Copyright © 2016, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter.
All rights reserved.
www.biblicaltheology.com Scripture quotes from KJV
The people of ancient Israel claimed to trust in the LORD, but most did so by their words only, and for most of their history most Israelites actually knew very little about Him. Their actions proved that they had rejected God for the things of this world, replacing faith in Him with their immersion in the pagan culture, worshiping the sensual pagan mythical gods of the Canaanites, performing, along with them, their rites for their lifeless wood, stone, and metal idols. They trusted in their identification as children of Abraham for their feelings of “righteousness,” not understanding that it was the faith of Abraham, passed down through his sons, that define his progeny. Though there was always a small remnant of faithful Jews, the preponderant majority of the people had turned from God, placing their trust in created things.
The ancient Hebrew culture was not that different from the world culture today. Those who referred to themselves as Jews made up a significant population of the middle east, just as those who call themselves Christians make up a significant population of the world today. Likewise, the number of this population who seem to have little or no interaction with the things of God is large. Most who claim the name of Christian fail to attend church services or contribute to the work of the kingdom of God in any way, and many who do attend Christian “worship services” do so only as spectators. Like the ancient Jews they have placed their trust in the things of this world and define themselves by them. When we place our trust in this world, we will ultimately find it lacking, as it cannot provide us with the peace, security, and protection that is promised by God.
As Israel turned more and more to the things of this world it began to trust only in itself or in the political allies it formed for protection from its warring neighbors. During the early period of Samuel’s life Israel was being challenged by the Philistines, an ancient warring confederation of tribes that bordered Israel to their southwest. This is probably as close to modern day Palestinians than any other ancient group. Their home was in the modern area of Gaza, east to the Negev desert, and to the southwest as far as the border of Egypt. We may recall that it was the Philistines who took Samson prisoner, bringing him to his death. It would be a Philistine giant, Goliath, who would meet his death at the hand of a young David bar Jesse with a few stones and a sling.
The nation of Israel had slipped so far from God that even its priesthood had succumbed to the world’s attraction. By the end of the period of the Judges, the priesthood had come to be led by Eli and his two sons who used the position for their own gain, disgracing the Temple and blaspheming the sacrifices. Samuel was called by the LORD into prophetic service while he was under the mentoring of Eli, and brought to Eli the reaffirmation that God was going to deal harshly with the dynasty that he had formed. That judgment came true soon after the pronouncement when the Philistines attacked Israel and brought a defeat of about 3,000 men. In shock the nation of Israel responded by taking a larger group, the bulk of the available Israelite army against Philistia, but this time Hophni and Phineas, the sons of Eli, chose to take the Ark of the Covenant with them, hoping that the “presence of God” would assure them of the victory. However, this weaponizing of the Ark was not God’s purpose. His purpose was the judgment of the priesthood for their apostasy, illustrated again by the bold act of taking the Ark without the command of God to do so. The Israelites were routed, the sons of Eli were killed, and the Ark of the Covenant, abandoned on the battlefield by the Israelites, was taken by the Philistines. Upon hearing the news, Eli fell backwards from his chair at the gate of Shiloh, broke his neck, and died there.
The Ark of the Covenant was taken by the Philistines to Ashdod and set beside the statue of the pagan god Dagon. On the next morning they found the idol fallen prostrate before the arc. After setting the idol back on its feet they found it the next morning fallen again, broken at the neck and arms in the manner of a brutal military execution, perhaps a prophesy of what was to come. The LORD brought a scourge upon the Philistines similar to that brought to Egypt before the Exodus, so the Philistines moved the Ark of the Covenant to another city that also fell to the scourge. Finally, the Philistines sought to return the Ark of the Covenant by placing it in a cart that was driven by two cows. Left to their own direction the cows took the Ark directly back to Israel.
The cows arrived with the cart and a following of Philistines to Beth Shemesh, and upon witnessing the delivery of the Arc, the Philistines returned home. However, the Israelites treated the Ark with careless blasphemy, setting it up with Philistine golden idols, resulting in the death of about virtually the entire southern community of Jews. The Jews called upon the men of Kiriath Jearim to come and take charge of the Ark of the Covenant. This brings us up to 1 Samuel, chapter 7.
1 Samuel 7:1-2. And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. 2And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
Great fear followed the death of the Jews at Beth Shemesh. This was a tragic reminder of how foolish it is to take lightly the holiness of the LORD. Likewise, we should be reminded today of the Holiness of the LORD and the foolishness of taking lightly the holiness of His tabernacle. This tabernacle is within the heart of every believer, a holy place from where the Holy Spirit speaks to everyone who has turned to God in faith.
Though it is not specifically recorded in 1 Samuel, it is believed that with the death of Eli and his sons, and with the loss of the Ark, the House of the LORD in Shiloh was no longer used for its intended purpose, and Samuel moved the center of his ministry back to Ramah, his home city. With no place to securely and reverently house the Arc, it was taken to the home of Eleazar, son of Abinadab in Kiriath Jearim. One might be concerned about the security of leaving such a significant object in one’s house, but certainly the Philistines would testify that God could take care of the Ark quite well. God does not need our help to protect His holiness and power.
The spiritual state of the nation is demonstrated by the fact that the Ark, which would normally be stored in the Holy of Holies, deep in the tabernacle, behind a large and heavy veil was stored in the home of Eleazar for twenty years. It would be apparent that during those years, with the lack of a high priest, and the lack of a Holy Temple, the Temple sacrifices that were prescribed by Mosaic Law had not been offered and no Temple activity took place on the Day of Atonement. This was a time of mourning for Israel as they came to terms with such a tragic defeat at the hands of the Philistines. Their warring neighbor to the south was still strong, still aggressive, and still a threat. The Ark remained in the house of Eleazar until a newly anointed King David would bring it to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem.
The patience of Samuel and the nature of his ministry is evident when we realize that it took twenty years, the period of a generation, for the nation to be ready to repent from the behavior that produced the disaster under Eli, Phineas, and Hophni. The “old guard,” those who maintained the old beliefs, had to die off before the nation was ready for real and substantive change. However, change was needed, and with the leadership of Samuel, change did come.
Samuel 7:3-6. And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the LORD, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.
We might be reminded at this point of God’s covenant with Israel, the same covenant that He makes with the faithful today: a promise of protection for those who place their faith and trust in Him. God has a purpose for those who place their trust in Him, and He will provide protection for the individual as He protects that purpose. Though the purge of Israel came as a direct judgment upon the priesthood of Eli, the nation was still responsible for their own apostasy, and the conditional promise of protection that God gave them was in jeopardy. The nation was still practicing idol worship. Archeological evidence shows that Israel was worshiping many idols and gods, even forming a feminine consort for their version of YAHWEH. Samuel repeated the message that the nation had heard so many times before, from Moses, Jacob, Joshua, and each of the godly Judges to put away, or rid themselves, of their pagan practices. Samuel identified that they would receive the blessing from the LORD’s protection only if they did so.
How much do we needlessly suffer today as a result of our own apostasy? What would our world experience be like if people, communities, and governments were all unconditionally faithful to God? Wars would end, most of the crime we witness would abate, and there would be peace and prosperity throughout the world. Indeed, the peace itself that comes from honoring God serves as a form of protection. We do find from the Israelite experience that God does not tend to intervene with His hand of protection for those who are in rebellion against Him. Consequently we may be reminded of the importance of maintaining faith, and seeking a continually growing relationship with God. This is what Israel was able to do.
1 Samuel 7:4. Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only.
In what is a very significant verse, we find a rare occasion where Israel repented and turned back to God. Not only was it necessary for Israel to get rid of their pagan practices, they also turned to the service of the LORD. Likewise, it is not sufficient for an individual to simply abstain from ungodly behavior in order to find God’s blessing. One must turn from those behaviors and replace them with service to God, submitting to Him and to Him alone as one seeks to be obedient to Him. Obedience is a deliberate, positive action, an action of choice. How do we serve the LORD today? We serve Him by honoring Him with personal worship and prayer, and sharing His love with one another and with the pagan, secular, lost world.
1 Samuel 7:5-6. And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD. 6And they gathered together to Mizpeh, 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 children of Israel in Mizpeh.
Samuel called Israel together in Mizpeh to formalize their commitment to serve the LORD and Him alone. The symbol that Samuel used to represent their commitment was unusual: the fasting was initiated with the pouring out of water. This was no ordinary fast. The drinking of water was typically allowed during the fast period. However, in order to establish the severity and purpose of this fast, the drinking of water was not allowed. The thirst for water in a hot and dry land would remind them of their thirst for God in a pagan and wicked world that had become only too familiar to them.
All Israel admitted that they had sinned when they had turned from God towards the attractions of this world and turned back to God in faith. This was a new Israel, a new start, a new beginning that was largely characterized by obedience to the LORD as many turned to Samuel for spiritual guidance.
1 Samuel 7:7-8. And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.
When the Philistines heard that the Israelites had gathered together at Mizpeh, their tribal leaders noted the strategic opportunity to deal the Israelites one final blow. It is evident that Philistia had forbidden public assemblies because of their potential to produce revolution. It is useful to note at this point that Philistia was organized as a loose alliance of several tribes, a consortium of at least five kings from Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. Often fighting amongst themselves, it was not a common occurrence for them to unite for a single purpose. However, as a brutal and godless people, when they combined their forces they were a formidable foe, one against which Israel could not possibly defend itself. A great fear went through the nation when the combined armies of the five Philistine tribes approached Mizpah, but this time the situation was far different that what it was when Israel went boldly, and foolishly, against Philistia with Hophni and Phineas but without God. Issuing a request of Samuel in a model similar to that which we find in the period of the Judges, Israel asked Samuel to seek the LORD’s protection.
1 Samuel 7:9. And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the LORD: and Samuel cried unto the LORD for Israel; and the LORD heard him.
One can easily imagine some of the thoughts that would be coming into the heart and mind of Samuel. He has been successful in leading the people back to faith in God, and at this point in their culture, they need time to reorganize and establish themselves as a nation. This is not a particularly good time to have to deal with such a crisis. One might speculate that one of Samuel’s prayers might be, “LORD, we are not ready to deal with this. We need you, and we need you NOW!” Samuel knew that it was time for the entire nation to pray to the LORD, and for the first time in many generations, such a prayer was possible.
Samuel approached the act of national repentance and supplication by offering a young lamb, much in the form of that done by the Aaronic priests. Typical burnt sacrifices included a subsequent feast where cooked meat from the offering was shared among the participants. It was this form of feast that his mother attended but abstained from eating when she was praying to the LORD for a son. In this specific event, Samuel determined that the sacrifice would be given “wholly unto the LORD.” None of the meat was preserved for consumption. This was done to represent the necessity of sacrifice to atone for their sin of apostasy that brought this situation upon themselves. Samuel’s prayer to the LORD was deeply heart-felt and sincere.
Samuel could have used several approaches to defend Israel. The most common approach used by his predecessors was to call the nation to arms and bring up an armed force against their enemies. It is evident that Israel was not in a position to do so, and Samuel made no attempt to prepare the Israelites for war. He prepared the nation for spiritual battle. The hopes of the people were placed entirely upon their faith in the LORD’s acceptance and response to their petition. “The LORD heard him” is a literary device that refers, not to auditory hearing, but rather to a deliberate and positive response on the part of the LORD to his prayer. The LORD answered Samuel’s prayer in the manner that the Israelites had hoped for. It would be a wonderful experience to observe the hand of the LORD’s protection once again.
1 Samuel 7:10. And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.
When the ancients did battle they gave great deference to their own gods. They understood a defeat in battle to be a defeat of the contender’s god as well as the contenders themselves. However, their experience with gods was consistent with their mythical status: pagan gods never responded since they simply do not exist. Consequently, when a great thunder was heard by the Philistines they were terrified by this audible apparition of the Jewish God, Yahweh, who had apparently come to the aid of the children of Israel so many times before. They had already experienced the power of Israel’s God during the seven months that they held possession of the Ark of the Covenant when they were nearly destroyed by a series of plagues. Their terror broke down their systems of communication and discipline.
There is no literal evidence that a single Israelite solder had yet entered the battle. In the mayhem the Philistine army turned and ran in retreat. It is likely that in the confusion even the Philistine tribes turned on each other when their leaders demanded that the terrified soldiers stand their ground. The passage clearly refers to the death of many of the Philistines on that day.
1 Samuel 7:11. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Bethcar.
Upon witnessing the hand of God’s protection upon them, the men of Mizpeh were encouraged and immediately took up arms and chased after the Philistines. A retreating army can scarce defend itself against an advancing line of spears, knives and arrows, so the Philistine soldiers were literally mowed down as they were left in a line of dead bodies from Mizpeh to Bethcar.
1 Samuel 7:12. Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us.
The tradition of raising permanent markers at the site of great national events was common. We may recall the setting of twelve stones by Joshua upon the crossing of the Jordan River on their initial entrance to Canaan. This stone was placed along the path of the Philistine slaughter, perhaps half-way to Bethcar, so that as people would pass this point they would see the erected stone and ask questions, finding answers in a repeat of the story of this seminal historical event.
The stone also served as a testimony to the faithfulness of God who can be fully trusted to keep His promises. This would encourage the coming generations to also trust in God as they, like the Israelites under Samuel’s leadership, turned to God in obedience and realized His blessing.
As we travel the road of the sequence of life’s experiences, we often encounter obstacles that, to us, can be as significant as the Philistine threat upon Israel. God has promised His hand of protection to those who will trust in Him, and He is the only source of protection that is wholly reliable. Those who trust God are held firmly in God’s loving hands, and can trust Him to bring them through the difficulties of life. When we look back upon them, our memories and testimonies serve as the stones that mark that pathway. Just as the presence of the memorial stone would embolden the faith of the Israelites, those experiences where we see God work in our lives serve to embolden our faith. These stones are erected only when we place our trust in God.
1 Samuel 7:13-16. So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. 15And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16And he went from year to year in circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places. 17And his return was to Ramah; for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and there he built an altar unto the LORD.
These few verses form the history of Samuel’s leadership over Israel from the time of the Philistine purge to the era of the Kings that will begin in the next chapter of this book. This period was one of peace as Samuel led Israel as an itinerant priest and judge, moving from place to place. Under Samuel the areas of Israel that had been contested by the Philistines were returned to Israeli control. Note that several of these had become major Philistine city-states. The defeat of the Philistines also brought peace with their other neighbors as those threats were nullified by the reputation of Israel’s God and Samuel’s relationship with Him. This would also be a time when Samuel would raise a family, fathering two sons.
Likewise, a life that is lived in faithfulness to God is characterized as one of peace, even when events are hectic. This peace and joy come from the comfort of knowing that the LORD is carrying us through those tough times and that He has a purpose for those experiences as He is shaping our lives to conform more to the image of Himself that he intended.
We see in the experience of Samuel’s Israel the dramatic contrast between the circumstances of life that come when one stands in rebellion against God, and when one stands in obedience to God. To stand against God is to reject His promise of protection. To trust in God is to receive that promise. This is not rocket science … it is better to trust in God, and Him alone.
 A. Lemaire.
 Judges 20:1.
 R. Bergen, p. 107.
 1 Samuel 6:17.
 It may be interesting to note that, though the Philistines had weapons made of iron, such as swords and spears, the Israelites did not. The Israelites did not fabricate iron weapons, and would be forced to use anything else that could be wielded as a weapon. One can imagine the Israelites chasing the Philistines with shovels and hoes, picking up the weapons of fallen soldiers as they progressed.
 The location of Bethcar is unknown, but most likely several miles to the southwest of Mizpeh.
 Joshua 4:3.
 Joshua 4:6, 21.
 Romans 8:28-29.