A. Samuel leads the nation in repentance.
1. (1-2) The ark at Kirjath Jearim.
Then the men of Kirjath Jearim came and took the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. So it was that the ark remained in Kirjath Jearim a long time; it was there twenty years. And all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
a. The men of Kirjath Jearim: They treated the ark of the covenant with respect and honor, yet they did not take it to the tabernacle. Instead of resting at the house of God, it was brought into the house of Abinadab.
b. Consecrated Eleazar his son: We don’t know if Eleazar was of the proper priestly lineage, or if his consecration ceremony was legitimate according to Exodus 29. At least this reflected a desire to do the right thing.
c. A long time: Israel had the ark back but things were not really set right. Israel found they were no more right with God just because they had the ark of the covenant again. Instead, all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
i. They had good reason to lament. Their cities were in ruins, their armies were defeated, and they were under Philistine domination – all because they were not right with God.
ii. “It may very naturally be asked, ‘Where was Samuel all that time?’ I know not what he was doing during those twenty years; but I have a suspicion, I may say, I have a firm persuasion, that he was going from place to place, preaching in quiet spots wherever he could gather an audience; warning the people of their sin, and stirring them up to seek Jehovah, thus endeavouring to infuse some spirituality into their national life.” (Spurgeon)
2. (3-4) Samuel preaches repentance, both outward and inward.
Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the children of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.
a. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel: God raised up Samuel as a prophet and a judge (1 Samuel 4:1). Yet Samuel was strangely absent from the whole ark of the covenant fiasco. 1 Samuel 4:1 is the last place Samuel was mentioned, right before Israel schemed to use the ark as a good luck charm in battle.
b. If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods: Samuel called the nation to repentance. The repentance had to be inward (with all your hearts) and outward (put away the foreign gods).
i. The inward was more important than the outward, and it had to come first. That is why Samuel first called Israel to return to the LORD with all your hearts, then told them to put away the foreign gods.
ii. However, inward repentance is a secret thing. It is hidden. No one can really “see” the heart of another. Yet the inward was proved by the outward. We can know if Israel did return to the LORD with all your hearts by seeing if they really did put away the foreign gods. No one could see their heart, but they could see if they put away the foreign gods.
c. And serve Him only: Israel did not feel they rejected the LORD; they felt they only added the worship of other gods to their worship of the LORD. Samuel called on Israel to turn their backs on these other gods and serve Him only.
i. “A worse enemy than the Philistines held sway over the land…. the people were thus in double bondage; the heavy yoke of the Philistines was upon them, because the heavier burden of a false worship crushed out the life of their hearts.” (Spurgeon)
d. So the children of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only: The local gods of Baal and Ashtoreth were popular idols among the people of Israel. Baal was attractive because he was thought to be the god of weather, bringing good crops and financial success. Ashtoreth was attractive because she was thought to be the goddess of fertility, thus connected to love and sex.
i. “Ashtoreth was worshipped over a wide area as the goddess of fertility, love and war, and plaques of naked female figures from the Bronze and Iron Ages in Palestine are numerous. The Baals were the corresponding male deities.” (Baldwin)
ii. “Baal, god of fertility and the storm, was believed to be the son of Dagon, god of grain. Ashtoreth, goddess of love and fertility, vied for supremacy with Asherah, mother-goddess and consort of El…. The association of Baal, Asherah, and Ashtoreth with fertility, particularly as expressed in depraved sexual ritual at Canaanite shrines, made them especially abominable in the Lord’s eyes.” (Youngblood)
3. (5-6) The nation repents at Mizpah.
And Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.” So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the LORD. And they fasted that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpah.
a. Gather all Israel to Mizpah: This is where Jacob separated from Laban (Genesis 31:49) and was the gathering place for a repentant Israel in Judges 20:1. This was a place remembered for separation and repentance.
b. I will pray to the LORD for you: Samuel had already called the nation to repentance, and they made a start at it. Samuel knew God’s work in them could only be completed through prayer.
c. So they gathered together at Mizpah: This showed the spiritual need Israel felt at the time. They expressed their repentance both by putting away the bad and by pursuing the good.
i. The experience of conviction of sin proves nothing. It is our response to conviction that demonstrates repentance.
d. Drew water, and poured it out before the LORD: In this context, a ceremonial pouring of water demonstrated the soul poured out before the LORD. It was an expression of emptiness and need.
i. The Chaldean translation of this passage gives this sense well: “They poured out their hearts like water in penance before the Lord.” “They seemed to say in effect, We could wish to shed as many tears for our sins as there are drops of water in this bucket; but because we cannot do this, behold, we do what we can.” (Trapp)
ii. They expressed the same heart as Lamentations 2:19: Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.
e. And they fasted that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” Israel also expressed their sorrow over their sin by fasting (a message that nothing else really mattered except getting right with God) and by confession (a straightforward claim of guilt and responsibility).
i. 1 John 1:5-10 makes it clear that confession is vital to maintain a relationship with God. As God convicts us of sin or sins that hinder fellowship with Him, we must confess them and receive forgiveness and cleansing for our relationship with God to continue without hindrance.
ii. If it is meant from the heart, it is hard to make a better statement of confession than “We have sinned against the LORD.” This is almost exactly what David said when he was confronted with his sin in 2 Samuel 12:13.
f. And Samuel judged the children of Israel: Samuel was the last judge and he was a judge over Israel as were the leaders in the days of the book of Judges. But his leadership was more spiritual than military.
B. Samuel leads the nation to victory.
1. (7) The Philistine threat.
Now when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel had gathered together at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines.
a. When the Philistines heard: The Philistines were right to be afraid of a repentant, God-seeking Israel because with God fighting for them Israel was invincible.
i. When the Philistines looked at a humble and repentant Israel they probably saw weakness. They may have said, “Look at those weakling Israelites. They are such wimps, crying out before their God like this.” If the Philistines thought this way, they were dead wrong.
b. When the children of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines: The Israelites didn’t have much more spiritual understanding than the Philistines. They should have been more confident in the LORD.
i. Our feelings of confidence can deceive us. In 1 Samuel 4:5, Israel was completely confident against the Philistines, but their confidence was false and they were soon defeated. Here, Israel is fearful and sure of defeat and they have no confidence at all. They seemed to have more faith when they trusted in the ark than when they are humble and repentant before the LORD. But small faith in the true and living God is more powerful than strong faith in a lie.
2. (8-9) Samuel prays for the nation.
So the children 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.” And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. Then Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him.
a. Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us: The last time Israel was in this kind of situation they said, “Let’s get the ark of the covenant and take it into battle with us. Then we can’t lose!” Now they are much wiser before the LORD, and instead of trusting in the ark they did the right thing and asked Samuel to cry out to the LORD our God for us.
b. Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. Then Samuel cried out: Samuel took time for a sacrifice at such a critical point because he knew he could only effectively pray in light of God’s atoning sacrifice.
i. Think of that poor lamb – a suckling lamb – which never hurt anyone or which never sinned itself, yet its throat was slit, its blood poured out, its body cut up, and its carcass burned. Why? Because Samuel and Israel had to say, “This is what we deserve. This is the punishment that should come upon us. We thank you God for accepting the punishment of this innocent lamb instead.” When we trust in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), we say the same thing.
c. And the LORD answered him: The battle has not yet been fought and a hostile Philistine army approached. Yet in a real way the battle was over and already won because the LORD answered him.
i. The Bible speaks of Samuel as a mighty man of prayer: Samuel was among those who called upon His name; they called upon the LORD, and He answered them (Psalm 99:6).
3. (10-12) The LORD fights for Israel.
Now as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the LORD thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and drove them back as far as below Beth Car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”
a. The LORD thundered with a loud thunder: God fought from heaven on behalf of Israel and defeated the Philistines. This was a special work of God because the Israelites heard the same thunder, but only the Philistines became so confused…that they were overcome. God not only sent thunder, He also sent confusion to the Philistines and confidence to Israel.
i. This was the kind of victory Israel hoped for in 1 Samuel 4 when they brought the ark of the covenant into battle. If they had only repented and sought the LORD as they did here, they could have had this kind of victory long ago.
b. Called its name Ebenezer, saying “Thus far the LORD has helped us”: Samuel knew the nation needed to remember this amazing victory, which came to a humble and repentant Israel. The LORD won this battle, not Israel – so he named the stone Ebenezer, meaning “stone of help.”
c. “Thus far the LORD has helped us”: Samuel knew the LORD did a great work yet he knew there was much more to be accomplished. So he could say, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” God helps us thus far at a time and His past work is a pledge of future help.
i. Thus far the LORD has helped us can either mean “to this point in time” or “to this geographical place.” Probably both are in mind; Hebrew writers loved to use double meanings.
4. (13-14) The success of Samuel as a judge over Israel.
So the Philistines were subdued, and they did not come anymore into the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. Then the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered its territory from the hands of the Philistines. Also there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
a. The hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel…. the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel: Samuel was not a military man, but he was just as successful or more successful than Israel’s best generals because the LORD fought for Samuel.
b. Also there was peace between Israel and the Amorites: Samuel was successful not only as a man of war, but also as a man of peace.
5. (15-17) Samuel’s service as a circuit judge.
And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. He went from year to year on a circuit to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judged Israel in all those places. But he always returned to Ramah, for his home was there. There he judged Israel, and there he built an altar to the LORD.
a. Judged Israel all the days of his life: Samuel was used of God all his days. Some judges ended their ministry early or in disgrace, but Samuel finished well.
b. He went from year to year on a circuit…and judged Israel in all those places: Samuel was busy in his service of the LORD. Every year, Samuel worked hard to go all about Israel to help settle disputes and promote righteousness.
c. He always returned to Ramah…. and there he built an altar to the LORD: Samuel remained faithful to the LORD. An altar was a place of sacrifice and worship, and Samuel had a consistent relationship with the LORD in sacrifice and worship.