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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

1 Samuel 7

Verse 1

II. THE HISTORY OF THE ARK OF THE COVENANT 4:1-7:1

Many serious students of 1 Samuel have noted the writer’s emphasis on the ark of the covenant that begins here in the text. Critical scholars have long argued that 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:1 and 2 Samuel 6 are the only remaining fragments of an older and longer ark narrative, which was a source document for the writer here. Of the 61 references to the ark in 1 and 2 Samuel, 36 appear in 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:2. More recently some scholars have come to believe that the old ark narratives were somewhat shorter. Conservative scholars generally believe that the ark narratives were not necessarily independent documents but may simply reflect the writer’s particular emphasis on the ark here. [Note: For a discussion of this subject, including a bibliography of books and articles dealing with it, see Youngblood, pp. 593-94.] One writer believed that their purpose was to explain Israel’s demand for a king, as well as the reasons for the end of Eli’s branch of the Aaronic family. [Note: Merrill, "1 Samuel," p. 208.]

Verse 1

C. The Ark Returned to Israel by God 6:1-7:1

The writer added further evidence of the Philistines’ reverence for Yahweh and the Israelites’ spiritual blindness in this section.

3. The removal of the ark to Kiriath-jearim 6:19-7:1

Not all the people who later assembled to view the returned ark were as careful as those from Bethshemesh, however. The Mosaic Law specified that no one was to look into the ark or that person would die (Numbers 4:5; Numbers 4:20; cf. 2 Samuel 6:6-7). The number of the slain (50,070, 1 Samuel 6:19) may represent an error a scribe made as he copied the text [Note: See John Davis, Biblical Numerology, pp. 87-89.] , though there is strong textual support for the large number. Several Hebrew manuscripts omit 50,000, and Josephus mentioned only 70 fatalities. [Note: Josephus, 6:1:4.] Perhaps 70 men died, as the NIV and several other modern translations state.

"The basic point at issue in this verse is that God will brook no irregularity in his people’s treatment of the sacred ark (cf. 2 Samuel 6:6 f.). [Note: Gordon, p. 103.]

"The power of God was not something that Israel somehow tamed and confined in a box, any more than modern man can banish God to the churches, chapels and cathedrals they take care never to frequent." [Note: Payne, p. 35.]

Why did God strike dead some Israelites who touched the ark inappropriately (1 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 13:10; cf. Leviticus 10:2) and not deal with the Philistines in the same way (1 Samuel 4:17)? God was merciful to the Philistines. He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and He will show compassion on whom He will show compassion (Exodus 33:19). The reason for His patience with the Philistines was partially to teach the Israelites and the Philistines His omnipotence. Also, the Israelites’ greater knowledge of God’s will placed them under greater responsibility to do His will.

The Israelites came to a fresh appreciation of Yahweh’s holiness because these men died (1 Samuel 6:20). The last part of this verse indicates that they wished God would depart from them, because they were sinful and He was holy (cf. Isaiah 6:5). Thus the capture of the ark resulted in the Philistines recognizing that Yahweh was the true source of fertility and blessing. The Israelites’ also rededicated themselves to investigating and following the revealed will of God in the Mosaic Covenant.

Archaeologists believe they have located the remains of Kiriath-jearim about 10 miles east and a little north of Bethshemesh. Why did the Israelites not return the ark to the tabernacle at Shiloh? One possibility is that the Philistines had destroyed Shiloh (cf. Psalms 78:60; Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 7:14; Jeremiah 26:6; Jeremiah 26:9). The ark did not reside in an appropriate place of honor until David brought it into his new capital, Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). Kiriath-jearim was not a Levitical city nor is there any reason to believe Abinadab and Eleazar were priests or Levites. Perhaps the Israelites kept the ark there for convenience sake. It evidently remained there for many years (cf. 2 Samuel 6:2). Wood calculated that it was there about seventy years. [Note: Wood, Israel’s United . . ., p. 23, n. 8, and p. 190. For a study of the complex history of Kiriath-jearim, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, "Kiriath-jearim and the Ark," Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969):143-56.] Baale-judah (2 Samuel 6:2) may be a later name for Kiriath-jearim. [Note: Youngblood, p. 868.]

"The certainty of God’s presence is always a sign of hope, however dark the circumstances may be." [Note: Payne, p. 37.]

This whole major section of 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:1) advances the fertility motif. Dagon, the chief god of Israel’s chief rival, proved incapable of preventing Yahweh’s curse from falling on the Philistines. Yahweh Himself appears as sovereign and all-powerful. Whereas the ark was the symbol of God’s presence, it was not a talisman that would secure victory for its possessor. The Israelites’ attitude reveals that they did not appreciate the importance of obeying the Mosaic Law. Some individuals probably perceived that God’s presence was essential to Israel’s blessing. Perhaps Eli and Phinehas’ wife did. When God’s presence was near again, there was rejoicing. In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God gave the nation some blessing and returned the ark to His people. He evidently did this so they would be able to rediscover the true nature of worship at a future time, under David’s leadership.

In this second major section of Samuel, as in the others, there are conflicts and reversals of fortune. These include Israel and the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:1-22), Dagon and the ark (1 Samuel 5:1 to 1 Samuel 6:9), and the people who did not rejoice and those who did (1 Samuel 6:10-16). [Note: Martin, p. 138.]

Verses 2-4

1. Samuel’s spiritual leadership 7:2-4

Twenty years after the Philistines had returned the ark, Samuel led the people in national repentance. [Note: Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel, pp. 65-66; Wood, The Prophets . . ., p. 159, n. 12.] Samson’s ministry may have taken place during these 20 years. [Note: Idem, Distressing Days of the Judges, pp. 303-4.] The Philistine oppression resulted in the Israelites turning to Yahweh for help (1 Samuel 7:2). Samuel told the people what they needed to do to secure God’s blessing and victory over their enemy. They needed to repent (cf. Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 13:4; Matthew 4:10). The people did so, and the hope of deliverance revived. Baal and Ashtoreth were the chief male and female deities of the Canaanite pantheon. The plural forms of these names are Baals and Ashtaroth (1 Samuel 7:4).

Verses 2-17

A. Samuel’s Ministry as Israel’s Judges 7:2-17

As a totally dedicated Nazarite who followed the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant as best he could, Samuel became a source of deliverance for Israel. The writer recorded two deliverances in this chapter.

This section sounds more like the Book of Judges than does any other in 1 or 2 Samuel. The cycle of religious experience repeated six times in that book occurs here as well. That cycle consists of blessing, apostasy, discipline, repentance, deliverance, rededication, and blessing. Samuel exercised the same function as the judges whose experiences appear on the pages of Judges.

"In the books of Samuel there are three chapters which stand out as markers, characterized by their interpretation of historical changes taking place in Israel’s leadership structure. They are 1 Samuel 7, 1 Samuel 12 and 2 Samuel 7. Not that the remainder of these books is ’non-theological,’ for theological presuppositions undergird the whole, but in these chapters a prophet expounds the divine word for each stage of the crisis through which the people of God are passing." [Note: Baldwin, p. 33.]

Note the continuation of the key word "hand" in this chapter (1 Samuel 7:3; 1 Samuel 7:8; 1 Samuel 7:13-14). It reflects the writer’s continuing interest in the source of true power.

Verses 2-35

III. SAMUEL AND SAUL 7:2-15:35

This third major part of 1 Samuel contains three subsections: Samuel’s ministry as Israel’s judge (1 Samuel 7:2-17), the kingship given to Saul (chs. 8-12), and the kingship removed from Saul (chs. 13-15). The main point seems to be Israel’s unjustified dissatisfaction with her sovereign God and its awful consequences. In spite of His people’s rejection, the Lord continued to show them mercy and faithfulness.

Verses 5-14

2. National repentance and deliverance 7:5-14

Mizpah (lit. watchtower, indicating an elevated site) was about two miles northwest of Samuel’s hometown, Ramah, on the central Benjamin plateau. [Note: On the significance of the six-fold repetition of Mizpah in this story, see John A. Beck, "The Narrative-Geographical Shaping of 1 Samuel 7:5-13," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:647 (July-September 2005):299-309.] Pouring out water symbolized the people’s feeling of total inability to make an effective resistance against their enemy (cf. Psalms 62:8; et al.). The people showed that they felt a greater need to spend their time praying to strengthen themselves spiritually than eating to strengthen themselves physically. They did this by fasting (skipping a meal or meals). [Note: On the practice of fasting, see Kent D. Berghuis, "A Biblical Perspective on Fasting," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:629 (January-March 2001):86-103.] They admitted that what they had been doing was a sin against God (cf. 1 John 1:9). The writer described Samuel as one of Israel’s judges similar in function to Gideon, Samson, and others, at this time (cf. Judges 6:25-27).

The Israelites sensed their continuing need for God’s help and appealed to Samuel to continue to intercede for them (1 Samuel 7:8). Samuel gave intercession priority in his ministry because he realized how essential it was to Israel’s welfare (cf. 1 Samuel 12:23). All spiritual leaders should realize this need and should give prayer priority in their ministries. The suckling young lamb he sacrificed for the people represented the nation as it had recently begun to experience new life because of its repentance (1 Samuel 7:9). The burnt offering was an offering of dedication, but it also served to make atonement for God’s people (cf. 1 Samuel 24:25; Leviticus 1:4; Job 1:5; Job 42:8).

After the tabernacle left Shiloh, the Israelites may have pitched it at Mizpah. Since Samuel offered a burnt offering there (1 Samuel 7:9), perhaps that is where the tabernacle stood. Nevertheless at this time the Israelites made offerings to God at other places too (cf. 1 Samuel 7:17).

God’s deliverance was apparently entirely supernatural (1 Samuel 7:10), probably to impress the people with His ability to save them in a hopeless condition and to strengthen their faith in Him. Baal was supposedly the god of storms, but Yahweh humiliated him here. [Note: See Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "The Polemic against Baalism in Israel’s Early History and Literature," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:603 (July-September 1994):277; and idem, "Yahweh versus the Canaanite Gods: Polemic in Judges and 1 Samuel 1-7," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007):165-80.] The location of Bethcar is still uncertain, but most scholars believe it was near Lower Beth-horon, about 8 miles west of Mizpah toward the Philistine plain.

Scholars also dispute the site of Shen (1 Samuel 7:12). The Israelites memorialized God’s help with a stone monument that they named Ebenezer (lit. stone of help). This Ebenezer is quite certainly not the same as the one the writer mentioned in 1 Samuel 4:1 and 1 Samuel 5:1. It was another memorial stone that marked God’s action for His people (cf. Genesis 35:14; Joshua 4:9; Joshua 24:26). [Note: See Carl F. Graesser, "Standing Stones in Ancient Palestine," Biblical Archaeologist 35:2 (1972):34-63.] It announced the reversal of previous indignities and was a symbol of reintegration. [Note: Gordon, pp. 107-8.] This victory ended the 40-year oppression of the Philistines (1124-1084 B.C.; cf. Judges 3:30; Judges 8:28). However, the Philistines again became a problem for Israel later (cf. 1 Samuel 9:16).

The memorial stone bore witness to the effectiveness of trusting the Lord and His designated judge. If the Lord had helped the people thus far, what need was there for a king? This incident shows that the people should have continued following the leadership of the judges that God had been raising up for them. This was not the right time for a king.

The concluding reference to peace with the Amorites may imply that this victory began a period of peace with the Amorites as well as with the Philistines. The Amorites had controlled the hill country of Canaan, and the Philistines had dominated the coastal plain. The native Canaanites, here referred to as Amorites, would have profited from Israel’s superiority over the Philistines since the Philistines were more of a threat to the Canaanites than were the Israelites. [Note: Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, a Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E., p. 418. ] Often in the Old Testament "Amorites" (Westerners) designates the original inhabitants of Canaan in general.

Verses 15-17

3. Samuel’s regular ministry 7:15-17

In addition to providing the special leadership just described, Samuel’s ministry as a judge in Israel included regular civil, as well as spiritual, leadership. He was active especially in the tribal territory of Benjamin and in the town of Bethel just north of Benjamin in Ephraim’s tribal allotment. Samuel covered a four-town circuit as preacher (prophet) and judge. He was obviously similar to the other judges in the Book of Judges, all of whom also served local regions primarily. It is not clear whether the Gilgal referred to here was the Gilgal in the Jordan Valley near Jericho, or whether it was another Gilgal located a few miles north of Bethel. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 76, said it was the latter as did Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, p. 95, but I have not been able to verify the existence of a Gilgal there.] The fact that Samuel built an altar (1 Samuel 7:17) illustrates his response to God’s grace and his commitment to Yahweh (cf. Genesis 12:7; et al.).

"Brief as the portrait of Samuel here is, it gives us a glimpse of the ideal ruler. He had been provided by God and trained by him; he now showed himself able to read his people’s minds and capable of rebuking them effectively. He was decisive in word and action, and he was fully in touch with God. Nor is his concern to provide justice purely coincidental. Yet the irony was that such a ruler was precisely the man whom Israel rejected, as chapter 8 will show. Political unrest may mirror inadequate or oppressive leadership; on the other hand, it may well demonstrate the fatal flaws in human nature. Exactly the same may be true of unrest within any human community, including a local congregation." [Note: Payne, p. 39.]

Samuel’s personal faithfulness to God qualified him for spiritual leadership and resulted in God blessing Israel. He was God’s man, calling the people back to faithful obedience to His will so they could experience His blessing.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 7". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-7.html. 2012.