Back in 1 Samuel 4, which I blogged about here, the Israelites lost a battle against the Philistines because they set their trust in a thing rather than in God – in the symbol of the LORD, instead of in the LORD Himself.
So in chapter 7, Samuel calls the people of Israel to repentance. And if they really wanted to genuinely follow God and return to Him, then they had to trust in Him alone and put away their foreign gods. Samuel promised that if they did so, God would deliver them from the Philistines.
As the people gathered together to fast and pray, the Philistines prepared to attack the gathering. But this time, Israel knew where to turn. They asked Samuel to cry out to God for help, and this time, God answered. He “thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel” (v. 10). As a result of that battle, Israel was able to drive their enemy back and subdue them.
Contrast the two battles from chapter 4 and chapter 7:
In c. 4, Israel put their trust in the ark. In c. 7, they put their trust in God.
In c. 4, Israel went out against the Philistines. In c. 7, the Philistines went out against Israel. (And Israel had been fasting, so they were in a weakened state, too).
In c. 4, Israel did not consider seriously why they had lost. In c. 7, they humbly repented of their idolatry.
In c. 4, Israel asked the question “Why?” and didn’t wait to hear the answer. In c. 7, Israel cried out to God for help, and God answered.
In c. 4, Israel had the ark with them, which the Philistines viewed as an advantage on Israel’s part. In c. 7, the ark was in Kirjath Jearim (where it remained until David brought it to Jerusalem many years later).
In c. 4, God did not fight for Israel, and Israel lost bitterly. In c. 7, God fought for them, and they won grandly.
The Philistines must have thought they were a great people when they conquered Israel and captured the ark. They thought they had prevailed over the God who worked wonders in Egypt! After the Lord sent plagues upon them for holding the ark, they eventually realized His power to a certain extent and ended up returning the ark to appease Him. But they probably thought that since they had beat Him in battle before, they could beat His people again. Besides, the ark was miles away instead of on the battlefield this time. They probably didn’t realize that God’s sphere of influence is not constrained to one place at one time.
After the battle, Samuel set up a stone as a monument – a “milestone” – and called it “Ebenezer,” which means “stone of help.” Something that I realized as I was putting this post together was that back in chapter 4, Israel was encamped beside Ebenezer – in other words, Samuel went back to a place that had previously been a reminder of defeat, and set up a reminder of victory. Perhaps he wanted them to remember both battles, to contrast what happens when you trust in the LORD for help, and when you don’t.
Maybe take some time today to remember some of the ways that God has helped you in your life, and how things are different when you trust in Him versus when you don’t.