SOAP Journal – 23 August 2017 (1 Samuel 6:13-7:14)

Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”

1 Samuel 7:12

The Philistines returned the Ark to the Israelites and everything looked good for a moment. The people of the town had the Levites handle the Ark and offered a burnt offering on a massive stone, but some men of the town looked inside the Ark and things started to go badly.

People died. The leaders of the city called to the next city over and asked them to take the Ark. Those people did, but 7:2 says that all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. They wanted things to be right, but seemed unaware of how to make them right.

Along comes Samuel and tells them to return to the LORD with all [their] heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among [them] and direct [their] hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone (7:3). So they do. The Israelites get rid of all the idols and go so far as to fast and pray and wait on the LORD at Mizpah.

The Philistines see this and decide that it is an opportune moment to attack. The people briefly freak out (7:7). They respond appropriately, asking Samuel to keep praying to God on their behalf and God answers. Samuel makes an offering and God makes some noise and the sound confuses the Philistines so much that the Israelites are able to utterly defeat them and chase them for a while.

At the place where the Israelites could no longer pursue the Philistines, for whatever reason, Samuel sets up a stone as a reminder. And that event is this morning’s verse.

In several places in the Old Testament, people set up stones and piles of stones as reminders and “witnesses” to things that happen. As an example, Joshua has the Israelites grab massive river rocks when they cross the Jordan and make a pile of them next to the river as a reminder that they crossed on dry ground and took those stones from the river bed.

It is good to have reminders of the goodness of God toward us. Some suggest that keeping a journal is a good habit to get into. I do not disagree, but not everyone is willing to take the time to journal. I make the time to keep this journal, but that is about as much time as I am willing to give. Perhaps it might be better to keep a log of the times that God steps in and acts on my behalf. At the end of each day, it might do to review the day and just jot down notes of the times that God has intervened and the progress He has made in areas of my life. Was there a situation during the day in which I would have responded in a way that did not please God but found that I responded in a way that pleased God? If yes, I should note it down. And I should return to this log frequently so as to see the progress God is making in the same way that the Israelites who passed by the stone that Samuel set up would see it and remember that God had helped them.

And that, I think, is my application. I need to find ways to give myself reminders of the progress that God is making in my life. It is easy to lose sight of just how far God has already brought me when I can clearly see how far I have yet to go. It is like standing on a mountain top and looking at the road stretching down the mountain and across the valley and not looking at all the road already traversed behind me. Both are necessary for context so I can be encouraged at how far I have come and be challenged to keep going.

Father, thank You for all of the progress You have made in my and in my life. Thank You for all of the times that You have directly stepped in and down great things on my behalf. Please help me to know the right way to mark those occasions and to keep myself encouraged by the road already traveled and challenged by the road still ahead.

SOAP Journal – 22 August 2017 (1 Samuel 6)

Now the ark of the LORD had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”

1 Samuel 6:1-2

The Philistines had seen the image of their god humbled before the Ark and they had suffered growths on their skin and a plague of mice that were consuming their crops. So they were dealing with food shortages and with physical discomfort to the point of people dying. The leadership does the smart thing: They seek out advice. And, since the whole thing seems to be a duel between gods with their god on the losing side, the leaders seek out the advice of priests and diviners.

There is an old saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day and these priests and diviners had the correct answer. They told the Philistine leadership to send the Ark back on a cart with two animals fit for sacrifice and with some little golden baubles shaped like the mice and the skin growths as an offering.

The priests and diviners even put together a litmus test of sorts. They tell the leaders to shut up the calves of the cart animals back at home. If the animals go straight for a particular city of the Israelites, then the plagues were from the LORD. If the cart animals went looking for their calves — which would have been the natural behavior — then it was just a coincidence.

The cart animals pulled straight for the Israelite city.

More things happen to the Ark in the end of this chapter and in subsequent chapters, but the Ark is no longer in the hands of the Philistines.

This story illustrates how hard a human heart can be. The priests and diviners are correct about what should be done to remove the plague of mice and the growths. They even go so far as to say you shall give glory to the God of Israel (v. 5), but they do not stop with that, they continue on to say perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land (v. 5). Stating that He might ease His hand from you and your land makes sense, they are just stating facts already in evidence. But the priests and diviners also admitted that their gods cannot compare or compete with the LORD by saying that the LORD’s hand is against their gods. Yet they are going to continue to worship gods that cannot compare or compete with the LORD. They will continue to worship gods that could not save them from the hand of the LORD. In a sad twist, these people with hard hearts also warn against hardness of heart, asking Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts (v. 6)?

And I must examine myself to see whether I likewise exhort others to avoid hardness of heart while hardening my own heart. Is there some area of my life in which I instruct others to keep a tender heart while I have a hard heart in a related area? I am not aware of any, but the examination is a good thing and further prayer and searching are definitely in order.

Father, thank You that You can see into my heart and know whether I am hardening it in some area while exhorting others to remain tender. Please search me and reveal the hard places in my heart. Please soften them and make them able to feel again.

SOAP Journal – 21 August 2017 (1 Samuel 5)

When the Ashdodites arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set him in his place again. But when they arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. And the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands [were] cut off on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

1 Samuel 5:3-4

In the preceding chapter, the Israelites had gone out to battle against the Philistines without consulting God on whether or not they should. When the battle went against them, the Israelites doubled-down on their self-will and brought out the Ark as if it were some kind of lucky charm or talisman. This also backfired and the Israelites were not only defeated, but the Philistines took the Ark to the city of Ashdod and put it in the temple of one of their gods, Dagon.

That brings me current with this morning’s verses. The morning after their victory and their placing of the Ark in the temple of Dagon, the Philistines arrive to find that the image of their god is prostrate before the Ark. So, they stand the image of their god back on its base and go on about their normal routine. The next morning, as verse 4 details, they found the image of their god prostrate once again and the statue’s head and hands severed. It was at this point that the Philistines realized that they were in trouble. And trouble followed.

I do not want to get into mythological and historical discussions of how Dagon was depicted. That could take a while. Instead, I want to focus on the meaning behind the prostration of Dagon and why I think the Philistines had such a rough go of things after that point.

One lying prostrate before another is a sign of submission and surrender. That Dagon’s image was found prostrate and the Philistines felt the need to stand it back up again speaks volumes. The Philistines had won victory over the Israelites and, in the ancient world, a victory of one people over another was often equated to a victory of their god(s) over the god(s) of the other people. But Dagon’s image being found on its face in front of the Ark told a different story. Dagon’s image lying on the temple floor in front of the Ark told the story that though the Philistine’s had won the battle, their god was still subservient to the God Whose Ark the Philistine’s had taken as spoil. This did not jive with their understanding of things, so they stood the image of their god back on its base. Then they found it on its face again the next day. Or would have, if the face were still connected to the rest of the body. Heads and hands were symbolic of power and authority and ability. That Dagon’s image had its head and hands severed tells the story that Dagon is powerless and ineffectual, a narrative that ran quite contrary to what the Philistines believed.

After that point, the LORD afflicts the Philistines with some sort of growths on their skin. These growths must have been painful, because the leaders of Ashdod get the Philistine leadership together and form a plan to move the Ark to another city. The painful growths follow the Ark to that city and on to the next. When the Ark reaches that city, the city of Ekron, the Philistines finally ask the question: What should they do with the Ark? Interestingly enough, the diviners of the Philistines get the answer right.

All of this comes back to one simple truth: God does not need me to fight for Him. I should definitely tell people about the awesome things that God has done for me. And I ought to be glorifying God when He answers my prayers.  And I should be sharing my faith. But God does not need me to defend Him. As the incident with Dagon illustrates, God is perfectly capable of defending Himself. For that matter, if the Israelites had treated God with the reverence He deserves, then He never would have had a need to defend Himself to the Philistines. The Israelites would have not gone to battle against the Philistines or would have been victorious. In either event, God wins. Instead, the Israelites made it necessary for God to illustrate for the Philistines just which God was actually in charge.

Father, thank You for this reminder that You do not need me to stand up for You. Rather, I need You to stand up for me. Please keep me mindful of who needs to be stood up for and by Whom.

SOAP Journal – 18 August 2017 (1 Samuel 4)

So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

1 Samuel 4:10-11

1 Samuel 4 reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The Israelites go to war with the Philistines and lose the first round of battle. They then bring the Ark out to the battlefield, thinking that God would give them victory if only they had the Ark with them. They were wrong. Not only are they defeated, but they lose the Ark in the process. A man escapes from the battlefield to take news back to the people at home and brings news to Eli that both of his sons are dead and that the Ark has been taken. That last bit of news is too much, and old Eli falls out of his chair and breaks his neck. Eli’s daughter-in-law, in labor with a child, hears the news that her husband and father-in-law are dead and that the Ark is gone and names her newborn son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed” before she dies.

It does not seem like there is much hope in this passage. And there really is not. I know that God throws down with the Philistines in the very next chapter — and it is epic — but that does not decrease the body count or make Ichabod any less an orphan. This chapter serves as a sobering testimony to the cost of doing things the wrong way.

Should the Israelites have gone to war with the Philistines? There is no way to know, They should have asked God what He wanted them to do. Instead, they got themselves prepared for battle and went out to fight because they thought it was right. Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 both state that There is a way [which] seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. When I go off without consulting God, I can expect that I will sometimes, perhaps often be wrong.

Should the Israelites have brought the Ark out onto the battlefield? In this case, no. There are plenty of times where God tells people to bring out the Ark as a symbol of His presence, because He sanctioned the action being taken. But this battle is not sanctioned. God was not consulted. And the Israelites brought the Ark that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies (v. 3). They saw the Ark as some idol that could carry the Presence of God wherever it went or as a sort of leverage to make God come out t the battlefield and give them victory. Neither of these is true and both represent terrible misunderstandings of Who God is and how He operates. If I come to God on any terms other than His own, then I will have a false god.

This chapter is a sort of illustration of how the first three Commandments can be violated. The Israelites did not consult the True and Living God because they had set up some other god in His place — possibly themselves. They used the Ark as a sort of graven image, acting as if it had some power in and of itself; like it was a lucky charm. And they took God’s Name; God’s reputation to themselves in vain when they brought the Ark into the camp. The Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all [kinds] of plagues in the wilderness (vv. 7-8). God had not come into the camp. There is no record of whether He sanctioned this battle or not, but it seems likely that He did not, since the Israelites are soundly defeated and the Ark is captured.


First, if I am not consulting God about decisions in my life, then I am in danger of setting up a false god in His place. I need not pester God with questions about where I should eat lunch or what I should have, but I might meet neat people and avoid a bout with food poisoning if I do. God is not disinterested in the minutiae of my life, but He is not going to force His inputs on me.

Second, nothing can act as leverage with God and I should not think that anything — tangible or otherwise — is going to make God do anything. The only thing that will make God do something is God Himself. He is the I AM and He cannot be forced to do anything. Additionally, He will remove my crutches — my lucky whatsits and my comfort thingamabobs — until He is all that I rely on.

Third, I need to leave God’s reputation; God’s Name out of things wherein I have done something without consulting Him. Many years ago, a younger and much less mature me dated a young woman whose morals did not align with mine and with whom I argued about many things. I knew that it was a bad decision, but we had been friends and got on well in that capacity. We tried to make it work, soldiering on even when it was becoming evident that the mismatch was tearing one or both of us apart. Instead of owning it and ending things, that younger me brought God into things and gave His disapproval as a reason for ending the relationship. It may very well be that He was unhappy with the relationship — they were many reasons to think that He might have been — but there was no voice from the clouds or prophetic dream in which He told that younger me to end things. God was thrown under the bus. It was not His fault that the relationship was a shambles. It was, however, definitely my fault.

Father, I confess that I have, at times, taken Your Name; Your reputation to my actions and myself when what I did was nothing to do with You. I confess that I have sometimes set up other things in Your place — my wants, my self (most often) — and have not properly recognized those usurpers. Please forgive my wrong and work in me to see You rightly and to honor You properly and to live in such a way as to take Your Name to myself in an appropriate way. Teach me how to honor You as my King; to obey You as my Master; to be loyal to You as my Friend; and to love You as my Father. Please keep me from idols and from attempts to strong arm You into doing anything. Thank You for this lesson and for this reminder and for the light that illuminates both past and present.

SOAP Journal – 17 August 2017 (1 Samuel 3)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. … And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, because the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.

1 Samuel 3:1, 21

The chapter opens with Samuel ministering to the LORD. In more than one place in The Bible, this has been the activity of people during which God revealed specific information (cf Luke 1:8-20Acts 13:1-3).

During this time of ministering to the LORD, God called to Samuel . Samuel ministered, but he did not know God personally, so he thought that it was Eli calling him. Samuel trots on over to answer Eli who tells him that he (Eli) did not call him (Samuel) and that he (Samuel) should go back to sleep. This happens three times before Eli figures out that God is trying to talk with Samuel. He then tells Samuel to tell God to go ahead and speak and that Samuel should listen carefully.

God talks. Samuel listens. Eli asks what God said and Samuel, after being persuaded, tells Eli what God said. What God communicated to Samuel was bad news for Eli, so the boy did not want to deliver the bad news to Eli. This chapter wraps up with comments about Samuel being confirmed as a prophet because the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail (v 19). And the book end to it is God revealing Himself to Samuel by the word of the LORD. God speaking is no longer quite so rare, as there is a willing ear in the man of Samuel.

A few things jump off the page at me.

First, God speaks to Samuel when Samuel is ministering to the LORD.  When people go on about their lives and do not take time to serve God and cultivate their half of the relationship, God is silent. When people make God a priority, He speaks quite clearly to them. This makes sense, as even a friendship between people requires that both make efforts to keep the friendship alive and thriving. If one is putting forth all of the effort, then the friendship will, eventually, dissolve.

Second, an established relationship with God is not necessary to serve Him. Samuel does not have his own relationship with God when he serves and he does not immediately recognize God’s voice when He speaks. And this, though awkward, jives with what I know of life in general. Men and women often serve in churches and sometimes do good work for God and His kingdom without ever having encountered the King they serve. But this is not so strange a thing, as many people work in jobs to further the goals of a CEO they have never met and likely never will. Unlike that CEO, God not only wants to establish a personal relationship with us, but He is available to do so.

Third, God wants to speak to us. The chapter says that word from the LORD was rare in those days. Was it rare because God had nothing to say or because no one was listening? This book comes on the heels, chronologically, of the book of Judges. The book of Judges ends with the statement that In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). It would seem that the reason God was silent is that very few people were listening and that those who should have been — like Eli — were not. God’s character never changes, so it is just as true today as it was back when: God wants to speak. What He often lacks is a willing ear.

Am I serving God or do I expect Him to be the One Who puts all the effort into our relationship? And I need to pause to note that the term “relationship” seems to have been appropriated by intimate relationships in the modern West. A relationship used to be any way that people related to one another — acquaintances, friendship, colleagues, and intimate partner, to name a few — but has somehow lost all but one meaning in modern parlance. It makes speaking of my relationship with God feel awkward and false. God wants to be the best friend I will ever have — Jesus said that He calls those Who follow Him and do what He commands His friends in John 15. God is also, whether I will or no, my King. He rules over creation. That, too, is a relationship. And the list continues. Regardless of the relationship I choose to focus, I have a role in that relationship. Since He is King, I am His subject and I can either be a willing and contented subject or a dissident. My choice. My actions and efforts will prove out that choice.

And am I listening? To serve God is good. To tend to my relationship with Him — my King, my Savior, my Shepherd, my Friend — is better. To do both of those and keep my ears and mind and will open to hear what He says and to act on it is best.

Father, thank You that You put in so much effort to keeping the lines of communication open. Thank You that You want to relate to me; want to be my Friend and my Shepherd and so much more than just my King. Please keep me mindful of the things I can do to maintain our relationship and to keep my ears and mind and will open and pliant to You.

SOAP Journal – 16 August 2017 (1 Samuel 2:1)

Then Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the LORD;
My horn is exalted in the LORD,
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.”

1 Samuel 2:1

Yesterday, I felt drawn to Hannah’s prayer over the thing that was making her bitter. This morning, I am drawn to her actions in the wake of God answering that prayer.

Hannah asked God to give her something that is good in His sight and He gave it to her: her son, Samuel. When she prayed, she promised that her son would be dedicated to the LORD and His service if God would only give her a son to give back to Him. God gave her a son and Hannah made good on her promise. She brought Samuel back to the tabernacle and dedicated him to serving the LORD. The first action of Hannah is that she makes good on her word. She promised God that this son would be dedicated to Him, so she is back at the tabernacle dedicating that boy to the LORD.

Hannah told the priest, Eli, that she was the woman he had seen praying (and mistakenly thought she was drunk) years before (1 Samuel 1:12-14) and the son she was dedicating is the very thing for which she prayed. The second action of Hannah is to share what God has done for her. We might call this witnessing. We might also call this praise, because she is telling others the great thing that God has done for her.

This morning’s verse kicks off the last thing I note: Hannah prays to God again. The first 10 verses of chapter 2 are Hannah’s prayer of praise. She not only makes good on the thing she said she would do; not only told others about the great thing that God had done in her life, but also tells God how awesome He is. And this prayer is a sort of closing of the loop. She began this whole journey into the miraculous by prayer and she wraps up this chapter of it in prayer. The whole story of the beginning of Samuel’s life is bookended by prayer. Supplication on one end and praise on the other.

I feel that there is a vertical and a horizontal application for this.

First, the vertical. Am I making good on the things I tell God that I will do? Am I telling others when God does something awesome in my life? Am I coming back to God and expressing how grateful I am to Him? If the answer to any of these is “No.” then I have something that I need to fix.

Second, the horizontal. Am I making good on the things I tell other people I will do? My promises must be kept and my debts paid. Am I telling others when people in my life do something above and beyond? Praise should be a public thing, both for God and for my fellow people. Am I telling those who do awesome things for me how much I appreciate those things and just how awesome I think those things are? Gratitude goes a long way toward healthy relationships as well as toward seeing the good things that have happened. As it was once put: accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative.

Father, thank You for Your goodness to me. Please forgive me for being sparing with my praise of You, both to You and to others. Please make my lips ready to praise You to all and sundry.

SOAP Journal – 15 August 2017 (1 Samuel 1:10)

She, greatly distressed, prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly.

1 Samuel 1:10

The book(s) of Samuel cover the life and times of the prophet Samuel, as the name implies. This book includes a brief summary of how the prophet came into his office as prophet then spends the rest of its time dedicated to the selection and reign of the first two kings of Israel. The portion that covers Samuel’s life includes a story he must have heard from his parents and from the priest, Eli: the story of how Hannah came to have her son.

Hannah had been unable to conceive and she, like many women before and after her, had a great desire to have children. Her husband did not understand her desire — though, in fairness to him, he already had children by his other wife, Peninnah — but tried to be supportive.

This morning’s verse is a portion of that story. Hannah, desperate to have a child, prays to God about her desire. The Bible tells me that children are a gift from the LORD and that wanting them is a good things, as far as God is concerned. So Hannah’s heart was in the right place. But her inability to conceive left her embittered — against who or what we are not told, but it may have just been angry with circumstance. And she does with that bitterness of soul what we should all do: She prays.

Is there something making me bitter? Then let me pray about it. Let me take the things that would poison my soul and leave them at the feet of God. More than once, He turns the bitter things sweet. He turns bitter waters sweet for the Israelites during their wanderings. He turned a bitter life sweet for Naomi in the book of Ruth. He can take the thing that is bitter to me and make it sweet, if only I will take it to Him in prayer.

My God, please train me to bring all things to You in prayer that the bitter might be made sweet. Thank You for being willing to make that change for us and in us.