1. Then the men of Kirjath Jearim came and took the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD.
The men of Kirjath-jearim accept the task of keeping the ark of the LORD. They come to Beth Shemesh and take it, bringing it back to their city. They put it in the house of a man named Abinadab, which means “Noble Father.” His house was on the hill in Kirjath Jearim. They take his son Eleazar, which means “God Has Helped,” and set him apart to “keep” or guard the ark.
2. So it was that the ark remained in Kirjath Jearim a long time; it was there twenty years. And all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
The ark remains there a long time. It was not just there twenty years either, as this seems to indicate. It was there twenty years, until the events we are now going to read about took place. Then, it was there all during Samuel’s tenure as judge. Then, it was there during the forty years of Saul’s reign as king. Finally, it was there during the first part of David’s reign, until he brought it up from there. If we add all this time together, we will see that the ark was in this place for the better part of a century.
Twenty years pass, and the house of Israel finally laments after Jehovah. They had to be oppressed by the Philistines a long time before they finally turned back to their God!
3. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
This is the first time we have seen Samuel since chapter 3. He is now an adult, and a man of influence among the Israelites, so that when they decide to return to Yahweh, they come to him to discover how to do it. He instructs them to put away the foreign gods and Ashtaroths that they had among them and had formerly been serving.
The foreign gods were always a temptation to the Israelites. These gods seemed very practical, as each had some aspect of the daily life of an individual that they would watch over. The god of harvest might promise better crops, or the god of success might promise profit in business. It was all humbug, but did not seem so to men of the time. After all, what could it hurt to honor the god of fertility in hopes of seeing your animals have good offspring, and so forth? In the same way, “practical” religion has come into the workplaces of today in the forms of various religious practices or meditation or even physical stretching techniques that promise relief of stress or tranquility of mind, something men feel they need in today’s stressful business environment. So “practical” religion creeps in upon men.
As for Ashtaroth, which means “Star,” she was a fertility goddess, and was often worshiped by sex. This provided a religious excuse for indulgent behavior. Men seem to need no such excuse today, but are ready to perform the most outrageous sexual practices for no other reason than their own pleasure. But for these people, this goddess offered a convenient excuse.
So Samuel advises them that they are to put these things away, and to prepare their hearts for Yahweh in order to serve Him alone. Once they have truly and sincerely done this, then He will save them from their enemies the Philistines and their oppression.
4. So the children of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.
“Ba’al” means “lord.” Baalim (or the Baals) were actually multiple false gods, and not just a single false god, as we might think tend to think.
So the sons of Israel, or the representatives of Israel who were alive at that time, do as Samuel said. The Israelites put all the Baals they were serving away, along with the Ashtaroths. Then, they do serve the LORD only. This was a good thing they did, and as far as we can tell they did it honestly and sincerely.
5. And Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.”
Now Samuel calls for a gathering of all the representative men of Israel. They are to meet at Mizpah. Mizpah means “Watchtower,” and was a city in Benjamin on a mountain height. It was not far from where they battled the Philistines and lost the ark twenty years before. It was a place the people were accustomed to assemble. They had gathered there when fighting the Ammonites in Judges 10, when they made Jephthah their captain in Judges 11, and when they went to fight the Benjamites in Judges 20. Now, Samuel directs them there once again.
6. So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the LORD. And they fasted that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpah.
So they come to Mizpah. There, they perform several symbolical acts. First, they draw water and pour it out before the LORD. This was a symbol of submission to the LORD, much like John’s baptism in New Testament times. Indeed, Israel had many water ceremonies and baptisms, and this was one of them. They also fast, a sign of seeking the LORD, and confess their sins. This reminds us of Mark 1:5, where we read of John the Identifier:
5. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
So this water ceremony and confession of sins are combined here as well. Finally, Samuel now becomes their leader, or judge, here at Mizpah.
7. Now when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel had gathered together at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines.
Now the Philistines, who had been the overlords of Israel and oppressing them for these many years ever since the calamitous battle we read about in chapter 4, hear that the sons, that is, the representatives of Israel have gathered together at Mizpah. The Philistine lords, the ceren, gather their army to fight against Israel. Perhaps they thought they were preparing to rebel against Philistine rule. Certainly tyrannical rulers are always suspicious of any large, public gathering. Of course, the Israelites were not coming together for any such reason, and so were not ready for a battle. When they hear of this, therefore, they are afraid, well knowing the cruelty of the Philistines and what could happen to them if the Philistines decide to attack them.
The word for “lords” of the Philistines used here is a word that is unique to the Philistines, so it apparently was a distinctive word they used for their rulers. The word in Hebrew is Ceren. It is always used for the lords of the Philistines, except for in I Kings 7:30, where it appears to be used of axles on the cart built for use in Solomon’s temple. As a word for rulers, however, it only is used of the rulers of the Philistines. It was used once in Joshua, seven times in Judges, and now this is the seventh time these Ceren have been referred to here in Samuel. Previously, they were spoken of in I Samuel 5:8, 11; 6:4, 12, 16, and 18.
8. So the children of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”
Unlike in the previous battle, the sons of Israel do the right thing this time: they ask Jehovah their God for help through Samuel. They urge him to cry to God for help to save them from the hand of the Philistines. “Hand” here stands for power, for that which is in a man’s hand is in his power as long as he is holding it. They know they are in the power of these lords of the Philistines, and who knows what cruel thing they might do to them if they find them defenseless? Their only hope is that Jehovah will save them from the power of their oppressors.
9. And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. Then Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him.
Samuel takes a suckling lamb and offers it to Yahweh as a whole burn offering. We might wonder how Samuel could do this? For though Samuel had acted as servant to the high priest Levi, that was not enough to qualify one to do sacrifices. But at this point, we must remember that Samuel was a Levite, and all Levites were priests. Though he was not of the family of Aaron, and the Aaronic priests had more privileges, Levite priests had privileges of their own, and could perform sacrifices. Therefore, Samuel was perfectly within his rights to perform this sacrifice to Yahweh here. Certainly as God’s chosen judge He had the right to do as God directed him, and when he performs sacrifices, we can be sure he was doing what he should have been doing before God.
Once he has offered this sacrifice, he cries out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, as the representatives of Israel had asked him to do. Samuel was God’s chosen representative over Israel at this time, and so Yahweh listens to Samuel’s prayer, and grants his request, as we will see in the following verse.
10. Now as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the LORD thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel.
Even as Samuel is offering up the burnt offering to the LORD, the Philistines draw near to do battle with the Israelites. At this point, the LORD steps in and intercedes. He does so with an exceedingly loud sound of thunder that confuses the Philistines to the point where they are defeated before Israel. This was no natural storm, but a rescue for Israel sent by the LORD!
We might wonder why a sound of thunder was used, and how such a noise could confuse the Philistines into defeat? But if we consider it, I believe we all can sympathize with how disturbing a sound can be in certain situations. Even a softer sound can be disturbing if it is the right kind of sound. This sound, a sudden, unexpected, seemingly causeless, and deafening rumbling of thunder not only surprised the Philistines, but also confused and disoriented them. This is really quite understandable, if we take the time to think about it.
11. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and drove them back as far as below Beth Car.
The Israelites are not confused! If they heard the sound of thunder, it did not deafen them, nor were they confused, disoriented, or panicked by it. It could be Jehovah kept it from being so loud in their ears. No doubt He also was working on the Philistines to panic them otherwise besides just with the sound. On top of this, the Israelites must have recognized in this sound their God stepping in to save them. For them, this sound meant not panic and defeat, but deliverance and victory!
So the men of Israel leave Mizpah and pursue the Philistine army to Beth Car. Beth Car means “House of Pasture,” apparently a place of shepherds. Where this city was located is uncertain. Perhaps it was somewhere back in Philistine territory? For certainly this seems to be the idea: the Israelites defeated the Philistines and drove them back to their own country.
12. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”
Samuel acts to commemorate this event when Yahweh acted to save His people. He sets up a memorial stone between Mizpah and Shen. Shen means “Crag.” Today its location is uncertain, but it is probably somewhere near Mizpah, judging from what this passage tells us. He calls the stone “Ebenezer,” which means “Stone of Help.”
We have already read the name “Ebenezer” twice in Samuel, once in I Samuel 4:1, when Israel camped there before their defeat by the Philistines, and once in I Samuel 5:1, when the Philistines brought the recently-captured ark from there back to their own territory. It would seem that the author in those two places was, in giving his narrative, using the name for that place by which it later came to be known, and not using a name that was currently in use at the time he was writing about. This is not an unusual thing in the Bible, for things and people are often called by a name in anticipation before they actually were given that name. So we understand that it is right here that this place received the name “Ebenezer,” a name that Samuel’s initial audience would have known the place by, though it had not been called that earlier during the time he was recording.
So, this stone was set up as a memorial. Ebenezer, the Stone of Help, would help them remember Yahweh’s help that they had received on this day when their lives were threatened by their enemies.
13. So the Philistines were subdued, and they did not come anymore into the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.
The Philistines are at last defeated, and their oppression of the people of Israel that had continued since the defeat at Shiloh comes to an end. They did not dare to attack Israel or to come into its territory to oppress it again while Samuel was the Israelites’ judge. This was a wise move on their part, for if they had, they would have been defeated just as soundly as they were this time, since the LORD was with Samuel and against them.
14. Then the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered its territory from the hands of the Philistines. Also there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
With God on their side, Israel also recovers cities and territory they had lost to the Philistines. These cities were between Ekron and Gath. Ekron was the northernmost of the five great cities of the Philistines, and was in the eastern part of Philistia, near to Israel. Gath was the middle city of the five cities north to south, and was pretty much straight south of Ekron.
The Amorites also, one of the Canaanite nations always at enmity with Israel, do not dare to attack them at this time. There were several places where Amorite tribes dwelt at this time. There were some to the east and to the north of Israel, though at this time the most significant were probably those living south of the land. These especially would have been near neighbors with the Philistines. Probably the Philistines and the Amorites were allies. The Philistines were also Hamites, though they themselves were not Canaanites. This means they were not doomed to destruction by Jehovah when Israel entered the land, though they were dwelling in territory promised to Israel. Yet they might well have felt closer kinship with Canaanites than with Israel, so it is quite likely that such an alliance is the cause of what we read here.
15. And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.
So from this time on Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. At this point, since we have started this current study from Ruth and did not study Judges before starting Samuel, it might be well to go back and talk about what a “Judge” was in Israel. In the United States of America, our government is divided into three branches, called the legislative branch, which makes the laws; the executive branch, which enforces the laws; and the judicial branch, which interprets the laws. In the atmosphere of our country, then, we are likely to think of a judge sitting in a court room passing down interpretations or “judgments” of what the laws mean and how they apply to certain situations and certain people. This is not what a judge was in Israel, however. In Israel, a judge covered all three branches of government. He both made the laws (legislated,) enforced the laws (executed,) and interpreted the laws (judged.)
In many ways, the judge was like a king, then, in the way he ruled over the people. Yet there were important differences between a judge and a king, and these differences are well worth noting. First of all, we know a king expects his son or heir to take the throne after him. Yet no such thing was true of the judge. Each individual judge was chosen and placed in that office by Jehovah. A few times a judge tried to set his sons up as judges, but this usually ended in disaster. A judge did not enjoy hereditary lineage. Also, we would find that a judge was much less formal than a king. He had no kingly court, no centralized and powerful government. He was much more of a tribal ruler, and had no strong, central government in his control or backing him. Finally, the judge owed his allegiance to another, the true King of Israel, Jehovah Himself. The judge was set up as His agent and intermediary, but Jehovah was the real ruler. The judge could not be the king, since he was under the King, the God and true Ruler of the land.
So this is what Samuel was in Israel all the days of his life. We might wonder about this statement, however, since we know that before his death, Samuel anointed Saul to be the King of Israel, and he took over the land as king. Samuel was even still alive to anoint David to be the next king. How, then, could we say that Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life? Did not his judgeship end when Saul took the throne?
I believe that the answer to these questions is that no, his judgeship did not end then. Saul was set up as king after the people of Israel asked for a king. He was the king they demanded. Samuel, however, was the judge set up by God, His chosen agent on earth, what Ecclesiastes would call the “koheleth.” This privilege never passed on to Saul, particularly when he failed Jehovah’s tests and turned against Him in disobedience and rebellion. Therefore, while Saul formed a strong, central government, Samuel remained the same informal but God-appointed ruler he had always been. His authority continued with God’s approval, while Saul’s continued without it. This extended to the point where Samuel even defied Saul’s government by anointing David to be the next king. No, whatever men might have thought, Samuel was the judge as long as he lived. Not until David did one stand up who could stand beside him (I Samuel 19:18-24.) And even then, David did not take the throne until after Samuel’s death. No, Samuel always was God’s representative and ruler, though later in his life Saul became king and rival to him. Saul might have had the strong, centralized government, but Samuel represented God, so all who would let God set them in order listened to him, not to Saul.
16. He went from year to year on a circuit to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judged Israel in all those places.
Of course, for now we are still speaking of the days long before Saul. We learn here of Samuel’s way of judging. We learn that he would go on a circuit (or circle) to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, acting as judge in each place. Bethel means “House of God,” and was the place where God appeared to Jacob in the book of Genesis. Gilgal means “A Wheel” or “Rolling.”
In the frontier days of the United States, it was quite common for judges to do the same thing as Samuel does here, moving around on a circuit. Circuit judges, these were called, in fact. Since each little town or territory could not afford a judge full time, he would ride a circuit around various cities and towns to judge their cases when he was present. This is how Samuel acted here. He would go in this circuit and do what needed to be done to act as ruler in each place. Interestingly, this circuit did not even come close to covering all of Israel, however. These three towns are relatively close to one another. Even Gilgal over by the Jordan River is only about four miles from the other two. Samuel stayed in this same area of south-central Israel. He did not go out and travel to every corner of the land. Probably, if they needed Samuel in those places, they had to come to him.
What does it mean that he “judged Israel”? As I said, it means more than just what a circuit judge in the United States would have done. Samuel represented all three branches of government. When he judged in a place, then, that means that he both determined what is right and then set things right as he had determined. He ruled Israel, in every sense of the word, and he did so as the representative of God.
17. But he always returned to Ramah, for his home was there. There he judged Israel, and there he built an altar to the LORD.
There was a fourth city on his circuit, Ramah, the place of his birth. He had left it when he went to serve with Eli in Shiloh, but it seems that sometime after the death of Eli and the destruction of Shiloh, he returned to the city he was born in and again made it his home. At this time, it also becomes his home base, and the place he returns to once his circuit is done. Of course, he does not stop judging when he gets there, but acts as judge just as much when he is at home as when he is away from it. So the majority of his work as judge is done from Ramah. Moreover, he builds an altar there to Yahweh. This was allowed at this time, for Shiloh, the place God had chosen to place His name there, had been destroyed and left desolate, and no new place had yet been chosen. In this atmosphere, then, any place was acceptable to build an altar, and Samuel, as God’s representative, built one at his home in Ramah. Once Jerusalem had been chosen as the place, of course, this would not have been allowed. But this was not yet true, and what Samuel did as God’s representative was the right thing to do at this time.