The reformation we see here in this passage was slow in coming, and did not last very long. But at the same time, it was real. Reformations are messy, and cannot be understood by the tidy-minded. As we live in a time that is desperate for real reformation, there are many things for us to learn here.
“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. 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 . . .” (1 Sam. 7:1-17).
Summary of the Text
So the ark of the covenant was taken to Kirjathjearim, a predominantly Gentile town, and it was kept at the house of a man named Abinadab. Abinadab’s son was named Eleazar, and he was consecrated to take care of the ark (v. 1). The ark was there for twenty years, and the entire house of Israel lamented after the Lord (v. 2). We know from other chronologies that this was the time when Samson destroyed the temple of the Philistines, and so Samuel judged that the time was right for reformation. The Israelites were suffering at the hands of the Philistines (v. 3), and Samuel told the whole nation to do three things, which all amounted to the same thing. He told them to wholeheartedly return to the Lord (v. 3), to put away their idols (v. 3), and prepare their hearts to serve the Lord alone (v. 3). And so this is what Israel did (v. 4). Samuel saw this, and so he mustered them at Mizpeh so that he could pray for them (v. 5). This they did, and consecrated themselves (v. 6).
The Philistines heard about this, and went up against them. The response was one of fear (v. 7). They turned to Samuel, asking him to pray for them (v. 8), which is why he had called them together in the first place (v. 5). Samuel offered up a lamb as an ascension sacrifice, and God heard his prayer (v. 9). The Philistines arrived just as he was sacrificing, the Lord thundered from the sky, and the Israelites routed them (v. 10), and pursued them to Bethcar (v. 11). And so Samuel set up a memorial between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer (v. 12).
The Philistines were set back all the days of Samuel (v. 13). The Israelite towns controlled by the Philistines, from Ekron to Gath, were returned to Israel (v. 14). And there was peace with the Amorites as well. Samuel judged Israel to the end of his life (v. 15). He was a circuit judge, traveling between Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpeh (v. 16), and his hometown of Ramah (v. 17).
A Lament for the Lord
Israel has the ark back from the Philistines, but everything is still unsettled. There is not a place of worship, like there was at Shiloh, and the ark is being kept was a consecrated man at somebody’s house. This was the state of affairs for twenty years, and the entire nation felt it. It tells us that “all the house of Israel” lamented after the Lord.
Reformations are real solutions for real problems. As William Tyndale once put it, God is “no patcher.” He doesn’t fuss around the edges. His approach is a root and branch approach. Jeremiah once spoke of the tendency of false prophets to “heal the wound of the people lightly” (Jer. 8:11). When someone rushes in to address the people’s “felt needs,” or to tell them “how to have their best life now,” the message is a light daub. Israel’s worship here is in raggedy tatters, and this is the way it is for twenty years—recognized as such for twenty years.
One might argue that Israel’s real god here was their fear of the Philistines. Even after their repentance, they fear (v. 7). God is gracious, and responds even when men cry out to Him with mixed motives. Think of how God even responded to Ahab, for example (1 Kings 21: 27). Their trouble was the Philistines (v. 3). Because of it, they cried out to the true God (v. 2). The victory of Samson had just happened, and Samuel decided that it was time to call for a decision.
As mentioned before, Samuel calls them to three things. The first is to return to the Lord with all their hearts (v. 3). Having done so, they were to purge their lives of the strange gods and Ashtaroth. These baals were the male deities, and the others were the female fertility figures. Get rid of them all, Samuel said. And the third thing was to prepare their hearts to serve the living God only (v. 3). Here they are again: 1. Return wholeheartedly; 2. Purge out all idolatry; and 3. Pursue God only.
Now the fact that the Israelites listened to Samuel, and got rid of their baals and Ashtaroth (v. 4) means that their twenty year lament for the Lord (v. 2) was compromised.
Reformation and Worship
If Israel had gathered at Mizpeh, and had gone to war with the Philistines without repenting, what would have happened? They would have been soundly defeated again. The actual battle here is what we might call an instrument. If they had not repented, they would have used that instrument, and when they did repent they used that instrument. But when a repentant heart picks up an instrument, the attitude is entirely different. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord (Zech. 2:6).
We are surrounded by Philistines, and we are beleaguered by them. The ancient Israelites had to deal with Ekron and Gath, with Ashkelon and Gaza, and with Ashdod. We have to deal with predatory taxation, and abortion on demand, and sodomy exalted. We have to deal with corruption in the highest places, and with moral stupidity in the lowest. We see this, and go out to battle, and what happens? We get our tails kicked. Why is this? It is because of that little god shelf we have at home. It is because the gods we serve do not want to go to war with their fellow idols. We must return to the Lord, we must throw down the idols, and we must pursue the Lord, and the Lord alone.