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Hitting Rock Bottom

Date: Oct. 10, 2010

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

1 Samuel 7:2-17

Key Verse: 1 Samuel 7:3

“And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’”

Have you ever hit rock bottom? Have you ever hit the place where all hope is lost and you are so miserable and burdened and broken? Have you ever lived in fear or shame for all the terrible things you have done? Maybe you are there now. You are miserable and burdened and broken. Maybe you’ve been there before and are back there again. It sucks, right? In this passage, the Israelites hit rock bottom. All their terrible deeds and duplicity just left them bare, broken, and oppressed by the Philistines. They realize that the answer to their problems is not in their hands, but in God and they finally abandon their old ways and serve God only. Let’s look at what happened in this passage and know that our lives are not that much different.

The passage starts out, “It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the Lord.” (2) A couple of passages back, the Israelites fought a battle with the Philistines and the ark of the Lord, the place where the stone tablets of Moses was stored and what has considered to be God’s throne, was captured by the Philistines. Israel mourned for the loss of the ark and all the people were filled with great grief. The wife of one of the slain priest’s gave birth prematurely to a son and named him Ichabod, which means “no glory”. This woman was upset that the ark was taken and she said that the glory of the Lord had departed from Israel. For seven months, the ark went from Philistine city to Philistine city. And wherever it went, it caused death and devastation. Finally, the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel, to Beth Shemesh a town on the border of Israel. When it arrived, the people were joyous, but even there the Lord’s hand was heavy on the people because they did not respect the Holy Ark and they did what was explicitly forbidden, they took a peek inside. Seventy people died that day for their disrespect of the Lord, and the Israelites sent the ark to Kiriath Jearim, where according to this passage it sat for twenty years. The people lamented at the loss of the ark because it represented God abandoning them, but when the ark was returned it was placed in someone’s house and essentially forgotten for two decades.

What was going on during those twenty years? Politically, since there was no king in Israel and God had departed from them, there was no central government and the Philistines became their overlords. Even though God showed their supremacy over the Philistines, the Philistines still defeated the Israelites at their last battle twenty years and seven months prior. It was a known practice that the Philistines would prevent any Israelite from becoming a blacksmith for fear that the Israelites would make weapons. They had to go to Philistine territory to sharpen their farm tools. (1 Samuel 13:19-21) The Israelites were essentially slaves to the Philistines and were treated like mud on the bottoms of their boots.

Spiritually, the Israelites did whatever they pleased. Their official priest was gone. Their instruction in worshipping the Lord was probably limited and there were not many people to teach them. They didn’t see a leader and they followed their own hearts and thoughts, and they started taking bits and pieces of other beliefs and adding them to their worship of God until they were at the point of worshipping other gods just to cover all bases. They started worshipping the Baals and the Ashtoreths, the Canaanite fertility gods. The Canaanites thought that they were responsible for bringing the rain and giving a good crop. Baal and Ashtoreth worship involved a number of things, including ritualistic sex. They thought that worship sex would please the gods and they would give rain for the crops. The Israelites preferred that sort of worship and prayer to attending a prayer meeting and they thought that it didn’t matter how they prayed. It all ended up in the same place. There are many ways to God, right? They didn’t abandon God. There were just some parts about worshipping God that they didn’t like, so they made some changes. Where’s the harm?

I see a lot of our culture and society falling into this trap. There are a lot of nice sounding thoughts out there. There are those nice bumper stickers that say “Coexist” and the word is composed of symbols from various religions. Then there are those who promote meditation to get in touch with yourself. You have the power within you – you just have to look hard enough. There are some things that really sound close to what God would tell us. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” That sounds Christian, right? Do you know where the quote is from? It does not come from the Bible. The quote comes from Mahatma Ghandi. If you know Ghandi then you know that he was not Christian at all. We can learn from non-Christians, but we have to be careful. We cannot let the voices and thoughts of the world supercede what the Bible actually says. When we supplant the word of God with the words of the world, like the Israelites did, then we are prostituting ourselves out to the other beliefs. The Bible uses the imagery that the church is God’s bride. If that bride starts getting intimate little by little with other gods, then she has just committed adultery. We might think that a little bit is ok, but a little prostitution is not ok. There is no such thing and we would never expect our spouse to understand such a thing, but we expect God to. I don’t think that anybody intends to replace God’s word with something else. It just happens because someone hears some thought that sounds great. Oprah used to be known as a Christian, but over time her beliefs have become more pluralistic and she follows something that more closely resembles mysticism that Christianity. Her own father can see that she is no longer a Christian even though she may still believe that she is.

When we add foreign beliefs to our worship, like the Israelites did, it doesn’t help anything. In fact it makes things worse. Prostitutes after a while get worn out and nasty. Any beauty they may have had has long since shriveled away. That’s what happens to our soul when we believe something more than God. We become broken and worn out and that is exactly where the Israelites were at the beginning of this passage. They pushed God away for twenty years and now their souls were worn out. They hit rock bottom and cried out, “What have we done?” When they hit rock bottom, as verse 2 says, they mourned and sought after the Lord. They prayed to all their gods and it did nothing. With nowhere else to go, Israel sought after God. They remembered something and went back.

During this time, there was no priest, but Samuel was serving as a prophet and interim priest. Although he couldn’t have the official office, because he wasn’t from the priestly line of Aaron, Samuel still ministered before the Lord, and God kept speaking to him. For twenty years, Samuel preached to Israel, but I don’t think anyone listened to him because he didn’t have the credentials of a priest. Samuel didn’t go to seminary or a council of elders didn’t bless him, so Israel didn’t listen to him. However, when Israel finally sought after God, they remembered that God was with Samuel, and went to him. Through Samuel, we can see the importance of living good Christian lives that everyone can see. We want to share the Bible, that’s part of our mission, but most of the time, the people closest to us don’t listen to us. The people of Nazareth wouldn’t listen to Jesus because they knew his family and they knew him from his youth. But in this passage, we can see how important it is to maintain a Christian life that everyone can see. When the people turned to God, they remembered that Samuel was the God guy and they went to him seeking the Lord. Samuel waited twenty years for his people to come back and they did. There is hope for all the people around us, like our parents, children, coworkers and classmates. You may not think that they are listening, but when they hit rock bottom, they will remember that you are the God guy or God lady and ask for your help.

When Israel came to Samuel, he told them exactly what they needed to do. “And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’” (3) Samuel saw that their anguish and condition was due to their duplicity. Their hearts were divided and the only way for them to get back to God was to get rid of everything else that cluttered up their hearts. They had to get rid of the foreign gods and serve the Lord only. The Israelites had to commit themselves to God

And that is just what the Israelites did. “So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, ‘Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the Lord for you.’ When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah.” (4-6) Israel threw away their idols and turned to God and started to serve him only. Then, they assembled all in one place and gave themselves to the Lord. They took water and poured it out before God. This is the only place in the Bible where this offering is recorded. It may have symbolized the complete pouring out of the soul to the Lord, offering him everything. The Israelites recognized their sins. All their misdeeds were not merely mistakes they were sins against God. When they started worshipping the other gods, the Israelites were sinning against God. However, when they realized what they had done, they returned to God, by fasting and confessing their sins.

Public confession is one of the first steps to be reconciled with God. It is powerful and effective. The Bible says in two different areas, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) and, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) These two verses fall in line with what Samuel told the Israelites to do. If they were to repent, then God would forgive them. Now, repentance is not only feeling regret and saying that you are sorry. Repentance is recognizing that you have done wrong and confessing that wrong, but it also involves turning away from that wrong, turning back to God and committing your life to him. Last week, the Philistines realized that they were guilty before God and they offered a guilt offering, but they didn’t turn away from their sinful lives. However, here, the Israelites do more than say they are sorry. They turn back to God. You can see it when the Philistines started to draw near.

As the Israelites were assembled at Mizpah, the Philistines came to attack them. Naturally, Israel became afraid, but in their fear you can see their repentance. “They said to Samuel, ‘Do not stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.’” (8) The Israelites were afraid and asked Samuel to intercede for them, but contrast with how they reacted to defeat Ebenezer from chapter 4. Then they said, “Let us bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” (1 Samuel 4:3) Do you see the difference? When Israel was lost, they made up their own minds to use the ark like a super-weapon. They wanted to drop the A-bomb on the Philistines. They referred to the ark as an “it”. Their relationship with God was impersonal and they treated him as a means to get what they wanted. Now, with a repentant heart, the Israelites asked Samuel to cry out to the Lord their God, that he may rescue them. In their words, God is no longer an “it”, he is a “he”. Their perception of God was no longer impersonal, but it became personal. That is a sign of repentance and a sign of their commitment to the Lord.

A lot of us don’t like commitment. It conjures up imagery of being strapped down and burdened. If you are committed to something, then you don’t have the freedom to do what you want. And giving up freedom is not something that we like to do. We fight for freedom, why would be give it up? But think of commitment another way: you love your family, right? You love your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children. You would never turn your back on them, right? That’s commitment that is driven by love, and that is the type of commitment that we should have towards God. He is our heavenly Father. When we realize that God is not a generic supernatural force, but that he is a being that we can have a relationship with, that’s when things start to change in our own lives. When our prayers go from a superficial laundry list to an actual conversation with God our Father, then we can really repent and commit ourselves to God. When we can sincerely say, “Dad, I’ve done wrong again. I am so weak in myself, and I have sinned against you again. I deserve death, but I ask your forgiveness. Change me. Help me to do your will”…when we can sincerely say something like that, then we have repented and we really are committed to him.

The Bible says that when we confess, God will forgive us, but the Bible also says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22) Because of the nature of sin, it requires a sacrifice of blood to be atoned for. With the Israelites, Samuel did just that. “Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. He cried out to the Lord on Israel's behalf, and the Lord answered him.” (9) The sacrifice of a lamb was how Samuel offered atonement for the sins of Israel, so that they could be saved from their enemy. He cried out to in prayer God for their forgiveness and paid the blood price with the blood of the lamb. That sounds a little familiar. What Samuel did is reminiscent of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus was sacrificed as the Lamb of God to atone for our sins, so that we could be saved from the wrath of God. Peter wrote, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:18-19) Not only that, Jesus as priest and sacrifice cried out to God on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) His blood was poured out and his body broken because of our sins. Yet, when we repent, it by Christ’s blood that we are able to go back to God. The price of our sins was that the innocent Son of God would die in our place. Now, we can have hope. When we are in our darkest of places, we can come to God and be changed.

Look at the Israelites. They confessed their sins and repented by giving up their sinful ways and turning to God. Samuel prayed for them and sacrificed a lamb to atone for their sins and as the end of verse 9 says, “the Lord answered him.” God answered by creating a tremendous sound that was so great, that the Philistines became fearful, and turned tail and ran away. “The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car.” (11) Through Samuel’s prayer and sacrifice, the Israelites were changed from fearful men to victors in battle. God gave the Israelites strength, courage and victory over their enemies. His relationship with his people was restored and for as long as Samuel was leading Israel, the Philistines did not attack and some of the towns that the Philistines took were restored to Israel.

How does that bode for us? Well, we all need to repent. We all have ideas that are contrary to what the Bible says. Either we are doing the wrong things or we are not doing the right things. Maybe you are also worshipping the god of money or the god of sports or the god of success. You seek after these things more than you seek after the Lord. Maybe you think that you’re still a Christian, but are you really following what the Bible says? Are you obeying God’s words? We are called to serve people with the Word of God, but our Outreach and Inreach groups seemed to have dried up. We have had one outreach event, and I guess that we think that we have done enough. And, planning for Fridays is now non-existent. We are busy with our lives and we neglect our relationship with God. You know what, I am the chief among sinners. I feel so busy all the time and when I have a moment to spare, I spend it reading news online or watching some TV. It doesn’t even enter my mind to pray or read the Bible, you know, to strengthen my relationship with God. I’ve got it in my head that I need to wind down by doing virtually nothing, but what happens is that relaxing does not relieve my stress and weariness from being busy. In fact, I tend to become more irritable, and become more easily frustrated. It can be to the point where even a harmless comment is taken the wrong way and I grow bitter and lash out. In my frustration, I yell and cause even more pain, and it is making me miserable and burdened by guilt. Going my own way does not work. Like the Israelites, I need to come back to God and commit my life to him. The best thing for my soul is not rest and relaxation; it is rest in the Lord. I repent for following my own ideas about what I need in my life. Father, I have sinned against you and against others. I have cause pain to your heart as I have neglected to come to you, Lord, for refreshment. I don’t need the things of this world to satisfy my soul. I need you. Empty me of all my thoughts and desires and fill me with you. Make me new and help me to rid myself of the anger that is deep inside of me. Strengthen me to endure, to overcome, and to be your son and servant again. In Jesus’ name, amen.

After the Philistines were defeated, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’” (12) Samuel set up a stone to commemorate what the Lord had done on that day. Humanity is a fickle bunch. We tend to forget, so Samuel erected a monument to honor God and remind his people of what he has done. We do that in this country. In order to remind us of what was done, we have all sorts of monuments. We have monuments to wars and Presidents, and days to remind us of the cost of our freedom. Christians have Christmas and Easter to remind us of God’s gift of eternal life and the great cost that came with it. It is a common thing to do and we should really remember what the Lord has done for us. To know that he is our Father and that we made a commitment to him.

The end of the passage has Samuel going on a circuit year after year (16). He is tending to his flock by bringing God’s word to the people and leading them. The victory at Mizpah solidified Samuel’s leadership of Israel and now he helped them maintain their spiritual lives. Under Samuel’s leadership, it was a time of peace in Israel because God’s hand was on the Philistines. (13-14) Israel was restored to her God, and God protected his bride. How about you? Have you hit rock bottom like Israel? Are you fed up with everything in your life and nothing works to help it? Are you frustrated or weary? Then, please look at your life. Take a good hard look. Are you seeking God to serve him only? Are you committed only to him as a bride is only committed to her husband? Open your eyes to see that you are not. God loves you more than you realize. Let go of your desires and wishes. Let go of everything that does not conform to him. Cry out to God for forgiveness and live for him alone. Don’t go down Oprah’s route. Rid yourselves of the foreign beliefs and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only.

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