Now, it is important to see the chapter we are about to read in its larger context as the first part of the narrative of the origin of the monarchy in Israel. The chapter relates how, after a period of national apostasy, Samuel called Israel back to the Lord. Relying on Him instead of pagan and magical views of the ark’s power (as they had previously) and acting with a faith that proved itself in obedience and faithfulness to the Lord (they got rid of their foreign gods) the Lord gave them a great victory over the Philistines. The next chapter records the request of Israel for a king because, so the people think, they cannot compete with the nations without a king, all of the other nations being ruled by kings. But, of course, this chapter 7 has already demonstrated that Israel could handle her enemies very well without a king, so long as she trusted in the Lord. So, chapter 7 provides the backdrop against which to evaluate Israel’s demand for a king. It shows that when Israel has God for her King and trusts Him to act as her King, a human king is unnecessary.
v.3 The return of the ark to Israel did not mark the end of Israel’s oppression by the Philistines. It was twenty years after the ark’s return, twenty more years of oppression by the Philistines, before there was a general return to the Lord. Sin produced ruts very hard to escape.
Even then, Samuel seemed to suspect the genuineness of the people’s repentance and put it to the test. The real problem, he told them, is not the Philistines but the false gods that the Israelites had been worshipping. Were they willing to part with those?
v.5 Mizpah, some eight miles north of Jerusalem, was an important rendezvous point for Israel in the period of the Judges. (Interestingly, many centuries later, Judas Maccabeaeus gathered his forces here, apparently in hopes of repeating Samuel’s famous victory over the enemies of the Lord’s people. 1 Macc. 3:46)
v.6 It is not easy to know what the poured out water meant. It may have been a symbol of the people’s self-denial (part of their fasting before the Lord; that is, they wouldn’t drink either) as a demonstration of their sincerity and seriousness before the Lord. It may be an expression of repentance (“pour out your heart like water”; Lamentation 2:19) The “they fasted and…confessed” that follows suggests one of these thoughts or both of them. Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator thought the sense was, “Behold we are in your presence [Lord] like this water spilled forth.” [Cited in Alter, Com., 37]
The statement about Samuel’s leadership is important in the larger context, this being the beginning of the account of Israel’s demand for a king. Samuel is prophet, priest, and judge for Israel at this point.
v.7 At any hint that the Israelites were conspiring to reassert their sovereignty, the Philistines responded immediately and forcefully.
v.8 A completely different response than the last time, 4:3, when they counted on the ark, as a kind of talisman, rather than upon the Lord himself.
v.9 The impression is that Samuel prayed both for Israel’s forgiveness (the burnt offering was to make atonement) and for her deliverance in the present crisis.
v.11 Israel had only to mop up an already panicked foe, gather the Lord’s plunder as it were. It was the Lord’s victory, not Samuel’s and not Israel’s. Samuel is not a warrior judge, such as Gideon or Samson, but a leader who brought Israel into a right relationship with God, who then fought for his people and gained the victory for them.
v.12 The place, now named Ebenezer, was the scene of Israel’s catastrophe with the ark, more than twenty years before. So the Lord made unmistakable how Israel’s fortunes had been reversed because she trusted in him. The memorial cairn is called “Stone of Help” or “Stone of the Helper.”
v.14 Far from a single victory in a single battle, by her faith in the Lord, Israel gained back lost territory, subdued the Philistine threat, and gained peace with her neighbors through most of the rest of Samuel’s life.
The Amorites is a term covering the indigenous Canaanite population still residing within the borders of the Promised Land. These people too would have been oppressed by the Philistines and would have profited from Israel’s defeat of them.
v.17 Samuel, of course, was the last of the judges and we read here that he was a most faithful and effective judge.
You notice that it is mentioned three times that Samuel judged Israel in the last three verses of the chapter. His role was like that of Moses, to keep Israel in a right relationship with God. The narrator is setting up the contrast between Samuel’s judging Israel and the people’s demand for a different kind of ruler.
Samuel’s circuit however was quite limited: Bethel and Mizpah are both within ten miles of Jerusalem and Gilgal was near Jericho. So there is some tension here with the statement that Samuel judged “Israel.” The limited scope of his movements may have contributed to the desire, expressed in the next chapter, for a king who would be over and unite the entire nation. Of course, as it would turn out, the king would likewise be centered in the same area of Israel.
We spoke last time, from 1 Samuel 6, of the absolute necessity of an obedient life and of the Lord’s severe judgment of the people of Beth Shemesh, even after their having rejoiced at the return of the ark and having offered sacrifices to God, because they did not respect God’s holiness or obey his commandments. That chapter is an illustration of James’ maxim: “Faith without works is Dead!”
So, it is all the more striking that we have cheek to jowl with chapter 6 this chapter 7 in which, of a sudden, all of Israel’s sins, many more than twenty long years of sins are forgotten and God returns to bless her in the most magnificent way.
We have to remember the historical setting to appreciate what happened here.
- Israel had been dallying with pagan worship and living for a long time. Her priesthood had been corrupt at least by the time of Hophni and Phinehas and, what seems clear, is that even Samuel’s ministry did not turn the spiritual situation around. For some years before and then for the seven months that the ark was in Philistia and the twenty long years that it remained in Kiriath Jearim, the people of God did not return to him. The narrator makes the point explicitly as he begins the section: “It was a long time…
- What is more, through all of those years they never turned back to God even though his hand was heavy upon them. It wasn’t as though Israel was prospering in those days. The Philistines kept them under their thumb, a large portion of the national profit was bled off to Philistine coffers, they had fallen far from the glory days of the conquest under Joshua. What is more, the Lord had not raised up any champion to lead them in triumph against the Philistines as Samson had. But all through this time the Israelites were faithful to their Baalim and their Ashtoreths but indifferent to the holiness and the grace of the living God. They seemed through all that while to prefer to be miserable with Baal than to return to God.
But, then, by the grace of God – for surely these people had proved that left to themselves they would never change (Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? Then can you who are accustomed to doing evil, now, all of a sudden, do good?) – the people began to repent.
And for their repentance, after all this time, after those years of preferring their sins to their God, God sweeps away their sins as if they had never been committed and grants them a victory over their enemies so complete that it altered the political situation for years to come. There is free grace for you! There is God treating us in exactly the opposite way from what our sins deserve. Here we have a completely, wonderfully new beginning for a people who deserved to taste the bitter fruit of their sinful choices to the last gasp of their life in this world. There is the gospel of Jesus Christ – forgiveness and blessing for sinners in defiance of their ill-desert.
It is not granted without a change on the part of Israel, without repentance – however much God granted that repentance to his people in the first place. And the emphasis in the chapter falls upon the repentance of Israel and what it led to. So, if we want the new beginning; if we want God to treat us as if we had not sinned against him as we have; if we want God to draw near to us and help us in some way or deliver us from some enemy, then here is our summons. We are to do what Israel did. We are simply to repent. That is all. Now that is not a different thing than saying we are simply to believe, to have faith in God. Repentance is just that form that faith takes in regard to our sins. But it is a particularly important part and dimension of faith.
Now what is repentance? What did Israel do that so changed God’s aspect toward her?
We are given a definition of repentance in 2 Chronicles 6:36-39. Listen carefully to this from Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple.
“When they sin against you – for there is no one who does not sin – and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned; we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you.”
Is that not what Israel did here. She was not in exile in some other land. She was a captive in her own land. But she did all the things that Solomon said God’s people must do to be restored to him, when their sins have driven him from them, and to have his blessing upon them once more when his hand has been heavy upon them.
- First, as Solomon said, Israel had a change of heart. As we read in v. 2, “she began to mourn and to seek after the Lord.” Had her heart never changed God would never have relented and her circumstances would have remained the same. But she had a change of heart. She began to mourn. She finally admitted that her circumstances were the Lord’s judgment upon her. That is clearly what she thought, for we read that interpretation of her mourning and seeking the Lord in Samuel’s response to her in the next verse. She was turning back to God, aware that she had sinned against him and grieving that she had done so. And then she said exactly that in v. 6: “We have sinned against the Lord.”
This is essential! There are many who feign repentance but who have had no change of heart. They do not really think about their sins differently than they did before. They are not really seeking the Lord any more than they were before, though they may wish for some favor from him for the moment. They may regret the consequences of their sins but they have had no real change of heart; there has been no real turn taken place within their minds.
Bunyan has a character in Pilgrim’s Progress, a Mr. Presumption, who, as it were, “had been at the cross with his past sin, and had left the cross to commit the same sin at the first opportunity.” And Dante has a reprobate who, all the time he was repenting, had his eye on his next opportunity. These masters of the life of the soul draw these characters in their masterpieces because such people are commonplace in the church of God. Feigned repentance is something we have seen often enough in this church and it may be found in every church. There is, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7, a worldly kind of sorrow for sin that produces nothing, that is merely the imitation of repentance. There is in it no true change of heart.
Israel’s heart had changed. There was a real turn.
- Then, as Solomon said true penitents would, Israel confessed her sins to God and pled for forgiveness. We take the meaning of “mourned” in v. 2 to include Israel’s actual confession of her sins before God, her weeping before the Lord for her guilt and for the offenses she had committed against God. Not that she had not sinned against others too, but first and foremost against the Lord her God. This is what David meant when in the 51st Psalm he said to the Lord, he an adulterer and a murderer, “against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.” True repentance always sees the highest crime and the deepest wrong as having been committed against the Lord himself, against his holiness and against his grace.
You can tell a great deal about a person’s penitence by how he confesses his sin or how she asks God for forgiveness. I have had more than enough experience of this. Listening to someone confess his sins whose confessions are the demonstration that he has made no turn inside, that he has not turned from his sins and that he is not really seeking God. She may be devastated by the consequences of what she has done and the misery that has overtaken her as a result of her sins. He may deeply regret having been found out. But it is clear from what they say and how they say it that they are thinking about themselves and not about the Lord whose holiness and goodness they have trampled on and held in contempt.
On the other hand, a right confession tells a great deal as well. So the Israelites pouring out water before the Lord. So their heartfelt acknowledgement that they had sinned against the Lord, as we read in v. 6. And so, in v. 8, when the storm clouds gathered, they stuck by their penitence and, instead of seeking some selfish, some pagan solution to their plight as they had before, they sought, through Samuel’s prayers for them, the grace, help, and forgiveness of God. “Against Thee and Thee only have we sinned!”
You can tell a great deal by how God’s people confess their sins. You may remember the story of Hugh Latimer, the greatest preacher of the English Reformation. Before Latimer came to living faith in Christ, an acquaintance, Thomas Bilney, tried to speak to him about the gospel, which by this time Bilney had embraced for himself and wanted to share with others. But Latimer was too stubborn. Bilney realized he would get nowhere with a direct approach. So, Latimer being a priest, Bilney asked him to hear his confession. And Bilney, there in the confessional, confessed his sins, and Latimer listened. “I learnt more by this confession,” he said later, “than in many years before. From that time forward I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the doctors of the schools…” Confession tells a great deal not only about one’s sense of sin, it tells a great deal about what he understands to be his relationship with God and his hope of forgiveness. So here in Israel. It was not to Baal they any longer turned for forgiveness, but to the burnt offering, properly offered, the sign and seal of the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
There was a Hindu society, some years ago, that sought to take everything positive in Christianity without compromising its Hinduism. They took the Westminster Shorter Catechism definition of repentance:
“Repentance is a saving grace wherein a sinner out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth with grief and hatred of his sin turn from it unto God with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”
They were happy with the entire definition save but two words: “in Christ.” Those they left out. But not the Israelites. Their confession must take them to the sacrifice and to the atonement that God provides for the salvation of his people.
Repentance always has this element in it, an honest and serious and sorrowful acknowledgement of one’s badness and guilt and ill-desert. Every true penitent is like Albrecht Durer, Luther’s artist friend, who, in a noble act of penitence, put his own head and his own face on his famous painting of the prodigal son. Bunyan, in The Holy War, has a character, Mr. Wet-eyes, whose father was Mr. Repentance. And, if the true penitent cannot weep as he ought for his sins, at least he knows he ought to be weeping for them. Listen to Lancelot Andrewes, from his Private Devotions (172-174, summarized in Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 196).
“I need more grief, O God; I plainly need it. I can sin much, but I cannot correspondingly repent. O Lord, give me a molten heart. Give me tears; give me a fountain of tears. Give me the grace of tears. Drop down, ye heavens, and bedew the dryness of my heart. Give me, O Lord, this saving grace. No grace of all the graces were more welcome to me. If I may not water my couch with my tears, nor wash thy feet with my tears, at least give me one or two little tears that Thou mayest put into thy bottle and write in Thy book!”
Such was Israel’s penitence. She confessed her sins to God and mourned over them.
- Then, as Solomon said real penitents would, Israel turned back to the Lord with their heart and soul. This is precisely what Samuel wanted to be sure of. It was to discern the genuineness of Israel’s turn that Samuel required them to get rid of their foreign gods and to commit themselves to obedience to God’s law. You hear him explain the burden of his test there in v. 3: “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart then rid yourselves of the foreign gods…” That will be the test. Repentance is not only a change of heart – it begins there, of course – but it is a particular kind of change of heart, a change so profound and complete and well-meant that it produces and must produce a change of behavior that is likewise definite, obvious, and sweeping.
And you see that Israel passed Samuel’s test. She put away her idols and her idolatry. And she showed the seriousness of her commitment to the Lord’s holiness by undertaking to fast. Israel’s penitence, in other words, was not just words. But like what Paul calls the “godly sorrow”, Israel’s mourning produced “earnestness, eagerness to clear themselves, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, readiness to see justice done.”
In that little classic of American church and spiritual history, Bennet Tyler’s The Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton (Nettleton was an American Presbyterian evangelist who was instrumental in the revivals that swept America from 1790 to 1840), we are given an account of one Rev. James Davenport. Davenport was one of those men that virtually every revival spawns, who, under the impression of powerful spiritual forces, loses touch with wisdom and sound doctrine, runs to extremes and carries many others with him. He encouraged outlandish physical displays in his meetings, began to criticize as unspiritual the settled ministers who did not agree in all points with his program, split churches and drew large numbers of members of other congregations to himself. Over time, however, Davenport was led to realize how foolish he had been, how much harm to God’s work he had done, and how unjust his criticism of other good men had been.
But unlike others who would regret but regret only, Davenport was unwilling simply to be sorry for his sins. He traveled to all the places he had traveled during the revivals. He spoke to the various churches and made a full apology, explaining in detail what wrongs he had been guilty of and what their consequences had been. And he went to as many individuals he had influenced as he could find and sought to remove the ideas he himself had planted in their heads years before.
That is repentance. It was not enough that Manasseh came to sorrow for his terrible sins that he had caused Judah to commit. He spent the last few years of his reign furiously attempting to undo the damage he had done. He couldn’t undo it, nor could Davenport in many cases. But a well-intentioned effort was made.
Remember the story I told you several years ago. Of David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” who murdered six, blinded one, wounded others in New York over a two-year period (1976-1977). He picked his victims at random, sitting in a car or walking on a street, came up to them and shot them dead. It made catching him very difficult because there was no pattern to his crimes. His letters to Jimmy Breslin, the famous New York Post columnist, who had written extensively about the murders, reminded law enforcement officials of the letters Jack the Ripper had sent to officials in London during his killing spree a century before. When he was caught he feigned insanity but the court appointed psychiatrists saw through his ploy. Those were the days when no one could be executed in the United States and so Berkowitz was sentenced to 365 years in prison. Well, David Berkowitz is a professing Christian today, has been for some years now. I saw a TV documentary a year or so ago and he was still very much practicing his faith. He is active in the prison chapel, distributing Christian literature. A PCA elder friend of mine has been in correspondence with him and testifies to what seems to be the genuineness of his profession of faith. No one can look into someone else’s heart. But, we cannot deny that such a man could be saved by the blood of Christ through true repentance. Can we? Saul, the persecutor of the church, was a more urbane man; he didn’t have the appalling upbringing and family circumstances that shaped David Berkowitz. But that just leaves him with still less excuse for being the chief of the Gestapo, the secret police, hunting down to imprison or kill the innocent. For that was what Saul of Tarsus was before the grace of God granted him repentance. A recent World article tells of another such repentance, a former member of Charles Manson’s terrible and murderous gang.
Such is the power of repentance. It just sweeps the past away, however dark, however infamous, however ugly, however cruel, however impure. And what do you suppose the Philistines might have said who were terrorized in that battle by the thunder of the Lord? Or who lost loved ones in that battle? If it had been explained to them that Israel had really been worse than the Philistines and that for years and years. They had offended God and betrayed his goodness in the most disgusting ways. And now all they did was say they were sorry, to ask God to forgive them and to seek to live thereafter in a way that was pleasing to God. And for that all the past was forgotten? For that the sins of years were swept away? Would the Philistine have thought that fair, do you think?
Tell a friend at a party where you are one of a few Christians among many unbelievers that it is entirely possible that David Berkowitz will go to heaven while some of his victims go to hell. See whether they think that is good news. See whether they admire the gospel of Jesus Christ for producing such a possibility. But, you see, that is the power, the terrible and wonderful power of true repentance. It sweeps the past, however ugly, however bitter, it sweeps it away and makes all things new.
And once anyone knows how truly sinful his or her life truly is, that possibility is the greatest news in the world. Because repentance is the way in which God’s infinite grace and mercy comes to sinners. No wonder that our Savior himself, as he commenced his ministry, should have reduced the message to this: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent, truly, genuinely, repent; repent as Israel repented in 1 Samuel 7, and you do everything and shall have everything. It must be by repentance, for sinners as we are and as we remain, we have nothing to offer God, nothing at all, except a plea for his forgiveness.
That is a message for Christians as well as for non-Christians. Surely there are many here tonight, along with me, who need to repent, much more, much more often, about many more things. The only thing standing between us and the deliverance of God is true repentance.