Samuel emerging? Or Samuel submerging?
(1 Samuel 4:1b–7:2)
It started with an historic two or three days of slaughter. Israel lost the opening battle. Four thousand men were killed. Imagine that on the six o clock news! If four thousand men had died in any encounter in the gulf war or Afghanistan, there would have been national mourning. The narrative proves that twenty years after this, Samuel’s prophetic will was consulted on anything major on the national horizon, especially going to war. But until Eli was gone, and there was nobody else in contention for leadership or judgeship but the young man Samuel, the military leaders tended to do their thing and ignore Eli utterly. At least, if Eli protested, he was ignored. Samuel, perceived so clearly as waiting in the side aisles as a great forthcoming leader, had not yet arrived, as it were, as the godly decision maker of the Hebrew people.
The Israelite military leaders were not to be put off by this initial trouncing and loss of four thousand men. However, they were more foolish than brave! Determined to beat off the threat of the Philistines, they sent messengers hastily the twenty four mile trek in a south easterly compass point to Shiloh. They demanded the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. They believed, superstitiously and wrongly, that the ark could be used as some kind of talisman – cum – lucky charm to bring defeat to their most dread enemy. Hophni and Phinehas were the unfortunate guardians of the ark in this context. So where the ark went whilst on its travels, there were the two sons of Eli. They probably saw in this venture an opportunity to have their name down in one of the Israeli annals.
The Israelites were hyped up to fever pitch with the Ark’s arrival in camp the following day. They shouted and partied so loud, it actually put even more backbone into the Philistines.
A second battle ensued. Israel lost again. Not only were the survivors humiliated by running all the way back to their homes, but thirty thousand (30,000) died on the battlefield. We are talking, “Major National Disaster.” They also lost on the same day, as Jehovah had foretold, Hophni and Phinehas. To cap it all, the Ark was taken.
When the battle weary Israelite survivors fled to their homes, one Benjamite, traditionally thought by Jewish Rabbi’s to be the man that was later their first King, ran to Shiloh to break the news. Eli was sat in the city gates, anxious and nervously waiting for the news of the Ark. The narrative states that he was trembling for the artefact. It is this line of the text that informs us that they had taken the sacred box to the battlefield against Eli’s will; yet he could do nought to prevent the war lords, or his dastardly sons, doing what they wanted.
As the skeletal story of scripture is told, the picture revealed is startling. Firstly the soldier ran straight past Eli and into the city to tell the general population. Why did he do that? Is it a symbolic suggestion of how Eli was not considered by the populace. There is uproar in the city as the messenger spreads the news. Everybody, it seems, knew before the inter regnum High Priest. Then the soldier returns to Eli as he leaves the city of Shiloh.
“We’ve lost the war, and fled before the Philistines!” That is extremely bad news. But Eli sits and waits for more. I paraphrase. “There’s a great slaughter!” Whether or not he knew the numbers is not mentioned. 30K is indeed somewhat of a slaughter, and a national disaster to put it mildly. But Samuel soaks in the shocks and still waits for more. “Your sons Hophni and Phinehas are dead!” Yet again the liquid grief that is thrown at him is absorbed by the sponge of his experience and foreknowledge, given by the word of the Lord. “And the Ark of God is taken!” The prophetic words had hinted at catastrophe and hissing ears, but nothing so earth shattering as this. With the blasting shock of the messenger’s last remark, Eli fell off his seat backward. We are then informed that he died with such a fall because, “he was ninety-eight years old and was quite rotund.” He broke his neck and was taken to wherever God took the righteous dead in the Old Testament days. (That’s another story; so I leave that remark alone for today!)
Phinehas’s wife, probably in Shiloh, broke into labour with the news of the death of both her husband and brother in law, and now her father in law. The child she bore was unfortunately named, “The glory is departed,” or “Ichabod,” with her dying breath. Catastrophe’s indeed! And all this in one day.
Sure enough, Jehovah had revealed to Samuel that the ears of anybody who heard the story would hiss, and this is exactly what happened to the old adoptive father of Samuel for those last few seconds before his death. He knew of shocks coming, like the death of his sons on the same day. Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the loss of the gold covered box. National outbreaks of Tinitus set in.
History, as told by archaeological findings, tells us that Shiloh fell, “shortly,” after the taking of the Ark. I rather think it was actually, “on the same day.” The account in First Samuel omits any remarks about the occurrence itself. However, Psalm 78:59-64 reads:
God heard it and his anger burned; He deeply abhorred Israel. He forsook the dwelling at Shiloh, the tabernacle which he had pitched among men; Yes, He delivered His Ark into captivity and its glory into the hand of a foe. He abandoned His people to the sword and poured His anger on His inheritance. The fire consumed their young men and their maidens were not serenaded. The priests fell by the sword and their widows made no mourning.
Jeremiah also refers to the catastrophe while addressing the goings on in Jerusalem in his generation (7:12, 14-15);
“…then I will make this house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all the nations of the earth. Then the prophets seized Jeremiah and said: “You shall surely die! Why have you prophesied in the Lord’s name saying! This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city will be desolate without an inhabitant.” And the people were gathered around Jeremiah in the Lord’s house.”
But back to things when they were at the absolute rock bottom for Israel.
For the next seven months Yahweh himself broke out among the Philistines in powerful judgment. The Ark was the, “Ark of the covenant.” It was not to be entertained and held by uncircumcised and non covenantal people. Disease and more disease, idols bowing down to Yahweh, topped by deep and debilitating fear ravaged the nerve of the nation of the pentapolic nation of giants, and the ark was finally returned with deepened and solidified superstition and a mind boggling fear of God. Finally, after moving via Beth-Shemesh, a town in southern Israel, the covenant box of the Almighty rested at a village called Kiriath-Jearim. A man called Abinadab received it into his home. He set his son Eleazar to guard it. It was in Abinadab’s front room (where else would you put such an item? The Attic?) for possibly up to a hundred years. (It may have been removed and then replaced on occasions, for Saul, later, at one time asked to consult the sacred box).
So: where on earth was our hero and prophet for this, possibly the most dramatic aspect of our narrative? From the latter part of 4:1 through to 7:3, Samuel is just not mentioned. Query!
What happened while the prophet was on this, “vacation,” was the very catastrophe that ultimately presented Samuel with the opportunity to shine and move in the full stature of his gifting some twenty years later and thereafter. But where was he all this time? Did he run? Was he in hiding? How come the man was not in high profile prophetic activity while this, the greatest national catastrophe since the plagues of Egypt, was taking place?
Samuel, in the context of our story, is now an adult. He is acknowledged as a prophet. Although he undoubtedly could have spoken into the nation’s situation and brought a semblance of healing, there is no report of any “Samuelian” input.
Yet again we are reduced to conjecture. Any of the following ideas are equally possible. Some have a slightly stronger argument of logic to support them than others.
As a first suggestion he may simply have been ignored. Yes! He was acknowledged as a prophet, but the state of the people’s hearts in the nation was such that, perhaps, such a realisation did not mean too much to them at the time of the loss of the Ark. A sort of, “If Samuel is a prophet of God, how come he didn’t speak up and stop the Ark from being stolen?” attitude. It was a spiritually shell shocked people that Samuel was left to deal with. They had known centuries of decline with the priesthood. A generation of evil anarchic conduct at the tabernacle by Hophni and Phinehas had developed a breed of Israeli’s that had no concept of Godly and powerful men handling the sacrificial system instituted by God Himself. Eli had not exactly shown an example of dynamic leadership and farsightedness. And now all the religious crutches of pomp, ceremony, ancient artefacts and national pride were virtually nonexistent after that fateful, horrific day at Aphek where so many had died along with the missing Ark. On top of all this, there was thirty-four thousand; leaders of men, and people from all ranks of life missing after the slaughter on the battlefields of Aphek. So, now all they had was a man – this fellow named Samuel ben Elkanah. “Other nations have systems, temples, national Gods and strong High Priests,” they could have complained, ”Our God doesn’t even fight for us.” Even as a prospective judge Samuel didn’t fit in to the battling, fighting, field-marshal mode. Therefore, my hypothesis number one is that Samuel may have been left to grow and develop quietly back in his native Ramah out of the public eye until such a time as, either the nation asked for him, or God told him to stand up and speak. Could be!
Or, secondly, did he just ignore them? Did Samuel reflect the anger of God as suggested in the biblical quotes concerning the fall of Shiloh above? Get hold of Samuel’s emotional responses. Remember the later story of the elders asking for a king and Samuel’s emotional hurt? Recall the even later account of his feelings when King Saul turned his back on obedience. Recollect his grief over the state of the nation under a tyrannical Saul, prior to the anointing of David. This definite, “gift,” of, “feeling as God feels,” and living with such intensity of feeling, was a common experience for Samuel. It is a common experience of prophets; period (full stop). In such a context it is easily conceivable that God’s anger was such that He refused to speak until the people sought for Him. Of course the Spirit of God would be hovering and brooding as ever He had been over the covenant people, urging them to draw near. But such was their coarse evil in taking the Ark into battle with them, and their general lack of spirituality, it may be that God withdrew, through the person of Samuel, to ignore them until repentance was evident. Consulting God, via Samuel, was not, as yet, on the agenda of the tribal or community leaders. Possible!
My third hypothesis, of course, is that Samuel was neither ignored, nor ignoring. Suggestion “nummer drei” is the possibility that after the loss of the ark, the death of Hophni, Phinehas and Eli, and the fall of Shiloh, Samuel was extremely busy, in fact, I suggest he may have been worked off his feet. For reasons that shall be explained as the story continues it is feasible to discern that though he was undoubtedly ignored immediately prior to the fateful losses at Aphek, he was busy circulating the nation like some travelling evangelist preaching repentance and comfort to all the tribes of Israel.
Of all these suggestions, number three has most to commend itself. In God’s economy generally, authority must be given, as opposed to taken. Whatever had been divinely planted in Samuel was not yet physically seen. The tender plant of Samuel was not yet in full bloom. He was gifted by God, yet not elevated and given position by the people with whom he was in so much favour. Accepting this hypothesis, we project a more general thesis as to what happened to Samuel throughout this tragic low ebb of Israel’s fortunes. There are certain accepted facts that serve to frame our conjecture.
I assume, as fact, that Shiloh fell immediately after the taking of the Ark. The ruins of Shiloh have been found. The experts pronounce 1050 BC as the date about which it was razed. This calamity is referred to in one or two points of the bible (see above), but is not explained with words that assist dating. I reckon Shiloh fell the same day, or very soon after Eli had died.
The second fact is that the Philistine’s aggression during this brief period of time won them territory eastward from the coastal plain, almost down to the Jordan. So we observe that the nadir of all Israel’s grief’s was reached with the following series of catastrophic events, both biblical and extra-biblical: The death of Eli; the annihilation of thousands upon thousands of its bravest sons; the loss of the Ark; the sacking of Shiloh; the taking of its strongest and most strategic military garrison points by the Philistines and the total fulfilment of the Philistine dream, to own the west bank and all between it and the Great Sea (The Mediterranean). Israel was in virtual submission to an idolatrous demonically inspired culture. All this served to blanket the nation with Humiliation. It was, indeed, the end of civilisation as Israel knew it at the time.
The memory of this moment was never lost throughout the history of the Old Testament. It is our assertion that at that instant of time, “The Lord awakened”, as one out of sleep, to give them the matured and mentored man of God: Samuel. Prior to Samuel standing up and taking leadership it seemed that nothing could stop Israel from fading and ultimately being wiped out. There is absolutely no doubt about this national collapse.
But we still have not answered our own question: Where was Samuel at Israel’s darkest moment?
I believe our man was out and about,“finding” his destiny.
We need to give a rationale as to why we make such a conjecture. I start with a list of acts. But I prefix this list showing the palms’ of my hands to the reader saying; “I have not the faintest idea of the times or chronological order of these events!” But don’t throw my thoughts away, for nobody else knows either, apart from God Himself.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Samuel was married. Somewhere after that, he had children; at least two sons; more than that is guess work. Again, somewhere in the middle of all this cataclysm and the passing of the years, Samuel moved house. He flitted back to the area of Ramah and lived there. The book says he lived at Naioth. “Naioth,” is Hebrew for, “home.” Jewish notes and writings always refer to, “Naioth,” prefixed with the definite article. It is always, “The Naioth.” It was also around this time also he commenced his school of the prophets, much more of which we shall say later.
God had been gradually conditioning the people and their perception of the man, so that when his moment of destiny would arrive, it would be easy for them to receive him as the God given national chieftain. As with all the, “end of the world,” cataclysms that took place in the continuum of Israel’s history, it ended as the birth of a wonderful new era. This particular, “worst ending,” undoubtedly and unarguably prefixed the, “best new beginning.”
The fact is recorded that the Ark of the Covenant was at Abinadab’s home for nigh on a hundred years, known only to have been removed by Saul for a time. The first twenty years of this hundred or so years were filled with revival burning in the hearts of the people of Israel. There is something very touching in this note of two decades. I have a feeling that we hear Samuel’s own words here. The unwearied prophet of God found the two decades a wearisome test of his patience; a veritable trial.
The statement immediately following the darkest day in Israel’s history says: “And all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” I don’t think its right to suppose that only after twenty years did the nation start seeking God. I perceive it as a gradual groundswell of people growing in number, fervency and understanding that took two decades to explode into the time when Samuel, “stood to his feet.” It was indeed a stern time of trial. These twenty years, however, were essential in the educational maturing of Samuel’s posture and gravitas before God and the people. Samuel was circuiting the country during these two decades. If Samuel was not travelling he had others who would do it for him. I am bound to link Samuel’s activity as a prophet and preacher to the spiritual revival that took twenty years to come to full blossom. It was two hundred and forty months of underground activity, until it finally broke out as a volcano of godliness throughout the country.
The early zeal and dreams of his boyhood were scattered to the wind. The desolation of Aphek and the sacking of Shiloh had laid Israel submissively under the jack boot of the Nazi like xenophobia of Philistia’s inhabitants. The oppressors made their presence bitterly felt. The returned Ark did not suggest the slightest slacking of their grip on the throat of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Taught by the bitter lessons of adversity, it seems to have dawned on Samuel that it was not a Samson, or a Gideon type action, but a national all round thorough grounding in Godliness that would turn the tide of oppression. Something deep down and wholesome would be needed before the battle cry of the lions of Judah, or the war cry of Ephraim could take place in victory. Samuel had faith in people personally turning to God en masse. It was his vision of this sort of battle that made him what he was. Samuel saw, a thousand years before Christ, that the real battle was for the hearts and minds of people to be turned to God.
Whatever else he did, or could have done with his life during these twenty years we are not told. It is conceived by some that he was a fugitive from “Philistine justice.” It is thought by some that it was he who is mentioned in Hebrews eleven as, “hiding in the caves,” as he furtively travelled the area teaching and preaching a heavy statement of repentance. Personally, I cannot perceive of him in hiding with the entire context of First Samuel in mind. Preaching and teaching I am sure he did, though to what size audiences we cannot say. Whatever the truth was, gradually their came a spiritual awareness that the nation was sensitive to, and prepared for, by the time that Samuel started speaking to Israel en bloc as a full blown national prophet. Critical mass had arrived. The bomb was about to explode.
“The house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” The Syriac version suggests that they all flung themselves down on the ground before God. Some brains suggest that they merely gathered together in some communal demonstration of repentance. Others say that it means, “Israel quieted themselves in a period of quiet devotion to Yahweh.” The King James Bible is best on this. This lamenting, or “hungering” after God, was a work of the Spirit of God, via the preaching and prayer ministry of Samuel.
It was twenty years of comparative silence where God had his man ready for a high destiny. Oh, how we would like to rush the account and let Samuel, “at them,” and in harness immediately. True revival, however, takes time to root itself and become a way of life, rather than just to give the froth and bubble of an overnight splash that wets everybody yet still leaves the people thirsty.
Where is the man of God when you most need him? This man of God was busy and active, waiting for that moment when God would whisper in his ear, “Now! This is the very moment that they need you the most Samuel! Stand up and prophecy. Say: “This is what the LORD God of Israel says……”!”
Abraham had long spaces of silence if his story is dated properly. We have little of Isaac’s life considering the age at which he died. Jacob also had many years in silence. The difference, however, with Jacob is that the biblical cameras don’t leave him. He left his father and mother planning for a few days away, and finished up not returning for twenty one years. He never saw his mother gain. As far as Isaac, the carrier of the promise, was concerned, Jacob was away and hidden, as was Moses after him, and as was Samuel after him. Joseph had a long time of incubation. David also experienced the same, running around the caves and hills of Israel, Philistia and Jordan, hiding from the madness and despotic fervour of Saul. There are historical spaces in Elijah, and Elisha’s life. In fact Elijah appears on the biblical scene of time full grown. His previous life is totally hidden, and we have not even the slightest hint into his upbringing. By reading the dates given in Jeremiah’s prophecy, and more emphatic still in the book of Ezekiel, we have years of silence betwixt some of his dated Words.
Without doubt, the principle of incubation and long term secret development is an element of character breeding and progression that needs to be seen and observed in scripture. Many modern day prophets have similar accounts that leave the world wondering what it had missed while the man of God was in the hot-house of the school of the Holy Spirit.
God leaves men of God sometime to mature on the lees like expensive and costly wine to ensure the taste is universally received and appreciated.
- The Presence of God Does Not Guarantee Success (babatundekehinde.wordpress.com)
- On 1 Samuel 1-4 (reflectingchristian.wordpress.com)
- 1 Samuel 4-8 (whatshotn.wordpress.com)
- 1 Samuel 4 (heartchangeroc.wordpress.com)
- Preface (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- First Prophet? Samuel? (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)