The German reformer and theologian Martin Luther once said, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.’
Does this offend you? The word repent is frowned upon today because the word implies that something in us has gone wrong and needs correcting, and to say such things is out-of-bounds today. If you feel this way, I understand where you’re coming from, it’s hard to hear that we’re not perfect. But though I understand this, I also think it’s inexcusable, because you know something has gone wrong in you. In fact, I think you know this so well that everything you do is some kind of evidence that you’re trying to fix yourself. So what do we do with the knowledge that we’ve gone wrong? We must repent. If you understand this, or if you don’t understand this, you’ve come to the right place today, because in our text we see a proper example of what repentance is to look like.
a) A Call to Repentance (7:2-6)
Perhaps you haven’t missed him. Perhaps you’ve been so caught up in the story of the ark of God plundering the Philistines that you haven’t thought about him, yet in v3 he appears again. Samuel, who wasn’t mentioned once in chapter 4, 5, or 6, who was busy carrying out his prophetic ministry in the background, now comes back into view and as soon as we see him we find him preaching repentance to God’s people. He’s preaching repentance because for the first time in 20 years Israel wants to return to the Lord. That they wanted to return to the Lord implies that for the past 20 years they left the Lord, abandoned His ways, rejected His Word, and neglected His worship. Being defeated by the Philistines and disciplined by the Lord when the ark came back home was too much for them. For those 20 years they refused to bow the knee and own up to their sin. Israel here in their rebellion shows us what we are like in our rebellion, bowing the knee to God, acknowledging that we justly deserve wrath and condemnation does not come naturally to us. Finally after 20 years God brought His people to a true repentance, and in v2 it says Israel ‘lamented after the Lord.’ They wanted to return, they wanted to come back.
Samuel recognizes this and tells the people in v3, ‘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.’ You see what Samuel is doing here? He isn’t merely accepting their wish to return. Rather, as every good minister of the gospel would do, he challenges them to do more than repent with mere sorrow. Samuel knows, as we all should know, that while tears, sobs, and grief over sin committed is a good way to begin repentance, true and lasting repentance contains much more than tears, sobs, and grief. We all have known people who have strayed away from God and turned their backs on His Word and returned with what seemed to be a true desire to come back to God and come back to the Church. We’ve then seen these people have shown a deep and great display of sorrow for their sin. At times these people may have even convinced us that they were genuinely broken. But sadly, too many times, these people are only feeling sorrow for the circumstances their sin has brought about rather than sorrow for the sin they’ve committed and the holy God they’ve offended. It’s sad that many people deeply desire to be saved from hell, but are also deeply unwilling to part with sin.
In our text Israel surely was feeling some kind of sorrow for those 20 years. The whole time they were under the thumb of the Philistines. God brings clarity to this in 2 Cor. 7:10 where Paul says, ‘For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.’ Israel for those 20 years, and many people we have known, express a worldly kind of sorrow, not godly grief. Charles Spurgeon had this to say, ‘If your religion does not make you holy it will damn you. It is simply pageantry to go to hell in.’ Be reminded church, true repentance (the kind you and I are called to) is a concrete repentance that leads to salvation. You can beat your chest all you want to but if you’re ways aren’t mended, it’s just a show.
Samuel calls for such action in v3 telling them that if they really want to repent and return to the Lord, they must 1) turn from idolatry, 2) direct their hearts to the Lord, and 3) serve Him alone. Then and only then will God accept their repentance and deliver them from the hand of their enemies. In v4-6 we see that Israel does do this very thing. In v4 they put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Canaanite fertility deities), and the foreign gods among them, and in v5-6 they gathered together at Mizpah to repent. They poured out water before the Lord (which indicated an earnest seeking of God) and they fasted before the Lord acknowledging their sin. Church, see here in Israel, something we’re maybe not used to seeing, a good example to follow. In this case Church, see what true repentance is.
True repentance is the act where a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God with a full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience. So repentance really is a lamenting, a mourning over the sinfulness of sin, but it is also a forsaking of and turning away from that sin, as well as a renewed turning toward God. This is truly what Israel is doing here in the beginning of chapter 7, and today from this chapter God is calling each one of us to do the same. Recognize the disgusting nature of sin, hate it, grieve over it, lament and mourn, and yearn for a new obedience after seeing the grace and mercy of God-given to us in Christ. Chuck Colson once said, ‘When we truly comprehend our own nature, repentance is no dry doctrine, no frightening message, no morbid form of self-flagellation. It is, as the Scripture says, a gift God grants which leads to life.’ Repentance will make you holy. Avoiding repentance will prove, in the end, that you never wanted to be holy, that you never wanted to be a part of Christ in the first place. So Church, hear the call to repent.
b) Ebenezer: The End of Repentance (7:7-14)
v7 brings us a surprising turn of events. When the Philistines heard all Israel was gathered in Mizpah they went up to war against them there. When Israel heard the Philistines were coming, they became terrified. We’ve got to pause here. Many new converts to Christ expect immediate resolution to their problems upon salvation but are often surprised to find that converting to Christ actually creates all sorts of problems for them. See what happens to Israel here? Gathering at Mizpah to turn back to the Lord creates an immediate disaster for them. The Philistines hear of it and come to kill them. Their hearts may be in the right place but things just got worse for them!
Notice what they do not do here. Back in chapter 4 Israel was faced with a similar situation. Rather than taking God at His Word they leaned on their own wisdom and decided to get the ark of God from Shiloh and use it as a good-luck charm to defeat the Philistines. As a result they were struck down, 34,000 Israelites died, and the people experienced Ichabod ‘the glory of God departing.’ Here in chapter 7 we see something different. Rather than seeking to manipulate God, they continue to show their repentant heart and plead with Samuel for one thing in v8, prayer. They ask Samuel to cry out to God to save them from the Philistines. In doing this they show one of the truest signs of repentance that exists: a recognition of utter helplessness. You see recognizing our helplessness is the truest sign of repentance because it reveals that someone has come to rock bottom and at the bottom they’ve seen, tasted, and experienced that they’re not strong enough to save themselves; that they can’t hold it together, that they can’t muster enough fortitude or grit their teeth hard enough to right their own wrongs. This is a great place to be because if you understand that you can’t do it, you’ll look to the only one who can – God. Therefore, though acknowledging your utter helplessness and turning to God in prayer may look like weakness or folly in the eyes of the world, it is a sign of strength in the Kingdom of God.
Well, v9-10 shows how this plays out. Samuel did cry out to the Lord for them and offered a sacrifice for them, God answered and delivered His people. As Samuel was making the offering, the Philistines, who were just about to attack, heard the Lord thunder against them from heaven, their entire army was thrown into confusion, and when Israel saw their confusion they went out to attack and were victorious, so victorious that v13-14 says in all the days of Samuel the hand of the Lord would be against the Philistines. Hannah prayer in 2:10 is fulfilled here, ‘The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them He will thunder in heaven.’ Also this thunder is no small detail. The idol of Baal that Samuel told the people to put away back in v4 was known as the Canaanite god of thunder. Yet, how ironic is it that when Yahweh, the true God, demolishes His enemies He does so with roaring thunder, and when He thunders from heaven Baal cannot even cause a small noise in response.
Here in chapter 7 Israel’s result was better than in chapter 4; rather than plummeting into another season of Ichabod, Israel now learned of Ebenezer. In v12 Samuel sets up a stone to mark the deliverance of God and names it Ebenezer meaning ‘stone of help’ saying ‘Till now the Lord has helped us.’ This stone and phrase would have been a reminder of God’s many former deliverances He had accomplished for His people, and it would’ve given them hope for the future by reminding them that what God has done in the past He has always promised to do. But it also would have been a challenge because the city where the ark of God was stolen in chapter 4 was also called Ebenezer. So looking at it would have brought to mind the mercy of God for sure, but it would have also reminded them of their own error that got them in this situation in the first place. It was a reminder of their sin, but also of God’s grace. In this manner you and I are in a similar spot. Looking back at what Christ has done for us, reminds us two things: it reminds us of our sin that nailed Him on the cross, and reminds us of His grace poured out for us on the cross.
Perhaps some of you are familiar with the hymn ‘Come Thou Fount.’ In the second stanza the hymn states ‘Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come, and I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.’ There are many hymns throughout the history of the Church that we sing, and the reason why we still sing this one (though it was written in 1758) it because it’s lyrics call us to do exactly the same what our passage today calls us to do. Recalling God’s power in the past leads to faith in God’s future grace to be given. Israel repented, and then raised their Ebenezer. We must follow suit.
c) Repentance: in Revival and in Routine (7:15-17)
Our passage ends with a brief word about Samuel’s ministry. All the days of Samuel’s life, v15-17 say, he judged Israel, traveling on the same circuit every year before returning home in Ramah where he worshipped. In the bulk of chapter 7 we see Samuel ministering during a kind of ‘revival’ at Mizpah, but at the end of chapter 7 we see that revivals aren’t Samuel’s day-to-day ministry. Though the extraordinary event does happen on occasion, Samuel’s ordinary ministry was along the same annual circuit.
This is much like the Church. We will encounter periods of great reformation and revival in the Church. Notice here in our what it is that brings true revival about? Not methods or gimmicks, but preaching, prayer, and repentance. Ordinary means of grace that God uses to bring about extraordinary results. There really will be times when God breaks through in dramatic fashion, in those moments extraordinary things may take place, and when we look back at those moments when God has done it before, the heart of the Christian yearns and says, ‘O God, do it again!’ But recall these times of revival are the exception not the rule. Therefore we must be ready to embrace the ordinary, day-to-day Christian life, which often feels more like a plodding along then a rushing wind. Yet, ordinary as it may be, there is no better life to be had on this planet than day-to-day life with Christ.
Let me leave with you today with two things: First, if you walk out of here thinking, ‘Well that was a nice sermon’ or ‘I enjoy learning about the history of Israel’ or ‘they had some good songs today’ without asking yourself the hard questions, you’re no different from Israel who was dead for those 20 years. So ask yourself these questions: what are the idols in my life that I’ve been giving more attention and affection to than God? Have I repented truthfully? Or have I merely been expressing a worldly sorrow over the consequences of my actions? Do I go to prayer as quickly as Israel did here in v8 or do I view prayer as more of a last resort? Do I neglect weekly church prayer meetings? Do I remember the ways in which God has saved me or have I forgotten? Do I need to put up my own Ebenezer to remind me of the good news? Lastly, do want revival to come? Do I give myself to the ordinary means of grace (preaching, prayer, repentance) and ask God to do extraordinary things in my life and the lives of those around me?
Second, do not forget Samuel in this chapter. By praying and offering a sacrifice for the people in their distress Samuel gives us a preview of the work of Christ. As Samuel stood between God and the people as their mediator praying and worshipping, so too Christ now (as our greater and final Mediator) stands before God on our behalf and presents His finished sacrificial work as the offering that makes us pure.
Are you looking for an Ebenezer, a stone of help, to hang your hope on? There’s no better Ebenezer than the Gospel.