God's Mercy to His Humbled People
1 Samuel 7.
At last the faithful ministry of Samuel was about to produce manifest fruit. The twenty years of humbling had gradually, no doubt, led the people to an increasing sense of their own helplessness, of their absolute dependence upon God and a glimmer, at least, of that holiness without which He could never manifest Himself on their behalf. So Samuel now can say to them: "If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord and serve Him only and He will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." This searching of heart had prepared them to receive this word now. Their return to the Lord, gradual though it may have been, was now sincere and had that measure of whole-heartedness which His grace is ever ready to recognize. He cannot endure a feigned obedience, and yet with the best of our repenting there is ever mingled something of the flesh. How good it is to remember that if there be a real turning, He recognizes that, and not the imperfection that accompanies it!
But a true turning to Him is of an intensely practical character and is shown in the life. If He has His place in the heart or in the land, all strange gods must be put away. All the loathsome idolatry, copied from their neighbors, must be judged, and God alone have His place. He cannot endure a heart divided between Himself and a false god. While all this is perfectly simple, yet there must be preparation and purpose of heart if it is to be carried out effectually and permanently. To serve Him alone means how much for ourselves; how much more indeed than for Israel, whose service was to a great extent of an outward character, at least so far as the nation was concerned. If they are ready for this, then there is the distinct promise: "He will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." God Himself had removed His ark from the Philistines' land, yet, until the people were in a true state before Him, He could not in His holiness rescue them from the power of the same enemy.
Through God's mercy, Israel acts and the land is cleansed under the power of the ministry of Samuel whose life we have traced from its beginning. No longer now a child, in the full maturity of his powers he is in a position to be used, not now in a limited circle, but for all Israel. As his word had brought them to repentance, he now turns in intercession to God: "Gather all Israel to Mizpah and I will pray for you unto the Lord." The man who speaks for God to the people is the one who is able to speak to God for the people. The man in whom the word of God abides and who is faithful in using it will know much, too, of the priestly privilege of intercession, while those who may have as clear a view of the evil, but dwell upon that merely without divine power, are never brought into God's presence about it, and so are themselves overwhelmed by it rather, and rendered helpless instead of being prevailing intercessors.
We may well remark, in passing, upon the importance of being occupied with evil only to deal with it according to the word of God, and thus to be able to work a deliverance through His word and intercession with Him. There is always hope, even in a day of decline and ruin, when there are intercessors amongst the people of God; those who, if they know nothing else to do, at least know where to turn for help. Private intercession often opens the way to more public ministry, and this in turn to fresh prayer for God's recovering grace.
And so the people are gathered together to Mizpah. Common needs, common danger, and above all, a common turning to God will bring His people together. All other gatherings are worthless and worse. Here they pour out water before the Lord and fast and acknowledge their sin afresh. The pouring out of water and fasting seem to be but two sides of the same act, expressed probably in the words which follow: "We have sinned against the Lord." The pouring out of water seems to be an acknowledgment of their utter helplessness and worthlessness. "We are as water spilled upon the ground which cannot be gathered up again." They had spent their strength for naught and were indeed as weak as water. This weakness had come from their sinning against God. So it is proper that fasting should accompany this solemn act, no mere religious form or unwilling abstinence from food, as though there were some merit in that, but that intense earnestness of spirit which is so absorbed in its purpose that necessary food is for the time forgotten, or refused as an intrusion upon the more important business before the soul. Fasting, as a means to produce certain desired effects, savors too much of ritualism and fosters self-righteousness in its devotees but as a result, — as an indication of the state of soul — it is always the mark of a truly earnest seeker after God.
A people thus self-judged, and in humiliation before Him, are now in position to receive with profit the ministry of God's truth; so Samuel can now judge them, take up in detail their walk, ways and associations, and deepen that work which God had already begun in their souls. It is not enough to say in a general way: "We have sinned against the Lord." This, if real, includes all else, but for that very reason, details can then be gone into. A mere general judgment of self is too often but vague, and beneath its broad generalities may be hidden many a specific evil which has not been dragged out into the light, and judged according to God's holy word. Yet the two must come in this way: — there must first be the judgment of ourselves, that state of true humility which is ready to bow before God, before there can be a helpful taking up of specific acts and testing them by the Word.
It is to be feared that we often fail in this individually, and in our efforts to help the saints of God. Unless one is truly humbled before God, truly broken, it is vain to reach a real judgment of specific wrong. Thus a trespass committed against a brother will be condoned, or that brother's own share in wrong doing will be brought up — an effectual check in true judgment of the act in question. What is needed is to get before God, to pour out before Him the water of a true and real judgment of ourselves according to His word — owning that we are capable of anything, yea, of everything, unless hindered by His grace, owning too our sin. This will enable us to judge calmly and dispassionately as to the details of the actual trespass. Would to God that this were realized more amongst us! There would be more true recovery of those who have gone wrong, and a consequent greater victory over our spiritual foes.
Then, too, the judging of the people suggests not merely looking at their past conduct, but ordering their present walk. Any associations, practices, worship, that were not according to His mind and which had up to this time been ignored by the people, or which they were in no true state to form a proper judgment upon, all these things would now come into review. Practices and principles will be tested by God's truth, and so the walk be ordered aright. To be low in His presence, as we said before, is the only place where we can be truly judged. It is a place of humbling, but after all, how blessed to be there! It is the place of power as well, for God is there. Israel at Bochim may not have been an inspiriting sight to nature. The flesh always despises that which humbles it, but Bochim is where the messenger of God can meet His repentant people and hold out to them hopes of deliverance. Israel, we may say, at Mizpah were again at Bochim.
But we may be sure that the enemy will never permit any recovery to God without making some special effort to hinder it. So, when the Philistines hear of this gathering of Israel, they go up against them. Are they not their slaves? Can they allow that which, while a manifestation of weakness, may lead to something else? And so with our spiritual foes. Satan will not object to the people of God dwelling upon evil and being so filled with it that they lose all power to judge it; but there is one thing that he always resists with all his energy and cunning, and that is a gathering together before God for humiliation and prayer. He abhors this. Formalism abhors it. Philistinism in all its forms dreads seeing the people of God humbled in His presence. This will explain why the hour of prayer and searching of heart before God is so often interrupted by the intrusion of things which distract and hinder the soul. How often have we found individually, and unitedly too, that there were special difficulties in the way of getting low before God! This is the Philistine hindrance to God's work amongst us. Various reasons will often be given. It will be said that there is no hope, on the one hand, or no need on the other, of such an exhibition; that we had better be getting to work rather than humbling ourselves and doing nothing. This is ever a Philistine device to hinder a return to God and deliverance from formalism. Let us be on our guard; and as the apostle could say, "We are not ignorant of his devices," let us not be so easily duped by the wiles of the adversary.
The children of Israel are terrified at this array of the enemy. Their old masters are still that to them, and with consciences that remind them of their own unworthiness and failures, they do not seem to have the faith to lay hold upon God in face of the enemy; and yet there is a holding to Him, feeble though it be. They realize the need and the value of prayer. So they say to Samuel: "Cease not to cry to the Lord our God for us that He will save us out of the hand of the Philistines." They had indeed turned to Him, and though it is but a child's feeble cry of weakness, what child ever cried to a mother without moving her heart? what child, failing and weak and unworthy though he may be, ever cried to God without getting an answer? There had been a time when they would save themselves out of the hand of the Philistines. That has passed. The humbling lesson had been learnt. They have turned now to Him from whom alone their help can come, and not even the ark, (that badge of His throne) but divine power itself in the midst of a self-judged people is their only hope.
There is more yet; for Samuel, nearest to God and therefore knowing His mind, not merely intercedes, but "took a sucking lamb and offered it as a burnt-offering wholly unto the Lord." Well he knew that the one way of approach, the only ground of merit, was sacrifice; and though himself not the priest, yet here in the place of the priest, he offers the burnt-offering to God, on the ground of which he can add his prayers. This lamb, of course, speaks to us of that "Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world," though here not as the sin-offering, but as the burnt-offering, — Christ in His devotedness to God unto death, the Lamb without blemish or spot, whose life had proved Him personally well-pleasing and acceptable to God, and therefore whose death could be a Substitute for the disobedience and sin of His people.
Thus they have had, we might say, a threefold ministry. The Word has searched their hearts and brought them to repentance. The priestly intercession and sacrifice of Samuel have opened the way for God's power to be manifested, and, as judge, Samuel has taken the place of leader amongst the people. In all this, he no doubt foreshadows what Christ is in perfection for His people, the One who has brought home to our hearts the word of God by His Spirit, whose one sacrifice and all-availing intercession as our High Priest ever speak for us to God, and who as Leader carries us on to victory — the Prophet, Priest, and King.
Now let the Philistines draw near if they dare. They are meeting no more a boastful people, whether strong or weak. Their controversy is now not with Israel, but with Israel's God, and therefore the mighty thunder of the Lord is the answer to their proud assault. They are discomfited and smitten before Israel, and now the victory becomes a rout; the Philistines are pursued from Mizpah and all the way to Ebenezer. How significant that place becomes to them, — not of previous defeat (1 Sam. 6:1), but giving its own meaning now, "hitherto hath the Lord helped us." Have we not known something of this? And what a joy it is to be able to triumph in our God in the very face of those enemies which once have been our masters and to whom, hopeless, we had rendered, even though unwilling, yet a servile obedience!
The victory is complete and lasting; the enemy came no more into the land all the days of Samuel's faithful ministry. But what hindered this from becoming an abiding permanence? — for there was subsequent bondage to these very enemies. The simple answer must be, No leader like Samuel, and no bowing to his judgment like that at Mizpah. It is important to notice that this deliverance under Samuel was not of a temporary or partial nature, it was no make-shift; though other lessons, with other sins and weaknesses amongst the people brought out the need of fresh deliverers. The great, all-prevailing truth had to be learnt in fresh ways, and that which was only partial or external in Israel had to be manifested, — else Samuel was indeed another Moses, under whose rule, as type of Christ, the people might have gone on happily, recognizing none but God as their Ruler, and their guide him who spoke for God.
It is comforting, too, to see the recovery that takes place. Cities which had long been under. Philistine sway, now that their power is broken over the nation, are restored. Peace follows as a result. So for us. If we in any way repeat the experience of Israel at Mizpah, there will be not merely a deliverance from present foes, but a restoration of many of those blessings, much of that spiritual truth which we have felt and enjoyed practically. "Cities to dwell in" will be restored to us and our coasts will be enlarged.
We now see the government of Samuel after the enemy has been thrust out of the land. He judges Israel all the days of his life. What a beautiful life it is; begun, we may say, in the heart of his mother before his birth — a man dedicated to God and His service; who in childhood heard His voice and obeyed it; who, as he grew, became more and more the suited instrument as the messenger for God; the first of the prophets — of that long line of spiritual and faithful witnesses who, during all the years of Israel's darkness and apostasy, yea, even of captivity, witnessed for Him,sought to bring back an alienated people, or failing in this, turned their gaze to Him who should come, the true Prophet, as the true King, and restore peace and blessing to the nation. But what a privilege to be a Samuel in dark days like these! May we not covet it for ourselves in our measure and station?
We have seen the special scene of judgment at Mizpah, but this was to continue, a thing that we often lose sight of. There must not merely be one act of self-judgment, but our whole lives are to come under the light of God's truth. The practical Word is to be applied to our ways. Samuel had four places in his circuit where he went from year to year to judge Israel; Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and Ramah where his home was. There surely must be instruction in these names and the associations connected with them. They are well known in Israel's history.
Bethel is "the house of God;" all judgment must begin there. There is no power for judgment until we are in His holy presence. Judgment must begin, too, at the house of God, for holiness becometh that house forever. Here it was where God revealed Himself to Jacob at the first; and here, when he had forgotten, for his family, that holy separation which should ever mark the home of the saint, he was bidden to return: "Arise and go up to Bethel and dwell there."
The next place was Gilgal, the place of the rolling away of the reproach of Egypt. Here Israel had encamped on passing Jordan and coming into the land. As soon as they put their foot upon their heritage, they had to make themselves sharp knives for circumcision, and thus to roll away the reproach of Egypt, the badge of the world which was upon them. So for us, Gilgal follows Bethel. This world is judged and its reproach rolled away. Circumcision is practically made with the sharp knife of divine truth. The sentence of death is remembered afresh, and what the cross means for self. Here is the place of power indeed. Here we lay aside the livery of the world and shake off its yoke. We are now God's freemen, ready to do battle for all that He has given us in our goodly inheritance.
Next comes Mizpah, "the watch-tower." There has been that sense of God's presence suggested by Bethel, that judging of self at Gilgal where we have learnt, as the true circumcision, to have no confidence in the flesh; but how prone we are to forget, how easily do we glide back into the world, and need to be afresh reminded of what we thought we should never forget! The watch-tower, then, is needed to watch against the wiles of the enemy, to guard against that declension to which we are so prone. The very fact of our having been at Gilgal implies a danger of our getting away from it, or losing its holy lesson. We need to be on our guard. Many a saint has fallen because he forgot this obvious lesson and failed to meet the divine Judge at Mizpah. Let us watch and be sober.
Lastly he returns to Ramah, "the height," which suggests that exalted place on high of our true Judge, the Lord Jesus, where His home is. He has gone on high. He would lead His people there. "If ye be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is;" and so, as His abiding place is there, we are to learn to abide in our hearts there also. We are to let the light of that heavenly position where Christ is, and where we are, in Him, judge our "members which are upon the earth," and which we can thus mortify (Col. 3). The circuit of judgment is not complete until this heavenly character has been stamped upon it. It is, of course, very similar to Bethel, but there the thought is simply the presence of God. Ramah suggests, in its height, that heavenly character which should mark His people: "Our citizenship is in heaven."
Beloved, shall we not crave for one another the the benefit of this fourfold judgment? this sense of the presence of God in His own holiness; this judging and refusing of self; this sober, careful, humble watching, and the separate, heavenly character which comes from entering fully into the fact that Christ is not in the world nor of it, and so neither are we of the world. Here is the place of worship. Here Samuel dwelt, and here it is our privilege to dwell and share, with an exalted Christ, in the sweet savor of that sacrificial altar upon which He offered Himself a sacrifice for a sweet smelling savor unto God. In the value of that sacrifice, Israel was safe, shielded from her enemies. So are we.