This chapter depicts Samuel as a spiritual and military leader. He revives Israel spiritually and politically and delivers them from Philistine bondage. This positive portrait of Samuel continues the contrast with Eli’s house so evident in chapters 2–4. Israel’s defeat was closely linked with the death of Eli and his sons. The text even seems to indicate that it was their sin that brought about the loss of the ark (see 4:4).
But Samuel is linked with the military success and renewed security that his mother anticipated in her thanksgiving song (2:10). This contrast between Samuel and Eli is facilitated by the fact that both Israel’s earlier defeat and the victory described in chapter 7 occur at places named Ebenezer (see the note on 7:12 below). Samuel’s victory also foreshadows greater victories to come under the king he will anoint. Since his victory shows that he enjoys God’s favor, it contributes to his credentials as the one who will anoint kings and eventually elevate David over Saul.
Historical and Cultural Background
According to verses 3–4, the Israelites are worshiping the Baals and Ashtoreths at this time. The plural forms likely refer to various local manifestations and idols of the deities Baal and Astarte, respectively, though it is also possible that the phrase refers in a general way to Canaanite male and female deities. Astarte appears as a female consort of Baal in the mythological texts from Ugarit, sometimes in association with Anat, another of Baal’s consorts.
This chapter contributes to the Baal polemic that began in Judges and continued with Hannah, Samuel’s mother. The Song of Deborah depicts the Lord as sovereign over the storm as he defeats the Canaanite armies (Judg. 5:4–5). The Gideon account, along with its sequel about Abimelek, contains a strong anti-Baal polemic, showing how Baal is unable to fully avenge Gideon’s (Jerubbaal’s) attack on his altar. Hannah celebrates the Lord’s ability to give fertility (1 Sam. 2:1–10) in terms that echo the Baal myths. This polemic against Baal culminates in 1 Samuel 7, which records how the Lord thunders in battle against his enemies. The Lord’s self-revelation in the storm is particularly significant and appropriate here because the Israelites, in response to Samuel’s exhortation, have just thrown away their Baal idols and renewed their commitment to the Lord (7:2–4). As if to confirm the wisdom of their decision, the Lord reveals himself in a Baal-like manner, proving that he, not the Canaanite storm-god, controls nature and possesses the capacity to bless Israel with fertility.
The description of the Lord’s thundering against his enemies has parallels in the broader culture. Warrior kings often compared their battle cry to the thunder of the storm-god. The Assyrian kings Sargon II and Ashurbanipal both report that the storm-god Adad himself thundered against their enemy during battle.4
The use of the verb “thundered” (7:10) links this event with Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:10), recorded near the beginning of 1-2 Samuel, and with David’s prayer (2 Sam. 22:14), recorded near the end of these books. The Lord’s self-revelation in the storm to deliver his people partly fulfills Hannah’s vision of divine intervention on behalf of Israel’s anointed king. But Samuel is not the anointed king of Israel; his victory is anticipatory and in turn foreshadows the experience of David, who poetically depicts the Lord as coming in the storm to deliver him from his powerful enemies. By linking Samuel and David with Hannah’s song in this way, the narrator suggests that David is the rightful king anticipated by Hannah and anointed by her son, Samuel.
Another important theological theme in this chapter is the emergence of Samuel as Israel’s intercessor. Moses told Israel that the Lord would establish a prophet like him (Deut. 18:15–18). In his prophetic role Moses revealed God’s will to the people and interceded on behalf of the nation to God (Num. 21:7). Samuel fulfills this promise in part. Not only does he reveal God’s word to Israel (1 Sam. 3:19–4:1a), but here he also intercedes for the people (7:5, 9). The narrator presents Samuel as a new Moses, thereby establishing his credentials as the mediator between God and Israel who possesses the authority to anoint kings on behalf of God. It is no surprise that the Lord, when speaking to Jeremiah, mentions Moses and Samuel in the same breath when recalling intercessors from Israel’s past (Jer. 15:1; see also Ps. 99:6).
From the unique perspective of the exiles, repentance is perhaps the most relevant theme of this chapter. Israel’s response to Samuel’s prophetic exhortation provides a paradigm of repentance for the exiles. Like Samuel’s generation, they find themselves alienated from God, just as Moses anticipated (Deut. 30:1–10). They too must repudiate the idolatry of their fathers and renew their allegiance to the Lord.
Teaching the Text
- Repentance and renewed allegiance to God open the door to deliverance. This account is instructive for understanding the nature of repentance. Several observations are in order:
a. God’s wayward people can initiate repentance. In describing Israel’s reconciliation to God, Moses stresses the exiled people’s responsibility to make the first move (Deut. 30:1–2, 10). The Lord will then respond in compassion (vv. 3–6). This balance between human responsibility and divine sovereignty is apparent in Jeremiah 29:10–14 (cf. Ezek. 18:30–32; 36:26–27) and in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. The wayward son, exasperated by the consequences of his sin, decides to return home to his father, who rushes to meet him and greets him with open arms and great rejoicing (Luke 15:11–32).
b. Repentance can have a corporate dimension when the individual members of the covenant community have participated together in the same sins.
c. Repentance begins with sincere motives, but it also involves actions, not just emotion. The substance of repentance is changed behavior, often involving a radical repudiation of one’s former behavior and allegiances. Symbolic rituals and confession of sin may accompany repentance, but these formal expressions have significance only if supported by changed behavior. This focus on actions as the genuine fruit of repentance is also apparent in the New Testament (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20; 2 Cor. 7:9–11).
d. Repentance results in exclusive worship of the one true God.
e. Repentance does not insulate one from trouble. On the contrary, when the Philistines hear about Israel’s assembly at Mizpah, they attack (1 Sam. 7:10). But repentance and reconciliation to God do bring divine support amid trying circumstances and protection from one’s enemies.