In 1 Samuel 5 we learn about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant after it was stolen by the Philistines. The Philistine god, Dagon, falls down before the Ark, thus showing the superiority of YHWH, and the hand of the Lord is heavy upon the people, striking them with tumors. Thus, in 1 Samuel 6, the Philistines end up sending the Ark back to the Israelites, but not without an offering of gold formed in the shape of tumors.
The Ark ends up, for a time, in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh where some Levites offer burnt offerings and sacrifices in thanksgiving for the Ark’s safe return. The author of 1 Samuel says that the stone on which these offerings and sacrifices were made is “a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.” Thus, this story was obviously linked to a physical place where this stone resided and could be seen by the Israelites at the time that 1 Samuel was composed.
Some of the Israelites who receive the Ark in Beth-shemesh end up dying in a battle with the descendants of Jeconiah who attack them. They attribute this to the presence of the Ark and therefore they want the Ark to leave their village. The Ark moves next to Kiriath-jearim where it is brought to the house of Abinadab. His son, Eleazar, is consecrated to have charge of the Ark. So much for the Ark remaining in one central place, designated by the Lord, and supervised by the Levitical priests, as prescribed in the Torah!
We are told that the Ark remained for twenty years in Kiriath-jearim and the house of Israel lamented after the Lord. We are not told why they lamented. However, this lament leads Samuel to point out to the Israelites their real problem: they need to get rid of the foreign gods among them and direct their hearts to the Lord, to serve him only. Then, Samuel says, the Israelites will be delivered from the Philistines. The Israelites make their commitment to the Lord at Mizpah, as directed by Samuel. As a result, the Philistines are not successful in their attempt to attack. The Lord thunders with a mighty voice, throwing the Philistines into confusion, and they are routed before Israel. Perhaps there is a message for us in this, that when we dedicate our hearts and lives totally to serve the Lord, the Enemy’s attacks against us will not succeed.
We are told that: “the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” Thus, the pattern we saw in the book of Judges continues under Samuel who is also a judge over Israel. This does not mean that the Israelites will not have to continue to battle the Philistines. We will see more of this as we get to the stories of Saul and David.
It is interesting that Samuel builds an altar to the Lord in his hometown of Ramah. This is contrary to the instructions in the Torah that focused on there being only one altar in Israel. Remember how upset the Israelites were, in the book of Joshua, when they thought the two and a half tribes east of the Jordan were setting up an alternative altar? Yet, there is no upset here, not even a word spoken against Samuel for setting up this additional altar. All of this is quite a contrast to the centralization of worship we will see taking place under the leadership of David later in 1 and 2 Samuel.
In 1 Samuel 8 we learn that Samuel’s sons, who are also judges, do not follow their father’s ways. Once again, this should be a sort of back-handed encouragement to parents. It shows us that even godly parents can end up with children who reject the Lord. So if it happens to you (God forbid!), it may not be your fault. God has given to every human being the wonderful gift of free choice. Without it, our love for God or for one another would be meaningless.
The Israelites use the opportunity of Samuel’s old age and his sons’ infidelity to the Lord as an opportunity to ask for a king to be established over Israel. Samuel feels this is a rejection of his leadership. However, the Lord tells him not to be upset, it is not Samuel that the people are rejecting, but it is the Lord himself they are rejecting by asking for a human king. Samuel warns the people of what will happen if they have a king. The king will charge them taxes (a tithe), among other things. However, the people persist in demanding a king, and in the ensuing chapters we will see the result.
We too are not so unlike the Israelites, are we? I am reminded of the story of the little boy who called for his father after he was put to bed. The father came into the son’s room and turned the light on and asked him what was the matter. The son told his father he was scared of the dark. The father in turn told his son that whenever he was afraid he could pray to the Lord and the Lord would be with him. Thus, the father turned out the light and left his son’s room. However, only a few minutes later the boy called for his father again. The father went into the room and asked, “Didn’t you do what I told you son? Didn’t you pray to the Lord and remember that the Lord is with you?” The son’s response was, “Yes Daddy, but I told the Lord I needed someone with skin on, so I called for you.”
We are human just like that little boy. Thus, we often feel that we need “someone with skin on” to lead us. God condescends to our need, just as he did with the Israelites, and he gives us human spiritual leaders throughout our lives. However, we need to remember that these human spiritual leaders are no substitute for our own personal relationship with God.