3 And 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.” 4 So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.
5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6 So 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. 7 Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 And 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.” 9 So 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. 10 As 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. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.
12 Then 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.” 13 So 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. 14 The 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.
15 Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16 And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17 Then 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.
1 Samuel 7:3-17
The ark of the Lord was returned to Israel after being captured by the Philistines and set in Kiriath-Jearim in the house of Abinadab, a Levite. Then twenty years passed after the ruin of Eli’s house and the great defeat of Israel. It was said in verse 2 that Israel lamented after the LORD. No explicit reason was given by the author as to why Israel lamented. It is strange because normally Israel should have rejoiced because the ark of the LORD was returned to them. Some theologians suggested that they lamented because the Philistines continued to harass them from time to time in those twenty long years. Yet in those twenty years being harassed by the Philistines, they did not seek the Lord, but continued in the practice of worshiping the Canaanite gods. Baals and Ashtaroth were especially mentioned in verse 4 as they were the chief gods of the Canaanites. The worship practice of these gods was an abomination to the Lord. They committed sexual immorality as they worship them. Remember that Hophni and Phinehas also committed sexual immorality in God’s temple. So the Lord abandoned them into the hands of their enemies. Their life was then a repeat of what happened in the time of the Judges. Their lament however was not a sign of repentance. Not yet.
Because Israel still kept their worship of other gods. They had forgotten about the Lord and His covenant with them. Then suddenly in verse 3 the name Samuel returned to the scene. For twenty years Samuel was under the radar. He was last heard twenty years before in 4:1 when his word was said to come to Israel. It was the word of judgment that the Lord spoke to Samuel as He called him to His service. God’s judgment on Israel took place in chapter 4. Now in chapter 7, Samuel resurfaced.
3 And 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.”
This is the call to repentance. Israel had been humbled. They lamented. Yet they had not repented. For they still kept their gods with them. Samuel had to confront them of their greatest sin. The main goal was for Israel to return to the Lord wholeheartedly. They had to get rid of other gods. They had to direct their heart to the Lord only. This was not easy to do. All Israel had learned the way of Canaan. They had adopted the foreign way of life. It had become their habit, their culture. In fact, they grew up in that culture, because their fathers had been unfaithful to the Lord ever since the death of Joshua and all the elders who followed him. And worse, Eli did not provide a good leadership for them. He let them continue in their sin. He even let his sons defile the temple of God. Thus the people learned the contemptuous way of worshiping God. So Samuel had to call them to repent!
How about us? What does Samuel have to do with us? It’s just history, isn’t it? It’s good we know the story, isn’t it? The answer is No! It is not just history and it is not good to merely know the story. This passage speaks about us as well. The sin that Adam and Eve passed down to Israel is also passed down to us. Just like the Israelites got distracted with other gods, we too today are distracted with other gods. Their gods were in the form of statues, deities, idols, such as Baals, Asteroth, Moloch, and many others; but the gods of the modern age are more in the form of wealth/money, power, and pleasure. Not few Christians waywardly mix God with all other gods. R. C. Sproul quoted Charles Spurgeon and said:
In a sermon on the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the English Puritan preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that “the proud sinner wants Christ, and his own parties; Christ, and his own lusts; Christ, and his own waywardness. The one who is truly poor in spirit wants only Christ, and he will do anything, and give anything to have him!”
The modern Christians mix God with wealth, God with power, God with pleasure. They can’t believe in one and only God. They always want God + something else. For these Christians, God alone is not enough. Obviously, they are not those who are truly poor in spirit.
To these Christians, 1 Samuel 7:3 speaks strongly against them. This is a call for repentance. This is a call for them to get rid of all the pluses. They need to worship and serve God only. This message is for you today in your hearing. Are you one of those Christians who secretly believe that God alone is not enough? It is a fact today that many churches attempt to attract people to Christianity through the reward of wealth, health, and success. This is what I heard some pastors claimed:
“If you believe in Christ, you will be rich! If you believe in Christ, you will be healed! If you believe in Christ, your life will be successful! Because God is King and you are the children of the King of the world. God is rich, and so He will shower you with material blessings beyond your dream! If you pray to the King, do not ask for a bike, such request would be undermining God. Ask for the newest Mercedes! If you pray to God, do not ask for a simple house, for God can give you much more than a simple house. He can give you even a million dollars house. He is rich! Ask and you shall receive!”
These are just examples of what some pastors claimed falsely in the name of God. Yet their followers fill up the church. Tens of thousands of people come. But God alone is not enough for them. They want God + wealth/money, God + health, God + success, God + power, God + pleasure, and God + sin.
If you find it in your heart that you secretly want God + everything else, if you find in your heart that you secretly refuse God alone, then you need to repent. Samuel called Israel to get rid of all foreign gods. Samuel called Israel to wholeheartedly worship and serve God alone. Then the people responded to Samuel’s call. Their hearts had been brought low. They could not find hope in their current state. They lamented profusely. They wanted God to help but did not have the heart to let go of their idols. But their hearts were broken. They were desperate. This was prime time for transformation. Their disequilibrium must be corrected. Their desperation would not find peace unless they got rid of all other gods and wholeheartedly focused on God only. So upon Samuel’s call, they resolved to follow the call. 1 Samuel 7:4 records that Israel got rid of all foreign gods and served only the LORD.
This was a new dawn in Israel’s history. After about 300 years of unfaithfulness to God, Samuel reformed Israel. 300 years before Samuel, Joshua called Israel to do the same thing. Joshua 24:14-15 records:
14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Now, the covenant was renewed again through Samuel. Israel’s relationship with God was restored that day. Through their commitment and action, they then honored and glorified the LORD, the only God that deserved to receive such honor and glory.
The gathering at Mizpah was the next process in the relationship restoration. Mizpah was an important place where Israel had also gathered when they had to deal with the evil deed of the people of Gibeah of Benjamin as recorded in Judges 20:1. A very important event was to follow after this purification process. It is said in verse 6 that Israel poured water before the LORD and fasted and repented. A very fitting response. And then Samuel was said to judge Israel. John Woodhouse explained the meaning of the word judge or שָׁפַט in Hebrew:
While Samuel’s “judging” the people may well include what follows, it is right to see this sentence as a summary of what he had done up to this point. He had called Israel back to the Lord and prayed for them. This is not what the word “judged” usually means in English, but the Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament for precisely this. Samuel set things right in Israel by his words to the people from God and by his words to God for the people.
The word judge here thus means setting things right for the people before God. And Samuel and all other servants of God in the Scripture did the “judging” by way of speaking the word of truth. Much of what I am doing right now.
Now, the Philistines heard that all Israel were gathered at Mizpah, so they intended to destroy Israel once and for all. It was only convenient for them to find all Israel gathered at Mizpah. Interestingly, when Israel heard that the Philistines had assembled their army to destroy them, they were afraid. This is interesting because 1 Samuel 4 recorded a different tone of the war between Israel and the Philistines. In ch. 4 it was the Philistines that were trembling with fear because they thought God was with the Israelites. Hophni and Phinehas had brought the ark of the Lord into the battlefield and the army of Israel felt very secure with its presence. But now, the ark of the Lord had been safely returned to Israel, yet Israel did not feel secure at all. They were trembling with fear. In their fear they asked Samuel to cry out to the LORD. In ch. 4 Israel did not cry out to the LORD, they treated the ark of the LORD as if it was a talisman containing magical superpower. Israel in ch. 4 did not need God.
Samuel then interceded for Israel by making a sacrifice of lamb. That’s a sacrifice of atonement for Israel. Samuel obeyed the Law of Moses faithfully. In contrast, Hophni and Phinehas treated the sacrifice to the LORD with contempt. So, the Lord answered Samuel’s plea in v. 9. All was done as God had commanded, with wholehearted devotion, and God of love and mercy answered. In ch. 4, even though they had the ark in their midst, the Lord was not there with them. For they had violated the Lord’s law. V. 10 records that God thundered against the Philistines and threw them into confusion. This even finds its reference in Hannah’s prayer, particularly in 1 Samuel 2:10a:
“The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven.”
The Lord indeed broke the Philistines to pieces. Israel was victorious against the Philistines that day.
Afterwards, Samuel set up a stone and called it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help.” For truly the LORD helped Israel in their desperation. This too was in stark contrast with what happened in ch. 4, where Israel encamped in Ebenezer as they went into battle with the Philistines. But the name of the place where they encamped betrayed them. For the Lord did not help them that day. The Lord judged them for their sins. But in our passage we see how God helped Israel. Israel should learn that day that it was not the ark of the Lord that had the magical superpower, and surely not the name of the place that brought them victory. But the LORD Himself, the Lord alone, who helped them, who gave them victory, who had the true power.
During the rule of Samuel, Israel was safe from the Philistines. Samuel judged Israel faithfully. He was never tired in speaking the word of God to Israel so they would live properly before the Lord. Samuel was that good and faithful leader of Israel, unlike Eli and his sons. Samuel was a type of Christ, a shepherd King for God’s people.
In the same way, and much more, we now have the shepherd King Himself taking care of us. Christ has done all the requirements of the law in perfection. So we are set right before the LORD by Jesus Christ our High Priest. He Himself sacrificed his own flesh and blood to atone us. Now He sits on the throne, judging us through His words. This story of Samuel and Israel is also our story. As the people of Israel listened to Samuel, we too must listen to God’s word. As the people of Israel wholeheartedly committed and acted accordingly to the call of repentance, we too must commit and act accordingly to the word of God. We are to get rid of our attachment to wealth, power, and pleasure – the gods of this age. Serve God only!
No, I do not say to you that now you must abandon your business, your career, all your possession, or that you now can’t enjoy anything, or that you may not have any power. That is not what God is commanding all of us. In 1 Timothy 6:10 Paul said:
10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
No, it is not the money that is the root of evil, it is the “love of money” that is the root of evil. You know it in your heart that when something or someone is more important than God in your life, then you have fallen into the sin that Israel committed from time to time. If you love other things more than God, then you know that those other things have become your gods. I am not saying that you must prioritize serving in the church over taking care of your family. That too is a form of idolatry. Serving in the church does not necessarily mean serving God. For the Pharisees were rebuked by Jesus in Mark 7:
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
I am not teaching you to abandon your family for the sake of serving in the church for that would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, our devotion is to the Lord only. Not to anything else. Ask God to search your heart, what it is that you are clinging to. And remove your unholy, unwarranted desire.
The shepherd King Jesus has done His part in perfect obedience and faithfulness to the Father for our sake. Now it is our part to respond properly to Him for we have received His salvation. It would be utterly absurd to accept His salvation and then treat Him with contempt by flirting with other gods. Remember that bringing the ark of the Lord into the battlefield does not mean God is present, in the same way wearing all the church and religious attributes does not mean that God is with us. Do not treat such things as if they were talisman. What matters is the position of your heart toward God. The Shepherd King has provided us with whatever we need to thrive in His Kingdom. All He asks of all of us is to live properly as the children of God. Today is the time for the reformation of our hearts. Amen.