJV is the Hebrew tohu, a term whose meaning is difficult to pinpoint with precision. Grasping the significance of this word, and its application to our lives today, is the focus of this lesson.

Defining Tohu


  • formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness (Brown, Driver, and Briggs 1062)
  • confusion, the empty place (Harris 2: 964)
  • wasteland, nothingness (VanGemeren 1:606)

Biblical Usage

Selected Old Testament verses where tohu occurs are listed below. Words or phrases that render tohu are italicized.

Gen. 1:2
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Psa. 107:40
He poureth contempt upon princes, and causeth them to wander in the wilderness, where there is no way.

Isa. 29:21
That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought.

Isa. 40:17
All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.

Isa. 41:29
Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.

Isa. 44:9
They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed.

Isa. 45:18
For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.

Isa. 45:19
I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the LORD speak righteousness, I declare things that are right.

Isa. 59:4
None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.

Translations of 1 Samuel 12:21

and turn ye not aside; for then would ye go after vain things which cannot profit nor deliver, for they are vain.

“You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.

Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless.

And do not turn aside; for then you would go after empty things which cannot profit or deliver, for they are nothing.

Don’t go back to worshiping worthless idols that cannot help or rescue you – they really are useless!

and do not turn aside after vain things which cannot profit or save, for they are vain.


By contrast, says Samuel, the people are not to follow “useless” (tohu the word rendered “formless” in Gen 1:2) things/people. Although idols are described as tohu in Isaiah 41:29 (NIV, “confusion”; cf. also 44:9, “nothing”), hence NIV’s “useless idols” here, the reference in this context is perhaps broader and denotes any defection from serving the Lord--including, of course, preference for a human king (so Eslinger, Kingship of God, pp. 418-19; cf. similarly Vannoy, p. 55). Only God can do the people good; no one else can “rescue” (cf. NIV, “deliver[ed]” in vv. 10-11; 10:18). (Youngblood)


The thrust of Samuel’s statement is that there are many things in life that promise fulfillment but cannot deliver on their promises. In ancient Israel it was common for those who lacked spiritual commitment to stray into the worship of neighboring cultures’ idols. In our day we do not bow down and sacrifice to wood and stone, but idolatry exists nevertheless. We are always at risk of succumbing to the values of our culture--love of money, lust, power, fame, reputation, pride, autonomy, and substance abuse, to name some. These are all “empty things” that we must shun precisely because they are empty.


Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds. The New Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. 1907. Lafayette, IN: Associated Publishers and Authors, 1981.

Harris, R. Laird, ed. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody, 1980.

Scaer, David P. “Vanity.” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.

VanGemeren, Willem A., ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Youngblood, Ronald F. “1 Samuel.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Bible. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. 12 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d. Zondervan Reference Software. CD-ROM. Vers. 2.8. Zondervan, 2001.

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Teacher's notes (3 pages)   18k v. 2 Mar 5, 2011, 9:17 PM Greg Smith