What can someone do if they damage their relationship with you? How can they make it right?
Imagine a spouse is committing an affair, and they feel guilty about it, sorrowful, even. And let’s say they commit to end the affair, they really intend to, but they decide not to tell their husband or wife. Is that sufficient? Or, imagine the same situation, and they feel guilty and they decide to tell their spouse, but they have no intention of ending the affair. What of that? Or, lastly, what if they do end the affair and they do tell their spouse, but they feel no remorse, no guilt, no sorrow. What then? Would any spouse be satisfied with any of those outcomes? No, were something as awful as that to happen we would want to see honesty, genuine sorrow, and deliberate action to end the affair. Without those, the cheating spouse constructs a wall to separate him or her from their spouse—there can be no real chance at a relationship without all three.
Now, what happens when we have not sinned against a person, but against God? When we cheat on our Lord? What would God have us do to repair our relationship with Him? And much like we may wonder whether or not a spurned spouse would even take back their adulterous husband or wife, what will God think of us if we come back to Him looking to restore what we destroyed? Will He take us? In our story today we are going to see the heart of God displayed in His desire to restore His wayward people, but that restoration only comes through repentance, through sorrow, honesty, and a turn away from sin.
And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
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.” 4 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.
15 Samuel 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.
“From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD,” (1 Sam 7:2).
Twenty years go by, a “long time,” in the author’s eyes. We don’t know what is going on for those twenty years, but by the end of it Israel’s posture has changed. They lament after or long for the Lord. You need to think back to what their posture was a few chapters ago. They didn’t want to listen to God, they tried to use God, and did not honor Him as glorious or weighty. And so God had been disciplining His stubborn people: He defeated them twice on the field of battle; He let their priest, Eli, die; He allowed the ark of the covenant to go into exile for seven months; and when He returned and was similarly treated with contempt, He struck seventy men down. And the people respond to this bruising by just pushing the ark off into a corner, Fine God, we won’t have anything to do with you. And God, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, gives his wayward children what they want.
And it takes twenty years before the penny drops. It takes twenty years before Israel realizes: what are we doing? Why are we eating pig slop when our heavenly Father has everything we need? Here, God uses the discipline of handing His people over to what their hearts wanted to learn what their hearts truly needed. The Father uses discipline to humble His arrogant children, to crack open stony hearts; He inflames the canker of sin until we can ignore it no longer and become desperate for release, for healing to flow.
And where does healing begin? Pain, sorrow, heart ache. David tells us, reflecting on his own experience of painful sin, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Ps 51:17). And the apostle Paul helpfully delineates between fake sorrow and godly sorrow:
“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. – 2 Cor 7:8-11
Worldly sorrow produces nothing but death, whereas godly sorrow here produces repentance that leads to salvation, a clean conscience of no regret, a passionate eagerness, a zeal, a longing, a passion to reject sin. Here, Paul is responding to a previous letter where he rebuked the Corinthian church sharply and the letter wounded them, which Paul took no delight in directly, but indirectly was grateful that it produced repentance in them. The first step towards repentance is sorrow.
Putting Away False Gods
Here, God leaves Israel to themselves for twenty lonely years till they are crying out for help. And so, after three chapters of being wholly absent, Samuel enters the scene:
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.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only.
What was Israel’s problem? Their problem was not primarily a problem out there, but in here. It was an issue of their heart. The commitment God requires of His people is total. The great commandment is for them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:4-5). But Israel had been sectioning off portions of the real estate of their heart to other gods, they got new lovers and abandoned their faithful husband. And that is exactly the right image: all throughout the Old Testament, God views idolatry like adultery. Israel’s love for the Lord was to be exclusive, like the love between a husband and a wife. And if His people began to worship other gods, He did not view it merely as a breaking of a rule or arcane tradition, but breaking His heart. So, Samuel instructs Israel that they must return with their whole heart back to God—in fact, he charges them to “direct” their heart. To not let their heart run wild and free, to roam wherever it may fancy, but to channel it towards its true harbor.
Now, why do human beings who are made in God’s image, made to know and love and serve God, turn to things that are not God and worship them? It can be tempting to read the Bible and think: Man, these people are dumb—why do they keep on worshipping false gods? Or, you might be a skeptic yourself here today and think: this is the problem with religion, it is based on ignorance and fear. Years ago, people bowed down to statues and threw virgins into volcanoes. Today, people are just a little more sophisticated, but it’s the same superstitions.
Well, it might help to consider what role Baal and Ashtaroth played in society. Baal was the storm god, seen as responsible for bringing rain, while Ashtaroth was the goddess of fertility, seen as responsible for the birth of children as well as the birth of your livestock. Now, put yourself in an agrarian society in the late bronze age where your family lives and dies by your crops doing well, by your cattle producing healthy livestock, by your wife having uncomplicated pregnancies. And there you are, just a pinball being bounced around by the powers at large—maybe you get the rain you need, maybe your children survive—but what can you do about it? Then, along comes someone who says: I know what you can do, I know how you can cover your bases and ensure that things are tilted in your favor… The idolatry of the Old Testament was simply the anxious people of God succumbing to the wisdom of the day and the ever-tempting allure of security, of control.
When you see that, you realize that we are not so very different today. We may not bow down to idols–which at least has the benefit of bringing the worship out into the open—but we look at a hundred things in life that promise us control, security, a sense of peace and say: I will give myself wholly to you. What is an idol? It is looking to something other than God to give you what only God can. So, the Israelite looks to Baal to give them a sense of security about the future when they are supposed to look to Yahweh for that; the student relies on her intellect, her GPA, and ability to win arguments to give her a sense of control and prominence, when God is to be her safety and hope; the weary mother looks to the distractions of social media, upcoming vacations, and imagined futures because she has forgotten that Jesus is to be her source of peace and joy.
Idols always lie, like they did to Israel here. Where was Baal or Ashtaroth when Israel was humiliated before the Philistines? What security did they provide? What poverty did they bring upon Israel to lead her to cry out in lament after the Lord? David Foster Wallace, an agnostic, told a class of graduating students:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He then went on to tell people that what was attractive about traditional religion was, “that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
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. – 1 Sam 7:5-6
Israel gathers together at Mizpah for a worship service, for a corporate repenting session. They fasted, they abstain even from drinking water, and they confess together: we have sinned against the Lord. Confession means saying the same thing that God says. God sees our sin, He sees our heart, He knows us. When we confess, we are not doing so to inform God of anything He doesn’t already know—but with confession comes something critical for ourselves. As we speak, there is something solidified in us: Yes, God—you’re right. Here is my sin, here is what I did. O God ,help.
What is included in true repentance? Sorrow, confession, and turning from sin.
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. – 1 Sam 7:7
The Philistines hear that Israel has gathered itself into one place and they think: What a great opportunity—they have gathered for worship, they are unprepared for battle, now is the time to finish them off for good. Israel is circled together at Mizpah, caught up in the worship, when someone comes and brings news. Murmurs spread throughout the congregation, gasps, shrieks of panic—they aren’t ready for a battle. They gathered to confess their sin, to seek God for forgiveness for their rebellion, to put away their false gods…is this God’s reply?
There are three possible responses here:
1. They could have taken this as God’s judgment. We are sorry to inform you that your application for repentance was denied. They could have just fallen over in despair and said, I knew it, we are too far gone; God wants nothing to do with us.
2. They could have taken this as God’s impotence. I knew it, we should have stuck with Baal; as soon as we got rid of him, look what’s happened! We need to take matters into our own hands. They could have looked at the assault as proof that God could not be trusted and that they need to fly or fight, but it was their own power that would deliver them, not God’s.
3. They could have viewed this as an opportunity for God to be faithful to His promise that if they sought Him with undivided hearts, He would shield them and fight for them.
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.” – 1 Sam 7:8
What a dramatic change of posture for the Israelites here from just a few chapters ago. In 1 Samuel 4, Israel draws up the battle lines without seeking God, without prayer, without consulting the prophet of God. Instead, they try to use God like a battle axe. But here? The consequences are dire, arguably more dire than the previous battle. In the previous battle, they were at least prepared for battle. Here, they have nothing, they likely have their women and children with them. It would seem understandable to say, We don’t have time for religious ceremonies right now, we need to get our families out of here, we need to draw up a battle plan. But, no. They plead with Samuel to not stop praying to God for help, to save them from the Philistines. They fling themselves entirely on the mercy and might of God to deliver them from what they cannot escape.
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. 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. – 1 Sam 7:9-13
What a staggering defeat for God’s enemies and what a stunning salvation for God’s people. Dramatically, the narrator tells us that it is right as Samuel is offering up a sacrifice to the Lord that the Philistines draw near. No attention is given to battle, to strategy, to repelling the attack: God’s people here win through worship. God stands in between His people and their enemies and thunders at them with a mighty sound. The Philistines scatter and are thrown into a mass of confusion, and where there once was a formidable enemy, there is only a scattered, fleeing mess. Israel rises up and chases after them and runs them out of Israel for good.
Samuel recognizes that this is such a dramatic and important event that he erects a monument, the Ebenezer stone, which means “a rock of help,” to remind all future generations of Israel of the Lord’s help for His people. Samuel wanted to erect this so that future generations wouldn’t be tempted to turn back again to idols, that they would see that the true God is a God who helps, a God who even helps a sinful, wayward people. If you will humble yourselves, if you will confess your sin and repent, God will be there for you. This is who our God is. As Jonah is languishing in the belly of the whale and confesses his sin, God saves him! As king Hezekiah is surrounded by the Assyrian army with no way of escape, he weeps for help from the Lord, and God routes the army. When Daniel refuses to bow the knee to the false gods of Babylon and is thrown into the lion’s den, God rescues Daniel. This is who our God is. You can trust Him. Don’t turn to the false gods of self, of power, of comfort—they’ll never deliver you, they’ll only demand. But the true God will. Whenever God’s people are about to be snapped up by the jaws of death, God plucks them out.
But, of course, this story makes us think of the one individual of God’s people who wasn’t plucked out, by was swallowed. As Jesus is dying on the cross and looks up to heaven, there is no thundering response. The nails don’t pop out of the wood. The Roman soldiers aren’t thrown into confusion, the Pharisees don’t fall down in terror. Jesus looks up and asks, Why?, and all He hears is stony silence. And the jaws of death snap closed over Him. When Samuel is praying for Israel, he grabs a lamb and offers it as a sacrifice. Why? Because this is what God’s people deserve. Their sin means they deserve to die. But God, in His mercy, allows another to stand in their place and to bear their punishment. And of course, a lamb can’t pay for Israel’s sins, it doesn’t take away their guilt. It only serves as a pointer, a shadow to the greater Lamb who will be slain, the righteous man who will stand in the guilty sinner’s place and take their condemnation upon themselves. Friends, the little picture of the Philistines rushing in at the scared Israelites is just a dim picture of the wrath of God your sins deserve. But just as God here intervenes single-handedly for the Israelites to save them from what their sins deserve, so too does He intervene for you through Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for your sins.
And while the jaws of death snapped closed on Jesus, Jesus punches through the other side through His resurrection. He conquers death and sin and Satan—your greatest enemies now lie subdued under His feet. This is your God who is on your side!
He gives grace to the humble and the lowly, to those who confess their sin, to those who mourn their sin.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10
Restoration only comes through repentance.