"And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjath-jearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord. And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only. And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the Lord."1 Samuel 7:2-5.
Two enemies held Israel in subjection. The Philistines had fought against them, and defeated them, even though they sent to Shiloh, and brought the ark of the covenant, the symbol of Jehovah's presence, into their camp. The Lord was not with them, so they were smitten with a great slaughter. The crowning disaster of the day was "the ark of God was taken." The Philistines carried it away to Ashdod, and set it in the house of Dagon, their idol. You remember how God, jealous for his honor and glory, there worked mighty wonders, causing Dagon to fall, and inflicting punishment on every city whither the ark came, until at length the Philistines, wearied with their trials, sent the ark back to the people on whose behalf Jehovah had shown himself so strong. Twenty years the ark abode at Kirjath-jearim, and during all that time Israel was under the hand of the Philistines. But a worse enemy than the Philistines held sway over the land. Though the ark had returned, the people had gone away from their God, and had set up the abominable worship of Baal and Astarte, the idols of the Phoenicians and other heathen nations by whom they were surrounded. I will not stay to explain to you about these gods. Suffice it to say, that the Baalim were the male gods, and the Ashtaroth the female, and that the worship of these idols was attended with the greatest lewdness and filthiness; in fact, the holy things of Baal and Astarte we should call obscene and degrading. The people were thus in double bondage; the heavy yoke of the Philistines was upon them, because the heavier burden of a false worship crushed out the life of their hearts.
It may very naturally be asked, "Where was Samuel all that time? "I know not what he was doing during those twenty years; but I have a suspicion, I may say, I have a firm persuasion, that he was going from place to place, preaching in quiet spots wherever he could gather an audience; warning the people of their sin, and stirring them up to seek Jehovah, thus endeavoring to infuse some spirituality into their national life. But "the time was long." He ploughed, and seemed to plough a rock. For twenty years the good man spoke. For twenty years he acted like a battering-ram upon a wall that did not seem to tremble beneath his strokes. For twenty years he went up and down, fleeing for his life from the Philistines, but venturing out, whenever he had an opportunity, to warn a household or a village group, or, perhaps, a township, that they could only be delivered from the Philistines by seeking God; that they had come into their present evil case by forsaking Jehovah; and that, unless they came back to the worship of the only true God, they would never have their liberties again. "The time was long," very long, for him to keep on speaking, warning a people who did not seem to care for his message. But constant dripping wears away stones; and at last the inert mass, against which he had battered, began to move, and there arose a general feeling of enquiry all over the country: "all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord." Then was Samuel's time to strike, while the iron was hot: he had spent twenty years in getting it hot, and he did not miss the opportunity when at last it came; but he pleaded with the people, and showed them plainly the only way in which they could expect help, namely, by putting away their false gods, and returning with prepared hearts to the service of Jehovah.
That the continual prayers and efforts of Samuel were crowned with success, should encourage all those who, in days of unfaithfulness and apostasy, still lift up their voices for the truth. Keep pegging away, my brethren: though the people may seem to be indifferent to your message, or stiffen their necks against it; though in the service of the base idols they seem wholly to forget God, yet will the Lord arise in his own good time, and his cause shall triumph. Prepare a way for him, of whom it is written, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power. "Now, I believe that my case, with regard to some to whom I am speaking, is something like that of Samuel. I have, at least, the same message to deliver.
I hope to be able to make this plain by showing you, first, that these people were in a very hopeful condition; that, secondly, they were called upon to take very decided steps; and, thirdly, that they were helped to do so by faith. True, it was faith in Samuel; but you get much more help if you have faith in a greater than Samuel, who is here among us still, even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I. First, then, THESE PEOPLE WERE IN A VERY HOPEFUL CONDITION. "All the house of Israel lamented after the Lord." What does it mean?
It means, first, that they were greatly oppressed. Their goods were taken from them. They were beaten. They saw their children slain. They were the slaves of the Philistines, and hence they began to say, "Why should we not return unto our God? When we were true to Jehovah, there were no Philistines to trouble us. They were put to rout when we served God. It was better with us then than now. Samson, when the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, slew a thousand of them with the jawbone of an ass. Oh, for a day of Samson back again! Oh, for a day of God back again! "Their oppressions made them think of God. Do I not address some whose many troubles are compelling them to think of God? All went well with you once, and then you were an atheist. Troubles are multiplying now, and atheism does not suit you. You have buried those you loved. Ah! the grass has not yet grown on that newly-formed grave, and your heart is aching after something, you scarcely know what. There were days with you, perhaps, in your youth, when you knelt at your mother's knee; and in your early manhood, when you went to the house of God, and seemed to be one of God's people. You sigh as you think of happier days; but all goes wrong with you now, and a voice seems to say to you, especially in the still of night, "Return, return, return." You have wandered, like a sheep, from the pasture to the desert, from the shepherd's care into danger from the wolf. May God grant that you may, in this way, begin to lament after the Lord!
I think that, by the house of Israel lamenting after the Lord, is meant, next, that they began to be inwardly convinced that nobody could help them but the Lord. "Ah!" said one, "would God these Philistines were driven away!" "Ah!" said his companion, "nobody can do it but Jehovah." And then the first one answered, "Then, would that Jehovah were here! Oh, for his mighty hand, and his terrible power, to drive away our enemies!" "Israel lamented after the Lord." Samuel had taught them to some purpose, seeing that, when they saw their need, they did not look for help to him, but to his Master. Some teachers attract attention to themselves, and are like the moon; when it shines everybody says, "What a beautiful moon!" The true prophet of God shines like the sun, and people do not say, "What a beautiful sun!" but "How lovely is the landscape!" Let it be your ambition so to declare the Word of God, that people will not say, "What a splendid preacher!" but, "How glorious is his Christ"! "No man must come between the seeker and God, for the best of men are but men at their best. Not even the ordinances of religion can meet the need of the people, though they be God-appointed; they were meant to lead us to God, and not to be a substitute for him. When the Philistines triumphed, as we read in the fourth chapter, the elders of Israel said, "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies." And lo! when it came, it did not save them. When people trust in the religious symbol instead of the spiritual power, they are idolaters in heart, and court disaster. But the house of Israel did not lament after the ark, they lamented after the Lord, without whose glory, shining between the cherubim, even the ark was void and valueless. Am I speaking to one who has come to this conviction"Nobody can help me but God. I am so down at the heel, so broken in spirit, I am brought into such a condition, that unless the heavens are rent, and the right hand of God appears, there is no rescue for me." I am right glad you are brought into that condition. There is much gained when you look away from all others, and from all else, to God. Say now, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth." And if your soul still sighs, "Oh, that he would help me! Oh, that it were true that he did hear me, and would come to my rescue!" remember his word, "Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me."
In some such case were the people of Israel; and when it says that they "lamented after the Lord", it seems to me that, while they desired him, they were afraid that he would not deliver them. They prayed after a fashion, but there was a dash of doubt about it. So have I known many go up to their closet to pray, and they have said, "O God, if so vile a sinner can be forgiven, if there be such a thing as salvation for a backslider, if sins like mine can be washed away, oh, that I might be saved!" They have prayed with an "if" and a "peradventure" and a "may be", lamenting after the Lord with many a moan, and sigh, and cry of despair, and then just a little drop or two of hope. Lamenting after the LordI do not quite know how to describe it, but I know the distressing condition very well; that state in which the soul feels it wants God, and would give anything to be saved; is willing to submit to him, and is anxious to be forgiven; but always is haunted with the dark thought"It is not for you. He will never stretch his arm of mercy so far as to reach you. You are outside the covenant. You are past hope." Still, even though this is a very dark state of mind to be in, it is a hopeful state of mind. It is much better than presumption, or carelessness.
Moreover, these people had very little hope, but they had very much desire. "They lamented after the Lord." I suppose their lamentation after the Lord was in this fashion: "Oh, that God would be our God! but then he never will be. Oh, that he would deliver us from the Philistines! but then he never will." Their prayer was damp for want of faith; their tinder would not burn. They did not rejoice to believe in the Lord, but they "lamented" after him: they kept sorrowing and sighing, moaning and crying; wanting him, but never coming at him. I know that I address some now who have regularly attended the preaching of the gospel for years. You are not without a sense of sin; you are not without anxious desires; you are not without very anxious feelings at times. Sometimes you would give your eyes that you might know Christ; and you feel as if you could die willingly if you could but know that you were saved. But, still, you cannot believe it possible; and that doubt still hangs over you. But it is possible; it is more than possible; it is absolutely certain, that he that believeth in Christ hath everlasting life, and him that cometh to him he will in no wise cast out. He is ready to forgive. He delighteth in mercy. He overflows with compassion. "If thou seek him, he will be found of thee." Thy lamentations after the Lord may be sweetened with a good hope that, coming to him, he will accept thee.
If you read the third verse, you will see that, all this while, they had not parted with their idols. They lamented after the Lord, but they did not get the Lord, because they wanted to have the Lord and to have their idols, too. There are men in the world who want to go to heaven; but they want to keep on the road to hell, and yet get to heaven. They would get to the north by travelling to the south. There are some who would go home to their Father; but they would like to take the swine, and the swine-troughs, and the husks with them. A pretty sight that prodigal would have been, would he not, driving the hogs, and carrying the hog-troughs on his back, to his father's house? Such a picture is not to be imagined. It never existed in fact, and never can. John Bunyan tells us that, when he was playing at the game of "cat" one Sunday, on Elstow Green, as he was going to strike the cat with his stick, he thought he heard a voice, crying, "Wilt thou keep thy sins, and go to hell; or wilt thou give up thy sins, and go to heaven?" That question, without an angel's voice, you may hear at this moment. I put it now to some of you who would like to keep your sins, and yet go to heaven. You lament after the Lord. You would be a saint; but then you want to be a sinner, too. You would be a child of God; but then you would not like to turn out of the devil's family. You would not like to be ridiculed by the world. No, you want the crown without the cross. You want the end without the way. You want heaven without holiness, and forgiveness without repentance; and this can never be. It is useless lamenting after the Lord, if it does not lead you to give up your idols.
One thing, however, was meant by this lamenting after the Lord. It meant that they could never rest till God returned. Some of you have tried many ways to get rest. Some years ago you got harpooned at a meeting; and though, like a big whale, you have dragged out miles of line, and gone to the bottom of the sea of sin, the harpoon sticks in you still. I know what you have been doing to get rest. You have tried the world, and now there is nothing there that pleases you. You have tried sticking to business; but you are unsatisfied. You have made money; but you are a poorer man than you were when you began business; poorer, really, than when you had not a penny to bless yourself with. In fact, you have not a penny that does bless you; all your pennies seem curses as they come in. And then you have tried philosophy. Oh, you are a wonderfully wise man, especially when you have just read a book full of infidelity! Then you are wiser than two Solomons rolled into one; and yet you are a fool, and you know you are; for you cannot get any peace by that means. You try sometimes to talk big blasphemies, and that is because you are afraid; as boys will whistle when they go through the churchyard, and are afraid of ghosts. They whistle to keep their courage up; and some people talk very big things just to keep up their confidence, a confidence which they really do not possess; for they are dreadful cowards when they come to die. I wonder what you will try next. Will you try dissipation? Will you try drunkenness? Will you try the use of drugs? Well, well; if God means to save you, you will never rest till you are anchored in the port of Christ's atoning sacrifice. Until you come to God by Jesus Christ you shall never rest. You shall be weary of foot; you shall be weary of brain; you shall be sick at heart; you shall feel that life is not worth living; you shall feel darkness over all your brightness, and you shall taste bitterness in all your sweets. If God means to save you, he will make you lament after him. He has lamented after you: you cost your Savior many a tear. You cost your Savior nailed hands and feet. You cost your Savior bloody sweat. You cost him his death, and he will not have you trifle where he is so in earnest; and if you will not come without strong measures, he will make you come. You shall be like Noah's dove. The raven rested on the corpses; but the dove could not. For her there was no resting-place; she must drop into the water and drown; but her weary wing at last bears her back to the ark, and Noah opens the window, puts out his hand, takes her in his grasp, and pulls her in unto him into the ark. Then was she peaceful and quiet. She had found her Noah; she had found her rest. And it is to be so with some of you now. You may stand out against my Master; but he means to have you. I sometimes hear of persons getting very angry after a gospel sermon, and I say to myself, "I am not sorry for it." Sometimes when we are fishing, the fish gets the hook into his mouth. He pulls hard at the line: if he were dead, he would not; but he is a live fish, worth the getting; and though he runs away for a while, with the hook in his jaws, he cannot escape. His very wriggling and his anger show that he has got the hook, and the hook has got him. Have the landing-net ready; we shall land him by-and-by. Give him more line; let him spend his strength, and then we will land him, and he shall belong to Christ for ever.
Some of you know well what all this means, so I need say no more upon this point.
II. Let us notice, next, that THESE PEOPLE WERE CALLED UPON TO TAKE THREE VERY DECIDED STEPS. See how plainly and decidedly Samuel puts the matter: "If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only."
The first thing that they were to do was to "put away the strange gods." They were to go home, and break the images of Baal, tear down the vile statues of Astarte, and smash them to pieces, whether they were private images, or public ones. They were to clear out the whole tribe of idols. Now, if we would come back to God, we must get rid of all our false confidences.
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