We ended Part 1 with Samuel having been established as a prophet. As we shall soon see, he was recognized by the faithful remnant, but not by the corrupt, established religious order.
As we continue through this early party of 1 Samuel, it is important to remember that Samuel himself was most likely the author of these chapters. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he took care to record certain instances that revealed the spiritual condition of the people and the subsequent results. There is much here for our learning.
The Return to Bondage
Chapter 4 begins with Israel going out to battle against the Philistines. They had encamped for the battle at Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” however, they would have no help from the Rock of their salvation on this day. He was a stone that their leaders had rejected (Psalm 118:22).
The Philistines won the battle and Israel suffered 4,000 casualties. The elders (leaders) of Israel then asked, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” Great question. They were right in their understanding that no result is outside of the hand of God, but, as we shall see, were wrong in their assessment as to why. Maybe, just maybe, they should have asked Him what to do first before they went out to battle (without Him)?
In a broad stroke, this is a prototypical action of the Western church today—believers marching off to a spiritual battle without ever knowing the will of God in the first place. After a quick rout, then comes the standard response of blaming God. There is little else in all Christendom that makes me less angry. It is the “I’ll do what I think is best, slap God’s name on my hope, and then blame Him if (when) it doesn’t work out” routine. The main problem is, it makes God appear uncharacteristically weak, uncaring, and distant—especially to impressionable youth—and the church suffers casualties.
Once, after I was talking about the importance of laying down our lives for Christ, a brother in the Lord asked me a good question: “How does one practically lay down his life?” My answer was that one needs to seek the Lord and do exactly what He says in every major decision in life. Of course, this was not an entirely comprehensive answer, because we all must choose to avoid serving sin on a daily basis. However, my point was that if one simply does this, he will find that his life—home, marriage, relationships, occupation, lifestyle, and so on—is directed by the Lord. The significant surrender required to do this will end up empowering him to do it on a daily basis without even having to think about it. If he does this long enough, he will not remember what it was like to make his own decisions. He will not be able to get back. He will have lost his life.
Not inquiring of the Lord before an important decision or event in life is a clear sign that one has not laid down his life. It also reveals unbelief. Notice that when the leaders of Israel asked, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” they were talking to each other. They never did ask God why they lost and they were about to make another important decision without asking Him. You just cannot get good fruit from a rotten tree.
It is important to note that one man was missing from this faithless debacle. Although the entire country knew “Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD” and “the word of Samuel came to all Israel,” he was not on the scene. At the time of this battle, he was grown up and would have been about 31 years old. I suspect that Samuel knew Israel could not defeat the Philistines in their present spiritual condition and that they were destined for failure. The elders may also have avoided him because they knew he was not going to be in agreement with their man-made plans.
When Samuel would eventually come back on the scene some twenty years later we find him telling 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.” (7:3; emphasis mine)
This breaking of God’s very first commandment (Exodus 20:1–3) was likely the root cause of why the Lord had allowed the Philistines to defeat Israel and return them to bondage (twenty years earlier). I suspect that Samuel understood that God was not going to move on Israel’s behalf until they were ready to turn from their idolatry. This is why it would be another twenty years until he became Judge over Israel. Israel would first have to return to Philistine bondage for a second time, which would last twenty years, until they were finally ready to get serious with God. Samson delivered Israel from the first Philistine bondage, but never laid the Biblical (the law) foundation necessary for the nation to persevere in freedom after the subsequent forty year judgeship of Eli. Forty is symbolic in the Bible for a time of testing. The actions they took against the Philistines on this day revealed they had failed the test.
The next generation of uncompromising church leadership, that God is now raising up, is in the same position as Samuel. They are smart enough (in the Lord) to not go marching off to their death with a man-made battle plan. They know the Lord is all and He fights His battles—always. There is no place for human ambition. Their advice to the current generation to change their ways is ignored. Repentance requires humility, but the ways of man are filled with pride.
Israel’s next move was to use the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts in a counter-attack. This is the second time the name “LORD of hosts” appears in Scripture. The first was 1 Samuel 1:3. This name could have been introduced to Israel by Samuel, because it first appears in his writing. Also, in 1 Samuel 15:2, we find him prophesying: “Thus says the LORD of hosts … .” Perhaps Israel had adopted this understanding of God having an army during Samuel’s prophetic rise (1 Samuel 3:19–4:1). If true, the implications are that Israel knew the lingo, but not the Person, exactly like the Western church today.
The Western church knows about the Lord, but it does not know Him. When I meet Christians for the first time, the typical question I get is, “Where do you go to church?” I am not invalidating the practical nature of this question, but I am never asked about what God is doing in my life. When I bring up what God is doing in my life I typically feel like I am talking to a brick wall. My emphasis is this: the Western church does not exist with the Lord Jesus on a relational level. There is a faithful remnant of individual believers that do, but not a broader church. People can disagree with me all they want, but the proof is in the casualties of war that keep piling up.
It was a sad day for Israel when they marched out their magic box thinking that God’s army would now destroy their enemies. The problem was, they had it all backwards. God was ready to use their enemies to destroy the two deadbeats next to the box.
The leaders of Israel were not submitted to the Lord and did not know His ways. The presence of God had not left the ark of the covenant—He was just not going to do things their way. They were deceived. This is what happens to people who refuse to yield to God. They double down in their stubborn pride. Apparently, blaming Satan for all the consequences of your disobedience was not common amongst the ancient Israelites. However, creating some gimmick or program to appear like you are making a righteous move was a tactic back then. Nothing had changed for them and nothing has changed for us. If you want to march into battle with the presence of God and win, then you better be a servant like Joshua was. You must be submitted with marching orders in order for the lion of God to be properly released.
This whole debacle of Israel reminds me of a prayer meeting I once went to before a Presidential election. Recollecting it, I do not know why I even bothered. I should have known better. What good is it for a group of believers to pray for righteous leaders in government when more than half of the fellowship routinely votes for candidates who boldly support earth worship, government sponsored theft, and the wholesale murder of infants? I realized more clearly that night that both the leaders and the members of the congregation who sincerely believed their prayers would make a difference were completely deceived. They had no Spiritual power, but they thought they did when they made those bold declarations for righteousness.
The false atmosphere of noise and excitement always accompanies such hopeless campaigns. Likewise, we are told the following concerning Israel:
As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded (4:5).
A lot of time and effort gets wasted in the Western church creating religious pomp and circumstance for worship services that do nothing. The people keep singing and shouting and the casualties keep piling up, because hearts are not truly committed. There is no genuine worship in spirit in truth.
Over time, this leads to the curious situation where the ungodly fear God more than those who are supposed to be in the light. Consider the response of the Philistines in this situation:
And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight” (4:6–9).
Notice carefully that the Philistines said, “These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.” These lost Philistines did not know what they were talking about. He is the (only) God and He struck the Egyptians with plagues in Egypt, not in the wilderness. Despite their ignorance, they still had a genuine respect for the power of God. Almost five hundred years had passed since God had delivered His people from Egyptian bondage. All the surrounding nations—perhaps all the nations of the world—still talked about it. Deep inside, everybody knew that this God of Israel was the real deal. If they were to see a real display of God’s power on the battlefield, then they would be open for conversion.
These Philistine soldiers seemingly had a greater capacity for faith than the Israelites who did not bother inquiring of Him and hoped in their religious traditions. Their exclamation, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us!” reveals their sincerity. There are many sincere muslims far more devoted to their god who have a greater capacity for faith than most Christians. Their conversions are a beautiful thing.
In this battle, Israel’s calvary had tanks and the Philistine’s had horses (so to speak), but it did not matter. In the presence of the ark of the covenant, the Philistines crushed Israel, inflicting a devastating 30,000 casualties. (The good news is, God does not need His disobedient people to reveal His power to the lost. As we shall see in part 4, God Himself will fight against the Philistines.)
Today, the nations of the world know deep inside that Jesus Christ is the real deal. He is so powerful that the Socialists and Communists work day in and day out to try to ban Him from society. If He has not risen from the dead, then what are they so afraid of? Their fear reveals their ideological alignment with the forces of darkness.
This reminds me of a story I once heard from a Christian couple I know that used to live in Turkey, where they did missionary work. One time, while staying at a hotel there, they befriended a Muslim couple and an atheist couple. There happened to be a severe earthquake when they were all together. Everyone desparately pointed at them and said, “You pray!”
The Lesson for Today
The lesson for us here is do not go out to battle with lukewarm Christians. Not only will casualties result from their religious charades, but the lost will not be converted.
We must know the Lord conversationally and we must exercise patience for Him to lead us out to war. This was Samuel’s approach. Later in this series he will show us how the Lord’s battles are to be fought.