After God struck the Israelites in Beth-shemesh for looking into the ark, which they were not authorized to do, the ark was sent to the town of Kiriath-jearim in Judah. There it would stay for some twenty years until King David brought it to Jerusalem (1 Sam. 6:19–7:2; 1 Chron. 13–15).
The loss of the ark to the Philistines, the Israelites’ defeat in battle, the return of the ark to Israel, and the striking of the men of Beth-shemesh profoundly affected God’s people, for today’s passage says that “all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD” (1 Sam. 7:2). This happened soon after the ark came to Kiriath-jearim, long before David moved it to Jerusalem, given the intervening reign of King Saul that we will soon read about. And this lamenting was one of sorrow over sin, as indicated in Samuel’s response to this lament.
Samuel told the people that they had to put away the foreign gods—the Baals and the Ashtaroth, fertility gods worshiped by ancient Near Eastern pagans—and serve only the Lord (v. 3). So, the Israelites “put away” the foreign gods, that is, they stopped worshiping them and dedicated themselves anew to serving the Lord (v. 4). Then, Israel gathered at Mizpah, a town in the tribal area of Benjamin that served as a gathering place for the nation during the time of the judges and of the early monarchy (v. 5; see Judg. 20:1–3; 1 Sam. 10:17). There Samuel poured out water before the Lord, probably an indication of cleansing from sin, and they confessed that they had sinned against God in worshiping foreign gods and in treating the ark of the covenant poorly (1 Sam. 7:6). This entire episode shows us the pattern of true repentance, which entails acknowledging what we have done, confessing our sin or agreeing with God that our acts have broken His law, and forsaking our sin in favor of obeying the Lord (Jer. 3:22–4:4). To repent is to commit ourselves anew to serving only the Lord. As Matthew Henry comments, “You must be wholly for God, for him and no other, serve him only, else you do not serve him at all so as to please him.”
When the Israelites repented at Mizpah, Samuel also offered a burnt offering to atone for their sin, and God responded to the people’s repentance by defeating the Philistines and returning the cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel (1 Sam. 7:7–14). Thus we see that God blesses those who repent of their sins and return to Him. Samuel was established as the leader of Israel at this time, and he judged Israel “all the days of his life” (vv. 15–17).