For the past couple of months we have been looking at the book of 1 Samuel. And even though the book is named after Samuel, so far, much of the story has focused on other characters. First, the story revolved around Hannah (Samuel’s mother) as she prayed and pleaded with God to give her a son – which God did! And in response, Hannah dedicated her little boy Samuel to live in the service of God for the rest of his life.
Then the story focused in on the priest Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas – as they lived in blatant disregard for God and his commands – prompting God to warn them of impending judgement. Sadly, they chose not to heed God’s warning, and God carried out that judgement shortly thereafter when Hophni and Phinehas were killed in a battle with the Philistines.
At this point, the story shifts it’s focus onto the Ark of the Covenant, as, in the same battle, the Israelite army foolishly tried to manipulate God by bringing the Ark of the Covenant with them onto the battlefield. But God would not be manipulated and as a result, the Israelites were soundly defeated and the Ark was captured by the Philistines.
The next few chapters of the book follow the Ark into Philistine territory and we see God displaying his might and his sovereignty over the Philistine god, Dagon, and even over nature as the Philistines struggle to contain and control the God of the Israelites. In the end, they want nothing to do with the Ark of of the Lord, and they send it back to the Israelites on cart pulled by a couple of cows.
And so by now, we’ve seen a very strong theme emerging from this book and I think 1 Samuel chapter 2 verse 30 says it best. In that verse God says:
“I will honor those who honor me, and I will despise those who think lightly of me.” 1 Samuel 2:30b
This has been a clear theme through this book so far. We see God honouring Hannah as she humbles herself before God in prayer – and as she keeps a difficult promise and sends her young son Samuel to live at the Tabernacle to serve God. God honours that and blesses both Hannah and Samuel.
But God certainly does not honor the pride and arrogance of Eli’s sons – as they dishonour Him and steal from the temple sacrifices. God executes judgment on Eli and all his family because of their sin. God despises those who think lightly of Him.
And God does not honor the Israelite army as they treat him like a vending machine – living for years in disobedience to Him with no desire to please and honor God, but yet expecting God to save them from their enemies just because they bring out the Ark of the Covenant. God certainly doesn’t honor that and the Israelites are soundly defeated.
And God doesn’t honor the Philistines either – as He strikes the them with tumours and plagues. They were treating God as if he was just another idol – just another god conquered by their god Dagon! But they quickly learned that wasn’t the case! In fact, they seemed to learn a little quicker than the Israelites that God honours those who honor Him, but He despises those who think lightly of Him.
And that’s the same lesson that we’re going to see in today’s passage too. The Israelites seem to be a little slow to learn the lesson, but they do seem to get it in the end! So perhaps there’s hope for us too!
As I mentioned, the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Lord in battle, but because of the plagues that God sent upon them, they returned the Ark to the Israelites by sending it along with some gifts on a cart pulled by a couple of cows. The cows took it straight to the nearby Israelite town of Beth-shemesh. We read last week in 1 Samuel 6:13…
13 The people of Beth-shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley, and when they saw the Ark, they were overjoyed! 14 The cart came into the field of a man named Joshua and stopped beside a large rock. So the people broke up the wood of the cart for a fire and killed the cows and sacrificed them to the Lord as a burnt offering. 1 Samuel 6:13-14
Of course, the people were super excited to get the Ark back again and in celebration, they made many sacrifices and offerings to the Lord that day. But their celebration would soon turn to mourning. We pick up the story now in 1 Samuel 6:19…
19 But the Lord killed seventy men from Beth-shemesh because they looked
into the Ark of the Lord. And the people mourned greatly because of what the Lord had done. 1 Samuel 6:19
It seems kinda ironic that the Philistines had come to realize the awesome power and the holiness of God and they understood how important it was to honor Him – but it seems the Israelites still didn’t get it.
70 men of Beth-shemesh looked inside the Ark of the Covenant – and God struck them dead for their disobedience. You see, the Ark of the Covenant was to be treated with the utmost respect. It was only to be carried by specific Levites from the family of Kohath, and even they were commanded not to touch or even look at the ark itself. God had given these instructions in Numbers chapter 4…
4 “The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects. 5 When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. 6 Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.
15 The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.
19 This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. 20 The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.”
Numbers 4:4-6, 15, 19-20
We can see from these verses that the Kohathites were not even to look at the Ark of the Covenant (and it was their job to carry it around). It was always to be covered first by high priests so that no one would look at the Ark itself. And so, if such care was taken to prevent the Levites from looking at the Ark as they prepared to carry it, there was certainly no provision for curious onlookers to peek inside the Ark.
Remember, the Ark of the Covenant was the symbol of God’s presence among His people. Venturing into the presence of a holy, omnipotent God is something not to be taken lightly! But yet, that’s what these 70 men did – and they paid for their irreverence and disobedience with their lives.
And it was only after God struck these men dead, that the Israelites began to realize that they were a sinful people standing in the presence of a holy God. In verse 20, they say…
20 “Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” they cried out. 1 Samuel 6:20a
And that’s a great question: Who indeed can stand in the presence of the most holy God? Not sinful men – that’s for sure! And sadly, that describes all of us! Even though we were created to live with God for eternity, our own sinfulness keeps us distant from Him. The only way we can ever stand in the presence of God is through Jesus. The Bible describes Jesus as our High Priest and as our perfect sacrifice. Through our faith in Him, his holiness gets credited to our account. Hebrews 10:19 tells us…
19 And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20 By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. 21 And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:19-22
It’s only through faith in Christ that we can have our sins forgiven & washed away by the blood of Jesus. Through Christ, we can stand – and live forever – in the presence of a holy God. But apart from Christ, we will always be separated from God.
And it seems the Israelites now realized, that as sinful men, they could not stand in the presence of a holy God. But instead of confessing their sinfulness and seeking forgiveness, they choose instead to be distant from God – they choose to send the Ark away.
20 “Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” they cried out. “Where can we send the Ark from here?”1 Samuel 6:20
It seems the Israelites have the same strategy as the Philistines. When God shows Himself to be a holy, omnipotent God – instead of humbling themselves and worshiping Him, they decided to send him away to the next town. And so that’s exactly what happened.
21 So they sent messengers to the people at Kiriath-jearim and told them, “The Philistines have returned the Ark of the Lord. Come here and get it!”
1 So the men of Kiriath-jearim came to get the Ark of the Lord. They took it to the hillside home of Abinadab and ordained Eleazar, his son, to be in charge of it. 2 The Ark remained in Kiriath-jearim for a long time—twenty years in all. During that time all Israel mourned because it seemed the Lord had abandoned them.
1 Samuel 6:21-7:2
It’s interesting that it says that all Israel mourned because it seemed the Lord had abandoned them. Wasn’t the Israelites that just sent God away? Weren’t they the ones who didn’t want to be in the presence of a holy God?
I’m pretty sure God hadn’t abandoned them – it seems more like they abandoned God. And so for 20 years, they mourned because it seemed that God had abandoned them. But God hadn’t abandoned them.
It took time, but over the course of those next 20 years, it seemed that God did something in the hearts of the Israelites. Maybe it was due to Samuel preaching the Word of God to them during all that time – or maybe they just slowly came to their senses – but something changed in their hearts and there grew a desire to once again serve the Lord and have Him in their presence once again. Because it says in verse 3 of chapter 7….
3 Then Samuel said to all the people of Israel, “If you want to return to the Lord with all your hearts, get rid of your foreign gods and your images of Ashtoreth. Turn your hearts to the Lord and obey him alone; then he will rescue you from the Philistines.” 4 So the Israelites got rid of their images of Baal and Ashtoreth and worshiped only the Lord.
5 Then Samuel told them, “Gather all of Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6 So they gathered at Mizpah and, in a great ceremony, drew water from a well and poured it out before the Lord. They also went without food all day and confessed that they had sinned against the Lord. (It was at Mizpah that Samuel became Israel’s judge.)
1 Samuel 7:3-6
It seems that after years of ignoring God and keeping their distance from Him, the Israelites finally came to realize that they needed God in their presence! These false gods of Baal and Astoreth hadn’t heard their prayers – hadn’t rescued them from the Philistines. In fact, those false gods had had done nothing for them but bring them emptiness, suffering, and pain!
And so finally, the Israelites made the decision to turn to the Lord and to worship and serve Him alone!
And what I love about this passage is that not only are they convicted in their hearts, but they act on that conviction. They don’t just feel bad for how they’ve been living and disobeying God – they don’t just wallow in their guilt and feel sorrow for themselves. But they take action to repent and make things right with God.
First of all, they got rid of all their idols. They stopped doing the things that were wrong. That’s always the first step of authentic repentance. Don’t just say your sorry – you actually have to stop sinning! And so that’s exactly what these guys do. They get rid of all their idols and images that they had been worshipping, and from then on, they worshipped only the Lord.
And then, at the prompting of Samuel, they gathered together for a day for prayer and fasting. The fasting was a symbolic action showing that getting right with God was more important to them than anything! They needed God even more than they needed food! They would rather have starving bodies than a starving soul!
Furthermore, they drew some water from a well and poured it out before the Lord. Pouring out that water was symbolic of their own emptiness and their need for God to fill them up!
They spent the day confessing their sin to the Lord. They didn’t try to hide it or excuse it or justify it for any reason. They simply acknowledged before God that they had sinned.
And all of this I think is a great example of how to get right with God. When you come to the point where you realize that things are not right between you and God – maybe you’ve been living in disobedience to Him – maybe there are things in your life that you know dishonour the Lord – or maybe you’ve never had a right relationship with God in the first place – whatever the case, God is eager to restore a right relationship with you.
1 Peter 5:5 tells us…
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
6 So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. 7 Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.
10 In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. 11 All power to him forever! Amen.
1 Peter 5:5b-7, 10-11
God cares about you. He’s called you to share in his eternal glory! He wants to have a right relationship with you. And so even though we are sinful people, through Christ, we can humbly come into the presence of a holy God. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
So humble yourself before God. Confess your sin to Him. Admit the actions and the attitudes that have disobeyed and dishonoured God. And then repent of those things – stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right.
And when we do that, when we humble ourselves before God – God will lift us up in honor. He will restore, support, and strengthen us – placing us on a firm foundation.
And that’s exactly what we see happening with the Israelites too.
7 When the Philistine rulers heard that Israel had gathered at Mizpah, they mobilized their army and advanced. The Israelites were badly frightened when they learned that the Philistines were approaching. 8 “Don’t stop pleading with the Lord our God to save us from the Philistines!” they begged Samuel. 9 So Samuel took a young lamb and offered it to the Lord as a whole burnt offering. He pleaded with the Lord to help Israel, and the Lord answered him.
10 Just as Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines arrived to attack Israel.
But the Lord spoke with a mighty voice of thunder from heaven that day, and the Philistines were thrown into such confusion that the Israelites defeated them. 11 The men of Israel chased them from Mizpah to a place below Beth-car, slaughtering them all along the way. 1 Samuel 7:7-11
This battle against the Philistines turned out very different from the last ones. This time, even though the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t carried into battle, the God of the Israelites was very present with them! Because they had honoured the Lord, the Lord honoured them and rescued them from the Philistines.
And this really seemed to be a turning point for the Israelites. For the next several years, the people of Israel would have peace from the Philistines – and perhaps more importantly, they would have peace with God – they would have a right relationship with Him. Let me just read for you how the chapter closes…
12 Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, “Up to this point the Lord has helped us!”
13 So the Philistines were subdued and didn’t invade Israel again for some time. And throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the Lord’s powerful hand was raised against the Philistines. 14 The Israelite villages near Ekron and Gath that the Philistines had captured were restored to Israel, along with the rest of the territory that the Philistines had taken. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites in those days.
15 Samuel continued as Israel’s judge for the rest of his life. 16 Each year he traveled around, setting up his court first at Bethel, then at Gilgal, and then at Mizpah. He judged the people of Israel at each of these places. 17 Then he would return to his home at Ramah, and he would hear cases there, too. And Samuel built an altar to the Lord at Ramah.
1 Samuel 7:12-17
And that kinda closes out this first section of the book of 1 Samuel. We began with every person doing whatever seemed right in their own eyes – even the priests were living in disobedience to God – dishonouring Him in their attitudes and actions…. And because of that, God had allowed the Philistines to oppress them, God sent judgement on Eli and his sons, God even allowed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of his presence, to be captured and taken away. God would not honor those who would not honor Him.
But now, after they humbled themselves before the Lord, confessing their sin and taking action to make things right – as they chose to honor God, God chose to honor them!
And that principle still applies to you and I today. God will honor those who honor him – or to put it in the words of Peter – “If you humble yourself before the Lord, He will lift you up in honor.”
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that God will remove all the trouble from your life when you follow and honor Him. Sometimes God has good purposes for the trouble in our lives. But God will honor those who honor Him. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
And so I would just encourage you this morning, to humble yourself before the Lord.
- If you’ve been doing whatever seems right in your own eyes – humble yourself, confess your sin to the Lord, and repent.
- If you’ve allowed some sin to take hold in your life – maybe pride, or selfishness, or lust, or something else – humble yourself, confess your sin to the Lord, and repent.
- Or if you’ve abandoned God, ignoring Him and keeping Him distant – humble yourself, confess your sin to the Lord, and repent.
- Or if you’ve never had a right relationship with God in the first place – the process is the same – humble yourself, confess your sin to the Lord, and repent.
1 John 1:9 says…
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 1 John 1:9 NIV
And as we read from James 4:8 last week:
8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. 9 Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.