So we live in a time when the wheels on the bus are not going round and round, the wheels on the bus are falling off. Moreover, these wheels are falling off while we are going full speed, down hill, on a snowy day. And those holding the steering wheel of this battered jalopy we find ourselves in have gone more than ten rounds with Jose Cuervo. You could say that we are in a pickle. It is at such a time that the people of God can be greatly tempted to despair. But, despair doesn’t do a body good. It brings on bad decisions. It facilitates a frenzy. And God’s Word says we should avoid all of that. God’s pattern is not only to tell us what to avoid, but to tell us why and how to avoid it.
That’s the encouragement we have in 1 Samuel chapter 7. Israel was in deep trouble. They lived without a king. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. And that evil impulse had worked itself all the way into the priesthood. Only a few chapters before, we heard of the wicked works of Hophni and Phineas. God judged them and Israel at the battle Aphek, the Israelites lost the battle, thirty thousand men, and the ark of God. But, God brought His ark back to Israel, removing it from the land of the Philistines by way of plague. In 1 Samuel chapter 7, we see that God, having brought the ark back to Israel, now brings Israel back to Himself.
The Text – A Summary
There are three main parts to the story. First, at Samuel’s exhortation and promise of deliverance from the Philistines, Israel puts away their strange gods to serve the LORD alone (v. 3-4). Second, Samuel gathers Israel at Mizpeh for prayer and fasting, the Philistines attack, but the LORD defeats them (v. 5-11). Verse 10 says, “The LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines.” And He did so as Samuel cried unto the LORD, offering up a lamb as a whole burnt offering. Third, Samuel sets up Ebenezer, the Philistines being subdued entirely, and Israel is ruled well by Samuel in the land (v. 12-17).
Samuel’s stone, Ebenezer, captures the thrust of the passage. Samuel gives the meaning of this stone in verse 12, saying, “Hitherto hath the LORD helped us.”
Remove the Strange Gods
The first and abundantly evident application is that we must put away the strange gods among us. Israel put away Baalim and Ashtaroth. And we must put away our hosts of idols. Our idols take on various shapes. And many American Evangelicals are struggling to identify the false gods that have made their lives so uncomfortable. Kevin Vanhoozer said it well, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood . . . but against the isms, against the powers that seek to name and control reality.”
For an introduction to some of these powers, read Idols for Destruction by Herbert Schlossberg. Schlossberg is a particularly helpful read for those Christians who are rightly fed up with the social justice nonsense, and would like to know how we got into this mess. But, be warned, Schlossberg will make you do more than point your finger at the woke. He wrote nearly three decades ago, demonstrating that these idols have been around for a good while and just about everybody has offered incense. Consider the following example.
Schlossberg identifies the idol of history. The idol of history involves idolatrous thinking that focuses its attention on the historical process itself, resulting in power politics and systems that control other people. He writes, “Rather than the arena in which providence and judgment meet the obedience or rebellion of man, history is now seen as the vehicle of salvation. Whether in the form of Marxism or Western social engineering, it places salvation within the institutions of history and thus fulfills the biblical definition of idolatry.”
Institutions help Christians to exercise dominion, and praise God for them. But, the moment we begin thinking that salvation is bound up in our institutions, we will fall to the fretful despair noted above. Moreover, the moment we begin thinking that salvation is bound up in our institutions, we have become idolaters—”I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, From whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).
Salvation at Mizpeh
Samuel lifted his eyes unto the hills. He gathered Israel at Mizpeh to worship the One who brings deliverance. You need Him if you would put away your idols. You need Him or you will be slaughtered by the Philistines.
The locus of far too many evangelical organizations is their organization. They have begun to feed the beast rather than the people. The system is the salvation, and nothing must be done to trouble the machine. But salvation came to Israel as they looked to the heavens. Samuel offered sacrifice with prayer and fasting, and the LORD thundered a great thunder against Israel’s enemies.
The locus for our operation must be the worship of our Triune God. Sunday is the center. It is the foundation. And on that day we rest. We get to work on the second day of the week. But God always leads the battle. On that day of Sabbath rest and worship, He thunders with a great thunder: “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” (1 Samuel 7:10-11).