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NATIONAL DELIVERANCE—THE PHILISTINES SUBDUED.
1 Samuel vii. 10–17.
It must have been with feelings very different from those of their last encounter, when the ark of God was carried into the battle, that the host of Israel now faced the Philistine army near Mizpeh. Then they had only the symbol of God’s gracious presence, now they had the reality. Then their spiritual guides were the wicked Hophni and Phinehas; now their guide was holy Samuel. Then they had rushed into the fight in thoughtless unconcern about their sins; now they had confessed them, and through the blood of sprinkling they had obtained a sense of forgiveness. Then they were puffed up by a vain presumption; now they were animated by a calm but confident hope. Then their advance was hallowed by no prayer; now the cry of needy children had gone up from God’s faithful servant. In fact, the battle with the Philistines had already been fought by Samuel on his knees. There can be no more sure token of success than this. Are we engaged in conflict with our own besetting sins? Or are we contending against scandalous transgression in the world around us? Let us first fight the battle on our knees. If we are victorious there we need have little fear of victory in the other battle.
98 It was as Samuel was offering up the burnt-offering that the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. There was an unseen ladder that day between earth and heaven, on which the angels of God ascended and descended as in Jacob’s vision at Bethel. The smoke of the burnt-offering carried up to God the confession and contrition of the people, their reliance on God’s method of atonement, and their prayer for His pardon and His blessing. The great thunder with which God thundered on the Philistines carried down from God the answer and the needed help. There is no need for supposing that the thunder was supernatural. It was an instance of what is so common, a natural force adapted to the purpose of an answer to prayer. What seems to have occurred is this: a vehement thunderstorm had gathered a little to the east, and now broke, probably with violent wind, in the faces of the Philistines, who were advancing up the heights against Mizpeh. Unable to face such a terrific war of the elements, the Philistines would turn round, placing their backs to the storm. The men of Israel, but little embarrassed by it, since it came from behind them, and gave the greater momentum to their force, rushed on the embarrassed enemy, and drove them before them like smoke before the wind. It was just as in former days—God arose, and His enemies were scattered, and they also that hated Him fled before Him. The storm before which the Philistines cowered was like the pillar of fire which had guided Israel through the desert. Jehovah was still the God of Israel; the God of Jacob was once more his refuge.
We have said that this thunderstorm may have been quite a natural phenomenon. Natural, but not casual. Though natural, it was God’s answer to Samuel’s 99 prayer. But how could this have been? If it was a natural storm, if it was the result of natural law, of atmospheric conditions the operation of which was fixed and certain, it must have taken place whether Samuel prayed or not. Undoubtedly. But the very fact that the laws of nature are fixed and certain, that their operation is definite and regular, enables the great Lord of Providence to make use of them in the natural course of things, for the purpose of answering prayer. For this fact, the uniformity of natural law, enables the Almighty, who sees and plans the end from the beginning, to frame a comprehensive scheme of Providence, that shall not only work out the final result in His time and way, but that shall also work out every intermediate result precisely as He designs and desires. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.” Now if God has so adjusted the scheme of Providence that the final result of the whole shall wonderfully accomplish His grand design, may He not, must He not, have so adjusted it that every intermediate part shall work out some intermediate design? It is only those who have an unworthy conception of omniscience and omnipotence that can doubt this. Surely if there is a general Providence, there must be a special Providence. If God guides the whole, He must also guide the parts. Every part of the scheme must fall out according to His plan, and may thus be the means of fulfilling some of His promises.
Let us apply this view to the matter of prayer. All true prayer is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in the human soul. All the prayer that God answers is prayer that God has inspired. The prayer of Samuel was prayer which God had inspired. What more 100 reasonable than that in the great plan of providence there should have been included a provision for the fulfilment of Samuel’s prayer at the appropriate moment? The thunderstorm, we may be sure, was a natural phenomenon. But its occurrence at the time was part of that great scheme of Providence which God planned at the beginning, and it was planned to fall out then in order that it might serve as an answer to Samuel’s prayer. It was thus an answer to prayer brought about by natural causes. The only thing miraculous about it was its forming a part of that most marvellous scheme—the scheme of Divine providence—a part of the scheme that was to be carried into effect after Samuel had prayed. If the term supernatural may be fitly applied to that scheme which is the sum and substance of all the laws of nature, of all the providence of God, and of all the works and thoughts of man, then it was a miracle; but if not, it was a natural effect.
It is important to bear these truths in mind, because many have the impression that prayer for outward results cannot be answered without a miracle, and that it is unreasonable to suppose that such a multitude of miracles as prayer involves would be wrought every day. If a sick man prays for health, is the answer necessarily a miracle? No; for the answer may come about by purely natural causes. He has been directed to a skilful physician; he has used the right medicine; he has been treated in the way to give full scope to the recuperative power of nature. God, who led him to pray, foresaw the prayer, and in the original scheme of Providence planned that by natural causes the answer should come. We do not deny that prayer may be answered in a supernatural way. We would 101 not affirm that such a thing as supernatural healing is unknown. But it is most useful that the idea should be entertained that such prayer is usually answered by natural means. By not attending to this men often fail to perceive that prayer has been answered. You pray, before you set out on a journey, for protection and safe arrival at the end. You get what you asked—you perform the journey in safety. But perhaps you say, “It would have been all the same whether I had prayed for it or not. I have gone on journeys that I forgot to pray about, and no evil befell me. Some of my fellow-passengers, I am sure, did not pray for safety, yet they were taken care of as much as I was.” But these are sophistical arguments. You should feel that your safety in the journey about which you prayed was as much due to God, though only through the operation of natural causes, as if you had had a hairbreadth escape. You should be thankful that in cases where you did not pray for safety God had regard to the habitual set of your mind, your habitual trust in Him, though you did not specially exercise it at these times. Let the means be as natural as they may—to those who have eyes to see the finger of God is in them all the same.
But to return to the Israelites and the Philistines. The defeat of the Philistines was a very thorough one. Not only did they make no attempt to rally after the storm had passed and Israel had fallen on them, but they came no more into the coast of Israel, and the hand of the Lord was against them all the days of Samuel. And besides this, all the cities and tracts of land belonging to Israel which the Philistines had taken were now restored. Another mercy that came to Israel was that “there was peace between Israel 102 and the Amorites”—the Amorites being put here, most likely, for the remains of all the original inhabitants living among or around Israel. Those promises were now fulfilled in which God had said to Moses, “This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble and be in anguish because of thee” (Deut. ii. 25). “There shall no man be able to stand before you; for the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land ye shall tread upon, as He hath said to thee.” It was so apparent that God was among them, and that the power of God was irresistible and overwhelming, that their enemies were frightened to assail them.
The impression thus made on the enemies of Israel corresponds in some degree to the moral influence which God-fearing men sometimes have on an otherwise godless community. The picture in the Song of Solomon—“Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?”—ascribes even to the fair young bride a terrifying power, a power not appropriate to such a picture in the literal sense, but quite suitable in the figurative. Wherever the life and character of a godly man is such as to recall God, wherever God’s image is plainly visible, wherever the results of God’s presence are plainly seen, there the idea of a supernatural Power is conveyed, and a certain overawing influence is felt. In the great awakening at Northampton in Jonathan Edwards’ days, there was a complete arrest laid on open forms of vice. And whensoever in a community God’s presence has been powerfully realized, the taverns have been emptied, the 103 gambling-table deserted, under the sense of His august majesty. Would only that the character and life of all God’s servants were so truly godlike that their very presence in a community would have a subduing and restraining influence on the wicked!
Two points yet remain to be noticed: the step taken by Samuel to commemorate this wonderful Divine interposition; and the account given of the prophet and his occupations in his capacity of Judge of Israel.
“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.”
The position of Shen is not known. But it must have been very near the scene of the defeat of the Philistines—perhaps it was the very spot where that defeat occurred. In that case, Samuel’s stone would stand midway between the two scenes of battle: the battle gained by him on his knees at Mizpeh, and the battle gained by the Israelites when they fell on the Philistines demoralised by the thunderstorm.
“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The characteristic feature of the inscription lies in the word “hitherto.” It was no doubt a testimony to special help obtained in that time of trouble; it was a grateful recognition of that help; and it was an enduring monument to perpetuate the memory of it. But it was more, much more. The word “hitherto” denotes a series, a chain of similar mercies, an unbroken succession of Divine interpositions and Divine deliverances. The special purpose of this inscription was to link on the present deliverance to all the past, and to form a testimony to the enduring faithfulness and mercy of a covenant-keeping God. But was there not something strange in this inscription, considering the 104 circumstances? Could Samuel have forgot that tragic day at Shiloh—the bewildered, terrified look of the messenger that came from the army to bring the news, the consternation caused by his message, the ghastly horror of Eli and his tragic death, the touching death of the wife of Phinehas, and the sad name which she had with such seeming propriety given to her babe? Was that like God remembering them? or had Samuel forgot how the victorious Philistines soon after dashed upon Shiloh like beasts of prey, plundering, destroying, massacreing, till nothing more remained to be done to justify the name of “Ichabod”? How can Samuel blot that chapter out of the history? or how can he say, with that chapter fresh in his recollection, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us”?
All that Samuel has considered well. Even amid the desolations of Shiloh the Lord was helping them. He was helping them to know themselves, helping them to know their sins, and helping them to know the bitter fruit and woful punishment of sin. He was helping them to achieve the great end for which he had called them—to keep alive the knowledge of the true God and the practice of His worship, onward to the time when the great promise should be realised,—when He should come in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. Samuel’s idea of what constituted the nation’s glory was large and spiritual. The true glory of the nation was to fulfil the function for which God had taken it into covenant with Himself. Whatever helped them to do this was a blessing, was a token of the Lord’s remembrance of them. The links of the long chain denoted by Samuel’s “hitherto” were not all of one kind. Some were in the form of mercies, many were in the form of chastenings. For the higher 105 the function for which Israel was called, the more need was there of chastening. The higher the destination of a silver vessel, the greater is the need that the silver be pure, and therefore that it be frequently passed through the furnace. The destination of Israel was the highest that could have been. So Samuel does not merely give thanks for seasons of prosperity, but for checks and chastenings too.
Happy they who, full of faith in the faithfulness and love of God, can take a similar view of His dealings! Happy they who, when special mercies come, deem the occasion worthy to be commemorated by some special memorial, but who can embrace their whole life in the grateful commemoration, and bracket joys and sorrows alike under their “hitherto”! It is not that sorrows are less sorrows to them than to others; it is not that losses of substance entail less inconvenience, or bereavements penetrate less deeply; but that all are seen to be embraced in that gracious plan of which the final consummation is, as the apostle puts it, “to present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” And well is it for us, both in individual life and in Church and national life, to think of that plan of God in which mercies and chastenings are united, but all with a gracious purpose! It is remarkable how often in Scripture tears are wiped away with this thought. Zion saying, “The Lord hath forsaken me, and my God hath forgotten me,” is assured, “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My hands, thy walls are continually before Me.” Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, is thus addressed, “Refrain thy voice from weeping and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and thy children 106 shall come again from the land of the enemy.” “Weep not,” said our Lord to the woman of Nain; and His first words after His resurrection were, “Woman, why weepest thou?” Vale of tears though this world is, there comes from above a gracious influence to wipe them away; and the march Zionward has in it something of the tread and air of a triumphant procession, for “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy on their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
We have yet to notice the concluding verses of the chapter (15–17), which give a little picture of the public life of Samuel. He judged Israel all the days of his life. The office of judge had a twofold sphere, external and internal. Externally, it bore on the oppression of the people by foreign enemies, and the judge became the deliverer of the people. But in this sense there was now nothing for Samuel to do, especially after the accession of Saul to the kingdom. The judge seems to have likewise had to do with the administration of justice, and the preservation of the peace and general welfare of the nation. It is very natural to suppose that Samuel would be profoundly concerned to imbue the people with just views of the purpose for which God had called them, and of the law and covenant which He had given them. The three places among which he is said to have made his circuit, Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpeh, were not far from each other, all being situated in the tribes of Benjamin and Judah,—in that part of the land which afterwards constituted the kingdom of the two tribes. To these three places falls to be added Ramah, also in the same neighbourhood, where was his house. In this place he built an altar to the Lord. 107 Whether this was in connection with the tabernacle or not, we cannot say. We know that in the time of David’s wanderings “the house of God” was at Nob (Compare 1 Sam. xxi. 1 and Matt. xii. 4), but we have nothing to show us when it was carried thither. All we can say is, that Samuel’s altar must have been a visible memorial of the worship of God, and a solemn protest against any idolatrous rites to which any of the people might at any time be attracted.
In this way Samuel spent his life like Him whose type he was, “always about his Father’s business.” An unselfish man, having no interests of his own, full of zeal for the service of God and the public welfare; possibly too little at home, taking too little charge of his children, and thus at last in the painful position of one, “whose sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (ch. viii. 1). That Samuel attained the highest reputation for sanctity, intercourse with God and holy influence, is plain from various passages of Scripture. In Psalm xcix. 6, he is coupled with Moses and Aaron, as having influence with God,—“they called upon the Lord and He answered them.” In Jeremiah xv. 1, his name is coupled with that of Moses alone as a powerful intercessor, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be toward this people.” His mother’s act of consecration was wonderfully fulfilled. Samuel stands out as one of the best and purest of the Hebrew worthies. His name became a perpetual symbol of all that was upright, pure and Godlike. The silent influence of his character was a great power in Israel, inspiring many a young heart with holy awe, and silencing the flippant arrogance of the scoffer. Mothers, did not Hannah do well, do 108 nobly, in dedicating her son to the Lord? Sons and daughters, was it not a noble and honourable life? Then go ye and do likewise. And God be pleased to incline many a heart to the service; a service, which with all its drawbacks, is the highest and the noblest; and which bequeaths so blessed a welcome into the next stage of existence: “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
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