Chapter 9: His Ministry Resumed

(1 Sam. 7)

We left the ark, in our last chapter, in "the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite," with the men of Beth-shemesh calling upon the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim to come down and fetch the ark up to them. Having suffered for their temerity, they fly off now to an opposite extreme; they will not so much as touch it, but beseech the men of Kirjath-jearim to come and relieve them of it.

"And the men of Kirjath jearim 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 " (ver. 1).

Why they called on this particular city to come and take the ark off their hands, we are not told. Perhaps they were their nearest neighbours on the way to Shiloh, or those whom they supposed would be most willing to take the burden off their hands. Being all of them Levites, or of the house of Aaron, they were quite the proper persons to bear the ark; but they are afraid, and seem unwilling to do even this. Man is prone to extremes, and especially is this seen in the religious side of his nature. The children of Israel in the wilderness at first refused, in unbelieving fear, to go up to possess the land; and then, when commanded by God to turn back and renew their desert wanderings, they presumptuously insist on going up, even in the face of the stern warnings of Moses, and were smitten before the Amalekites (Num. 14). Peter at first refused emphatically to permit the Lord to wash his feet; then, on a word from the Master, turns round and says, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." Elijah, at one hour on mount Carmel, was fearless before a multitude of the prophets of Baal; the next, he lies discouraged beneath a juniper bush, fleeing from the woman Jezebel. One only has been perfect, perfectly balanced in all things; He was typified in the smooth, fine flour of the meal offering - the "fairest among ten thousand," and the "altogether lovely."

They "fetched up the ark." It is always "up" when we walk with God; it is "down to Jericho," "down to Egypt," but always "up to Jerusalem," the city of the great King, "up to Shiloh," up to glory, always; and always "down to hell!"

In Kirjath-jearim the ark finds shelter in the house of Abinadab-probably a godly man, and glad of the opportunity to care for the only remaining token of Jehovah's presence in the land; and his son Eleazar was sanctified, i.e., set apart, to keep it. This is the last we hear of the ark, excepting once, incidentally (1 Sam 14:I8), until it was removed by David to its more abiding home at Jerusalem, full forty years later.

The men of Kirjath-jearim must have known full well of the chastisement that had been inflicted on the Beth-shemites for their presurnption, but this does not deter them from responding promptly to the call to remove the ark to their own city, further up the road toward "Mount Zion which Jehovah loved." Thus too the truth of Christ is to some "a savor of death unto death," while to others, under the blessing of God, it becomes "a savor of life unto life." If some will not have Christ, others, thank God, make room for Him, as it was with the ark. The inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim probably reasoned, and rightly, that because it had brought judgment on the Philistines and the Beth-shemites, it was no reason why under circumspect guardianship, the ark should not become a blessing to them, as it doubtless was. Some, we know, hesitate to partake of the Lord's supper because of the solemn penalty if eaten "unworthily;" but if really the Lord's, they should not fear to partake of the holy emblems, but have a care not to partake of them unworthily - in an unworthy manner, as it really means. "Provoke Me not... and I will do you no hurt," God said to His fearful, foolish people, by the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 25:6).

And now, after so long a time, we meet with Samuel again

"And 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. 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" (vers. 2, 3).

For twenty years we hear nothing of Samuel. "The time was long," for it was a time of departure from God and oppression by the Philistines. Yet we may be sure that Samuel was not idle all that time. It is not God's purpose to write biographies of men, but rather to record the working out of His purposes towards mankind in general, and His people in particular. This He can do without any particular creature's co-operation. He could maintain the honor of His name during the decades of Samuel's silence, both among the Philistines and with Israel, as we have seen. It is only when it accords with His purpose that His servant is again brought upon the scene; so independent is our God of the services of even the best of men.

But while this is true, we may be perfectly sure that Samuel was not spending his time in idleness or in mournful, sullen silence towards poor fallen Israel. We cannot doubt that he was fully and faithfully occupied, praying for them, and labouring industriously with them, instructing and exhorting them to better things at suited opportunities, or when occasion offered.

He felt deeply, no doubt, the backslidden condition of the nation, and would mourn over it, while watching for the symptoms of repentance on their part, or a call from God to more public ministry with them as His spokesman and prophet. These seasons of apparent inactivity are not by any means lost time with God's servants, but frequently in His ordering are a preparation for further and more effective service. So it seems to have been with Samuel. God now brings him again to our view.

"And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel;" he calls them to repentance; he feels the time for action has come; he does not fail to bring home upon their consciences their wicked idolatry. "Put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you," he says. And the faithful ministry is blessed. "Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only." Their reformation is now begun, and after the weary twenty years' drought, there is "a sound of abundance of rain." "The strange gods and Ashtaroth," Samuel says. Ashtaroth was the principal deity worshiped by the Phoenicians and Sidonians. She is frequently mentioned in connection with Baal (see Judges 2:13-, 10:6; 1 Sam. 12:10), and was probably considered his consort. She is supposed to be identical with the Venus of the Greeks.  "Her worship", the Biblical and Theological Dictionary says, "became at length the most impure and revolting that can be imagined, and was celebrated in shady groves, proverbial for scenes of debauchery." She was a "strange god" to Israel, as all the others, but is singled out by Samuel as being, most likely, the divinity with which they were specially infatuated. This shows Israel's condition at this time, when they could take as the object of their special worship a deity of such a character. After the disastrous defeat of Saul and his armies on Mount Globe, the Philistines hung the armour of Saul as a trophy in the temple of this very goddess (1 Sam. 31:10). Thus does God visit upon His people punishment of a kind most suited to remind them of the very cause of their departure from Him.

And do we not see today among the children of God the selfsame thing? Individuals have some sin, or forbidden object, for which they have a special weakness; some "idol" to which they are particularly prone. Special attention must be given to this. It must be put away, or it will eventually bring to grief and shame; for the punishment is frequently in kind with the form of transgression that occasioned it.

Scripture affords many illustrations of this. Jacob, who deceived his father, when the old man could not see, was in turn deceived in the darkness by the crafty father of Leah. His sons sold their brother Joseph into Egypt, and into Egypt they themselves had to come, and there their own hearts were made to feel anguish before Joseph, as they had seen him in anguish when being sold by them to the Midianite slavetraders. Abimelech slew his seventy brethren on one stone, and was himself slain by having a piece of a millstone cast upon his head.  Saul spared Agag, the Amalekite, and an Amalekite struck the final blow that took away his life. David wrongs the wife of Uriah, and slays her husband with the sword, and he lives to see his son Amnon violate his sister Tamar, and Amnon killed in revenge by her brother Absalom. In the place where the dogs licked the blood of the murdered Naboth, the dogs licked the blood of Ahab, his murderer. As we sow we reap and this general principle of God's government we see exemplified in the case of Israel with Ashtaroth.

"All the house of Israel lamented after the Lord," we read, but this was not enough; action is required, and to this the prophet calls them. He commands that they put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth.Repentance strikes at the darling sin always, and spares it not. Oh, that the children of God today might put away their Ashtaroths - these darling indulgences that bring them to shame, as this goddess of beauty did with infatuated Israel.

"Serve the Lord only," is Samuel's command. They had not, in the days of their declension, wholly abandoned the worship of Jehovah, but divided honours with Him and the gods of the nations about them - an insult to Jehovah's honor, which there could scarcely be a greater. He will not accept a divided heart from them that worship Him, or call themselves by His name. In longsuffering mercy He bears patiently with it, while calling them to repentance, that He might spare them the merited stroke the sin demands. The people now being brought to a better mind and heart toward God, Samuel convokes a national assembly at Mizpeh. 

"And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you. And 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 " (vers. 5, 6).

Here with fasting and confession of sin, they put themselves in the way of thorough restoration and blessing. Their act of pouring water on the ground was an acknowledgment of their utter weakness and unworthiness (see 2 Sam. 14:14). It is when the people of God so bemean themselves in His presence that He is able to do for them exceeding abundantly above all that they ask or think. But while one shred of self-confidence remains, they are unprepared to receive the fullness of blessing He has ever in readiness to bestow upon them. It is a very humbling lesson, but it is one of the very first that needs to be learned if we expect recovery and consequent victory, such as Israel here received from God. "For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person." "We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead." "When I am weak, then am I strong." He listens to hear the penitential confession of sin, and looks for contrition of heart; this He will accept, and grant His manifested presence, as He did here at historic Mizpeh.

Samuel both prayed for and judged Israel there; he made earnest intercession to God for them, and at the same time instructed them in the statutes and judgments of Jehovah. Prayer is put before ministry; this is the divine order: "We will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4). And if prayer have not preponderance over ministry, the latter cannot be expected to produce lasting results. May we all who in any way serve the Lord Christ, learn from both Samuel and the apostles this most important lesson.

It is a lovely sight, this scene at Mizpeh. Samuel opens the meeting with prayer, and closes it with ministering God's word - as judging here implies (see Ezek. 20:4-22), while the people fast, with confession of sin, and symbolically pour out water before the Lord - no mere ceremony, but they "poured it out before the Lord."

This very thing (Israel assembled in confession to God) which must have made glad the heart of God, rouses and stirs to action the enemy. So we read:

"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 " (ver. 7).

While Israel served "strange gods and Ashtaroth," the Philistines left them unmolested; but as soon as their reformation begins, all is changed, and led by their lords they come up against them. Satan could not look quietly on a scene like this, nor would he stand idly by and permit such a condition of things to continue without a determined effort to break it up. It is only "when the strong man armed keepeth his palace that his goods are in peace; "but let his domain be invaded, or his house broken into, and the peace of his goods, disturbed by the action of the truth on hearts, immediately his roar will be heard and his hand will be felt-war will follow. But better far have war than peace in such conditions of soul as Israel's, serving strange gods and Ashtaroth, for twenty years.

Israel fears the Philistines; their faith as yet was weak, and they ask Samuel to pray for them, saying, "Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us, that He will save us out of the hand of the Philistines." They appear to realize the truth of what the apostle James writes to the remnant of their nation more than a thousand years later, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Samuel does not upbraid them for their fears, nor chide them for their lack of faith. He knows their weakness, and acts the noble part of a nursing father with them.

"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" (ver. 9).

The sucking lamb is beautifully typical of Christ, the innocent, tender Lamb of God; and Samuel was heard, not for his piety merely ­ as was Christ when here on earth (see Heb. 5:7, marg.), but in virtue of the sacrifice he offered. It was a burnt offering-Christ, wholly acceptable to God. The burnt offering, when not specifically prescribed, was brought for a man's acceptance. The expression, "of his own voluntary will" in Lev. 1:3, is better translated, "He shall offer it for his acceptance."  Samuel offers it on behalf of "all Israel." A sucking lamb was in keeping with their state. God did not despise their feebleness of faith, but graciously and tenderly stoops to their level.

"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. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Beth-car" (vers. 10, 11).

God heard His prophet from "the secret place of thunder," and gave an overwhelming victory to His people. Israel had but to "stand still and see the salvation of the Lord." When they enter the scene of action, it is but to pursue an already beaten foe; after which, in security and peace, they enjoy the fruits of victory. The Philistines might think themselves assured of an easy conquest, as they had found it in this very place twenty years before; they might have thought the prophet engaged in prayer and offering sacrifice was but a repetition of the sons of Eli bringing the ark into the camp: but no, a better day has come. Samuel is not Hophni and Phinehas, nor is Israel's superstitious dependence on the ark for safety now. The faith of the man of God is in the sacrifice presented to Jehovah for the acceptance of His people and their deliverance from their enemies. The Philistines, thoroughly subdued, came no more into the coasts of Israel in all the days of Samuel. It is a delightful picture of holy triumph.

We see a flaw, however, just here at the close of this record of Israel's recovery: "There was peace between Israel and the Amorites." Eight hundred years before this God had said to Abraham, "The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full" (Gen. 15:16); but now they had filled up the measure of their iniquity, and God had devoted them to destruction. God had given this land to Israel, and Israel was to make no league nor seek peace with them (see Ex. 23:34; 34:12; Deut. 7:2 ; Judges 2:2). Peace between Israel and the Amorites could only be effected and maintained by compromise and disobedience to God's express command. This was Israel's mistake. They might seek to excuse themselves by saying the lapse of time had made a difference, and the Amorites were no longer what they used to be; but the excuse could not stand before God's plain command: "They shall not dwell in thy land;" "Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them." There was no mistaking this. His order to Saul to utterly slay the Amalekites (against whom He had sworn that He would have war "from generation to generation") proved that time could not alter the word that had gone from His mouth. No, Israel's works were "not found perfect before God," hence their rejection of Samuel in later years, and their desire for a king like to the nations about them. There is no surer road to learn the way of the wicked than to contract leagues with them. "Be not deceived; evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Cor. 15:33).

Israel's victory was an event well worth commemorating, and Samuel wisely raised his "Eben-ezer "at the spot. The monument became doubly significant from the fact that it "was beside Ebenezer" that they had met such a crushing defeat twenty years before. Samuel, in erecting his memorial stone (the stone of help), was like Paul before Agrippa, where he says in boldest confidence, "Having therefore obtained help from God, I continue unto this day." He is our rock, our "stone of help," our EBENEZER!

"And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And he went from year to year in circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places. And his return was to Ramah ; for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and there he built an altar unto the Lord" (vers. 15-17).

The chapter ends here, but not the story. Well had it been for Israel and the peace of Samuel's closing days if his life's history had ended as here - a loving pastor among a happy, contented people, visiting and "judging" them industriously, while jealousy watching for their souls' welfare and the glory of Jehovah their God.

It is a scene lovely to behold. Samuel as a father with his children, chiding and correcting them when necessary, guiding, encouraging and instructing them, and holy peace and harmony reigning throughout the land, "from Dan to Beersheba." But such pleasant pictures are always more or less ideal, and their full reality rarely, if ever, seen; the hateful flesh is present in all, and always ready at a moment's notice to assert itself. Satan, too, is always and everywhere active, and on the alert to take advantage of the very first opportunity, to come in and mar and spoil the fairest scene in the garden of God. And here Israel, "foolish people and unwise," are not content, alas; and in the chapter following we shall see them "given to change," and a dark, threatening cloud begins to cover the pleasant landscape. Fain would we bid farewell to Samuel at this point; but it is not to be, for God has further lessons for us in the life of this choice servant of God.

Before passing on, let us note that at Ramah, Samuel's dwelling, "there he built an altar unto the Lord." He was not so much absorbed in service, as so many appear to be today, as to neglect personal fellowship with God and worship. Service surely has its important place, but unless it be the outcome of communion with God, it soon becomes an activity of the flesh restless, easily peeved, unduly elated by success, or discouraged for a lack of it. May every servant of Christ have his "altar" connected with his labour and service to God and His people.