The Merciful Thunder of God

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A few years ago the Oxford Mail carried a story about a man who accidentally left his wife behind at a service station on the M40. They’d both gone in to use the loos, the man came out first, completely forgot that his wife was with him, and drove off. She came out, found him missing and (bless her) put the best possible construction on it and thought he might have been kidnapped. So she phoned the police. They found him pulled over on the hard shoulder 30 miles up the M40. The article ends: ‘When police asked Mr Appleby when he was first aware of his mistake, he said, ‘I asked my wife to pass me a toffee, and when there was no reply, I realised something was wrong.’’ That doesn’t sound like the healthiest relationship, does it? But to some extent, we all do it: we all mistreat other people by thinking of ourselves as the centre of the universe, and of them as there to serve us. And the person we do that to the most is God. And tonight’s Bible passage in our series on 1 Samuel is designed to make us examine ourselves over how we are treating the Lord, and how we should be.

So would you turn in the Bibles to 1 Samuel chapter 7. And let me remind you of 1 Samuel so far. It’s basically the story of God’s Old Testament (OT) people utterly mistreating him. So in chapters 2 and 3 we see Israel’s so-called spiritual leaders showing utter contempt for the Lord – by taking for themselves offerings meant for him, and by gross sexual misbehaviour. In chapter 4 we see Israel picking a fight against their neighbours the Philistines. Things start going against them, so they bring the ark of the Lord – the symbol of God’s presence – to the battlefield, thinking that will force him to save them. Instead, to discipline and chasten them, the Lord lets them lose both the fight and the ark to the Philistines. So in chapter 5, the ark – the symbol of God’s presence – is gone. Which is the Lord’s way of saying, ‘I will not be with you, I won’t relate to you, if you won’t relate to me as you should.’ In chapter 6, the Lord engineers it that the Philistines send the ark back to Israel, which brings us to chapter 7, where the ark is parked at a place called Kiriath Jearim. So look down to chapter 7, v2:

2It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD. (v2)

So they’ve been disciplined and chastened. And then there’s this twenty-year hiatus, this sense of, ‘Where does our relationship with God go from here? Can it go anywhere from here?’ And some of us tonight may be asking exactly that question, having been disciplined by God allowing us to taste the consequences of a sinful or foolish course of action. But this chapter speaks to all of us, because it’s basically a snapshot of what true repentance – true relating to God – looks like. And I take it that’s something every believer will want to learn and live out – whether or not they’ve needed God’s discipline, recently.

So I’ve got three headings and the first is this:


Look on to v3:

3And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only. (vv3-4)

So in v3, Samuel – the prophet who brings God’s Word – reappears for the first time since chapter 3. It’s as if, from chapter 4 onwards, God has withdrawn his Word from people who won’t listen to him – and is now letting them feel the consequences of not doing so and of wandering from him. And he still does that today. Eg, he may withdraw his Word from a Christian who’s wilfully disobeying him by letting that Christian drop out of church. And at the other end of a spiritual fall or wander like that, he doesn’t always instantly restore us to joyful fellowship with him, because that way we could so easily take him and his forgiveness for granted. But when the time’s right and the seriousness of how we’ve mistreated him has sunk in, he moves us on.

Now repentance is not just being sorry – as in v2. I used to live in a flat with diabolical neighbours and one night at 1am the loud music began again. So I hammered on their door. And a sheepish face appeared and said, ‘OK, OK, I’ll turn it down.’ And I heard myself say, ‘I don’t want you to turn it down. I want you to turn it off.’ (You can be surprisingly direct at 1am in the morning!) And I said it with such unintentional menace that he looked as if the mad axeman had called and he backed away a bit, saying, ‘I’m really sorry.’ To which I heard myself say, ‘I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to change’!

And repentance is not just being sorry about how we’ve treated God. It’s changing the way we treat God. So, v3 again:

3And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts [ie, if v2 is not just awash with crocodile tears], then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only. (vv3-4)

Now this is the first time1 Samuel mentions these ‘foreign gods’ so let me fill you in a bit. They were the gods of the Canaanites – who lived in Canaan before Israel arrived. And they were the gods whom Israel had been warned not to serve. Eg, remember the first commandment given back in Exodus:

‘You shall have no other gods besides me.’ (Exodus 20.3)

Or remember Moses preaching to the people of Israel just before they entered the promised land:

4Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength... [Ie, there’s only one true God, so serve him exclusively. Deuteronomy 6 goes on:]
13Fear the LORD your God, serve him only... 14Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you...
(Deuteronomy 6.4-5, 13-14)

So why did they follow the gods of the people around them? What was the attraction? Well, there were two big reasons: food and sex. You see, Baal was believed to be the fertility god who made the rain fall and your crops grow and your animals breed. And Ashtoreth was believed to be his mistress. And the Canaanites believed that when Baal and Ashtoreth had sex in the spirit world, it caused fertility in this world. So the question was how to encourage Baal and Ashtoreth to get on with it. And Canaanite religion said: by imitation. It’s a bit like when I want one of our daughters to eat another spoonful of food. I take a spoonful myself and make a meal of eating it in the hope that she’ll copy me. And in Canaanite religion, you went along to the Baal temple and had sex with a temple prostitute – in the hope that Baal and Ashtoreth would catch on and copy you.

So why did Israel fall for worshipping these gods besides the Lord? Well, on the one hand, because of food. After all, they needed food. And the fact that people around them looked to Baal for food made them doubt whether the Lord could really provide it. They knew he could do ‘spiritual’ stuff like forgiveness, but could he do down to earth stuff like agriculture? And that’s still an issue for us, isn’t it?

Because we need food and other material things. And most people around us look to the god money for that. And, as the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 6, it’s easy for us, as well, to serve money instead of God:

19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…
24“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
(Matthew 6.19-21, 24)

It’s easy to forget that we ultimately have a heavenly Father who’s promised to provide for our needs – and to serve jobs and money and savings instead, as if they’ll ultimately look after us. And there are at least three symptoms of doing that:

• Symptom no.1 is unwillingness to risk or leave our jobs. If, eg, you’re unwilling to risk your job by taking a moral stand over something; or unwilling to change your job if it unavoidably compromises your obedience; or unwilling to leave your career path and pursue the conviction that the Lord wants you in full-time gospel ministry, you may be treating your job as your god.
• Symptom no.2 is unwillingness to give money for God’s purposes – perhaps especially when we’re being told how uncertain the financial climate is. If we’re unwilling to give – if we want to maximise the ‘cushion’ of money and savings around us – then we may be treating money as our god and forgetting that the Lord is our only security in a world where neither jobs nor money nor savings are certain.
• Symptom no.3 is anxiety. Now there’s nothing wrong with responsible concern for yourself or your dependents. But that’s different from the anxiety the Lord Jesus talks about in Matthew 6:

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?...
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
(Matthew 6.25-33)

Anxiety is the stress of thinking that I’m the only one ultimately looking after me, and of trying to control my circumstances accordingly – rather than trusting that my heavenly Father is ultimately looking after me and that he’s in control of circumstances in a way that I’m not and cannot ever be.

So, Israel fell for these other gods on the one hand because of food; but on the other hand because of sex. Because, as I’ve explained, Baal and Ashtoreth permitted lots of extra-marital sex. And sex is just highly attractive – even in contexts that are wrong in God’s eyes – because that’s how it’s been created. It’s created to feel good, which is why we can be so deceived by it, thinking that ‘feels good’ means ‘is good’. So, eg, one Christian I know came to faith from a homosexual lifestyle. And I remember hearing him interviewed about that and saying, ‘The sex always felt good in those pre-Christian relationships, because that’s what sex is like. But what I couldn’t see then, as I can now, is how damaging those relationships were as a whole.’ And of course the same could be said for heterosexual sex outside the marriage context it was made for.

So our culture says, ‘Serve sex – if you have a desire, act on it.’ But our God says, ‘Serve me with your sexuality: learn from me the one context in which it’s right to express your desires; and how to say ‘No’ to them otherwise.’

So true repentance means serving the Lord only.


Look on to v5:

5Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you.” 6When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah. (vv5-6)

There were, sadly, many times in the OT when God’s people were utterly disobedient and yet presumed he’d bless them, anyway. They thought, ‘He’s made promises to us, so he owes us commitment.’ But people who think like that haven’t begun to see what their sin looks like to God. Because the truth is: the only thing God owes us is judgement. And as I’ve looked at the news pictures of the Japanese earthquake and then tsunami, I’ve been reminded of John Calvin’s words about the flood of Genesis 6. He wrote: ‘The wonder is not that there was a flood, but that there has only been one.’ Ie, the world in every generation deserves universal judgement, and the wonder is that God gives any of us another day of life, given the level of our rebellion against him. The only thing God owes us is judgement.

And at least in 1 Samuel 7, they saw that. So, v2, they mourned over their sin – which, says the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, is a sign of spiritual health, not neurosis (Matthew 5.3f). And in v6, they confess their sin, they fast – as if to say, ‘We don’t take our sin lightly’ – and they pour water out before the LORD. No-one’s exactly sure what that means. But there’s a verse in Lamentations, after Israel’s biggest ever chastening in the exile, and it says:

Pour out your heart like water
In the presence of the Lord.
(Lamentations 2.19)

So the water-pouring seems to be a sign of utter desperation and helplessness – of knowing that unless the Lord gives you what you don’t deserve – namely grace, forgiving love – you’ve had it. And I wonder if that’s our attitude when we come to the Lord for forgiveness? Or is there at least a trace in us of the poet Heinriche Heine – who, when asked on his deathbed whether he thought God would forgive him said glibly, ‘Of course he will – that’s his job.’ If you’re a Christian, are you in that dangerous position of having got used to God’s forgiveness – as if being forgiven is just pure routine? Because it’s not. As one Christian writer says, ‘Divine forgiveness is the very opposite of what can be taken for granted. Nothing is more unexpected.’

And perhaps the most striking thing here is the way Samuel prays on their behalf. Did you notice that in v5:

5Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you.” (v5)

And v8:

They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us… (v8)

So aware are they of their sin, that they’re thinking, ‘Why should God listen to me? I need someone else to intercede for me.’ And Samuel does so for them, then. And he’s a picture of what the Lord Jesus does for us, now. Because listen to what Romans 8, v34 says to the believer who feels his or her sinfulness, his or her unworthiness to come before God:

Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8.34)

So, yes we ought to think, ‘Why should God listen to my prayer?’ And yes, as we’ll do before communion, we should say, ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.’ But we say that only to keep us recognising we don’t deserve forgiveness, only to keep us from presuming on it – not to keep us from coming to ask for it. Because, like Romans 8 v34 says, we have Jesus, who died for our sins, interceding on our behalf, and saying, ‘Father, let us forgive all those sins that they are confessing, because in your plan, I paid for them on the cross.’

True repentance means seeking his grace humbly.


Look down to v7:

7When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them [presumably because they thought Israel was assembling for military, as opposed to spiritual, purposes.] And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. (v7)

And the test of true repentance – ie, God-centred-ness, God-dependence – is what they do next. Because they’re facing exactly the same situation as back in chapter 4, when there was no real dependence on God, when there was just dependence on themselves, on their own wits, resulting in them thinking, ‘If we take the ark into battle, it’ll force God to save us.’ So here they are, facing exactly the same crisis. But look what they do this time, v8:

8They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. (vv8-9)

So they depend on God, they turn to God in desperate, self-abandoning prayer. And it often takes a crisis moment like this to call us back to true repentance – ie, to depending on God and not on ourselves, to treating him as our first resort and not mistreating him as our last – or near-last. I’ve told before the story of my preparation for the last university mission I did in Cambridge. My preparation was going badly, I was getting ill, and I plunged into more and more reading and writing, not really facing up to the truth that that it was accompanied by more and more anxiety and less and less prayer. And with just two days to the mission, the morning came when the Lord pulled me up short and I realised I was utterly failing to trust the thing to him. And I spent that morning just praying about the mission. And I didn’t emerge with no work to do. But I did emerge in a totally restored frame of mind, where I knew the whole thing depended on him – and I knew he’d help and provide and be faithful. And in those crisis moments, when the Lord in his kindness pulls the rug of self-sufficiency out from under our feet, what we learn is the attitude we should have all the time.

I know of an RAF chaplain who was trying to talk to fighter pilots about the Lord. And he asked one of these seasoned campaigners, ‘Do you ever pray when you’re flying?’ And this pilot said, ‘Yes. In moments of danger, I certainly pray.’ So the chaplain said, ‘And do you ever pray on the ground?’ And the pilot said, ‘Oh, no: I can cope down here.’ But if that’s our attitude, if we only depend on the Lord for some things, only pray about some things, we’re not treating him as the sovereign over all things and the ultimate provider and protector that he really is.

Well, let’s read from v10 to close:

10While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines [which maybe means some supernatural, freak storm] and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. 11The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car.
12Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer
[which means ‘stone of help’ in their original language of Hebrew], saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.” (vv10-12)

And ‘thus far’ means ‘all the way up to the present moment.’ So it doesn’t just mean in this deliverance in chapter 7. It also means in the discipline and chastening of chapters 4-6. Samuel is saying: even in that, the Lord has helped them and been good to them, because it’s brought about fresh repentance.

And 3,000 years later, their story is calling us to the same repentance – to serve the Lord only, to seek his grace humbly; and to depend on him fully. I wonder: which one of those three things do you most need to take to heart right now?

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