“Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
The way of the Lord with His people has often been mysterious and very deep, defying the understanding of the human mind. In Isaiah 55:8, 9 God stated it this way, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD; For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This must have been quite evident to the believing children of Israel during the times of Samson, Eli, and Samuel, particularly in regard to the doings of God over against their heathen enemy, the Philistines. It seemed for so very long that the Philistines were always coming out on top.
It began already with Samson. The day was evil when he appeared and the people of Israel almost completely demoralized. The Philistines entered and overran the land while Israel had not the strength or the will to resist. Samson appeared and stood alone in opposing and seeking occasion against the enemy. So he lived and so he died. Although he personally destroyed many, he never lived to see the day when Israel was ready to rise up in the name of her God and overthrow the enemy. Nevertheless, through the ministry of Samson, there was a change that took place. It was slight, subtle and almost indiscernible, but it was there and very real. When Samson first went out against the Philistines, the children of Israel had opposed him. They were not particularly interested in the service of Jehovah, they didn’t want trouble, they desired only to get along with the Philistines, they were willing to turn Samson over to the Philistines if they could. But gradually as they had watched Samson in his work, they began to recognize the greatness of their God, they became conscious of their separate identity as the people of God, they were even ready to receive Samson as a judge. For some twenty years he served in this capacity; and when he died, even though it was still fighting alone, we may assume the people mourned.
It was during this same period that Eli served as judge along with his priestly duties. It was disappointing labor for him also. He was often very much alone in the tabernacle at Shiloh, and he received little appreciation fork his labors. Nevertheless, perhaps because his labors extended beyond those of Samson, Eli did observe a marked change in the attitude of the people toward Jehovah. Whereas at first they had been satisfied to ignore Him and follow the gods of the heathen, gradually they began to return to give recognition to Jehovah and acknowledge Him as their God. But even this was not altogether wonderful. The people were worshipping Jehovah again; but they were treating Him in much the way that they might treat any idol. They worshipped him in form; but their hearts were given over to carnal satisfaction. They thought that they could use God in the way they chose and for their own gain. Nowhere was this more evident than in Eli’s own sons. As priests, they led the worship of the tabernacle; but they thought nothing at all of corrupting it with all kinds of carnal sins. Finally matters came to a climax when the children of Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. In itself, it was right for them to rise up against the wicked enemy. But in doing so, they did not consult with the Lord through prayer seeking instructions. They only took up the ark of the covenant in utter disregard of the law and as though it were some magic charm, carried it off to the battle. The result was that the Lord gave His own ark into captivity among the heathen; and old Eli died in the sorrow of it.
It was in this situation that Samuel finally began his own independent work as a prophet and a judge in Israel. The ark was returned from the land of the Philistines within a year; but it never got beyond the home of Abinadab. There it remained alone, inaccessible to the people, a sort of captivity still. Without it the tabernacle at Shiloh had lost its meaning and was closed. All that remained for the young man Samuel to do was to travel from city to city teaching, admonishing, instructing the people as best he could. But the Philistines still dominated the land. They ran roughshod over the people of Israel from one end of the land to the other. The hand of the Lord was upon the people for all of the sin which they had done.
Nevertheless, the working of grace through the ministry of the judges was underneath. Samuel spoke to the people, and they were beginning to listen and understand. Their trouble was not due to the failure of Jehovah; it was not due to the power of the Philistines; it was due to their own sinfulness and iniquity. They had sinned in serving the idols of the heathen instead of Jehovah; they had sinned in serving Jehovah with the lips and not with the heart; they had sinned in treating Jehovah as an idol who could be dealt with according to their own whim and choosing; they had sinned in their failure to recognize their own guilt and turn in repentance. Slowly but surely the children of Israel began to understand that all of their suffering was no more than they deserved. They had sinned against Jehovah; and because He loved them with an unwavering love, He would not allow their sin to go unchecked and unpunished as He often did with the heathen. Each time He stretched forth His hand upon them until they felt the burden of their transgression. It was the way of the Lord with His people. Because they were sinful and hard of heart, it was true already then as Isaiah later expressed it, “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.” (Is. 1:21)
So it was that after twenty years of faithful labor Samuel was able to discern a new spirit among the people. No longer was it a spirit of pride and of arrogance; it was a spirit of lamentation and of weeping—of weeping for Jehovah. Once again Israel was beginning to see that its salvation was only in Jehovah.
For this Samuel was waiting and ready. Quickly he answered the lamentations of the people wherever he met them, 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.” And the people listened. They put away all that remained of idolatry in their land. Some put them away willingly in sorrow for their sins. Others put them away out of regard for the wishes of their neighbors. Some had to be forced, no doubt, for there were always many unbelievers even in Israel’s best days. But the land was cleansed, nevertheless. In fact, Samuel was able to gather the people together in a spiritual convocation such as had not been seen in Israel since the days of Joshua.
It was at Mizpeh that the people gathered. Samuel had promised them that he would pray for them there, and for this they came together. In former years such a promise would have meant little to them; but now they saw it as their only hope. There in a beautiful ceremony, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. This is the first time we meet this ceremony in Scripture, and perhaps Jeremiah explains its meaning better than any when he wrote in Lamentations 2:18, 19, “O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night: give thyself no rest; let not the apple of thine eye cease. Arise, cry out in the night: in the beginning of the watches pour out thine heart like water before the face of the Lord: lift up thy hands toward him for the life of thy young children, that faint for hunger in the top of every street.” It was, along with the fast which they held that day, a ceremony of repentance for their many sins. Together, they cried out, “We have sinned against the LORD,” and in humility they listened as Samuel instructed them in the law.
Meanwhile, though, the Philistines were not sleeping. They had not missed the fact that a new spirit was spreading through Israel, The people were not as proud and haughty as formerly, but neither were they as afraid. The people of Israel were not as interested in their heathen idolatry, and they looked at them more and more as enemies. The Philistines could feel that trouble was brewing for them among the Israelites. Things were on edge.
Thus it was that as soon as they heard of Israel’s gathering at Mizpeh, the Philistines concluded that it was with the purpose of organizing an army to overthrow them. Not to be caught unawares, the Philistines gathered an army of their own and immediately set forth to march against Israel at Mizpeh. They had misjudged Israel badly. Actually warlike intentions were, as yet, farthest from the minds of those at Mizpeh. There was hardly a sword among them if any at all. No one was armed for battle. Thus when the message was brought that the Philistines were approaching all arrayed for battle, a cold chill swept through the camp in a matter of moments. But this was the very wonder of Israel. It had always been. They did not need swords and spears, helmets and shield to gain a victory. Their strength was in a source far greater, and now the people knew where to find it. They turned to Samuel and cried, “Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.” In what little time remained, Samuel quickly prepared a lamb, and as the smoke of its sacrifice arose up to heaven, he lifted his hand in a prayer for deliverance.
It was a natural event which took place that day—the storm that gathered over Mizpeh. The sky must have been days, and maybe even weeks, in preparing for it, from what we now know of meteorology. It was no more supernatural than any other event—but no less either. There is a higher hand that directs all things; and it so directed the sky that day that at the moment that Samuel raised his hands in prayer it broke forth in a mighty, terrible storm directly over the army of the Philistines. Bolts of lightning ran across the ground breaking apart their ranks; torrents of rain beat directly in their faces making it impossible to proceed; great roaring peals of thunder pounded their eardrums from above, striking terror into their hearts. Without the raising of a sword, the mighty army of Philistia crumbled and turned to retreat in defeat. All that remained for Israel was to pursue and gather the plunder.
A new and joyfully different gathering met soon thereafter. It was at the very point near Mizpeh where the Philistines had been turned in defeat. There Samuel raised a great stone in memorial and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” It was a beautiful saying full of significance. Many might have been inclined to say, “At last,” or “This once has the Lord helped us,” for this was the first great victory for Israel in many a year. But Samuel, and the people with him, recognized that the grace of God had been working much longer than this. That was implied in the word “hitherto”. It marked the end of a long series of events. God had given them victory over the Philistines, but only after He had turned their hearts in repentance back to Him again. The latter was a victory over their enemy in the world. The former was a victory over the enemy of sin in their own flesh, and that was the greatest victory of all.