By Eld. Siow Chai Sheng
There were two contrasting outcomes of epic proportion in the history of Israel’s battles with their enemies, the Philistines.
1 Sam 4: 1, 10: “…Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer…And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter…”. It was a sad day for Israel at Ebenezer. When the battle first broke out, 4,000 of the Israelites were killed. The elders of Israel were perplexed. How did God’s people suffer such a bad defeat? Did God not care for them?
Believing in their own judgment, they decided on one thing. “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” (v.3). This did not help them. 30,000 more Israelites were killed, the Ark of the Covenant was taken away, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain by the Philistines (v.10, 11).
In contrast, some twenty years later, at a location also called Ebenezer, Israel scored a historic victory. 1 Sam 7: 7, 11, 12: “And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel…And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Beth-car. 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”. Since then, “the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” (v.13).
How did Israel succeed this second time? They were afraid of the Philistines (v. 7), and did not seem to have the same confidence as at the first Ebenezer, when they shouted with a great voice when the ark was brought to the battlefield. So why was the outcome different this time?
In 1 Sam 4, the Israelites took for granted that they were God’s people, and therefore victory would be their right. They talked about God and the things of God, when they physically brought the ark of the covenant (whose rightful place was in the tabernacle, and “which dwelleth between the cherubims” – v.4) to the battle ground. But they did not talk to God. What little knowledge of God they had under Eli’s rule, they resorted to the wisdom of Hophni and Phinehas to fight the enemies.
However, Israel’s approach to the battle was different in 1 Sam 7. Here they talked to God to seek His help in their hour of need, when fear of the Philistines was much abound (v.7).
Israel’s attitude was a manifestation of the fear of God, as Samuel the prophet remembered the wrath of God upon Israel for their folly of faithlessness and disobedience towards God at the first Ebenezer. Even the return of the ark by the Philistines seven months later did not remove the plight of the Israelites. In fact, they sinned against God when they opened and looked into the ark of the Lord, which they were not supposed to, and the Lord “smote the men of Bethshemesh” (1 Sam 6: 18). Brethren, let’s just take God’s Word as He has said, with the eye of faith.
Prov 1: 7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction”. Our Lord is the living and true God, not a piece of wood or metal of imaginary power. “Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy” (Ps 33: 18). The Lord sees our heart. Do we truly seek a relationship with Him?
This the Israelites did at the impending confrontation with the Philistines in 1 Sam 7. What exactly did they do? V.6, 8 say, “And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD…And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines”. There were the assembly of the Israelites, fasting, confession of sins, and prayer to their Lord God. So should the church in times of adversity.
The rest, they say, is history. 1 Sam 7: 10 says, “…the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them ; and they were smitten before Israel”. The word “discomfited” means “confused”. What a victory for God’s people when they did the right thing towards the Lord! “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer [“the stone of help”], saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us” (v.12).
Where is your Ebenezer? Is there a place where you can see and remember God’s help in times of troubles? For many, it is the church where you first came and received the peace of God by His saving grace. For some, perhaps it is the hospital bed where you cried out to Him in pain and fear, and obtained mercy. Yet for others, it can be your study or bedroom where in solitude and prayer you sought and found God’s will and direction for your life.
Calling ourselves Christians or belonging to a church, like the Israelites who wallowed in the thought of being God’s people, with no true relationship with the Lord, is not going to help us to overcome the world. I thank the Lord, my Ebenezer, whom I can talk to in prayer, and His Word, in remembrance of His help in seeing me through so many of life’s difficulties. And I know He will continue to see me through the future.