The Bible is not a history of the universe, or even a history of the human race. The Bible is a textbook on redemption—a Book that deals with the means by which poor lost sinners like you and me, can come into a right standing with a perfect and holy God. The whole Bible may be subdivided into six major areas:
- Redemption required—Genesis 1-11
- Redemption prepared for—Genesis 12—Malachi 4
- Redemption effected—the Gospels
- Redemption shared—the Acts of the Apostles
- Redemption explained—the Epistles
- Redemption realized—the Revelation
In the Bible there are 66 books, 1189 chapters, and 31,175 verses—all of which center on Jesus Christ who is the only Redeemer.
Our lesson in this issue of Bible Helps is taken from 1 Samuel 7. It centers on the man Samuel, who served as a strong leader among the tribes of Israel—in the period at the end of, and following, the time of the Judges—about 1100 B.C. Samuel was the last judge and the first of the prophets. He served as a link between the time of the Judges and the choice of Israel’s first king.
Ever since childhood some of us have heard stories taken from the accounts in the Books of Samuel—the stories about the boy Samuel, David and Goliath, and the friendship of David and Jonathan.
At the time when the lesson takes place—Israel had fallen into apostasy, and God had allowed the Philistines to oppress the people.
The religious affairs of the nation were getting worse; the economic situation was bad; but the most difficult problem facing the nation was the presence of the Philistine armies.
The first three chapters of 1 Samuel tell about the boy Samuel.
- Chapter 4 tells about the Philistine’s capture of the Ark of the Covenant.
- Chapter 5 describes the movement of the Ark from place to place in the Philistine territory.
- Chapter 6 tells of its return to Israel after being in Philistine territory for several months.
- Chapter 7 describes Samuel’s work as a judge, and leader in Israel.
1. Some key words as a background for the lesson
Samuel was born after his barren mother (Hannah) prayed earnestly for the Lord to give her a child, and vowed that she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service. Samuel was born in response to Hannah’s prayer, and at a very early age, Samuel was taken to live with Eli (the priest)—who taught the boy the various duties of the priesthood.
When Eli died, Samuel became the judge of Israel in a ceremony at a place called Mizpeh. The event was interrupted by an attack from the Philistines, but the Lord intervened, and Samuel was established as God’s man.
Samuel served as a traveling judge. He is called a “judge” in 1 Samuel 7:6. He is called a “prophet” in 1 Samuel 3:20. The long period of the Judges (about 350 years) came to an end with Samuel. The earlier judges were military leaders, but Samuel was more than a military leader. He became a leader among the people to give counsel and advice, and to help settle disputes that arose from time to time. So Samuel was a “judge” much as we would think of a judge today.
The Philistines were an aggressive tribal group that lived in the southwest corner of the land of Canaan. They had built five cities—Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza—which together became a political unit. They were known especially for their early development of implements and weapons made of iron. The remains of the Philistine furnaces (used to manufacture their weapons of iron) have been discovered by archaeologists.
The Philistines were a pagan people, and one of Israel’s chief enemies. From time to time they occupied some of the Israelite settlements. It was the threat from the Philistines that prompted Israel’s demand for a king. The Philistines worshiped three gods—Ashtaroth, Dagon, and Beelzebub. Dagon was a god represented with the head and the hands of a man, but with the tail of a fish. However, by the end of the reign of King David, the Philistines began to decline in strength and in influence.
The Ark of the Covenant was a portable chest (45 inches x 27 inches x 27 inches). It was the most sacred object of the Israelites in Bible times. It was known also as “the ark of the Lord” (Joshua 6:11), “the ark of God” (1 Samuel 3:3), and as “the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:22). Its lid (called “the mercy seat”) was made of acacia wood and was covered with solid gold. The chest had two rings made of gold at each end through which poles were inserted so that the Ark could be carried from place to place.
The Ark was the only article of furniture in the innermost room of the tabernacle (Temple). It was the place where the true and living God promised to be. When Israelites prayed, they turned their face toward the Ark of the Covenant, first in Shiloh, and later in Jerusalem.
Inside the chest were three items: the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments; a golden pot of manna (which God preserved from the wilderness days as a testimony to later generations), and Aaron’s rod that budded (to prove that Aaron was God’s chosen man).
The Ark was carried from place to place during the wilderness wanderings (Deuteronomy 31:9). It was carried into the Jordan River by the priests, causing the waters to part so that the Children of Israel could enter the land of Canaan in the days of Joshua (Joshua 3:6—4:18). Nothing is known about what ever happened to the Ark. It disappeared after the Babylonians took Judah captive in 586 B.C. Today, many Jewish synagogues keep a chest (or an ark) containing the Torah (the scrolls of the Law, and other sacred books) in a special place in the synagogue.
2. The account leading up to 1 Samuel 7
At the time of the lesson in 1 Samuel 7:1-13, the tribes of Israel had been oppressed by the Philistines—for a period of about 40 years—and at this point, God was not defending the Israelites, because they were no longer honoring Him. The Israelites had lost 4,000 men in a battle with the Philistines (4:1-5), and so the Ark of the Covenant was brought from Shiloh into the military camp (apparently as a kind of “good luck” charm)—but the Philistines fought against Israel once again, and once more Israel fled, 30,000 soldiers were slain, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines (4:5-11).
The Philistines brought the Ark of God from Ebenezer to one of their cities named Ashdod and put it in the temple of Dagon (the national god of the Philistines). But when they returned to their temple the next morning—they found that Israel’s God had caused Dagon to topple to the floor at the foot of the Ark. The Philistines set Dagon up again, and stood it alongside the Ark, but the next morning the head and arms of their god Dagon were broken off. They reasoned that if Dagon was a real god, he should have defended himself.
So, not only did their idol suffer damage, but the Philistine people themselves began to feel the displeasure of the Lord—suffering confusion, swellings (tumors), and even death (5:6-9). So, in desperation, they decided to move the Ark to Gath (another Philistine city), but many of the Philistine people were frightened and begged that the Ark be sent back to Israel (5:10-12).
The Philistines decided to return the Ark, and chose two milk cows to pull the cart. The cows both had young calves (and it would violate their natural instincts if they left their calves behind). These two cows had never been yoked, and yet they pulled the cart harmoniously, and without being guided—they headed straight toward Beth-Shemesh in Judah (southern Israel) (6:7-12). There was great rejoicing in Israel, but some of the men from the town did not regard the holy nature of the Ark—and looked into it. Many of those men died on the spot (6:19-21), and so the Ark was taken to the house of a man named Abinadab in Kirjath-jearim—where it remained for twenty years (7:1-3).
3. An exposition of 1 Samuel 7:2-13
The events of the chapter occurred at about 1100 B.C. The period of the Judges was drawing to a close. Following the period of chaos during the time of the Judges, when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”—Samuel brought a new measure of unity to the nation. The people were hungering for the Lord (they “lamented after the Lord” in 7:2)—that is, Israel was troubled because the Lord seemingly abandoned them.
(7:3) “And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the LORD with all your hearts, [and] put away the strange gods . . . from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the LORD, and serve him only . . . he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”
It was then that Samuel came forward and urged the people to return to the Lord so that God could respond and deliver them from the oppression of the Philistines.
Israel had a high regard for the Ark, but they also had been worshiping other gods! Samuel called them to repent and to worship only the one true God.
(7:4) “Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only.”
Several idols were thrown away and a commitment was made to serve the true and living God only. (Ashtaroth was a Canaanite fertility goddess; Baalim was the Canaanite supreme fertility god [and the god of the storm]—one who sent rain to make things grow.)
God has made it clear (the first Commandment) — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (beside Me, in addition to Me). The one true God will not permit any rival gods.
Idols are those things to which we give our time, strength, and finances. Idols today (instead of being made of wood and stone) are often made of chrome and steel and glass.
- Money and material goods are perhaps the chief gods in many circles (shopping malls are the cathedrals where multitudes are worshiping). One of the new Milton Bradley games is called “Mall Madness.”
- Other idols include pleasure-seeking, confidence in science and technology, the adulation of athletes (sports), NASCAR races, beauty queens, and movie stars. Typical worldly idolatry is not a crude idolatry, but polished forms of idolatry.
(7:5) “And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD.”
The people followed Samuel’s instructions and gathered with him at Mizpeh. There are several cities in the Bible that are called Mizpeh. The one mentioned here was in the region occupied by the tribe of Benjamin. This was also one of the places that Samuel visited on his annual circuit to judge Israel (1 Samuel 7:16-17). The name “Mizpeh” means “watch-tower.”
Samuel was not the only leader who prayed for the people:
Moses prayed for the people at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-12).
Ezra prayed when rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 9:5).
Daniel prayed for the people of his day (Daniel 9:3-19).
(7:6) “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.”
At Mizpeh, the people of Israel fasted and prayed and repented before Jehovah God. Their repentance was symbolized by pouring out water upon the ground.
As evidence of Israel’s sincerity—the people prayed, fasted, repented, and poured out water before the Lord—a symbol of pouring out their hearts in penitence.
(7:7) “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.”
The Philistines heard about the gathering at Mizpeh. They supposed that Israel was planning a revolt—and so once again the Philistines attacked Israel.
(7:8) “And 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.”
The Israelites were not prepared for war, and so they pleaded with Samuel to keep on interceding for them.
(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.”
Samuel offered a whole burnt offering, and prayed with a loud voice, appealing to the Lord for help! Samuel’s prayers were heard and answered immediately. God sent loud thunder and sharp lightning—and the Philistines retreated.
(7:10-11) “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 Bethcar.”
While Samuel was presenting the offering to the Lord, God responded quickly by sending a storm with loud thunder upon the Philistines—and Israel smote the Philistines and soundly defeated them—at least for a period of time.
The Philistines panicked, and began to retreat—and Israel soundly defeated them. Actually the defeat of the Philistines was more by the power of God than by the force of Israel’s armies. This proved that the God of Israel, and not Dagon, was truly the God of the storm.
(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.”
Samuel was grateful for the victory and set up a stone as a monument, and named it Ebenezer. The word Ebenezer means “a stone of help.”
Ebenezer was the place where the Philistines had defeated Israel and took the Ark of the Covenant captive (1 Samuel 5:1). Now, Samuel erected a stone as a monument to commemorate Israel’s later victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:12). It may have been named “Ebenezer” to show that Israel’s defeat there twenty years earlier had now been reversed. The stone was intended to be a memorial for future generations so that their faith in God might be strengthened, and that they might experience the same power of God to deliver them in times of trouble.
In most countries today there are war memorials of various kinds. In the United States of America, the Statue of Liberty is a memorial symbolizing the freedoms available here.
(7:13) “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.”
Israel at this point now enjoyed peace with the Philistine neighbors for a period of time.
4. There is a major practical lesson for Christians
We too need to be reminded from time to time, about how the Lord has led and helped us in the past. If we would have placed a stone on a pile each time the Lord helped us—we would have enough stones to make a huge wall. God has been our help in the past!
As we look into the unknown future—with no clear path before us, we may become fearful, but God has provided for our future. Paul wrote, “But my God shall supply all your needs according to his [glorious riches] by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). The text does not say that God might provide, or even that He is able to provide—but He shall provide—He will meet our needs. The true and living God is our hope for the future.
We can thank Him for the past, and we have confidence in Him for the future—surely we need to trust Him for the needs of each day! He will do the same for us today as He did in the past, and will do in the future. He is the great I AM of today, the all-sufficient One for this very moment. We can say with the writer of Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper” (Hebrews 13:6).
The full statement in Hebrews 13:6 is this: “So . . . we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” Whatever the circumstances may be, the Lord is on our side. He is our Helper. He will never leave us. What then can man do to us?
Sometimes the Lord takes us out of situations and problems that are hard; at other times, He takes us through them. But regardless of how He chooses to work in our lives, we can trust Him to do that which in the end will be the best for us. God has been “our help in ages past; our hope for years to come; our shelter from the stormy blast; and our eternal home” (in the words of Isaac Watts).
In the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” Robert Robinson (in the early 1800s) wrote words of praise to the eternal God, acknowledging His help. In the second stanza, he writes, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither, by Thy help I’ve come; and I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” Every true Christian can identify with those words.