Lessons From Samuel’s Ministry

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Our Lord famously declared:

I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18 NIV)

As we look at the state of the church today, and indeed if we look at history of church, it seems like Jesus was just being wishful in His thinking. And yet, in over 2,000 years, despite setbacks and times of trouble, the church of Jesus Christ is still here. Any problems the church has experienced at any time in its history have not be God’s fault, they’ve been our fault. The church may have been established by Jesus Christ, but it is full of human beings who are, at best, imperfect. The church has survived all these centuries in spite of our mistakes and, yes, our sin. The church has paid and in some cases continues to pay for past mistakes, but it carries on.

Israel had problems, too. In 1 Samuel 4 we read about the biggest problem Israel ever had, and a problem Christians may experience today.

She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” (1 Samuel 4:21, 22 NIV)

The Philistines had stolen the ark of the Covenant. Because the ark was gone, so was God’s glory. That ark was a token of God’s presence; with it gone, so was He. Of course, Israel’s real problem was a spiritual one, and that was why the Philistines were able to capture the ark. What Israel needed (and what the church of Jesus Christ needs) was a spiritual awakening; a revival. God’s solution to Israel’s problem was a man: Samuel.

Twenty Years Later

So the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the Ark to the hillside home of Abinadab and installed his son Eleazar to be in charge of it. The Ark remained there for twenty years, and during that time all Israel was in sorrow because the Lord had seemingly abandoned them. (1 Samuel 7:1, 2 TLB)

The Israelites got the ark back, but for some reason it remained in a place called Kirjath-jearim. There is stayed for two decades. We’re not told why. It may be that Shiloh was destroyed or occupied by the Philistines. At any rate, the people of Israel began to turn back to the Lord during this time. A combination of the ark not being where it should have been and a constant threat from various enemies made Israel desperate. In times of desperation, people often turn to the Lord. And it is during times of desperation that God does His best work. Here, Samuel steps into his long ministry as a national prophet:

At that time Samuel said to them, “If you are really serious about wanting to return to the Lord, get rid of your foreign gods and your Ashtaroth idols. Determine to obey only the Lord; then he will rescue you from the Philistines.” So they destroyed their idols of Baal and Ashtaroth and worshiped only the Lord. (1 Samuel 7:3, 4 TLB)

Israel at this time was chest-deep in idolatry. They may have longed for the Lord, but they hadn’t given up the sin of idolatry. Over the years, the people had strayed far from God. Yet God wasn’t finished with them – not by a long shot. He was preparing Samuel for this exact moment. The terrible disasters that had hit Israel in recent years and the Philistine occupation had prepared the nation to hear Samuel’s call to repentance. It would take a complete, wholehearted turning away from idolatry and sin to an attitude of single-minded devotedness of service to God before God could begin to deliver His people.

D.A. Carson noted:

The coming of God’s reign either demands repentance or brings judgment.

The people wanted God’s glory – His presence – back, but that couldn’t happen until their hearts were right. It’s one thing to want God’s presence in your life, but God’s needs to know you’re serious about it. Lots of people want more of God, but they aren’t willing to do what is necessary to receive Him.

A call to prayer

Then Samuel told them, “Come to Mizpah, all of you, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” So they gathered there and, in a great ceremony, drew water from the well and poured it out before the Lord. They also went without food all day as a sign of sorrow for their sins. So it was at Mizpah that Samuel became Israel’s judge. (1 Samuel 7:5, 6 TLB)

Samuel was not just their prophet, he was also Israel’s judge. Under his leadership, the nation turned from their idolatry to the Lord. The big, national prayer meeting was to take place at a place called Mizpah, about eight miles north of Jerusalem, close to Samuel’s hometown of Ramah. Here the people gathered to fast, confess their sins, and pray. This is the only way for a person to return to God, by the way. If a person wants to get closer to God; if they want more of God; they need to offer themselves to Him. They need to confess their sins and they need to see themselves as God sees them: sinners in need of saving.

Another problem

It didn’t take long for Israel’s enemy, the Philistines, to get wind of their national prayer meeting. It doesn’t take the devil long to notice when you get serious with your faith, either. You may be sure that the moment you start to take your faith serious; the moment you decide to ‘walk the straight and narrow,’ the devil takes notice and begins to move against you.

When the Israelites learned that the Philistines were on the move, they were terrified.

“Plead with God to save us!” they begged Samuel. (1 Samuel 7:8 TLB)

Samuel did that and more, and the Lord gave them great victory. It was the first victory Israel had experienced in a long time.

Just as Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines arrived for battle, but the Lord spoke with a mighty voice of thunder from heaven, and they were thrown into confusion, and the Israelites routed them and chased them from Mizpah to Beth-car, killing them all along the way. (1 Samuel 7:10, 11 TLB)

Before the battle even began, God “thundered” against the enemy. Was it a storm? Was it the great rumble of His voice? The text isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the Lord acted on behalf of His people. The Israelites hadn’t lifted a finger when God moved, throwing the enemy into confusion. At that point, the Israelites acted.

The Lord acted, in the nick of time, without a moment to spare. That’s how God often works. The Lord’s miraculous interventions occur at His convenience, not ours. When the people turned to God and made an earnest confession, God moved.

A memorial

Samuel then took a stone and placed it between Mizpah and Jeshanah and named it Ebenezer (meaning, “the Stone of Help”), for he said, “The Lord has certainly helped us!” (1 Samuel 7:12 TLB)

Large stones were commonly used as monuments in Old Testament times. Samuel named his monument “Ebenezer,” which means, “stone of help.” This was a monument of remembrance; whenever people looked at it, they would remember what God had done for them. It was also a stone of revelation; the revelation being that it was God who gave them the victory, not their efforts.

Remembering is a good thing to do. Paul wrote to the Philippians:

…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

If you are a Christian, God has led you to where you are right now. Through all the twists and turns of your life, and in spite of your best efforts to the contrary, God has been working tirelessly and often silently in the background to get you to where you are now. You should be able to say with confidence, “The Lord has certainly helped me.”

Memory is a wonderful thing. When times get tough you can remember times of blessing. If you’ve ever read the psalms, you’ve no doubt noticed how many of them sing the praises of what God had done in the past.

Restoration and peace

The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.

Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also held court for Israel. And he built an altar there to the Lord. (1 Samuel 7:14 – 17 NIV)

This is the result of what happens when God’s man is in a place of leadership. Peace follows the man of God. Confusion and tumult result when people are led by someone out of step with God. In the early days of Samuel’s ministry, we can learn some important lessons:

Conditions necessary for God’s help. If you want God’s help, you must be sincere and you must be serious. Just asking Him for help isn’t enough. We must show God that we know we really need Him; that we believe He will help us. And, if need be, we must deal with the sin that may be coming between God and us. Sometimes that sin is the cause of our problems in the first place.

Confession of your need. God will help anybody who knows he needs it. If you’re too self-confident or if you’re the kind of person who prays for help then tries to find a solution yourself, God won’t help you. A piece of advice from James is helpful on this-

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:6, 7 NIV)

Crisis as the occasion for God’s help. Sometimes the Lord will let things reach the crisis point before He acts. He’ll do this for reasons that make sense to Him but not always to us. We may be sure, however, that God’s timing is always perfect.

Call out to God in prayer. Of course God knows what our needs are; He knows what we need before we ask. Still, He wants us to ask in faith believing.

Conquest through receiving God’s help. When we pray in faith, God will act, in His time, and we will be delivered; victory will come. God never works in half measures. God always goes all out for His people!

God used Samuel to bring peace, revival, and restoration to a broken and contrite Israel. He stands in stark contrast to the judges that came before him: Jephthah, Samson, and the priest Eli all caused more problems for Israel than they solved. They were selfish men, driven by their passions and ruled by their weaknesses. Samuel was different thanks to four things:

The influence of a godly family. Both of Samuel’s parents were godly people, devoted to God with faith in His will.

The power of prayer. Samuel’s birth was an answer to prayer and his life and ministry were lived in prayer.

The call of God. Samuel didn’t happen to become a judge or stumble upon becoming a prophet. He was directly called by God to those positions. As Christians, we are told this:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. (2 Peter 1:10 NIV)

Obedience. There is no record of Samuel disobeying God; no record of him “doing his own thing.” Samuel was a faithful servant of God. No wonder he could say this:

To obey is better than sacrifice. (1 Samuel 15:22 NIV)

Samuel could honestly express this because he lived it all the days of his life.

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