Monday, August 11, 2014

Israel’s Repentance Process After Regaining the Ark

After regaining the ark of the covenant, Israel lamented for something like 20 years and Samuel preached repentance.  It is cool to see the effect he was able to have on Israel.
3 ¶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.
4 Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only.
5 And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the Lord.
6 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. (1 Sam. 7:3-6)
This tells about one of those few times in Israel when the people had a mass revival of devotion to God and went through the repentance process.

You can see what they did to repent.

They put away the strange gods and the Ashtaroth.  The immoral fertility rites associated with those gods were a spiritual plague that they had to get rid of.  As always repentance is about stopping the sin and getting rid of the things that facilitate the sin.

They prepared their hearts to serve the Lord only.  When sin has been persistent and deep, it takes a lot of work to redirect one’s thoughts toward the desired change.  You have to keep reminding yourself, “Yes, I’m going to do the right thing.  No, I’m not going to go back to that sin.”  New neural pathways have to be built and old ones have to be avoided.

Samuel gathered the people to pray for them to the Lord.  Here Samuel was a type of Christ by advocating to the Father for them.  Also, by gathering together, Israel could draw strength and support from others going through the repentance process and get help from leaders.

Next it says they did something that sounds unrelated.  “they…drew water, and poured it out before the Lord” (v6).  What does this drawing water have to do with repentance?  I think it describes how they drew water so they could ceremonially cleanse themselves as part of following the Law of Moses.  It could have been baptisms, it could have been ritual washings.  If all Israel was there, a lot of people would need water to wash in.  And they couldn’t do it all one at a time, they had to make a way for some serious through-put, and that would require a lot of water.  So it could have been a big collective effort to fetch water for all that to happen.  (Just imagine what if would be like if everyone going to general conference had to take a bath before going into the building.) 

Another possibility of interpretation comes from the fact that in the text, in the phrase “poured it out before the LORD” the “it” is italicized, meaning it was one of the words that translators added to help the text make sense.  This may be a case when the “it” narrows the meaning when it shouldn’t.  Without it, the phrase says “poured out before the LORD.”  What else could be poured out before the Lord besides water?  How about pouring out hearts in prayer?  Prayer is definitely an important part of repentance—praying and telling the Lord all about our problems and sins and why and how and our desires to change and asking for help.

The people also fasted on that day.  Fasting helps build spirituality for repentance.  It is a form of sacrifice, which is an important principle of the gospel.  It builds self-discipline, which helps build up moral momentum for forsaking sins.

They also said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.”  They admitted their sins.
Also, Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.  This sounds like Samuel went through a lot of interviews that were the equivalent of people confessing to the bishop.  The Israelites were willing to confess their sins to the spiritual authority and receive judgment, working towards getting right with the Lord.

You have to be impressed by the brevity of those verses and how they condense the repentance process down so well.  Those verses are a valuable record, much like the recorded response King Benjamin’s speech in the Book of Mormon is for us today.  These verses also show us that the repentance process was essentially the same in ancient times as it is today, even though animal sacrifice was involved in worship then and no longer is today.

This isn’t the end of the story, however.  
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.
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.
¶And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the Lord: and Samuel cried unto the Lord for Israel; and the Lord heard him.
10 And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.
11 And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Beth-car.
12 Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us. (1 Samuel 7:7-12)
  When the Philistines heard the Israelites were gathered at Mizpeh, they gathered their armies together to fight.

Why did the Philistines do this?  Mizpeh was a place of significance.  It was the place where the Israelites gathered to fight the Ammonites before Jepthah was chosen to be king over them.  It was the place where Jepthah had his house as king.  It was the place where the Israelites gathered themselves together before avenging the atrocities committed by the Benjaminites in Judges 20.  They made vows to the Lord there.  With this history, the Philistines saw the Israelite gathering at Mizpeh as a sign the Israelites were about to rise in rebellion against them, so they hastened to nip it in the bud.

This sudden threat naturally alarmed the Israelites and they turned to the Lord for help, as they should.  They asked Samuel to not stop praying for them, and Samuel also offered a sacrifice of a lamb. 

What happened?  As the Philistines drew near, “the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel” (1 Samuel 7:10).

What is “discomfited?”  It means confused.  Why were the Philistines discomfited by thunder?  I think it goes back to the Philistine pantheon.  One of their gods was Baal, a god of storms.  What are the Philistines going to think is happening when sudden lightning strikes in the middle of their army and great claps of thunder resound around them?  They’re going to think their god is there and doesn’t approve of their invasion!   Further, consider the Philistines had previously beaten the Israelites and taken the ark, so they had thought their god had beaten Israel’s God and now it seemed Baal was against them for trying to beat the Israelites again.  From their perspective that’s a very confusing message. 

Many storms happen without giving indication that they are peculiarly acts of God, but this storm in particular came at the right time and right place.   Divine timing and intensity. 

I have to add here that thunderstorms can always teach about the nature of God’s power.  I remember an experience my husband and I had going into our duplex in Austin, Texas one day back in 2003.  A storm was starting.  We were right at the door on our front porch when a sudden flash and a deafening crash of thunder happened seemingly next to us.  Our tree just 10 feet away had been struck by lightning.  It was so loud and so surprising that we instinctively cowered and covered our heads.  We felt the heat. As we went in, we couldn’t help but say to ourselves that was a sample of the kind of power God has.

Back to the Israelites and the discomfited Philistines..

The Israelites were spiritually prepared for battle, having repented according to the instructions of Samuel, so the Lord blessed them.  I think it is neat that the Lord was so merciful as to immediately deliver the Israelites after their repentance.  He didn’t put them on a probation to see whether they would act better for a few months before He saved them.  They had an immediate national crisis and the Lord immediately helped them.  The Lord wants to restore our spiritual and temporal blessings as soon as possible when we repent and will help us immediately.

To help Israel remember the way the Lord helped them, Samuel set a stone up in between Mizpeh and Shen and called its name Eben-ezer, which means “stone of help.”  It would add to the number of monuments meant to represent instances when the Lord’s miracles saved Israel.  (This monument is what is referred to in the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” when the lyrics say “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.”)  

This gets me thinking about what monuments I have in my life of the Lord’s help.  I have a keychain that is tricky to put keys on that reminds me of how the Lord helped me figure it out.  My husband is a living monument to how the Lord blessed me for sacrifice when I was a single college student.  Mostly, I write in my journals how the Lord has blessed and saved me so that I can remember.  

What monuments do you have in your life to remember times when the Lord has saved you?