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Samuel and the Dangerous Presence of God

Read 1 Samuel 3-7

It all started with a mother.

She longed for a child and prayed fervently to God from the depths of her heart. The priest wouldn’t listen to her – he accused her of being drunk. But God heard her prayers, and she returned to that priest several years later with a young son. She told Eli, the priest, that she wanted her son to be raised up in service to the LORD, and so Eli took Samuel as his disciple.

Samuel grew up tending to the presence of the LORD, which essentially involved a sacred chest called the Ark of the Covenant and it contained several sacred objects. It was believed that God’s presence was especially tangible with this Ark of the Covenant, however, 1 Sam 3:1 also says that the word of the LORD was rare in those days.

This is likely why Samuel was so confused when he heard a voice calling to him one night, “Samuel!” He assumed it was Eli calling, and it took a while before he, with the help of Eli, learned that it was God’s voice summoning him.

God spoke: “Samuel, I’m going to do something in your day that will make the ears of all who hear it burn.”  – 1 Sam 3:11


The Philistines were waging war against the Israelites, and in one particularly gruesome battle, 4000 Israelite soldiers were killed. In desperation, the elders asked for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to the battle field. If God was in their midst, they thought, they’d win most certainly.

This isn’t what happened, however. The Philistines pressed harder against them and the Israelites were defeated. Even the sons of Eli were killed and what’s worse, the Ark of the Covenant was captured.

When the news reached Eli that his sons were killed and the Ark was gone, he fell over dead, and his daughter-in-law who was large with child keeled over in early labour. With her dying breath she named her son, Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed”. The grief experienced by the survivors cannot be overstated.

The Philistines took the Ark and gave it as a gift to their god, Dagon. They placed it in their temple at his feet. The strangest thing happened, however: in the morning, the priests discovered the statue of Dagon had fallen prostrate before the Ark. They weren’t sure what to think about that – hopefully, it was a coincidence. But the next day, after propping Dagon back up on his feet, they found Dagon fallen again, but with his hands and head broken off.

The Ark of the God of Israel had symbolically executed the god of the Philistines! What’s more, the Philistine people in this town began to experience horribly painful hemorrhoids. They began to suspect that it had something to do with the Ark, and so they sent it on to another Philistine town. The people from every town that housed the Ark of God experienced these same hemorrhoids! According to 1 Sam 5:9, everyone’s “secret parts” were sore.

The priests eventually discerned that the Ark had to be returned to Israel, tout de suite. They knew not to return it empty, so they melted gold into the shape of five hemorrhoids and five mice, and attached the Ark to two milch cows who had never worn a yoke before. Without a driver or anyone to guide the cows, the Ark of God directed those cows straight down the road to Israel, without looking to the left or right.

The Ark came over the hills into the boarder town of Beth-Shemesh. The Ark had been gone for seven months and the people of Beth-Shemesh were harvesting wheat. Imagine their reaction at seeing two Philistine cows bringing their God back home to them. Overjoyed, the townspeople made a fire with the cart and sacrificed the cows. Irreverently, with a sense of ownership over this Sacred Ark, the people looked inside.. You know what happened to them? HEMMORHOIDS!!!! They thought God belonged to them, but God returned the plague onto them as if to say, “I don’t belong to you! I’m not yours to possess!”

What can we surmise from these strange and wonderful stories?

When was the last time the presence of God made you tremble?

What about the role of God in our world fills you with wonder?

The presence of God is dangerous and holy and extremely disruptive. Samuel knew that more than the others, and so summoned all of Israel to gather around the Ark and fast and pray. Samuel said, “Return to the LORD with your whole heart, set your heart firm and serve him alone. I will deliver you from the hands of the Philistines!”

As they were gathered to fast and pray and worship, the Philistines got word that all of the men of Israel were gathered in one place and so they set out to attack them. As they were about to launch the attack, while Samuel was crying out to God and offering a suckling lamb, the LORD thundered with a loud voice at the Philistines and they were scattered in a great panic.

The presence of God is a dangerously disruptive force – the holiness of God demands reverence. God doesn’t need us to protect him or guide him or domesticate him. He alone has shaped the cosmos and sustains all life.

This story takes a tragic turn for the worse in the following chapter. Even after witnessing the agency of God and being filled with terror and awe at his mighty deeds, the people gather around an aging Samuel and demand he anoint a King for them so they can be like the nations. God is grieved, and declares that this is a rejection of His kingdom.

This is the introduction to the story about the Kings of Israel. The Kings were anointed as an ultimate rejection of God. Samuel warns the people: you can have a king, but it will destroy you. They insist. They want a King.

This story must be kept in mind as we encounter the rest of the history of the Kings of Israel and we will take this journey all the way into Lent.

In this series, we are centering on a Poem from each text. You will notice that the Kings are brutal and they all become corrupt. You will soon recognize that the Kings rarely represent God. In response to their wicked leadership, God sends the Prophets. The Prophets come with poetry and power from God.  God speaks poetry to Power to the Kings.

Today’s poem is found at the headwaters of the story. The very first poem in the books of Samuel and Kings (a unified whole in the Septuagint) is spoken by the mother of Samuel. Her poem reverberates across the history of Israel, and is eventually picked up by the Mother of Mary who birthed the King who would reclaim what Samuel saw depart.

1 Sam 2:1-10

2 Then Hannah prayed:

My heart rejoices in the Lord. My strength rises up in the Lord! My mouth mocks my enemies because I rejoice in your deliverance. 2 No one is holy like the Lord— no, no one except you! There is no rock like our God!

3 Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly, spouting arrogance from your mouth, because the Lord is the God who knows, and he weighs every act.

4 The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! 5 Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! 6 The Lord! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! 7 The Lord! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! 8 God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; he set the world on top of them! 9 God guards the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked die in darkness because no one succeeds by strength alone.

10 The Lord! His enemies are terrified! God thunders against them from heaven! The Lord! He judges the far corners of the earth!

May God give strength to his king and raise high the strength of his anointed one.

The invitation you’re being given with this sermon series is to listen to Hannah’s prophetic poem…to pray again like Hannah, listen again like Samuel, tremble with terror and awe again  like the Israelites at the Word of God.

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