MORE TROOPS THAN YOU CAN COUNT? MORE LIKE: MORE TROOPS THAN YOU CAN SEE.
Relax and let the angels take the strain.
(1 Samuel 7:6–12)
For something like a quarter of a century Samuel had been the principle personage among the people of Israel, and had, no doubt, long exercised the varied functions of a Judge of the nation of Israel. But their tribes were scattered and broken, many of their fortresses were under the jackboot (as it were . . . sandals really!) of their enemies. There was scarcely any communal national life per se in the existence of the multiple tribal identity 0t the one nation. In this, the first general assembling of Israel for several generations, the first public acknowledgement of Samuel’s towering character of leadership and authority was finally enacted. Together, en masse, he, alone, was postured by the unanimous Israeli national will in a leadership frame of reference.
The inter tribal unity was at its highest level since they had entered the Promised Land prior to the days of the book of Judges. Some reckon that to be more than 400 years previous. For the moment their parochial self interest was abandoned for the national good. Not that all jealousies were dropped. There are several times in the days of Saul, and later in the days of David and Solomon where the northern tribes continually show their displeasure at the favour granted to Judah and the southernmost tribes (Benjamin and Simeon) as opposed to the northern peoples. This inferiority complex or “North-South divide” existed until both the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah were exiled, something like five hundred years after the day of which we are now speaking. This residue of hate was never cleansed from the barrel of the cosmos that was Israel, even in Samuel’s day. However, Samuel’s strength of character and purposeful input into the various tribes must have repressed all outward expressions for a while.
The anti-Judah jealousy was probably still existent in spite of Samuel’s strength, in as much as he spent his life in Benjamin and Ephraim. His circuit was in the same area, and only once do we actually have word of his travelling further north, and that was because enemy forces drew him there while our prophet was chaperoning Saul on his early monarchical prerogatives.
With a new God consciousness, and without the intemperate ideas of the idols and the licentious acts of worship that the priests of such false deities demanded, Israel came innocently and unarmed to a simple worship gathering at Mizpah, called and convened by Samuel himself. This in itself was an act of repentance. It was a total abandonment of all the things the Canaanites loved most, especially the Philistines, namely armed violence and pillaging. After twenty years of toil, Samuel had actually opened the eyes of the covenant people as to why they had suffered so much misfortune. Without any weapons of war, they congregated to worship. With no idols to hinder their prayer, the convocation of the masses commenced. The abandoned false gods represented the productive power of nature. They were generally worshipped with a wild and wanton devotion. Now they commenced their worship by pouring out water in the sand, although, it does not say Samuel did so. Did the people act apart from his instructions? It must be conceded that it was a brand new tradition typical of Samuel’s creativity.
The King James Bible suggests that all the people gathered water and poured it out before God, enacted with fasted hungry bellies, saying, “We have sinned against the Lord.” They were thus enacting their spiritual posture that owned themselves as water, poured and soaked into the sands of time which cannot, under any circumstances, be re-gathered.
The seventh chapter of John’s gospel tells of a major ceremony that was conducted on an annual basis in the temple at Jerusalem, where the very same pouring of water took place. The event was such a major one that drains and conduits were awkwardly put into place within the Temple area simply to facilitate the procedure. Reasoning from the King James Bible,this striking action which drew forth Jesus cry, “If any man thirst let him come to me and drink,” seems to voice the same meaning as what happened at Mizpah that day. The nation of Israel was unified in seeking heavenly refreshment.
The Chaldean version of the same verse reads: “They gathered together and poured out their hearts like water in repentance before the Lord.”
It is still exciting to contemplate. The fasting and the actions, whichever is the truest interpretation (and why not both?) brought them into a place of righteous standing with Yahweh. God accounts faith as righteousness to people, and has always done so.
After a day’s active repentance, the bible says that Samuel judged them there, in Mizpah. His judgement was undoubtedly on things spiritual as well as temporal. Things religious as well as civil. Things criminal as well as things concerning the people’s walk with God. He was, to them, the embodiment of the expressed word and wisdom of God, and they acknowledged him as such.
There would be times when he sat to hear their cases. There would be times when he rose to address them. “He judged them.” The vast congregation would have gathered around the man as he arose to address them. He had led them ad hoc for twenty years, but now he was THE leader, acknowledged, exalted and followed by all. It was official in the hearts of the people, although there was no written contract of role. Samuel took responsibility as and when he was required to.
Samuel would have assured them in God’s name of the pardon of the nation’s sin upon their repentance, and that Yahweh was reconciled to them. It was a judgment of absolution. Whereas before he acted only as a prophet, now he began to act as a magistrate, to prevent their relapsing into those sins which they had lately renounced. It must not be forgotten that he was also of the tribe of Levi – and therefore was a legitimate priest.
Picture the sheep as they gather needfully around their shepherd. See the man Samuel at his full stature. This was true spirituality in a haven like context far from the violence and murderous war like disposition of the surrounding populations.
However, while these days of national corrective assessment were taking place, there was a severe rumbling in the valleys immediately beyond Mizpah.
The Philistine war lords were listening to their spies and their counsellors. To them it seemed that revolution and warfare were in the air. The economy of the Philistine cities had taken a turn for the worse. The intermingling with the Israeli people at the shrines had decidedly decreased, and well nigh ceased. There was news in the Philistine Five Cities of idols being burnt and shrines being neglected or destroyed amongst the people of Israel. The breaking down of the idol memorials would have been seen, at the very least, as a revolution. “You burn our gods and idols? You obviously are planning war!” This would have been the conclusions arrived at by all the uncircumcised, heathen nations and peoples that were still living among them in Israel’s promised land. And now to confirm all their worst nightmares and fears, the entire nation of the Israeli tribes had met at Mizpah.
There is really only one conclusion a war minded cynical idolatrous heathen could arrive at. This so called “religious meeting” at Mizpah was undoubtedly a rallying point for inciting war. They were beseeching Yahweh to aid them to defeat the Philistine ranks, and any other ranks about them. There could not be any other explanation, given the understood Philistine Paradigm.
To an idolatrous mind, and to someone who tenaciously clung to the concept of a national god who fought only for the nation who owned it, it was a call to arms for the Philistines. The five Philistine kings would have taken heart that Yahweh “obviously” had his weak point, as they had defeated the Israelis twenty years earlier at Aphek, and had stolen the Ark of the covenant. The Philistine priests had experienced the power of Yahweh, and for that reason they had returned the Ark to the Hebrews, but to ensure that there would be no national resurgence of religious fervour, they had razed Shiloh to the ground.
By the normal theology of the nations round about Israel at that time, it was a sure sign that Israel’s God could not help them. If the Ark and the tent were not being utilised for national worship, then to their mind, Yahweh could not be appeased, and therefore they would be at a great advantage on the battlefield. With all these deliberations assuring them of victory, at least to their heathen satisfaction, they set out to finish the Israelis off whilst they were still bowing the knee in prayer at Mizpah.
When the Hebrew sentries on the fringe of the incredibly large gathering looked down the valleys and saw the dark shadow of Philistine forces moving across the green land toward them, they were absolutely petrified.
The brief, minimal language of the bible cannot hide the tension and the terror that gripped them all. Naturally speaking, they were without a chance.
However, in the midst of the fearful screams the reality of their spiritual renewal surfaced and dominated their thinking.
They dared to ask for the seemingly ridiculous; an invasive, intrusive miracle.
The unarmed and mostly untrained people shouted together asking Samuel to pray for them. “Isn’t Samuel equal to Moses, or Joshua?” Why not make such a request? Picture the panic! See the screaming society of farmers hallucinate on the horror of their terror! They had not been to war for twenty years. After all 34,000 soldiers who were lost in a couple of battles with the Philistines so many years earlier had knocked the life out of Israel, as well as the desire to fight even for their land. Too many families had lost too many loved ones. They had arrived at Mizpah with their wives and children with nothing but the picnics and clothes they stood up in. They had gathered for spiritual warfare, not physical battles. They had nothing but their prayers, tears and repentance to fight with. But always remember that repentance and faith are surely the most powerful weapons in the whole of the cosmos. Their new spiritual posture was proven to be properly rooted, as they remembered the old days of Moses and Joshua. And so, with no other option, apart from running for their lives of course, they, as one man asked Samuel to pray.
Never could an injurious attack have been more in season. Never were Israel better prepared to receive their enemy. Samuel was never perceived as a military man, nor as a mighty man of valour in the, “Stand up and fight with your sword,” interpretation of that phrase, yet they asked for his help. However, Samuel was a mighty man of valour in a different battlefield than that of Aphek or Socoh. Samuel had a different kind of sword with which to decapitate Israel’s enemies. The prophet had a different army to mobilise.
From the heights of Mizpah they could see the Philistines approaching.
Samuel acts without a word. God must act here and now in miraculous power and glory, or this is the end of Israel as well as their prophet. He quickly sacrifices a single suckling lamb. It was a burnt offering, i.e. nothing eaten or reserved for human benefit. Totally God’s. The entire animal. One instead of hundreds – for it was the heart that God looks at, not the amount of blood that was shed.
One cannot but feel the urgency in Samuel’s actions. He sacrifices the lamb and screams aloud in prayer. The thing seems to have been done hurriedly. Time was short. Death was near approaching in the cloud of the Philistine war whoops. The rites and practices imposed by the law could not be followed to the letter here, there was nothing like enough time. Perhaps the fact that Samuel only offered one lamb was for no other reason than the shortage of time that they had. The Philistines were almost upon them.
He was a Levite, not an Aaronic descendent to act as High Priest. He was, however, raised as a prophet. And thus, because of the uniqueness of his calling, and the tenderness of his heart towards the Almighty, God Himself sidesteps the formalities of the law. The moment was unique and extraordinary.
At the moment of the sacrifice God blew, and then overthrew. As Samuel prayed, and while the smoke of the sacrifice was still ascending, the first line of the Philistine storm troopers appeared over the top most slope of Mizpah. But, at that very moment a terrible portentous hail storm broke out, with earth shaking peals of thunder.
The Philistines immediately felt (to put it mildly) that this change in the weather was not to their benefit. They may have even concluded that it was Yahweh- fighting on Israel’s behalf. If they thought that, they would have been correct. They turned, in great disarray and pandemonium. The wind blew, and the rain fell, the Philistines flew and many of them also fell. The men of Israel suddenly understood. Yahweh of the angel armies was fighting on their behalf. There are those that fight for God, and there are those that God fights for.
With an awesome resurgence of courage and faith, they all started chasing the enemy as fast and as far as they could. Israel chased and abased their enemy. As in the battle two decades earlier God had justly chastised the people of Israel with two profane priests carrying the Ark of God on sinful shoulders, so now He graciously accepts their humble dependence on the prayer of faith from the mouth and heart of their pious prophet.
Once more as in the days of old. The glorious arm of Yahweh fought without need for swords and shields. The awful storm bursting over the formerly combatant hosts of Philistia, the storm probably beating in the face of the erstwhile advancing armed forces, utterly defeated them.
The children of Israel had started with little hope, if any, but were solely gripped with a great desire for God. Desire for God is always the better part. Desire for God is the quintessence of all that creates hope. The tribes welcomed the squall of bad weather as the answer to the prophet’s prayer, and with wild enthusiasm charged down and broke up the intense ranks of their oppressors, simply by running at them. They were without arms. Josephus adds to the scene and says there was also an earthquake.
Each crash of thunder, each wild and fresh gust of wind and hail was welcomed by Israel as a fresh onslaught on the part of the unseen army fighting on their side.
The men of Israel that had ran off so suddenly after the Philistine enemy forces were probably not seen for a couple of days at least. Any arms used by Israel were obviously those that were taken from the Philistine cadavers scattered all over Mizpah’s valley and Israel’s extensive plains.
The Philistines were chased as far as an unknown centre of population knows as, “Beth Car.” Wherever this place is on the map, it is obviously mentioned in order to make the point that the Philistines ran until they could run no more. And The Israelites chased them until there was no one else to chase.
All victories are sweet. But victories against a longstanding foe, on the same field as a previous humiliating slaughter was, dare one use the word in the context of warfare, almost “healing” for the nation.
The sense of release within the people of Israel must have been tremendous. The consciousness of Divine blessing must have been overwhelming. The eulogising of Samuel was surely so intense it would have been repeated every night around the camp and house fires until every survivor of that day had passed away.
Samuel was not, however, fooled into any kind of sense of his own “importance. As we would, by now expect of the man, he quickly instructs the people to set up a monument that would ensure the memory of that day would abide in the psyche of the nation, and strengthen the faith of Israel for generations to come. It was erected on the same field where such a tragic defeat had been inflicted a generation or so earlier. The scene of carnage reversed, now received the name of, “Eben-ezer,” meaning literally, “The stone of help.”
Samuel announced as they set up the monument, “Hitherto has the Lord helped us.” Somewhere between Mizpah and Shen the stone was placed. I wonder if it is still there.
This was not so much a solitary victory, but the sign of a new spirit in Israel. Samuel fully realised the importance of the day. Neither Shen – “the Tooth”, nor Mizpah – “the watchtower” have been definitely identified. The description probably denoted some famous landmark of Samuel’s time. It was essential for the building of their future.
The man of God knew that every “hitherto” with God has a “henceforth” wrapped around it.
- On 1 Samuel 26-31 (reflectingchristian.wordpress.com)
- Samuel: A Study In Character – “The Afterthought” (presbymusings.com)