“She named the child Ichabod, saying, The
glory is departed from Israel;” 1 Samuel 4:21
“the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for
the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” 1 Kings 8:11
THE glory departed, but in God’s good time the glory returned in an even fuller measure. More than any other, Samuel was the human instrument of this great recovery. This is not actually stated in the Scriptures but it is a most striking fact that although Samuel himself died in the twenty-fifth chapter of the first book which bears his name, almost the whole of this intervening period is governed by the name Samuel, for very soon after the end of the Second Book of Samuel, the record under the title of “Kings” introduces Solomon and his temple.
“Ichabod!” The dying widow spoke a good deal of truth when she lamented the glory that had gone, but she did not speak the whole truth, for she did not know it all. She did not know that the Ark was more than a material emblem, that the Lord’s name was associated with it, and that He would be very jealous concerning it. Although from Israel’s point of view it had gone, and they had lost the glory, the Lord was well able to look after His own testimony — well able. The subsequent chapter immediately gives the story of God’s reaction at this challenge to His holy name.
If the Ark was taken into the house of Dagon, so much the worse for Dagon; it was the god and not the Lord God who would suffer. And if it were taken from there to Ashdod, the people there found God’s hand heavy upon them. So, mingled with the regret with which we read the sad word “Ichabod”, there could be the conviction that God is still on His throne and He is very jealous for the honour of His great name, and well able to look after His own interests, even when His people fail Him. He cannot fail, for He is God!
Perhaps Eli’s dying daughter-in-law forgot that one of the most precious parts of the Ark was the Mercy Seat. Not only was the Lord competent to safeguard His own interests, but He was also able to bring back the glory to a sinful and unworthy people. Indeed He brought the Ark back quicker than they might have thought possible; it needed no army, no human efforts, no striving from Israel’s side — God did it all. His enemies were glad to be rid of it; they themselves sent it back. Thank God for the Mercy Seat. Thank God that even a people who had thrown away all hopes of being useful to God and all rights of having His glorious presence among them, were not cast off. God does not cast off His people whom He foreknew. Grace brought the Ark back. [17/18]
Another point which the widow of Phinehas ignored was that, before ever these last tragic moments of crisis came, the Lord had been preparing His chosen servant who, in due course, would take responsibility concerning God’s glory among His people. Samuel was around; he lived in her house. She must have seen him and known him, but she probably never gave another thought to Samuel for he was so small and insignificant. Had she considered him she would doubtless feel that he had nothing to do with the matter, but he had everything to do with it. The wonder of God’s wisdom is that He not only is well able to care for His own interests and gracious towards His people but that, in secret, He makes His own preparations and produces the instrument which can serve Him.
“Ichabod!” I have been meditating upon the reason, the explanation of this catastrophe. Those who know the story will immediately attribute it to the breakdown and failure in the house of Eli. This is partly true, but I suggest that this was only the end of a long process — just the last stage of what had been wrong with the people of God for many years. When Joshua’s days were finished, Israel passed into a period in which there was no God-given leadership. Those who are familiar with the book Judges will know that the key-phrase in that dark story of the hundreds of years of tragedy among God’s people is that “there was no king in Israel”; they lacked leadership. But is this all? I have also observed that, with the closing chapters of the book of Joshua, the priesthood seems to have gone into total eclipse. There was no ministry of intercession. In the whole of the book of Judges there is no mention of priests, except in a most depraved and perverted form. When we pass from that book into 1 Samuel, we very soon read: “and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, priests unto the Lord, were there” (1:3). The glory departed because the ministry of intercession had ceased. Even in those brighter periods in the book of Judges when, for the time being, leaders did arise and for a little while brought relief and triumph to the people of God, even then there is no mention of this essential, basic, though often hidden, task of serving the interests of God in the ministry of intercession.
“Ichabod” — the glory had departed. We do not need to dwell on the particular tragedy of Eli and his household, for it all fits into this one suggestion which I have put before you, namely, that when there is no vital priestly ministry among God’s people, there can be no glory. Happily we can now consider the positive aspect. The glory did come back. It came back in very great fullness. And if we look behind the sovereignty and the grace of God — and how we praise His name for both — we find this figure of Samuel, not born into a priestly family but a most effective priestly instrument.
It may be remarked that the glory was a long time coming back, even though the Ark was recovered. That is true. But Samuel’s life was a long one. The thrilling fact is that the glory did come back, and if we are called to exercise patience, let us be reminded that patience is the very essence of priestly service. Persistence, continuance — these have always been the secrets of lives which have had influence upon the whole course of the history of God’s people. I do not think that it is any exaggeration to say that here, in the person of Samuel, was the man who, under God, was responsible for the fact that the lost glory was fully recovered.
What then can we learn from Samuel?
1. The Value of Simplicity
In the first place we learn from him the value of simplicity. Samuel was not a priest; he had no official place in the priestly order. He was a Levite but, even so, his father seems not to have been engaged in any Levitical tasks. He was just an ordinary boy in an ordinary family. Yet nobody can call Samuel ‘ordinary’, for he had such a miraculous entrance into the world. God brought him in.
There is not much power in any ministry of intercession unless there is behind the instrument the fact that God brought him in. That, surely, was the strength that held him throughout those long years, the knowledge that it was no natural contrivance and no personal decision, but an act of God that brought him in. Every prayer ministry must begin like that, and can only be maintained on that basis.
Lest, however, we should build up grandiose ideas on this phrase ‘an act of God’, let us consider his history more closely. We find that as he came to the house of the Lord it is stated, “the child was young” (1:24) and again, “But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child” (2:18). There is something very simple about the person divinely apprehended for holy service. The record goes on to say, “Moreover his mother made him a little robe” (2:19). No wonder that the widow of Phinehas overlooked him; he was so small and [18/19] so insignificant that he would not appear to have anything to do with God’s glory. Yet it is so often the simple, the insignificant and even the despised that serve God best in the place of prayer. One of those Scriptural ‘buts’ that are so precious is here linked with this lad: “And the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord; for men abhorred the offering of the Lord. But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child.”
Just a child, in all his weakness and inadequacy, to face a flood of evil and hopelessness; yet he stood his ground, he stayed there with the Lord, and in the end the glory came back. We need not be ashamed of our simplicity; nor of our conscious inadequacy. God is always looking for someone little enough, simple enough, humble enough, to be ready to His hand. In Samuel He was able to find just what He wanted.
2. The Value of Teachableness
He was young and small, but he was ready to learn. Listen again to the prayer, the first prayer, of this man of prayer: “Speak; for thy servant heareth”. That is the secret of true intercessory ministry — an open ear to the Lord. What we say to Him may follow and be prompted by what He says to us, but the initiative must come from God’s side.
Here, then, was one ready to be taught. As he grew up (and great emphasis is laid upon the fact of this growing up, 2:26 and 3:19) this is what is said of him: “The Lord appeared again in Shiloh; for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel” (3:21). You notice how it is put. Not, ‘Prayer became mighty in Shiloh because there was a man who dedicated himself to a prayer ministry’, but in Shiloh a man learned to listen to the Lord. God found someone simple enough, humble enough to pay attention to His voice. Everything else grew out of that.
All through his life Samuel lived on that basis. The time came when the people demanded a king, and to Samuel that signified that he himself was being set aside, so naturally he felt very sore. He grieved but, being the man he was, “he prayed” (8:6), and the Lord told him: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee”. Then comes the remarkable feature in that it was the rejected Samuel who went to meet Saul, anointed him and brought him to the kingdom. It took a willing and obedient spirit to do that. In the end, the whole enterprise proved a failure, and the time came for the true king to be appointed and for this purpose Samuel, now an old man, experienced and mature in the ways of the Lord, was sent to the family at Bethlehem. We notice, though, that for all his experience, he was still liable to make a mistake, so that when he saw the eldest son of Jesse he said, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him” (16:6), but he did not act precipitately, for he was sensitive enough to register God’s check. In spite of all his years and all his experience, he was able to adjust and listen as the Lord admonished him, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man (even a godly man) looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (v.7). Compare Samuel with old Eli with his rigid, heavy condition. Samuel was now old, but he retained his childlike willingness to be taught. He could still say, “Speak, for thy servant heareth”. That is why the Lord could continue to use him.
When Hannah first took him to Shiloh, I wonder whether she realised the kind of conditions to which she was committing her tender son. I doubt it. If she did, she had remarkable faith. But in any case it was all right. The God of miracles who had given her the youngster, wrought another miracle in allowing him to be exposed to such evil corruption and yet be quite untouched by it. It needed a miracle for the lad to be kept pure under those circumstances, in that atmosphere. In the work of intercession we all need the divine miracle of a humble and pure spirit.
3. The Value of Disinterestedness
Towards the end of his life, Samuel was able to appear before the people and challenge them as to whether or not he had ever, in any matter, sought his own interests; and the whole people gave their agreement to the claim that nothing like that could ever be said of Samuel. God and men agreed that the guilelessness which had marked him as a boy had persisted all through his life. The aged Samuel was a man who had always been characterised by self-sacrifice in concern for God’s people and God’s glory. At one time the people appealed to him to be sure to pray for them even when they knew that they no longer deserved his prayers. He made the noble answer: “As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you” (12:23). [19/20]
He felt acutely Israel’s rejection of him when they clamoured for a king, but he watched faithfully over their interests to the last. When Saul turned against him, driving him away from the court by his wilful disobedience, Samuel mourned over the divinely discredited king without bitterness or reminders of his original misgivings. For his part he never thought in terms of an alternative king, but went quietly to his home in Ramah, not to sulk but to pray. This was so much the case that there came a time when the Lord had gently to chide him for his procedure. Earlier on we had been told that when he made his home in Ramah he built an altar there. The name Ramah, is said to mean ‘Heights’. The man who rises to heights of unselfishness and ministers at his altar in his own home is the very man whom the Lord could use to bring back the lost glory. What Israel owed, what David owed, what the glory of God owed to the man who lived in the heights, lived by the altar and held on for God!
4. The Costliness of Intercession
When Samuel was commanded by God to seek out and anoint the new king David, his spontaneous reply to God was: “How can I go? If Saul hear it, he will kill me” (16:2). In spite of that, though, he did go, and the Lord preserved him. This sense of peril, however, is a salutary reminder to us that an intercessor must always be prepared to pay the price of his calling. There is another example of this truth. When David’s life was in danger, having only just escaped from Saul’s murderous attack, he hurried off to Samuel in Ramah and there opened his heart to the old seer. The two of them moved off to Naioth, Samuel sharing with David the perils of Saul’s fury. When Saul knew of this he sent his assassins after them. Once again, the Lord preserved His servant and gave through him and on his behalf an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the Spirit (19:20-24). The story is a thrilling one, but I only mention it here to keep us from imagining that a ministry of intercession provided a quiet and sheltered experience. Far from it — it places us in the forefront of the conflict.
I do not believe that it really was the spirit of Samuel whom the witch of En-dor made to appear to Saul on that last desperate interview before his death. No one is ‘an old man’ after he has passed beyond time and space into eternity. But at least it is interesting that the apparition was reported to have asked: “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” (28:15). One thing is certain, and that is that the Samuel who prayed so much about Saul and his kingdom had to suffer constant trouble and disquiet because of him. Intercession is a costly activity.
Costly, but most effective. As I have already remarked, the Scripture record from Eli to Solomon is all made under the general title of Samuel. It appears that originally it consisted of just one book whereas we have First and Second Samuel, but over all is this one name, which itself speaks of God’s answering prayer. Above all others, this man was the human agent for the change from Ichabod to the glory-filled temple.
5. The Enduring Element in Intercession
So far as Samuel’s earthly history is concerned, it ended when he died and was lamented by all Israel (28:3). But prayers go on, even after the one who made them is no longer alive. Since my own bereavement I have seen some wonderful answers to the prayers which my glorified wife prayed when she was here in our home. Her prayers have lived on, though she has left us. And so did Samuel’s prayers live on. The real king was enthroned and brought something of God’s glory back to Israel’s history and then through his son, Solomon, there came the day when the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. I can only hope that the Lord saw fit to give Samuel news of that great event there in the pure glory of His presence. In any case prayer is the one activity which can go on working even after we have left this life. I do not mean that people actually pray in heaven (though our great Intercessor certainly does), but rather that what is yet unanswered in our own lifetime is still made effective by our eternal God who will not fail nor be discouraged when His praying servants can no longer pray. So let us keep up our prayer ministry.
This whole message can be especially meaningful to those who may be in despair about some situation in a life, a work or a fellowship where the glory is seeming to depart or to have departed. Beloved friends, let us not be content with feebly murmuring “Ichabod”, but let us get to our Ramah and our altar and pray on until that lost glory is recovered and even surpasses what was before. “It came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” Let us never weary or despair in our work of intercession. [20/ibc]