Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 7:1-17) The Revival of Israel. The Work of Samuel.
And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD.(1) The ark of the Lord.—Kirjath-jearim, the home of the Ark for nearly fifty years, was probably selected as the resting-place of the sacred emblem as being the nearest large city to Beth-shemesh then in the hands of the Israelites. It was neither a priestly nor a Levitical city, but it no doubt had preserved something of its ancient character of sanctity even among the children of Israel. In old days before the Hebrew invasion, it was a notable “high place,” and a seat of worship of Baal. This was also, no doubt, taken into account when it was resolved to locate the Ark there. The words “in the hill” remind us that the old “high place” was still marked, and was from its sacred associations looked on as a fitting temporary resting-place for the sacred treasure of Israel.
Eleazar—It is most likely that this Abinadab was a Levite. The names Eleazar and Uzzah, and Ahio of the same family (2Samuel 6:3), are Levitical appellations. Samuel—who, though he is not named in this transaction, was, no doubt, the director—would, of course, have endeavoured to find a man of the tribe of Levi for the sacred trust. “This Eleazar was constituted not priest, but watchman at the grave of the Ark by its corpse, till the future joyful resurrection.”—Hengstenberg, quoted in Lange. Here the Ark remained until King David brought it from “the house on the hill,” in the city of woods, first to the home of Obed-edom, and then to his own royal Zion. (2 Samuel 6. See too Psalm 132:6.)
And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.(2) And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjath-jearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years.—Literally, And it came to pass, from the day that the Ark rested at Kirjath-jearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years. There is something very touching in this sad note of time. We think we read Samuel’s own words here. The unwearied toiler for God and His dear people found the twenty years a weary period of waiting. We must not, however, by any means suppose that the hungering of Israel after their God-Friend only began after the twenty years of sorrow were over.
It had been a stern trial time. The great victory of Aphek and the destruction of Shiloh had laid all Israel at the feet of their Philistine enemies, and they, we know, made their supremacy bitterly felt. The restoration of the Ark in no wise signified that they loosed their hold on the conquered people. This long time, when the hand of Philistia pressed so heavily on Israel, was the important period of Samuel’s life. For these twenty years he must have laboured incessantly to wake up the old worship of the Eternal and the pure life loved by God among the people. The early dreams of his boy days, the hopes excited by his burning enthusiasm, were scattered to the winds.
The fatal battle of Aphek, the capture of the holy Ark, the death of his old guardian, the great high priestly judge Eli, the sack and devastation of Shiloh, the loved sanctuary, the terrible and continued oppression of Philistia, had opened the eyes of the young inspired man of God. Taught by the bitter lessons of adversity, he saw it was by no bold stroke of a few gallant patriots that the nation could be saved; all such efforts Samuel the seer, after the crushing defeat of Aphek, saw would only sink the nation into still lower depths of degradation and misery. Other and different things were needed before the lion standard of Judah could be safely unfurled, or the war-cry of Ephraim raised on her mountains. “What means he used we are not told, or what was his mode of life during those twenty years of waiting and work; but probably the life of the young prophet-judge was that of a fugitive, going stealthily from place to place that he might teach and preach, hiding in the caverns in the limestone ranges of Judæa, emerging thence to visit now one quarter of the country and now another, ever in danger, but gradually stirring up, not merely those districts which were contiguous to the Philistines, but all Israel to a sense of the greatness of their sins, and to the necessity of renewed trust in and return of old love to their God. And so a fresh spiritual life by degrees sprang up among the people, and with it came the certainty of the future restoration of their national independence.”—Dean Payne Smith.
And all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.—The English Version is singularly happy here. The Hebrew word Englished by “lamented after” has been variously rendered and paraphrased. The Syriac translates, “they all cast themselves down after Jehovah.” Gesenius and some would translate “were assembled together;” others, “the people of Israel quieted themselves, and in quiet devotion followed Jehovah,” but the English Version is best on all grounds. This “lamenting” or “hungering after the Lord” was a gradual result of Samuel’s unwearied labours. The assertion of 1Samuel 3:19, that “none of his words fell to the ground,” especially belongs to this period of restless activity, when dangers and apparently insurmountable difficulties hemmed him in; slowly, but surely, the heart of the people, roused by his loving but passionate appeals, returned to their Eternal Friend; sick of crime and folly, gradually they began to hate their impurity and moral degradation; by degrees they began to loathe their idolatry; and when Samuel, after his twenty years of faithful restless work among them, summoned them boldly to declare their abhorrence of the strange Philistine gods, and the life taught and lived by the Philistine peoples, the heart of all Israel responded with intense gladness to the summons.
Then the wise and patriotic statesman-prophet saw the hour of deliverance and national restoration had struck. No longer solitary hamlets and scattered families mourned after the glorious Eternal and His pure holy worship and life; but the heart of a whole people mourned after the Lord, and hungered for His presence among them once more.
And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, 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.(3) The strange gods.—The strange gods are in 1Samuel 7:4 described as “Baalim.” This plural form of Baal refers to the numerous images of Baal which existed, as does the plural form Ashtaroth to those of the female goddess Astarte. They were both favourite Phœnician deities, known under the familiar names of Baal, Bil, Bel, and Ashtaroth, Astarte, Istar. They represented the productive power of nature, and were generally worshipped throughout the East, usually with a wild and wanton worship.
Prepare your hearts.—It was, indeed, a desperate venture seemingly, this, to which the prophet summoned unarmed and undisciplined Israel. They were then completely at the mercy of their long victorious foes, who held the chief fortified places in the country with their garrisons; and Samuel challenged Israel to bid defiance to the most cherished institutions of their oppressors, bade them, if they loved the Eternal, to turn aside from reverencing what Philistia held to be sacred and all-powerful. He knew well that what he urged upon the people would at once provoke what appeared to be a dangerous and most unequal contest. If defeated, then Israel would bring upon their devoted heads utter misery, and a ruin hitherto undreamed of even in their unhappy land. Had they courage and faith to plunge unarmed, undisciplined, into so perilous a contest? For twenty years the great patriot-statesman had laboured for this end. He had succeeded at last in opening the eyes of Israel to see the real cause of their misfortunes. He had made them as a nation hunger for the lost presence of the Eternal, who had loved them in past days with so great a love; and now, after twenty long slow years, was his work done at last? They sorrowed indeed for their national sins; but had they faith and courage, all unarmed as they were, to rise against the powerful enemies of purity and God?
Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only.(4) Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth.—The answer of the people showed how well and thoroughly the prophet-statesman had done his Master’s work. Through the land of Israel the graven images of the Phœnician idols were thrown down, and their impious worship everywhere was boldly dishonoured, and once more, in bold defiance of the idol-worshipping Philistines, the Invisible and Eternal was throughout the land acknowledged as the one God. These acts, of course, were an open act of rebellion against that warlike people who for so long had ruled them with an iron rule.
And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD.(5) Mizpeh.—Or, as it should be spelt, Mizpah, a common name for lofty situations. It signifies a “watch-tower,” a place where an outlook could be kept against an advancing enemy.
Now the assembly of the tribes at Mizpeh marked a new departure for Israel. It was the result of more than twenty years of toil undertaken by the greatest reformer and statesman the chosen race ever knew. The great gathering belonged both to religion and to war. Its first object was solemnly to assure the Lord that the heart of His people, so long estranged from Him, was again His. Its second was to implore that Jehovah might again restore a repentant and sorrowful people to the land of their inheritance. What more likely than that the prophet-statesman—who in that solemn juncture represented priest and judge and seer to Israel—devised on that momentous day new symbolic rites, signifying Israel’s new dedication to the Eternal for the future, Israel’s repentance for the sad past? The solemn pouring out of water before the Lord symbolised, to a people trained so carefully to watch the meaning and signification of symbols and imagery, the heart and whole inner life poured out before the Lord; the fasting represented the repentant humble sinner bowed down in grief before the one true God. Is it not at least probable that the strange, mysterious custom which we hear of in after days—the high priest filling the golden vessel with the waters of Siloam, and then pouring it out silently before the Lord—was the record of one of the holiest memories of the people—their reconciliation with their God-Friend at Mizpeh? Now, after years of estrangement, they repented and were forgiven. The fasting of Mizpeh being a favourite practice, ever much observed by the worshippers in the Temple and synagogue, needed no special record or reminder.
And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.(6) And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.—For some quarter of a century Samuel had been the principal personage among the people, and had, no doubt, long exercised the varied functions of the “judges” of Israel; but the tribes were scattered, their fortresses in the hand of enemies, there was scarcely any national life in that gloomy period in the people. In the first general assembly of the tribes the rank and position which Samuel had long really filled are publicly acknowledged.
And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines.(7) The lords of the Philistines went up against Israel.—This was what might naturally have been expected. The sudden destruction of the Phœnician idol shrines throughout the country, followed immediately by the summons of a vast popular assembly, held in so conspicuous a place as Mizpeh in Benjamin aroused at once the warlike nation which had so long kept Israel in servitude. The Philistine leaders promptly assemble a powerful force, and proceed to interrupt the Mizpeh gathering.
And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.(8) Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us.—The fear on the part of Israel was very natural Unarmed—or, at least, very poorly armed and equipped—the assembled Israelites saw from the heights the advancing Philistine army. What hope was there for their ill-disciplined masses when they joined battle with that trained host of fighting men? But they remembered the days of old, and how, when Moses prayed, “the Angel of His presence” saved them. Had they not then with them there a seer equal to Moses, greater than Joshua, one with whom the Eternal of Hosts was wont to speak, as friend speaketh with friend? So in that supreme hour of danger they turned to Samuel the seer. We are just going, they said, all unarmed to meet that armed host; “cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us,” And Samuel, we read in the brief and graphic account before us, hurriedly—for the time was short, and the foe close at hand—and with rites somewhat different from those enjoined in the Law—for the occasion was indeed a critical one—offered up a sacrifice, and raised that weird piercing cry which many in Israel had heard before when Samuel the seer prayed; and while the prophet-statesman was sustaining that loud imploring cry, while the smoke of the slain lamb was still ascending, the first line of the Philistine army appeared on the topmost slope of Mizpeh. Once more, as in old days, the glorious Arm fought with no earthly weapons for the people; an awful thunderstorm burst over the combatant hosts, the storm probably beating in the faces of the advancing Philistines. The tribes welcomed it as the answer to their prophet’s prayer, and with a wild enthusiasm charged down and broke the serried ranks of their oppressors. Josephus tells us of an earthquake, which added fresh horrors to the scene of battle. Each crash of thunder, each wild and furious gust of hail and rain, the men of Israel welcomed as a fresh onslaught on the part of an unseen army fighting by their side. The dismayed Philistines fled, and the rout was complete; the defeated army hurried panic-stricken over the same ground in the neighbourhood of Aphek illustrious twenty years before for their signal victory. The scene of carnage now received the significant name of Eben-ezer, or The Stone of Help.
And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Bethcar.(11) Until they came under Beth-car.—“House of the Lamb,” or, as some would render it, House of the Field. Of this place we know nothing; it was, no doubt, a Philistine fortress, where the scattered remains of the beaten host were able to rally and defend themselves.
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us.(12) Between Mizpeh and Shen.—The situation of Ha-Shen, “The Tooth,” has not yet been identified. It probably denotes a peak or crag, a prominent rock formation, so named, like the modern French dent—a favourite name for a peak in some districts of the Alps and Pyrenees: e.g., Dent du Midi.
So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.(13) So the Philistines were subdued.—The work of Samuel had been thorough. It was no mere solitary victory, this success of Israel at Ebenezer, but was the sign of a new spirit in Israel, which animated the nation during the lifetime of Samuel, and the reigns of David and Solomon and the great Hebrew kings. The petty jealousies had disappeared, and had given place to a great national desire for unity. In the several tribal districts it was no longer the glory and prosperity of Judah, Ephraim, or Benjamin, but the glory and prosperity of Israel that was aimed at. The old idol worship of Canaan, which corrupted and degraded every nationality which practised it, was in a great measure swept away from among the chosen people, while the pure religion of the Eternal of Hosts was no longer confided solely to the care and guardianship of the tribe of Levi, which had shown itself unworthy of the mighty trust. The Levites still ministered in the sanctuary, and when the Temple took its place, alone officiated in its sacred courts; and the chosen race of Aaron, in the family first of Ithamar, then of Eleazar, alone wore the jewels and the official robe of the high priest; but in religious matters the power of the priestly tribe was never again supreme in the Land of Promise. From the days of Samuel a new order—that of the Prophets, whose exact functions with regard to the ritual of the worship of the Eternal were undefined—was acknowledged by the people as the regular medium of communication with the Jewish King of Israel.
The hand of the Lord was against the Philistines.—The Philistines never entirely recovered their supremacy in Canaan. There was. it is true, a long fierce struggle, but with the exception of the short period which immediately preceded the election of Saul, and the temporary disasters of the children of Israel which were the punishments of that king’s disobedience—from this time forward the power of the Philistines gradually decayed. while the strength of Israel steadily increased, until King David completely subdued them, and the old oppressors of Israel were absorbed into the subject races of Canaan.
And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.(14) The cities.—The immediate result of Samuel’s great victory at Eben-ezer, and the renovated national spirit of the people, was their recovery of the towns and villages which during the late disastrous period had fallen into the Philistines’ hands.
From Ekron even unto Gath.—It is doubtful whether these words signify that at this period these famous Philistine cities fell into the hands of Samuel. This expression more probably indicates on the Philistine side the direction and limits of the space in which the Israelites recovered their lost territory.
The Amorites.—The Amorites here, as representing the most powerful of the old Canaanite tribes, are especially mentioned. This note respecting them tells us that in these glorious days of the restoration of Israel under Samuel, not only were the Philistines of the coast kept in check and gradually subdued, but that the Canaanite tribes of the interior of the land submitted quietly to the old conditions imposed by Joshua at the time of the conquest.
And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.(15) And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.—The influence and supreme power of Samuel only ended with his life. For a very long period—probably for at least twenty years after the decisive battle of Eben-ezer—Samuel, as “judge,” exercised the chief authority in Israel. The time at length arrived when, convinced by clear Divine monition that it was best for the people that a king should rule over them, Samuel the seer, then advanced in years, voluntarily laid down his high office in favour of the new king, Saul; but his influence remained, and his authority, whenever he chose to exercise it, seems to have continued undiminished, and on momentous occasions (see, for instance, 1Samuel 15:33) we find king and nation submitting to his counsel and expressed will.
And he went from year to year in circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places.(16) To Beth-el, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel.—These centres, it is observable, were all situated in the southern part of the land, in the tribe of Benjamin. This leads us to the conclusion that the power of Samuel, if not exclusively, was chiefly exercised among the southern tribes. The whole subsequent story of the chosen people seems to tell us that the religion of the Eternal at an early date became corrupted m the north of the Promised Land, and that the restoration of faith and purification of life—the result of the great work of Samuel—was so much less marked in the northern than in the southern tribes, that when the strong hand of Solomon was removed, a formal secession from the southern league at once took place. This was followed by a rapid deterioration both in faith and practice in the northern kingdom of Israel.
The places mentioned as the centres where Samuel “judged” were all holy sites, and at different periods of the year, no doubt, were crowded with pilgrims from distant parts of the land.
And his return was to Ramah; for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and there he built an altar unto the LORD.(17) Raman.—The same Ramah “of the Watchers” where Elkanah and Hannah had dwelt. After the destruction of Shiloh, Samuel seems to have fixed his abode in his father’s city.
And there he built an altar.—Thus following the old custom of the patriarchs. It must be remembered that at this period there was no national sanctuary, no formal seat of worship, where the high priest and his attendant priests and Levites served. The Ark, we know, was in safe keeping in the “city of woods,” Kirjath-jearim, but it was in private custody; and we hear of no priests and Levites, of no ritual or religious observances, in connection with the long sojourn of the holy Ark in that place. It is probable that the sacred vessels and furniture had been saved from the destruction of Shiloh by Samuel. These were, very likely, in the prophet-judge’s safe keeping at Bamah.