Israel Hungry for the LORD

The children of Israel had been under the rule of the Philistine lords for many years. Hope of deliverance began to flicker in the days when the Lord raised up Samson, the son of Manoah, but he had judged Israel for twenty years. Those days seem so long ago and even now in the days of Eli, who was very old, Israel's suffering continued.

During the forty years Eli had been judge he also served as high priest in the house of the Lord at Shiloh. However, he neither led Israel to victory, nor delivered them from the hand of the Philistines. Israel was desperate to be rid of their Philistine oppressors.

Israel became dependent on him; they were looking to Eli and his sons to lead them in victory over the Philistines, just as the previous Judges. However, Eli's two sons, Phinehas and Hophni, appear to have been more concerned with internal politics and personal ambition, thus they "were corrupt and did not know the LORD. " (1 Samuel 2:12)

A man of God came to Eli and declared to him that he and his sons had more concern for their own wealth and control over Israel, than for exercising mercy and dispensing justice. "Why do you kick at my sacrifice and my offering which I have commanded in my habitation, and honour your sons more than me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel my people?" (1 Samuel 2:29)

The moment of truth came, however, when "Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. . . " (1 Samuel 4:1) and four thousand Israelites were killed. Israel was bewildered. This was not supposed to happen. Before the battle the children of Israel believed that by the day's end they would have dealt a devastating blow to their long-time enemy, and that they would no longer be in servitude to their Philistine masters. Instead their wounds and the number dead caused them wonder. "Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?" (1 Samuel 4:3)

Then the elders of Israel attributed the loss to the fact that the ark of the covenant of the Lord was not with them, so they sent word to bring it immediately from Shiloh, so "that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies. " (4:3)

With renewed enthusiasm Israel welcomed the ark of the covenant of the Lord into camp: ". . . all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook. " (4:5)

The Philistines heard the shout from the other side of the valley, and fear gripped their hearts. "Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. " (4:7)

These were the gods who brought down the walls of Jericho, destroyed Ai, and defeated the Amorite kings. The same gods who destroyed the kings of the north and south and their cities. The Philistines had good reason to be afraid. Nevertheless, they preferred to fight rather than be at peace with Israel.

The next day when the battle was joined, none were prepared for what was about to take place. Israel, in spite of their enthusiasm and determination, suffered a humiliating and devastating defeat with some 30,000 foot soldiers killed. The Philistines were amazed; not only had they survived the awesome power of the gods of Israel but they had captured them.

The Philistines stood tall among the nations that day. Victory not only over Israel but to capture the ark of the covenant of the Lord was a prized trophy indeed.

Eli's sons were killed in battle that day, and when Eli heard that the ark had been captured by the Philistines he fell over, broke his neck and died, ". . . for the man was old and heavy. " (4:18)

The Judge and High Priest of forty years was dead, as were his two sons. There was none who could bring relief to Israel, let alone deliverance from the Philistines. A cruel blow for Israel so desperate for deliverance, their grief multiplied by the loss of the ark of the covenant of the Lord.

The Philistines celebrated their victory by placing the ark opposite their god, Dagon, in the city of Ashdod. But they awoke the next morning only to find Dagon ". . . fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. " (1 Samuel 5:4) They repositioned Dagon and awoke the next morning to find that his hands and head had broken off; only his torso remained.

It was becoming clear to the Philistines that ". . . the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and he ravaged them and struck them with tumours, both Ashdod and its territory. " (5:6)

When the men of Ashdod called the lords of the Philistines they all agreed that the God of Israel had done this, but they believed that it was because their god Dagon, in Ashdod, was not powerful enough, and so they decided to have the ark removed to Gath, another major Philistine city.

This only provided an opportunity to further deal with the Philistines because again ". . . the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction; and he struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumours broke out on them. " (5:9)

The Philistines were oblivious to the importance of Israel's ownership and possession of the ark of the Lord. It belonged to Israel alone; no other people could posses it or attach themselves to it. The ark belonged to Israel alone.

The victory over Israel and the capture of the ark of the Lord seemed to fool the Philistines into thinking that their gods were actually more powerful and had greater authority over the God of Israel. Eventually the Philistines realized their dilemma, and so ". . . they sent the ark of God to Ekron. So it was, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, 'They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people. '

"So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, 'Send away the ark of the god of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people. ' For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.

"And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumours, and the cry of the city went up to heaven. " (5:10-12)

The initial Philistine victory celebrations had deteriorated into suffering and mourning. Like the city of Troy that accepted the wooden horse, as a trophy of victory, so the Philistines celebrated over the ark of the Lord. Just as the Trojan horse became the vehicle of destruction, with the soldiers hiding inside, so too the ark of the Lord displayed awesome devastation and power. Except the ark of the Lord did not have any soldiers inside it; the God of Israel alone plagued the Philistines.

It is interesting to note that while the people of Israel remained at home, the ark of the Lord was successfully delivering them from the Philistines.

The ark of the Lord had significantly changed the Philistines. They no longer boasted over the God of Israel, but feared Him and humbled themselves, because they decided to return the ark with trespass offerings of gold resembling the tumours and rats that had ravaged them.

A new cart was made to carry the ark, while two milk cows which had never been yoked were hitched to pull the cart. Their calves also were taken home and the Philistine lords watched the cart. Would the milking cows turn and come looking for their calves or would they pull the cart toward Beth Shemesh? If toward Beth Shemesh then the Philistines knew that the Lord ". . . had done this great evil. "

"The cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh. " (1 Samuel 6:12)

It proved beneficial to the Philistines. They were much better off while the ark was in Israel's possession.

The ark was welcomed with much rejoicing by the people of Beth Shemesh. However, the Lord ". . . struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. " (6:19) And so they sent word to Kirjath Jearim and they came and took it away.

The ark was brought to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was consecrated to keep the ark of the Lord, and it remained there for twenty years. "And all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. " (1 Samuel 7:2)

Israel 's humiliating defeat and loss of the ark and its eventual return resulted in a worsening of the Philistine oppression. The people groaned and ached for the Lord. Twenty years had passed since the return of the ark, and now Israel was searching for the Lord. They had lost their way and were hungry to rediscover the beauty of His holiness and the strength of His presence.

Samuel, who was recognized as a prophet and judge, spoke to Israel, saying, "If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve him only; and he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines. " (7:3)

The people wanted to return to the Lord. They needed to return, but to do so meant a cleansing of their hearts. They had to put away those things that influenced their thinking away from the Lord and His ways. They had to put away those things that affected their sabbath with the Lord.

To return they had to refocus their hearts on the Lord and His ways. They had to prepare their hearts for change. Their hearts had to be open and willing to hear and obey His voice. Then they would enjoy Him as their God and He enjoy them as His people. "…and he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines. "

"So the children of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only. " (7:3-4)

A precious renewal of enormous significance, and Samuel was there to see it. Indeed Samuel called Israel to gather at Mizpah for prayer. They came, and they fasted, and they confessed, "We have sinned against the LORD. " (7:6)

The Philistines got wind of Israel assembling at Mizpah and supposing an attack was imminent assembled their lords and armies to deal with the uprising.

When the children of Israel heard the Philistines were coming they were afraid, but instead of running for their lives or sending out a team of negotiators, they urged Samuel to pray. "Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines. " (7:8)

"Now as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the LORD thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel. " (7:10)

Israel had returned to the Lord and rediscovered His rest. In spite of the increasing pressure to turn away they remained trusting in the Lord and experienced deliverance from bondage and release from the Philistine servitude.

"So the Philistines were subdued, and they did not come any more into the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. " (7:13)

The people of Israel today are like those in Samuel's day. They need to return to the Lord. But they must want Him first. They must hunger after Him. Just as Israel's return in Samuel's day began with Israel "lamenting after the LORD" , so too the nation today – they must seek Him and His goodness.

The people of Israel, in Samuel's day, found that to remain separated from the Lord was to remain oppressed and in servitude, while returning to the Lord brought freedom and deliverance.

Israel 's only defence against the enemy was by seeking the Lord. Israel had to get to the place where they really wanted Him, and only Him. They put aside their attempts at negotiating a peaceful existence. They fully acknowledged that their only hope was the Lord.

Likewise, Israel today must seek the Lord, and like their forefathers they must "lament after the LORD" . They must desire Him, and Him only. As a nation today, Israel needs to lay aside their fears, like their forefathers, and rediscover the beauty of the Lord, and fully trust in Him. "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD of hosts. " (Zechariah 4:6)

Similarly, if an individual is willing to acknowledge their inner longing – to know God and His Messiah, who brings peace, forgiveness and fulfilment. If they are willing to put aside their self-centred lifestyle so as to seek the Lord with all their heart, then they will find Him and His Messiah, Yeshua, the Hope of Israel and Saviour of the world.

". . . you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart. 'I will be found by you,' says the LORD. . . " (Jeremiah 29:13)

And as Samuel exhorted, "And do not turn aside; for then you would go after empty things which can not profit or deliver, for they are nothing. " (1 Samuel 12:21)