Formations 02.02.2014: From Repentance to Remembrance

1 Samuel 7:2-14

The Prophet Samuel, the Mikhailovsky Monastery of Kiev, c. 1112.

The Prophet Samuel, the Mikhailovsky Monastery of Kiev, c. 1112.

The mom had had enough of her teenaged son’s irresponsible behavior. In her frustration, she remarked that the two of them needed to have a “come to Jesus meeting.” Her son, not understanding the words but catching his mom’s tone quite accurately, commented, “I don’t think Jesus wants to go to that meeting.”

In less colorful language, psychologists call come-to-Jesus-meetings “interventions.” They are staged when people need to be confronted with how their destructive behaviors are harming themselves and others. If all goes well, the person for whom such a meeting is staged sees the light and begins to take steps toward recovery. Even in the best of circumstances, however, taking part in an intervention can be a stressing, painful experience. Nobody ever wants to go to that sort of meeting, but sometimes it is necessary.

I wonder if the meeting Samuel called at Mizpah was something like an intervention. Twenty years had passed since the ark had been returned. Reading between the lines and comparing Samuel’s career to that of previous judges of Israel, perhaps we are to imagine these as twenty years of oppression by the Philistines leading up to a moment of deliverance.

At any rate, in today’s text the Israelites find themselves in need of a fresh “come to Yahweh meeting.” After a decades-long period of national soul-searching and repentance, it was time for them to finally get their spiritual house in order. Samuel leads the way by gathering the people at Mizpah, where they fast and confess their sins.

Then, after God once again acts to rescue Israel from the Philistines, Samuel leads the people in a different sort of meeting. While the first meeting involved a stressing, painful acknowledgement of their sinful behaviors, this second meeting was a joyful acknowledgment of God’s saving presence. Through God’s help, the Philistine threat had been rebuffed—at least for the short term. For this, the Israelites need to give thanks.

At the same time, Samuel called on Israel to remember the victory God gave them. Other threats were certain to arise at some point. Remembering how God had helped them in the past would give them the confidence to trust in God again in the future.

Discussion

• Have you ever taken part in an intervention? What was it like to go through that experience?
• Have you ever taken part in a church-wide season of repentance for past sins? Can you imagine what such an observance would be like?
• What is the relationship between God’s willingness to help and our willingness to repent?
• Does God always wait for us to “deserve it” before coming to the rescue? Why or why not?
• How can believers express their gratitude for God’s dramatic acts of deliverance?
• Why is it important to remember these occasions?

Reference Shelf

Israel’s Deliverance

Twenty years after the disaster at Aphek, the loss of the Ark, and the death of Eli (cf. 1 Sam 4–7), Samuel called Israel to a convocation at Mizpah to renew its vows to serve the Lord. When the Philistines sought to stop the assembling of the tribes, Samuel prayed for deliverance and presented a whole burnt offering to the Lord. Routed by a thunderstorm, the Philistines were defeated by the Hebrews so badly that they did not constitute any further threat during the days of Samuel (1 Sam 7:2-14).

Robert A. Street Jr., “Samuel,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Mercer University Press, 1990), 792.

Ebenezer

The movement of the story in 7:2-11 is clear: Israel repents, Samuel cries out to God on Israel’s behalf, and Yahweh leads Israel to victory over the enemy. The narration emphasizes that it was Yahweh who fought Israel’s war and defeated the enemy (v. 10), while the Israelite troops participated only in mopping-up operations, pursuing the Philistines back toward their own territory (v. 11). The location of Beth-car is unknown, though we may presume it would have been a few miles to the west of Mizpah, in the direction of the Philistine homeland.

First Samuel 7:12 serves as an etiology to remind modern readers that the place they knew as Ebenezer owed its name to Yahweh’s beneficence. Samuel memorialized the victory by raising a standing stone, a common practice in the ancient world (Gen 28:18, 22; Josh 24:26-27; cf. Josh 4:1-9). The Deuteronomistic author, however, is careful to call it a “stone” (‘eben) rather than a “pillar” (massebâ) because pillars were often associated with Canaanite worship practices. The Deuteronomists strongly opposed such practices, and polemicized against them (Deut 16:22).

The pillar is named “Ebenezer,” from the words for “stone” ( ‘eben) and “help” (’ezer ), thus, “stone of help.” Samuel’s explanation is a bit ambiguous since “to this point” could have a chronological or geographical meaning; whether he meant “up to now” or “as far as this” is not clear.

The location of the stone-raising ceremony is also uncertain and probably different from the Ebenezer mentioned in 4:1. However, the author clearly intended for his readers to remember the earlier battle of Aphek-Ebenezer. In the first battle, the Israelites were attacked at Ebenezer and routed before the Philistines, despite the presence of the ark, because Israel’s sin had prompted Yahweh to absent himself from the battle. In the second battle, Israel comes fresh from a service of national repentance when the Philistines attack again. This time, God is present in the battle, routing the Philistines as far as Ebenezer.

By structuring the account of the battle in this way, the author accomplishes two things. First, he reminds his readers of the central Deuteronomistic theme—that divine favor is conditioned by human obedience. Secondly, he prefaces the account of Israel’s demand for a king with a story that maximizes the role of God (and his prophetic spokesperson) in guiding the country. In the author’s mind, the battle of Mizpah proved that national security was not dependent on the establishment of a monarchy.

Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 101–102.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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