We are in 1 Samuel again today, chapter 7 if you would like to turn. We have come now to the concluding story of a set of five stories that began in chapter 4 and most of which have to do with the ark of the covenant.
- In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek-Ebenezer, thinking that God would help them if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
- In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged.
- In the third, Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines and their gods by means of the ark until they begged for it to leave.
- In the fourth, the ark came back to Israel, but the Levites of Beth-shemesh were judged for their disrespect to the ark and so the ark ended up in Kiriath-jearim.
At the very end of this fourth story it says, “a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” – 7:2. After judgment on their high priests and Levites, after Philistine oppression year after year, after seeing God’s power displayed through the ark, but not for them – they hit rock bottom. Things were so bad, for so long that they knew something had to change. And so they reconsidered their ways and began to long for the Lord God.
Well, Samuel saw this godly sorrow, which leads us to –
The story of God’s salvation
3And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.
The phrase, “foreign gods” covers a lot of ground, but Baal and his female consort Astarte (Ashtar) here named as Ashtaroth are specifically mentioned. He was the storm god and a god of fertility. She was the god of war, love and fertility. (The name “Ashtaroth” is plural for Ashtoreth, which is a deliberate distortion of her name so that it is to be read as “shame” or “abomination.” The vowels for this word are added to the consonants of her name.)
In these verses we have a beautiful portrait of what repentance looks like. It means turning, or in this case, “returning to the Lord with all your heart.” Negatively this involves putting away idols, those wrong systems of belief and practice that go against God’s will for us and which harm us and others. And positively it means relying on the Lord alone and doing his will.
You have to realize, Israel’s temptation was seldom not to serve Yahweh. Rather, it was to place Yahweh as one of many gods who can be served for their various specialties and help, depending on your particular life crisis or need. So let’s say you want a husband, then you pray to Astarte. This is what she does. And if you want rain you pray to Baal. And then in a national crisis you might pray to Yahweh as a tribal god.
This is why the call is to give God all your heart, not part; and to serve him only, not along with other gods. Samuel is calling Israel to trust God for everything, because he can take care of everything.
We also see here that repentance is something that comes from the heart, or the very center of us – our will; it has to do with a choice of life direction.
What are our idols? I can tell you how to find them. When you are in a crisis what do you turn to for security, help and comfort? Is it wealth, social status, inappropriate sexual expression, drug or alcohol abuse, overeating? It could be anything. What do you turn to?
Here the repentance is communal, the whole community of Israel is returning to God. How might we need to repent as a community? Where do we allow sin in our midst as a church?
5Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.
It’s not clear why they poured out water, but it is a part of their repentance, as is the fasting. Notice that confession, and intercession on behalf of Israel by Samuel, was also a part of their repentance and restoration to God. This is most likely a covenant renewal ceremony.
When it says Samuel judged them, it means that he taught them once again God’s will and called them to accountability to practice it, as well as decided difficult cases. (e.g. 1 Samuel 12:23).
7Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel.
The Philistines still exercised dominance over Israel, so a gathering like this would have been provocative – most likely indicating a rebellion. So they come to reassert their power.
And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”
God allows them to be tested in a big way, right away. Will they remain faithful and trust God to deliver them?
Their call for prayer is the right response. They have put all their eggs in Yahweh’s basket. In a practical way they are fully relying on him.
Do we commit to serve the Lord only and then run back to our old idols? Do we go back to our old life patterns when things are bad? Or do we trust fully in God and God’s promises as we pray? Israel is an example to us here.
9So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.
(For Samuel as an intercessor see also Jeremiah 15:1; Psalm 99:6; 1 Samuel 12:19-23)
The story goes on to give the details . . .
10As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.
God himself fought for them. They only took action after God gave the victory. The Lord’s thunder here shows that Baal, the storm god, who often used thunder, was a pretender – Yahweh is the true God and rules in the heavens. (It is also a partial fulfillment of Hannah’s praise in 2:10).
12Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”
Ebenezer means “stone of help.” The idea is that God has helped by saving them. “Till now” means, OK, you have decided to rely only on Yahweh, and see, he has helped us thus far. God is faithful! The stone monument is a reminder to them and later generations of God’s great work here. God can be trusted.
Do we remember how God has worked in our lives? What stones of remembrances do you have that build your faith and the faith of others as you share your testimony of God’s faithfulness?
Notice how in the first story of this set of stories Israel was defeated under the leadership of Eli, as Israel thought they could win just because the ark was with them, despite their sin and unfaithfulness. And this happened at a town called Ebenezer. But here in the last story, Israel defeats the Philistines under Samuel’s leadership after they have turned wholly to the Lord and this is memorialized by an Ebenezer stone.
13So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.
During Samuel’s days as the leader of Israel God gave Israel peace. The Philistines were defeated, Israel’s land was restored and the other Canaanites didn’t bother Israel. This was a gift from God; a blessing that they could receive because of their repentance and trust in God.
Finally, our story ends –
15Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the Lord.
Here we have a summary of Samuel’s life work, carried out in the cities of this central region of Israel. There isn’t much detail about what else happened during his time as a judge, but he continues to show up in the stories of Saul and David which come next.
I want to end with a few thoughts on what I think is the chief message of these five stories.
No repentance, no blessing
I’m not saying that all people aren’t blessed by God in some ways, because God gives mercy even to his enemies. What I am saying is that to receive the fullness of God’s blessing – his salvation – we have to repent and trust God.
We have seen Israel try to have it both ways. They want God’s best for them while clinging to their sin and unfaithfulness. They seek after God’s best by pursuing it according to their own wisdom; by doing what they wanted; by not serving God alone.
But here in this story they get it! They turn to God and receive God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation. The title for this sermon could be, “Finally, they get it!!!” This is the way it was always supposed to be. Finally, they put away their sin and experienced all that God wanted for them – life, peace and blessing.
Well, I think, we are just like Israel. We want it both ways. We want God’s best for us, but we want to make our own choices and do things our own way, also relying on our idols. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we want God’s blessing, deliverance and salvation, like Israel we have to repent and trust God. We have to submit ourselves to God and God’s ways. We have to serve God with our whole heart and him only. There are no shortcuts.
Have you come to this point yet? Where you can say, “I get it! If I give myself fully to God he will bless me and be present with me, even when I go through hard times. I know that because of my repentance and trust, God’s blessing and salvation will always define my life.” Maybe some of you came to this realization 50 years ago. Maybe some of you came to it last year. Or maybe some of you are still on the journey.
Let me just say, you don’t have to hit rock bottom first. It’s a choice you can make at any time. I encourage you today, submit yourself fully to God and trust in him and know his blessings.