Chapters 5–10 of 1 Samuel show us how revival and reformation sometimes begin with what seem to be disastrous removals of cherished symbols at the heart of religious life. Chapter 4 concluded with the divine judgment visited upon the corrupt priestly house of Eli, as his sons perished in battle at the hands of the pagan Philistines. Far worse than that was the capture of the ark of the covenant.
The Philistines enshrined the ark, the divinely appointed symbol of the presence of the living God of Israel, in the temple of their fish god, Dagon. But in chapters 5 and 6, they experienced the power and judgment of the God of the ark. He reduced the statue of Dagon to a mere stump, and then brought plague on the Philistine cities where it was sent. The Philistines wisely sent the ark back to Israel with golden sin offerings upon the cart that carried it, drawn by unguided cattle to an outpost in Israel. There it remained for some 20 years, until a work of reformation occurred within Israel so that the nation would be prepared to receive it with blessing instead of further judgment.
That work of reformation was based upon the ministry of the Word of God from the mouth of the prophet Samuel, son of praying Hannah and God’s answer to decades of apostasy. The holy symbol had to be removed so that the people, instead of superstitiously relying upon that symbol, could be taught once again to rely upon God Himself with heart and soul. They had to be taught what Samuel said later: “ ‘Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice’ ” (1 Sam. 15:22).
The removal of the ark seems to have made way for 20 years of prophetic ministry by Samuel, placing the truth of God once again before His people, that hearts and lives might be exposed to its light. In 1 Samuel 3:19–20, we are told that the Lord publically established and confirmed the validity of Samuel’s preaching, and it was nationally received.
During these 20 years, God honored His prophet and those who served in his company (see 1 Sam. 2:30: “ ‘Those who honor Me I will honor.…’ ”). First Samuel 7:3–4 shows that the temporary removal of the ark and the long ministry of Samuel during that period led to true, national, heart repentance—the putting away of idols and a new soul reliance upon God Himself.
Throughout history, revivals have come in different ways with varying characteristics. But these realities will always be found present: humble praying beforehand, a return to the Word of truth and grace, and a resolute putting away of idols in order to be once more in a loving communion with the Lord and in charity with one’s neighbor.
For instance, in the Evangelical Revival (or “First Great Awakening”) of the 1730s and ’40s in Britain and the American Colonies, the preaching of George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and others caused multitudes to put away their idols (of materialism, self-centeredness, and pride), thus turning back to God in repentance and to their neighbors in love.
The revival under Samuel, as well as that of the 1730s and ’40s (and many others), exemplified Paul’s words: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
Yet the very next verse (1 Thess. 1:10) gives us the clue as to why God allowed the noble ministry of Samuel to end in deep disappointment to the great prophet, as he had to accede to the people’s wish to have a king like all other nations: “And to wait for His Son from heaven.…” The ministry of the prophetic word, true as it was, necessary as it was, God-given as it was, was only a prelude to something far better; to the only reality that would be the eternally stable resting place for the human soul: the incarnate Word, crucified, risen, and coming again.
The worldly insistence of the saints of Israel (imperfect like ourselves) on having a monarch like the other nations was understood by Samuel to constitute a functional rejection of God as their King (see 1 Sam. 8). But like the fall of Adam and the wrath of mankind (cf. Gen. 3 and Ps. 76:10), the sovereign Lord sinlessly and mysteriously uses things of which He does not approve to bring about a greater good than if those evils had not occurred (see Rom. 8:28 and Acts 4:27–28). God works the generally woeful history of the monarchy in Israel into a profound spiritual preparation for and expectation of the One who was to be “King of kings and Lord of lords forever.” The honored prophet Samuel, wicked King Saul, beloved King David, and the whole line of priests were divine foreshadowings of the true and ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King, who gave them meaning, cleansed their sins, and perfectly fulfilled their functions in the covenant of grace.
Hebrews 1 summarizes what God was doing in the time of Samuel, Saul, David, and the rest: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (vv. 1–3).