Today's passage: I Samuel 7
When I was younger, and we went to the beach I used to walk along the sand, watching my footprints disappear as the waves washed them away. I would write my name or draw a picture waiting for the waves to erase them like an Etch-a-Sketch. Sometimes the sand would only partially erase them, so that the letters of my name or the lines of the picture were blurred. They were still there, but it wasn't easy to make out what they had been. This is what I think about when I think about how Israel mingled idol worship with Jehovah worship. Blurred lines which make you wonder what the real thing was in the beginning.
Samuel tries to set his people on a right path. Throughout Israel's history, they had forsaken God and gone after the gods of the surrounding nations. When the leadership was weak, Jehovah worship was weaker. One of the first instances of the people departing from God to worship an idol is back in Exodus, when the people form the golden calf. They had just come from Egypt and had been exposed to the numerous idols the Pharaoh and his people worshipped. Why shouldn't the Hebrew children have a physical representation of Jehovah? They quickly find out this was not God's plan, and suffer the consequences of such behavior. Yet, we see repeatedly in the Old Testament how they continue to fall into these heathen rituals. The book of Judges narrates repetitive cycles of the Jews falling away from God, falling before idols, falling into trouble, and then falling on their knees before the Lord. Why would they keep doing this? Peer pressure. Like the waves of the ocean carrying away part of the sand picture, peer pressure carried away part of what they believed. During Joshua's military campaigns, he had failed to drive the enemy nations out of the land, so their influence remained in the land, and slowly trickled into Israel's worship.
Now, in I Samuel, they were aggravated with the Philistine control of many of their cities. Samuel tells them how to correct this. It doesn't seem like he should have had to explain this to them, but it had been a long time between the book of Judges and the book of Samuel. We saw how Eli had been the priest for many of those 100 years. And as we've seen before, with weak leadership was weak worship. They needed to be reminded how to go back to God. Sometimes we need reminders. Sometimes we don't even see how far away the ocean has carried us until God brings something into our lives and we look and say, "Hey, how did I get all the way over here?" I think that probably happened in Israel. They drifted little by little until they didn't even know they weren't worshipping God at all. It isn't until Samuel brings it to their attention that they say, "Oh yeah, we've been doing this wrong."
The people commit to do things God's way. Samuel puts their faith to the test. How? He has the people gather at Mizpeh (not to be confused with Mizpah, which is a little farther north in the hills). Mizpeh is located right on the border of Philistia and Israel, past the hill country of Ephraim, and on a major waterway. Do you think the Philistines are not going to notice this? Do you think Samuel chose this site by accident? I don't. I think Samuel was letting his people (and the Philistines) know that if they were truly going to surrender to God, they were going to have to trust Him to deliver them from the enemy. He makes a big show of it too, almost daring the Philistines to come after them. He had seen how they had demolished his people, I'm guessing he was anxious to see some of them tucking tail and running. Samuel pours out a drink offering, and the people fast and pray. The Philistines are on their way over. God's people are afraid. They had already suffered at Philistine hands once, they really didn't want to go through that again. Samuel prays and offers a lamb sacrifice before the Lord. The Lord answers by thundering down on the Philistines. Israel takes back ownership of many of the cities the Philistines had captured and the two nations live in relative peace while Samuel is in charge. Of course, this sets the scene perfectly for the epic battle between David and Goliath. It is no wonder Goliath will taunt the Israelis, but more about that in Chapter 17.
Would Israel's behavior be long-term? Only if they distanced themselves from evil influences. Only if they didn't chat with the Philistine farmer just on the other side of the border, or go get a drink with the Philistine soldier guarding the river crossing. When I think about these people in their everyday life, that maybe they had befriended each other in their daily lives, then it is easy to see how dinner at a Philistine family's home could develop into a meaningful friendship and could influence love for Jehovah God. Maybe there were times that this had the reverse effect and a Philistine would come to know about Israel's God instead of the other way around, but it seems this was rare. Does this mean we shouldn't be friends with the world? We have to be careful. Of course, we want to be friendly and show them the love of God, but it becomes difficult when we are invited into their homes or invited to other activities. My husband faces this every week. He has many police friends that invite him to a bar or a party or even a ballgame. The bar is obviously out, but the party or the ballgame seem harmless. But usually there is drinking involved. Though my husband has had a history with alcohol and has not had a temptation to return to it, he knows that it makes better sense to stay as far away as possible than put himself in a situation where he will be under its exposure. These have not always been easy choices for him, because he wants to be friends with these people so he can point them to Christ. But there has to be a line of separation too. And that line of separation can become blurry after a while, if we do not keep close to God. You know what keeps the line from getting blurry? Drawing the line farther away from the tide. I never had to wonder if my footprints or my name or picture would wash away in the waves when I was farther up the beach. Once in a while an unusually heavy wave would try to reach me, but if I was far enough off the tide line, I could play for hours. The Israelites were only as safe as their lines were. If the lines started to blur, and they didn't reestablish them far enough away from their heathen counterparts, they would become confused and lose their identity in God. I have to establish lines too. And that is not always easy.