Sadly, for twenty unnecessary years, Israel and God occupied the same house but in an estranged fashion. For twenty unnecessary years, Israel refused the rescue of God and suffered under the domination of the Philistines. For twenty unnecessary years the Ark of the Covenant remained unmoved and there was no mention of a tent or corporate house of worship
Israel had followed their horrible leaders, and they became corrupt just like Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas. Therefore, God stretched out his mighty hand and disciplined his rebellious children. Thirty-thousand Israelites and three priests were slain. Victory was granted to the Philistines resulting in the loss of Israel’s dignity, independence, and sovereignty. Most tragically, the nation of Israel lost both her Ark of the Covenant and her intimacy with God. It was a sad season in Israel’s life. They were duplicitous religious whores, and God allowed them to go their own way and reap the consequences of their lewd behavior.
However, after a short season away from Israel, and a series of humiliating blows to the Philistine idols, God came Israel’s way. He would not allow his sacred Ark of the Covenant and visible symbol of his presence to remain separated from his people for long. Yet, when the Lord and his Ark came back to Israel, they were not prepared to reconcile. They were pleased to see his holy furniture coming their way, but they were not pleased to repent. Therefore, along with the Ark, God sent another plague that killed seventy more men. God had come their way. He loved them as they were. He loved them in their sin. They were his Chosen People, and nothing could separate them from his love. But until they repented of their sin, there would be no joy, peace, comfort, and communion between the holy God and his unholy people.
Therefore, sadly, for twenty unnecessary years, Israel and God occupied the same house but in an estranged fashion. For twenty unnecessary years, Israel refused the rescue of God and suffered under the domination of the Philistines. For twenty unnecessary years the Ark of the Covenant remained unmoved and there was no mention of a tent or corporate house of worship. For twenty unnecessary years, Samuel was silent; he appeared to be persona non grata in the land. For twenty unnecessary years, Israel continued to anger their Lord and disadvantage their families by worshiping Baal and Ashtoreth.
But then, something beautiful happened.
1 Samuel 7:2 … And all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
God gave the gift of repentance, and Israel began lamenting after Him. They first began sorrowing after the consequences of their sin, but this finally led to them sorrowing after the intimacy they missed with their God. Finally, after twenty years, after twenty unnecessary years, they were ready to return to God.
Therefore, back into the picture came Samuel – God’s mediator, prophet, worship leader and priest. He would be the one who successfully reconciled Israel with God and increased the experienced intimacy between God and his people.
1 Samuel 7:3 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.”
Samuel did not accept superficial repentance; he was not satisfied by Israel’s mere weeping and wailing over the consequences of their sin. No, he preached that true returning equaled true repentance. In order for Israel to enjoy their God, they would have to put away their foreign gods, direct their hearts, and jealously serve the Lord. As long as they held on to God with one hand and their pagan deities with the other, there would always be a sense of estrangement and a promise of discipline over their heads. However, the moment they turned their backs on their sin and their eyes to the heavens, God would be ready to grant them the privileges of favored nation status yet again.
Therefore, Israel diligently obeyed, Samuel successfully interceded, and God graciously responded.
1 Samuel 7:4-17 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. 15Samuel 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.
By the end of the story, the Children of Israel are not mere hearers of God’s Word, but doers as well. They are once again enjoying the worship of God under the leadership of a called and humble minister. When buffeted by the world, they are trusting in God alone to be their refuge and strength. As a community, they are growing in character and strength; no longer are they the whipping-boys of the neighborhood. By the end of the story, Israel is fearing God again, and they are loving it. God is close to them; they have moved close to God, and all is maintained due to the successful priesting and mediation of God’s appointed man – Samuel. And in honor of God’s discipline, mercy, and grace, Israel installs a stone monument that they call “Ebenezer.” God is their Rock and their Salvation.
Therefore friends, what ought we to see from this passage of Scripture? Here are a couple thoughts.
First, do we see our tendency to be people of God serving idols? This has been a chronic condition of God’s people throughout recorded history and it remains so today. We consistently seek to hold on to God with one hand and our preferred supports with the other. This is sad, and this is dangerous, for God is a Jealous Lover who promises not to let such spiritual whoring go on unaddressed. Let us ask ourselves the question, “How are we displeasing our glorious God by giving worship and allegiance to something or someone else?”
Second, do we see our tendency to remain miserably disconnected from our gracious God? He came to Israel but they were not quick to clear the air and make things right. So for twenty unnecessary years they lived in misery when delight was so very near. Friends, how much longer will we live like spiritual paupers when we are children of the king. Why not give in to God’s amazing grace and enjoy intimacy with him again? Don’t you see the beauty of your troubled soul that is lamenting over your transgressions? This is the beginning of repentance. This is a gift of God. God is summoning you back to him. Sinner, all it takes is one serious glance at your sin, one serious gaze into the face of Jesus, and a falling on one’s knees in humble repentance and adoration. Stop the misery! Stop the insanity! Kiss the Son and be reconciled today. As quickly as the thief on the cross was reconciled to God; as quickly as Zacchaeus was dining with Jesus; so too you can have spiritual intimacy with the Father. Repent, worship, and enjoy!
Thirdly, if Samuel was this successful in mediating between man and God, how successful do you think Jesus Christ is? Samuel was a sinner; Jesus is sinless. Samuel was a creature; Jesus is the Creator. Samuel was finite; Jesus is infinite. Samuel had the ear of God at times; Jesus sits on the throne and his requests are always answered in the affirmative. God showed unfathomable grace through the mediatorial work of a less than faithful prophet. He promises to show greater grace through the mediatorial work of his Son. Jesus is your available priest. He is your available prophet and teacher. He is your available Savior. He is your “Ebenezer” – the Rock upon which all wise men stand.
Friends, through this devotional piece, God has come your way. He is as near as your prayers. He desires intimacy with you though you have played the spiritual whore. Jesus paid it all. Jesus is ready to perfect your prayers of repentance. Reconciliation is near. Why would you suffer in misery for another unnecessary twenty minutes? Why would you remain unreconciled and joyless for another unnecessary twenty years?
Joseph A. Franks IV is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Palmetto Hills Presbyterian Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina. This article first appeared on his blog, and is used with permission.