Heavy Stone

Bible Passage: 1 Samuel 7

We began studying Judges at the first of the year. Since then, we have covered about 300 years of Israelite history. Most of the stories have shown us that God’s people were not much better than their pagan neighbors. It has been one epic failure after another.

But today’s chapter is a bright spot. It is also a turning point. The period of the Judges is ending today. And I’m also going to break from my normal habit and read the entire story up front.

1 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.

3 And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “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.” 4 So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6 So they gathered at Mizpah 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 people of Israel at Mizpah. 7 Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 And the people 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.” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.

12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” 13 So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14 The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.

15 Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16 And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. 17 Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the Lord.

There are three clear lessons in this chapter.

First, we see the character of true repentance. Repentance is not just sorrow, but action.

Verse 3 – “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods…”

Specifically, Samuel mentions the Baals and the Ashtaroths. Baal was the male son of Ashtaroth, but according to the myth they were also lovers. These were the two foreign gods that Israel had the hardest time letting go of. They went back to these gods again and again.

And there’s a very practical reason why. The answer is sexual temptation. The worship of these gods required soliciting of prostitution and regular orgies. The people did these things as a form of sympathetic magic. The idea was that by performing these acts, they could persuade the gods to make their crops fertile.

“Hey honey, don’t wait up for me tonight. After work, me and the guys are going down to the temple for some ‘worship’.” Do you see why this was a problem?

This was damaging to families. It also reinforced bad theology – that we can convince God to do something by our actions. It was offensive to God… a distortion of reality.

But it was more fun than the worship God had commanded. That’s the bottom line. The people enjoyed that type of worship more. And that is always the lure of sin. Proverbs 9: ***

13 The woman Folly is loud;

    she is seductive and knows nothing.

14 She sits at the door of her house;

    she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,

15 calling to those who pass by,

    who are going straight on their way,

16 “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”

    And to him who lacks sense she says,

17 “Stolen water is sweet,

    and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”

18 But he does not know that the dead are there,

    that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

A banquet in the grave – that’s how the Bible describes our tendency towards sin – sexual sin in particular. In another Proverb, it says we return to sin like a dog returns to its own vomit.

And Samuel says to the people, and to us, if you’re really sorry about all this – if you are really returning to the Lord in your heart – then put away the other gods. And that includes the sexual sin.

It is important to notice that Samuel isn’t saying this as a condition but as a proof. It’s an if/then statement. If this is real, then this is what will happen. Their repentance does not earn God’s favor. Instead, it demonstrates the condition of their hearts.

If your repentance is real, then God will be enough. If your repentance is not real, then you will go on worshiping false gods… no matter what you say.

This is challenging to me personally, because my own apologies – very often – are all words and no action. And that means they are not very convincing because they aren’t really coming from the heart. Genuine repentance necessitates change – movement away from sin and towards God.

God takes us the way He found us – but He doesn’t leave us the way He found us. That would not be honoring to Him or dignifying to us.

Second, notice the central importance of prayer to the story. Sometimes prayer is our only real option. And that’s exactly where God wants us.

Sometimes God lets us get to the point when prayer is our only rational response to our circumstances. He leaves us completely helpless without Him – on purpose.

And notice also, it’s not even their own prayers that save them, but the prayers of Samuel.

Verse 5 – “I will pray to the Lord for you.”

And then after the Philistines attack, the people tell 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.”

After 300 years of half-hearted worship, this is the best of Israel. Not mighty warriors. Not saints, but helpless and humble and prayerful. And they don’t even trust their own prayers. They are looking at a mediator… an intercessor.

Prayer is the posture of true repentance. The impulse is not for me to go out and fix things and make them right by my own power, or intelligence, or will. The impulse is to turn from my sin and immediately turn to God. And not even that through my own efforts, or even by the quality or quantity of my prayers – but through a mediator. We engage God through Christ.

The Gospel is hanging all over this story, but I want us to see one more thing first.

Third and finally, notice that victory comes through sacrifice. While Samuel sacrifices, Israel has victory. And it wasn’t just any sacrifice – it was a nursing lamb.

To my knowledge, this is the only sacrifice in the Bible that describes the lamb as “nursing”. It is an interesting detail for a few reasons.

A nursing lamb, separated from its mom, would have struggled wildly. The worst thing that could happen in the mind of a baby lamb is to be separated from its mom. The loud, panicked, high-pitched bleating of the lamb would be heard in the entire camp. And that cry would be devastating for the mom. The mother sheep would pace back and forth, cry out for her lamb, and eventually she would grieve.

This was a particularly powerful sacrifice – not just by the lamb, but by the mom.

And yet, the message was communicated loud and clear to the humans listening and watching this sacrifice. Victory only comes through painful separation… through loss… through suffering.

Again, this is heavy. This is what preserving the glory of God looks like.

Israel wins the battle at the same time the lamb is slaughtered.

Afterward, Samuel raises a stone monument called an “Ebenezer” – a stone or a pile of stones – on the field of battle. The writer tells us the meaning of the stone. “Till now the Lord has helped me” or “This far the Lord has helped me.”

Ironically, this was also the site of Israel’s defeat in chapter 4! And that means, in a very real sense for all the people who lost a son or a husband or a father on that battlefield, it was a memorial of both victory and defeat.

I don’t know if this is significant, but I found myself asking why a stone? Or a pile of stones? Maybe because the monument will last a long time. But it’s also an extremely heavy option and with all the emphasis on God’s glory – his heaviness – in this book so far, I wonder if that’s part of the picture.

In summarizing chapter 7, Tim Chester writes this:

“People who take God’s glory seriously repent. And people who take God’s glory seriously are able to stand in His presence, because God takes his own glory seriously through sacrifice.”

He’s highlighting the relationship between God’s glory and the Gospel and it’s important. How does the Bible describe our problem… our sin?

Romans 3:23 – “All have sinned and [what]… fall short of the glory of God.”

And how does God preserve His glory and deal with our sin?

Romans 3 continues, we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Propitiation is a big word and a big idea. It means that God put forward his own son as a way to satisfy His own wrath for our sins. In other words, Jesus was like the nursing lamb in 1 Samuel 7. Or rather, the nursing lamb was a picture of Jesus.

It was not just the suffering and death of Jesus – but His separation from the Father, demonstrated by Jesus when He cried out on the cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!”

Our Ebenezer is the cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of sin, the weight of glory, and God’s grace for sinners. This is why we literally look at the cross so often as Christians. This is how far the Lord has helped me!

They rolled another heavy stone over the grave of Jesus – a temporary monument to the curse of death. And God pushed it aside like a pebble as the risen Christ rose from that grave – full of glory.

God’s glory is like a heavy stone. We will either be crushed under its weight, or we will stand firmly on the Rock of our salvation.