The principle of cherem (KHE-rum) is perhaps the most significant aspect of discontinuity for our discussion. It is here, precisely, where general statements about continuity lead to many raised eyebrows: do you mean all those death penalties would be brought back? For blasphemy? For apostasy? For idolatry? For adultery? Ironically, even our best past authors have provided little direct discussion of modern application of these penalties, so this section of this book may in fact be its most important contribution.
Cherem means “devoted” in the sense of devoted wholly unto the Lord. In the instances most relevant to our discussion, it means specially devoted to destruction. To be devoted unto the Lord in this sense means to be separated from holiness of the Holy Land and immediately into God’s holy presence for judgment. This can refer to objects such as animals being devoted to the Lord for sacrifice and given to the priests as their food and inheritance, but even here the devoted animal was to be sacrificed. This means its purpose was primarily as a substitutionary recipient of God’s wrath. When in the context of a punishment for a crime against God’s holiness (idolatry, paganism, etc.), it meant to be put under the curse of immediate death. For this reason, cherem is often referred to as “the ban” or, in its verb form, as a command to “utterly destroy” or “devote to destruction” the person or objects.
Cherem is peculiar to the Old Testament administration because it functioned only in the context where God’s presence was in the physical temple/tabernacle, in the altar fire, the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions, and the inheritance of God’s covenant promises was through blood descent and external possession of the Holy Land. As we have seen, all of these realties have been drastically altered by the New Testament economy. The civil penalties based upon the cherem principle must be considered in this light as well.
First, where in the Old Testament do we see this cherem principle? It appears first in Exodus 22:20, although its meaning and importance are made clearer in later verses. This first instance says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Here the penalty of devotion to destruction [cherem] is applied to false worship. Deuteronomy elaborates on this particular crime:
If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones (Deut. 17:2–5).
If applied in New Covenant times, this law would seem to require the death penalty for merely leaving the Christian faith. A simple apostate would, under strict application of this passage, be required to die at the hands of the State. There can be no doubt this is what it meant for Old Testament Israel. Does it still abide today? We will see in a moment.
Also subject to the direct judgment as cherem were the original Canaanite tribes who were to be purged from the land. God invokes the term cherem when describing both the people and their idols (Deut. 7:2, 26) that should be utterly destroyed. He reiterates this special devotion to destruction in the laws of warfare (Deut. 20:16–18). This inclusion is very helpful specifically because it was special and not normal even for Old Testament Israel. In ordinary warfare, rules for seeking peace, allowing tribute taxes, and protecting innocents apply. But in the Canaanite cities “devoted to complete destruction,” nothing and no one was to be spared. This distinction in the Mosaic law itself shows that there was a special case already operative, and temporary, for those special commands that God applied under the cherem principle: some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule (as we shall see); others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.
There are other instances of cherem that illustrate its distinctiveness even more clearly. Numbers 21:1–3 relates how God answered the Israelites’ prayer to place Arad, a Canaanite king, under cherem.
And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.
Hormah is derived from the word cherem and thus means “devoted.” In other words, the Israelites named this conquered territory after the principle itself. It was a memorial to God’s curse upon the Canaanites and the victory wrought thereby.
Similar stories are related concerning Sihon King of Heshbon (Deut. 2:30–34) and Og King of Bashan (Deut. 3:1–6). Both instances were not normal warfare, but rather warfare against peoples who were devoted specially to destruction before the Lord. Another instance appears in the destruction of Jericho. The city and all its property were dedicated to the Lord for cherem destruction. Achan violated cherem property and Israel suffering defeat for this (Josh. 7). Achan was ritually executed for his offense. Also, Saul’s failure came in response to a special application of cherem by God upon the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). In each case, there was a special (not normal) application of the death penalty to unbelievers or apostates.
Another important instance of cherem is found in Deuteronomy 13. This case describes the destruction of even a Hebrew city that is nevertheless led away by faithlessness or apostasy. Shall a whole city be destroyed in modern times if it follows ungodly leaders and departs from the faith?
This instance is helpful in that it further clarifies the nature of cherem “devotion.” In this case, in Old Testament Israel, a city had been led away by either false prophets or false worship (see Deut. 13:1–17). In such a case, the whole city was to be devoted and destroyed, including all the property within it. All the property was to be burned specifically “as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God” (13:16). This detail is crucial. The “whole burnt offering” is a reference to the ordinary substitutionary sacrifice for atonement (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17). When that society had rejected the true God, however, and started to worship false gods, there remained no substitutionary sacrifice for them. The penalty that would normally fall upon the substitutionary sacrifice would now fall upon them. They themselves were therefore devoted to destruction: destroyed and burned for their apostasy.
Cherem in the New Testament
This principle is obviously continued in the New Testament, but with the change in temple, priesthood, and land administration comes a transfer of the seat of judgment from the earthly land to the heavenly throne of Christ. God’s consuming fire is no longer on earth in an altar. It was removed. Thus, the same principle of apostasy can be declared in the New Testament, but the sanction is no longer by earthly civil government, it is from the throne of Christ. In light of the change from shadow to substance (Heb. 10:1), the book of Hebrews makes this change fairly clear:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–29).
Keep in mind, the author was writing to Hebrews about the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant under Christ. The issue here would have been mass apostasy. The Hebrews who remained in unbelief after Christ would have been committing idolatry (false temple worship) and apostasy (denial that Christ had come in the flesh). Under the Mosaic administration, they would have been devoted to destruction (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5) by the civil government. The author of Hebrews acknowledges this. Yet he does not prescribe a cherem death penalty administered by the civil government. He prescribes an even worse judgment that will come from the throne of grace. This judgment fell, in history, in God’s providence, in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in the greatest demonstration of cherem devotion to destruction ever. This was carried out by God Himself in history, not by human civil governments (although Rome was used as God’s providential agent).
With the New Covenant, therefore, the cherem principle is entirely changed. Its locus of authority has been removed from earth to heaven. God no longer calls upon the civil government to carry out cherem penalties. He still carries them out by punishing societies for idolatry and apostasy, but He does so through Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Why this change? The discontinuity encountered in regards to the cherem principle is directly related to the difference in nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New. Just read God’s basic description of the change:
For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more”
(Heb. 8:8–12; cp. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 10:15–18).
The New Covenant is said specifically to be “not like” the Old. We know there are many differences already, but what is the fundamental difference in view here? The law continues, as we have noted already, but it is now written on the minds and hearts of God’s people, not merely on stones and books. It is that the New Covenant is administered by the Spirit, from heaven, not from the letter on earth. It is also marked by permanence: whereas the Israelites broke the Old Covenant and God cast them away for it, this New Covenant is wrought by God Himself in our hearts and cannot be broken. It is also marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.
Paul discusses the difference in precisely these terms:
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Cor. 3:3–10).
This is hardly to say that the law in its entirety is brought to an end, but to show the difference in the nature of the two covenants and their administrations. The first was a ministry of the letter and death, the latter a ministry of the Spirit and life.
Finally, we see this difference manifested in how the New Testament applies the principle of cherem. We have already seen it transferred from earth to heaven in Hebrews 10:26–29. We see the same elsewhere as well. The word to look for is anathema. This is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word cherem in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Most of the passages we have covered use this word in the Greek version (Lev. 27:28; Num. 21:3; Deut. 7:28; 13:16; 20:17; Josh. 7). Where it appears in the New Testament, we should consider its equivalence. Sure enough, where it appears, it generally refers to religious sanction (Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9). Consider these two examples that relate directly to the First Table of the law:
If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed [anathema] (1 Cor. 16:22).
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed [anathema]. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed [anathema] (Gal. 1:8–9).
It is clear that Paul is still applying the cherem/anathema principle in relation to First Table offenses, but the only sanction here is ecclesiastical. This in itself does not prove that the civil penalties no longer apply, but when taken together with the lessons from Hebrews, the change in the nature of administration of the covenants, and the transfer of temple/priesthood/land to Christ in heaven, it is illustrative.
Which laws does cherem cover?
It is my conclusion that civil governments no longer have authority to apply cherem punishments in the New Covenant. So, which laws does this cover? In general, these are all First Table offenses: false worship, apostasy, idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5). Further, there can no longer be any concept of holy war (Deut. 20:16–18), but the general laws of warfare abide.
The cherem principle indicates that certain other death penalties related to the First Table would also no longer apply. It would include laws relating directly to inheritance in the land, even when it crosses into family matters. This is why, for example, the death penalty was required for incorrigible sons (Deut. 21:18–21). (While not traditionally considered so, the Fifth Commandment is part of the First Table. It is a general principle but was also directly tied to inheritance in the land.) Under Old Testament law, a son would inherit the land by mandate, not by choice of the parents. A rebellious, incorrigible son was therefore a threat. His wicked influence and legacy was to be permanently purged “from your midst” (21:21). (Note that this law is not said to apply to daughters, who could be just as wicked and rebellious, and just as incorrigible, yet could inherit the land only in rare circumstances). While the word cherem is not used here, the principle is the same. The evil son was devoted to destruction to prevent the Holy Land and Holy people from being defiled. In the New Testament, the land/seed/inheritance principles are all superseded. While a general principle against incorrigibility in regard to crime may still stand, the need to execute rebellious sons in this way has passed away. In the New Covenant, the parents can by decision simply disinherit him, shun him, and leave him to God’s judgment.
The same would apply to the death penalty for an engaged woman discovered not to have been a virgin before her wedding. Such is not simply an extension of the laws against adultery. Her crime is said to be that of “whoring in her father’s house” (Deut. 22:21). Whoredom in general received no civil government sanction at all in Old Testament law. Simple prostitution had no penalty other than its own: social disgrace, lack of inheritance for her children, lack of male protection, and bastardy of whatever sons may be born. In this case, however, the daughter had presented herself as a representative of her father, and of the heirs of her future husband. Her whoredom could mean that a bastard would inherit the land. This was an abomination in Old Testament Israel because it profaned the seed and the land. The penalty here was like a cherem penalty, even though the word cherem is not invoked.
Cherem and stoning
One way it becomes clear that these First Table offenses and similar offenses are akin to, if not a part of, cherem law is by the prescribed method of execution: stoning. Popular banter about Old Testament law may lead you to think that stoning was prescribed frequently as the default death penalty and for a wide variety of offenses. Whatever the source of this impression, however, it is wrong. Sometimes the method of execution is prescribed: it could be stoning, fire, hanging, or the sword. But the majority of death penalties prescribe no particular form, only death. We cannot take this for granted, as if God was random in giving such specifications. We need to look and try to understand why some are specified as opposed to others, and more importantly, what is meant by the specified forms in their particular cases.
The cases specifying stoning are actually quite few:
- Molech worship, including the sacrifice of infants (Lev. 20:2)
- False worship or apostasy (Deut. 13:6–11; 17:5)
- Spirit mediums (Lev. 20:27)
- Blasphemy (Lev. 24:10–16, 23)
- Sabbath-breaking (Num. 15:31–36)
- Incorrigible rebellious sons (Deut. 21:18–21)
- Engaged daughters committing whoredom in their father’s house (Deut. 22:20–21)
- Fornication with an engaged daughter (Deut. 22:22–23).
In two other specific instances, the relationship between God’s holy presence and the punishment of stoning is made clearer. First, at Mt. Sinai, God set a boundary at the foot of the mountain and forbid anyone to touch it upon pain of death. The penalty: to be stoned with stones (Ex. 19:12–13). Secondly, for Achan’s violation of cherem property, God prescribed death by stoning (Josh. 7:25).
This is the full list of laws for which death by stoning is prescribed. All of them have one thing in common: they are exclusively First Table offenses, or are prescribed death because of an overlap of a First Table principle.
While few may not seem like First Table offenses, remember that the honor of parents is a First Table offense. Likewise, the treatment of daughters was directly tied to inheritance in the land, not to mention a keen image of spiritual adultery often used by God Himself (Jer. 3; Hos. 1; Rev. 17–18). The reason these instances receive death by stoning is because they partake of First Table principles. Other laws pertaining to sexuality do not necessarily receive the death penalty, let alone stoning, and some are not even punished by the civil government at all.
Why this connection between First Table offenses and stoning? Because of the basic redemptive promise of God: to crush the head of the serpent. The punishment of offenses against God Himself, therefore, was specially marked by crushing with stones—the crushing of the head by stones cut out without hands. Stoning was, therefore, a ceremonial aspect to the law. While there are judicial aspects of it that continue—such as the need for involvement in executions by the accusers themselves and by the community—stoning itself was symbolic and is no longer binding.
Thus, even when the word cherem is not included in the Old Testament passage, the presence of stoning as a punishment makes clear that the principle is in effect. Cherem and stoning penalties were reserved only for First Table offenses. Civil government no longer has jurisdiction over First Table offenses. These punishments, as regular mandatory punishments, are no longer in effect. Only in extreme or aggravated cases in which blasphemy or false worship aims to lead to revolution, sedition, terrorism, or treason would civil government intervention be appropriate.
Sex and Land/Seed Laws
We cannot stress enough how intricately God’s cherem presence was tied to the priestly, temple, land, separation, and inheritance laws. We have already seen how they were tied together with certain stoning penalties. There are other death penalties involved in such overlap as well. These include the death penalty for certain types of adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22) as well as bestiality and homosexual sodomy.
It is easy to conclude that all such sexual sins resulted in the confusion or defilement of the seed, or the defilement of inheritances, and were thus assigned the death penalty on such grounds—not merely on the grounds of their nature as sexual sins. We can tell in each of these cases that the death penalty was invoked not because of the nature of the sin or crime itself, but because it occurred in overlap with these particular sacred boundaries in the Old Covenant administration.
First, this is clear in the fact that while there are numerous detailed instances of such defilements specified (see Lev. 18; 20 for just some examples), there are yet others which are conspicuously absent. Consider, for example, the references to adultery just mentioned. One case involves a married man sleeping with a married woman (Lev. 20:10). The other involves any man sleeping with a married woman (Deut. 22:22). Each could receive the death penalty. But what of a case between a married man and an unmarried woman? There is no mention of it, although the law regularly specifies when any particular law applies to a man, a woman, or both. The silence here is therefore evidence of a non-law. In fact, the law allowed for more than one wife, and in the case of the Levirate marriages (Deut. 25:5–6), a married man could be expected to go in unto his deceased brother’s wife and cohabit. This was not only not punishable by death, it was not even considered adultery. Why not? Because in that Old Testament administration, the seed laws and inheritance laws superseded sex and marriage law in terms of the importance to the purpose of that system.
We know, again, that the Mosaic Covenant was added to the promises of Abraham in order to ensure the promised seed would come about as promised (Gal. 3:19). This temporary addition was also tempered “because of transgressions” (3:19). Jesus makes it clear that divorce and remarriage is one area where such was the case:
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark. 10:2–12; emphasis added).
Notice two things. Jesus says that the original creation mandate for marriage does not allow for divorce for [just] any [old] cause. Deuteronomy 24:1–5 allowed men to do this to wives because of hardness of heart. But this was obviously temporary. Divorce was only originally allowed due to fornication. Secondly, Jesus applies this principle to both wives and husbands. Both can now initiate a lawful divorce for lawful reasons.
Altogether this means that Jesus reinstated the original power of marriage. Divorce for any reason is now prohibited, but the right of divorce is now equal between men and women.
The ramifications of this are profound. It is clear now that marriage is no longer tied to the old seed laws and inheritance laws—those being abolished. The fact that only certain cases of adultery which violated those laws received the death penalty indicates that the reason was not because of the adultery itself, but because of the other violations. Further, the fact that the “adultery” of Polygamy or Levirate marriage was not punished by death shows the same principle. In the New Testament, however, the land/seed/inheritance rules are gone, and thus so are the death penalties in regard to sex and marriage that were bound to them. But the right of divorce for infidelity is expanded and equalized to include women—which is how it was originally designed. The changes were only for the Mosaic period which was added “because of transgressions.”
What about sodomy? First note that this was a male-only law as well (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). There was no civil law mentioning lesbian acts. Although surely a sin, it was no crime as was sodomy, and thus there was no penalty, let alone death. This alerts us again that something more than just the homosexual sin was in play. What is that issue? It pertained to the promised seed. There was no greater purpose for the Mosaic Covenant than to guard and protect the promise to Abraham until it came to pass. The most important part of this promise was, of course, the promised seed. In this light, the act of sodomy was not mere sexual perversion, not even merely the height of sexual perversion. It was open defiance of the natural use of sex through which the seed was promised. It was a defiance of the created order, but of God’s plan of redemption at that time. To engage in sodomy was therefore to deny Christ, and not only to deny him, but symbolically to attempt to prevent His coming. To engage in sodomy was, therefore, not just a sexual sin but an act of blasphemy. (The same argument can be made for Onan, who refused to perform the duty of Levirate marriage for Tamar—Gen. 38:8–10. The Lord punished Onan with death, and the reason for it was directly connected to refusing the seed.)
And what of bestiality? Unlike same-sex acts, this law specifically applied to both men and women (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; 20:15–16; Deut. 27:21), and both would receive the death penalty. Interestingly, however, the beast was also assigned the death penalty. This, again, suggests that there may be more being punished here than a mere sexual decision on the part of the person. What could this be? It seems to me that the same principle as with male sodomy is in play in either case. With a male zoophiliac, the parallel to a sodomite is clear enough. With a woman, the crime lies but in entertaining foreign, animal seed. This is as great a defiance of the promised Seed as the sodomite act, and thus was to commit blasphemy as well. (It is not surprising that bestaility was most commonly found in idolatrous rituals of Canaanite and other ancient religions.)
While all of these sexual sins—adultery, sodomy, and bestiality—remain abominable sins, with the coming of Christ and the abolition of the Old Covenant administration, they can no longer be said to be capital crimes. As revolting as any of them they may be, the reasons they were earlier given the death penalty was not merely sexual perversion, but for violating sacred boundaries that at the time were placed under the jurisdiction of the civil government. With these boundaries now removed, the civil government no longer has authority to impose death.
In light of this, I have revised my earlier published views that adultery and homosexual sodomy are punishable by the death penalty. There are still, however, sanctions that can be imposed. Divorce is obvious. This is covenantal death of family. It would also possibly have some economic ramifications that would be enforceable by the civil government. Covenantal death from the church would also apply: excommunication. I also do not see why local civil governments would not be warranted to punish flagrant cases with loss of citizenship or banishment.
Next section: Fulfilled and forever
I’m going to chalk this one up to homeschooling: independence, individuality, bravery, fortitude, and class. Go, Gabby!
A couple days ago it became national news when American gymnast Gabby Douglas neglected to put her hand over her heart for the national anthem. More accurately, it was national news that social media blew up with outrage over this omission.
Well, yeah! How dare a national representative not fall in lock-step with the mandated national liturgy! How dare she act like an individual! How dare she swim upstream! How dare she have independent thoughts or actions! How dare she not bleat with the herd! How dare she act like she’s . . . free!
I’m mean think about it. It’s one thing to sing “land of the free,” but it’s a whole different thing to act like it! We’re not supposed to do it, actually. I mean, yes, we preach good ol’ American independence, but we really demand collective conformity. It’s especially bad when an icon, an athlete, a representative star breaks ranks with the fascism that lies beneath the façade of freedom. That just might influence the children!
Yeah, Mr. Landmesser was expected to fall in line with national liturgy. He was expected to give the Nazi salute in his homeland. But he had fallen in love with a Jewess. Love does strange things to people. In this case, it opened his eyes to the evils of National Socialistic racism. For his independence and bravery, he was rewarded with prison, and then military conscription—which proved fatal.
Folks, here’s the lesson: nationalistic collectivism = bad; individual liberty = good. Go and do thou likewise. Class dismissed.
Looking back we can see the evils that consumed a whole nation, and we can easily condemn them. We can also easily support those who resisted the tide, and we can even let our imaginations run wild thinking we’d be like that guy, too. But you see it ain’t so easy to do.
It’s easy to condemn the nationalism of a by-gone era. It’s much harder to admit we have our own. The national outrage over one person merely neglecting to put hand-over-heart during the national anthem ought to be startling evidence to you.
My suspicion is that every American who’s anger swelled in-breast at this great affront immediately began judgement. She’s black. Probably a leftist already and consumed with #BLM entitlement mentality. She’s probably a Muslim and hates America.
And she did it. And when she won her first gold medal in 2012, the first thing she did was give glory to God.
She says, “Being homeschooled also helps build my self-discipline and time management.”
Would that the knee-jerk critics from the herd would learn more self-discipline.
Not to mention history. There is ample reason Christians should avoid the automatic “hand-over-heart” mentality. I suspect Gabby’s reason may not have been ideological. She was simply standing respectfully and just neglected the nationalistic pose. I could be wrong. If so, she is perfectly warranted in exercising her freedom according to Christian conscience.
Poor girl has, in fact, probably never experienced the collectively-enforced ritual of a class mandated to place hand over heart and recite a national pledge or anthem. And good for her, and her parents. We need more of these.
She did issue an apology—but only generally for offending some people and with an assurance she meant no disrespect. She did not explicitly acknowledge it as wrong not to “salute the flag” by placing her hand in a certain gesture—and I say good for her, she should stand firm at that position.
If we are to salute anything, it is to be God’s name alone (Deut. 6:13; 10:20). No Christian needs to feel cajoled by any peer pressure otherwise. Stand firm and let no man intimidate you with idols.
What in the world is America all about, after all? Are we free and brave like we sing? Do we really believe it? Practice what you preach, Christian. Be brave. Be free. Back off. Act like free Christians who respect freedom. Quit acting like Nazis.
Don’t hide your Christian heart under the bushel of nationalism.
[And for the record, U.S. olympians don’t receive a single cent of taxpayer funding.]
There is no doubt that many people, including many Christians, imagine a Jesus that never existed. And usually, the Jesus they imagine so often looks just like them. And it goes on today, all the time.
This problem only begins with the classic images—Jesus the long-haired, blondish Florentine—by which we have been traditionally bombarded. Those images, historically accurate as they may or may not be, exist because they arose amidst a particular culture at a particular time, and the people who produced them were creating a Jesus that looked like them—or at least their patrons. But that it illustrative of the problem. We do the exact same thing—on both individual and social levels.
Beyond Jesus’ mere appearance—of which we actually know very little—we do the same thing regarding His person, manners, beliefs, and teachings. It’s a great (as well as cheap and lazy) way to bolster our own beliefs and culture with divine authority, without the trouble of so much comparing them to the records of Jesus in the Bible.
A great example of this appears in a recent column on HuffPost, by a liberal religious writer Mick Mooney. He asks, “What Would Jesus Do? Do You Really Want to Know?,” assuring us by implication that he really knows and we don’t—and the truth is about to shock us!
Then follows a modern parable: a mother gives her child a WWJD bracelet and implores him to live by it. He promptly begins to behave in ways that shock her sensibilities and values:
A week later she was shocked to see that her son had become friends with prostitutes, was hanging out with ‘sinners’ — even buying people who were already drunk yet another round of beers!
Worse still, he had walked into their church the previous Sunday and tore down the book store, overturned the tables and threw the cash register through the window, he then made a whip and chased the pastor out of the building, declaring he was turning God’s house into a den of thieves.
Most shocking was what happened when his mother went to picket the local abortion clinic. To her embarrassment, her son was also there, but he was standing with the women who just had an abortion, and yelled at the protesters: “You who are without sin, throw the first stone!”
Then, in an awkward and ironic attempt at a sermonette, Mooney brings in the twist. The mother then fashions a new bracelet to get the lad to act the way a good conservative fundamentalist is really supposed to. Out with the WWJD, and in the WWAPD. That stands for “What Would a Pharisee Do?”
Usually, the liberal intellectual elite are a bit more subtle and sophisticated. I was disappointed here. But back to the story. That new bracelet straightened things right up:
Since her son has been wearing the new wristband, looking at it to help him make his decisions, he has become a dedicated tither, a public prayer warrior, an active condemner of ‘sinners,’ a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law, and has a great reputation as a godly young man amongst other religious people.
Like I said, it is a bit awkward.
And of course, there’s a bit of truth here and there to it. I can grant to a certain degree that Jesus produced wine for a party that had by implication already “drunk freely” (John 2:10). I can certainly grant that He gave the moneychangers in the temple a bad day (twice actually). (Indeed, I reported the only known non-canonical eyewitness account of that event.) I can even go so far as to say that Jesus would show compassion to certain sinners—perhaps in some situations even to abortive mothers after the fact—whom many are naturally inclined to condemn.
But would Jesus have bought and paid for drunkenness? Would he have denounced church bookstores and cash registers wholesale (no pun intended)? Do Christians really picket abortion clinics targeting mainly those walking out (or is it rather trying to stop those walking in, and those running the place)? These and other questions need to be qualified before undertaking such a liberal crusade.
The overwrought analogies are bad enough, but with the twist of the alleged “Pharisee,” the liberal becomes more transparent than he wishes. The only accounts we have of Jesus are in the Bible. These accounts are situated within the context of Old Covenant history. Jesus was the culmination and fulfillment of—not the abolition or negation of—all Old Covenant law and promises. Yet the good Jesus in Mooney’s story looks doesn’t look very much like the law and promises; He looks a whole lot like a modern liberal. Why it just so happens that this Jesus’ values line up exactly with those we would expect of a liberal writer like Mick Mooney. Hmm.
It is here that the punch line goes from clumsy to ironic. What was the sin of the Pharisees after all? It was adding to the word of God. It was nullifying the law in the name of their own pious culture: being wiser, purer, or even more compassionate, than God Himself (see Matt. 15; Mark 7:1–13). The irony is that in the name of condemning alleged Pharisees, it is Mooney himself who has become the self-righteousness one.
And the worst part of this self-righteousness is that for Mooney, the alleged Pharisee is “a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law.” Unfortunately, many people, including many conservative Christians, are conditioned to think that high esteem for God’s law equals Pharisaism. But this is as far from the biblical record as Florence is from Jerusalem.
Think about it: Jesus did not come to destroy the law but fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–18). Where do you think His teachings came from? Was His teaching about love a new thing? Here’s what Jesus taught:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:35–40).
On these two commandments (about “love”) depend—literally “hang”—the entirety of the Old Covenant law. What’s the hook? The hook is that both of these commandments themselves come straight from the heart of “Old Covenant law.” The first is from Deuteronomy 6, and the second is from the dreaded Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18.
Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for dwelling on God’s law, but for not dwelling on all of it—especially its most important parts: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for following Moses; He rebuked the Pharisees for not following Moses: “There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:45–46).
And we could go on. Despite the derisive parable of our subject liberal, Jesus Himself was a passionate defender of Old Covenant law, and He commands us to be also.
So what would Jesus do? Not what this liberal says (dreams) He would do. Jesus would “do” Old Covenant ethics. Anything else is more like what a Pharisee would do. To be sure, modern conservatives are often quite Pharisaic in their personal and political ethics. That hardly means liberals, humanists, have the solution. Theirs is usually far worse. Let’s not fashion a Jesus after ourselves, but ourselves after God’s Word.
In the past few sermons, we have seen Israel learn some hard and painful lessons. I say “learn” casually, for they never did really seem to learn from God’s judgments. After they brooded over their failures and God’s judgments for about twenty years, suffering oppression from the Philistines during the whole time, Samuel finally returns to the forefront of the action. What follows is a series of events that reveal Israel was indeed ready once again for God’s presence. Their readiness is awakened by the preaching of the Word of God, particularly His Law. They take action: they repent, cleanse their lives of idols, and turn to God once again. As the enemy attacks and God intervenes to bring victory, we see Samuel leading the people in a full national revival, culminating in justice and peace throughout the land.
This victory, however, must begin with the difficult task of preaching, repentance, and discipline.
The first thing Samuel does is preach. The message? Israel needed to remove the idols from their lives and homes: “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:3).
It was a poignant message, considering everything we’ve learned since chapter 2. The priesthood was corrupted. They perverted the sacrifices of the Lord and committed adultery and fornication. They bullied the people who came to offer sacrifices, forcing them to go against the law and against their own consciences by leaving the meat raw with the priest (2:15–17). There can be no doubt that this began to take a toll on the people’s view of religion as well. The priests were not taking the law seriously. This sends a message to the people: God need not be taken too seriously. Over time, the people grow more and more lax. Perhaps the One True God is not so special after all. Soon they have welcomed foreign gods into their homes. “Ashtaroth” was a very prominent one, a goddess of sex and war worshipped widely throughout the Mediterranean region for centuries. She was a familiar idol to the Israelites who had adopted her already in times past (Judg. 2:13; 10:6).
As Israel learned, the problem with such idolatry does not manifest so much until a crisis hits. At such a time, you need a solid religious response—one that appeals to and glorifies the One True God. But if you have for decades diluted and perverted your faith, you will not know how to respond. Everything you try will be entangled with superstition and wrong doctrine because everything you believe is already corrupted so. This is exactly what we see when Israel tries to trot out the Ark as a magic remedy for military victory. We saw it with them again last time when the Ark returned. They did not know how to approach God or to relate to Him, and their religious presumption cost 50,070 of them their lives.
The Israelites ended up where all of man’s idolatrous babble ends up: confusion. They put the Ark in storage and left it for fear of any further judgments. Tthe Ark would sit there for the next twenty years. From all this we gathered that this people was not yet ready for God’s presence. They were not yet ready for revival. Their lives were still filled with idols of all sorts: foreign gods and Ashtaroth, as well as the all the collateral damage of idolatry that ripples throughout a worldview.
Thus, when the time comes to call the people to repentance, Samuel starts with the issue of idolatry which was at the heart of the problem. The call has two parts: first, removing the idols of the heart, and second, removing the physical idols from their lives. The message was phrased as a conditional statement: If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart. . . . The emphasis here is on “with all your heart.” The Israelites had already attempted to “return to the LORD” more than once, but they ended up defeated, routed, and wiped out. Why? Their previous attempts were presumptuous and sacrilegious—never “with all your heart.” Samuel preaches: It’s time to return, but you must do so with all your heart.
But it will do no good to talk about the dedication of the heart if we do not say what that entails in real life. This “If” statement from Samuel has a necessary “then” which follows: then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you. Unlike so many self-assured and misguided preachers today, Samuel’s preaching demanded a “works” application of what “gave my heart to Jesus” must entail if it is true. If you have given your heart to the Lord, then live like it, which means, follow His Law. For twenty years the Israelites had sat dejected, not knowing how to return with all their heart. Now Samuel draws them back to the Law which they had abandoned so long ago.
This was probably not a one-time event. It says he spoke to all the house of Israel (v. 3). But it is clear he had not gathered them all together yet. That happens a couple verses later (v. 5). Samuel was likely making a circuit throughout Israel, preaching the same message in various locations. At the end of this narrative, we find Samuel returning to the traditional role of judge (v. 15–16). Here we learn that he did so by making rounds, or on a circuit. The likelihood is that he was doing the same thing with his preaching at the beginning of the narrative. Why is this important to consider? Because it means that the preacher had to keep preaching faithfully until the job was done. This was not a Billy Graham crusade. George Beverly Shea didn’t sing everyone into heaven with a round of “Just as I am,” and then everyone went home believing a “revival” happened. Revival would require a return to God’s Word, but it had to be a continuous preaching and application of God’s Word over a period of time.
The people heard Samuel’s message and accepted it. They did exactly what he said, which is to say they did exactly what God’s Law said to do: they put away all the false gods among them. Finally, we see signs of faithfulness among the Israelites.
But how do we know this really was true faith? After all, anyone can get emotional after a sermon and throw away material objects like statues and amulets. I remember youth groups in my Assembly of God days having “CD smashing” nights where kids were encouraged to bring their “secular” music CDs and literally smash them to pieces with hammers. Yet they would be right back listening to the same music weeks later. Such a “solution” to one’s sins is an idol in itself: it’s a low-cost substitute for true dedication and sacrifice. For the price of a few dollars (in lost statues and amulets), we can pretend we’ve abandoned idols and returned to the True God.
What follows with Israel illustrates a more genuine revival. Samuel calls out the whole nation for corporate meeting. Four things followed as demonstration of their repentance: libation, fasting, confession of sin, and judging (7:6). The pouring out of water, called “libation,” was simply a symbolic act of self-sacrifice unto the Lord. We will visit this in a moment. The people also fasted. Once in these postures of humility, Samuel led the people in corporate confession of sin and then “judged” them. The latter act would certainly have been case-by-case, and could have related across the board to personal and familial, as well as civil and legal matters. The personal side we would consider today under the heading of church discipline, and the latter we would consider as civil justice. Being a prophet, a priest, and a judge, Samuel most likely performed both at this setting.
Corporate confession and discipline go together, and build upon one another. Sin is always at the heart of social failure and strife. But getting to the heart of many of the problems requires that we get personal and specific. This is impossible to do in a corporate setting alone. So God’s people must engage in both corporate and individual confession of sin. Both are part of corporate worship, and both are addressed in prayer, preaching, and sacrament. But individual and interpersonal sins sometimes also need to be dealt with according to church discipline, mediation, and even church courts.
That the Israelites were willing to submit to all of this personal sacrifice, scrutiny, and discipline demonstrates true repentance. They were now restored—“members in good standing” so to speak. But that standing in faith was about to be tested.
Hearing that the people of Israel had gathered together, the Philistines would have only drawn one conclusion: Israel was preparing for war. The Philistines responded by gathering themselves for a preemptive strike. But Israel was not preparing for war, they were gathering for worship. The Israelites were afraid. How would they react?
Here we have a standoff similar to that back in chapter 4. Israel had lost a small battle and stood in fear of the Philistine army. Remember how the Israelites failed then? How they ignored Samuel’s preaching, ignored Samuel totally in Shiloh, and rushed out the Ark instead? They ignored true worship and reacted in superstition. Now they faced pretty much the exact same test.
This time they would react in faith—faith manifested in a call for prayer to the only God who could save them: And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines” (7:8). Finally, after twenty plus years, we see the fruit of Hannah’s first prayers. Samuel was rising up to be the leader for whom she prayed and sacrificed of herself. The faith of that one little lady had led to the beginning of a national movement. Never underestimate the power of a righteous, fervent prayer—even to change the world. Her prayer and sacrifice eventually led the whole nation to pray and sacrifice.
This call for prayer exhibits the same singular faith in God as Hannah’s: the Israelites had come to understand that no idol could help them, and no ritual or liturgical accoutrement could save them. They learned a lesson which forms a theme and a refrain running from Hannah all the way to the end of 1 Samuel: the battle is the Lord’s. The Israelites confessed of God that He was the only one who could save. But this is no mere lesson about personal spirituality. As we will discuss again when we get to chapter 17, the recovery of this concept was nothing short of a return to the Law of God. The Mosaic Law for warfare called for a priest to declare to the people not to be afraid because God would fight for them to give them victory (Deut. 20:1–4). Just as Hannah had returned to the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6 (holy war), so the Israelites were learning proper warfare according to the Law once again.
In response to the call for prayer, Samuel performed his priestly function and prayed and offered sacrifices to God. The Philistines advanced into position as the service was taking place. Facing imminent attack, Samuel cried out unto the Lord on behalf of the entire nation (7:9). The Lord answered: the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel (7:9). Indeed, the battle was the Lord’s. This blessing of salvation for the Israelites was one of pure grace.
Just because salvation is by grace through faith, however, does not mean that works don’t necessarily follow. The battle is the Lord’s, but the Lord will use his faithful soldiers in the battle unto victory. Thus we do not see the Israelites sitting on their hands once the Philistines were defeated before the Lord: And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car (7:9). From Mizpah to Beth-car is roughly eight miles, so this was quite a mopping-up operation. The progressive slaughter likely lasted more than an hour or so. The whole way the Philistines were hapless, kept running, and kept losing men. For eight miles bodies were strewn about the way. Not only does this show the works of faith, but it shows endurance and commitment to performing the works God has prepared (Eph. 2:10) to their end.
The victory was so great that the bondage to the Philistines was broken completely. They were so subdued that they did not again enter the territory of Israel (v. 13). Some believe this was the end of the 40 year subjugation begun in Judges 13:1. This defeat of the Philistines would then coincide with Samson’s sacrificial victory (Judg. 16:23–31). Consequently, Samson’s repentance would have coincided with Israel’s repentance in Mizpeh as well. Whether this view is accurate or not, the battle of 1 Samuel 7 is a definitive victory for Israel over the Philistines. While the Philistines would indeed lead border skirmishes and win some battles (especially over Saul in chapter 31), they would never again possess and subjugate Israel. The war was over, so to speak, even though a few important battles would remain.
This great victory established Samuel as a leader in Israel. Until now he was recognized as gifted, but largely ignored, probably due to his youth and the people’s dullness. But this event changed all that. Through this, Israel was restored to faithfulness, peace, and justice in the land. Samuel initiated it, presided over it, and ruled as a judge afterward. His gift had been joined with authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the nation.
The works of God’s saints may involve many hardships, temporary defeats, and long periods of patience, but in the end they lead to victory, peace, and dominion.
One of the necessary works which must follow true faith is the advancement of true knowledge and education. Samuel wanted to make sure that the lessons learned about faith and God’s unrivaled preeminence in the land were not forgotten. So he set up a memorial. He raised a stone at the site of the victory, and named it Ebenezer, meaning, “stone of help.” It was a memorial that God was their only help in this moment. It was, after all, Israel’s forgetfulness of the Law and of the true God which had led them into this mess. Samuel moved to prevent this from happening again.
The stone was thus an educational tool. It would act as a witness and a reminder to Israel of their God and their covenant with Him. Recall that God had originally instituted a similar form of pedagogy:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut. 6:6–9).
As a prophet of God, Samuel was taking it upon himself to educate the children of Israel in the Law of God. In this case, it was a memorial of the fact that there shall be no other Gods, no idols, and that the battle belongs to the Lord.
From this we can also deduce the importance of teaching history, and teaching it correctly. Along with this, primary subjects of “memorial” or education must be theology and biblical law. Without these, a nation is without anchor or direction.
The final verses of the narrative show that true revival brings with it a restoration of godly civil justice as well. Once the battle was over and the memorials established, Samuel returned to normal and began judging throughout the land:
Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel.
Samuel set up what was perhaps the first circuit court. Indeed, the great commentator on English Common Law, William Blackstone, notes Samuel in this regard. He traveled throughout the land deciding cases at law and maintaining justice.
The whole chapter is nothing short of a return to the Law of God, and God’s blessing in return. But these concluding verses indicate that no “revival” should be considered complete unless it also produces reform of public institutions. Whatever happens in the worship services on Sunday, let’s not get too excited until we also see God’s Law exalted and justice in the land.
What we’ve just covered is nothing less than an account of a national revival. From it we can derive necessary elements that form something of a blueprint.
1. Preaching of the Law.
2. The removal of false gods from our hearts, our homes and in the land.
3. Repentance, corporate worship individual
4. A Self-sacrificial attitude among the people
5. Faithful response to crises (in prayer and action)
6. Perseverance in faithful action
7. Return to godly education
8. Restoration of predictable justice according to God’s law
We will not comment on all of these at length, but let us look at a few.
1. We must preach the Law
In this time of national depression, Samuel set about preaching the Law of God and faithfulness to it. Let us note what Samuel did not do. Samuel did not preach about personal prosperity such as your best life now, or positioning yourself to prosper, or power thoughts, or the ten commandments of health and wellness. He did not preach theological niceties such as the chiastic structures of David’s flight narratives, or the emphatic need to return to fourth-century canticles and costumes. Some of these things may have a place in the kingdom, but not when there’s a work of reconstruction and restoration to be done. For this, we must set aside the filigree of religion and get to the raw material of Christian living: God’s Law.
In our own day of national confusions and depressions, the pulpits of America ought to be pronouncing clearly the Law as reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet finding a sermon on the Law of God and its applications to family, church, and state is nearly impossible. Instead, we get the hype of prosperity and health, or theological and historical distractions. Even in churches that preach the Gospel faithfully, they rarely advance beyond the introduction. Simple Christians remain sitting in their simplicity for fifty years while hearing the same three sermons about Christmas, Easter, and salvation by grace through faith. Even when applications are made, they rarely advance beyond the individual person’s quiet time, prayer life, and “heart.” Rarely does a message challenge us to make substantial and sacrificial changes in our lives based upon faithfulness and conformity to God’s Law. Because of this, too many Christians think “asking Jesus into my heart” is the supreme end of the Christian life.
Also, because of so much law-less, shallow preaching, we also don’t even properly understand the private side of Christian life to begin with. We hear sermons all the time about “the heart.” And of course we must have our hearts right with God, no doubt. But far too many, indeed most, Christians mistake the concept of “my heart” for an emotional or sentimental feeling. Church services often reinforce this with music chosen to evoke emotional responses. We may even consider our sins in the setting, but once the right prayer is said or song is sung and the desired feeling is reached, we arise and leave thinking all is well with us and God, and our hearts have returned to the right place. But this is to replace God’s definition of heart-felt religion with a human emotion. It is thus a humanistic response to God’s Word.
Samuel tells us exactly what it means to serve the Lord “with all your heart” (7:3): it means to read God’s Law and apply it to your life. The key evidence of a heart dedicated to God is the knowledge and practice of His Law. It’s that simple: if you don’t preach, teach, and walk the Law, then don’t talk to me about letting Jesus into your heart, because you haven’t.
This is how Jesus put it also. When asked what is the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus explained:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:37–40).
There is often a temptation to see this as teaching the opposite: that we don’t need the Law, but instead only need a heart-relationship with God. But this misses two key points. First, these two “heart” and “love” commands are the Law. Both are quoted from the Mosaic code (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). So they could not be negating the Law. How could the Law be against itself? Rather, Jesus was upholding the Law. We see this more clearly in the second point, which comes from the last sentence quoted: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” These two points within the Law summarized and encapsulated the rest of it. To proclaim the short version was to pronounce the need for all of it. And the rest of it explicates what devotion and love really mean. There is no other definition.
So what was Jesus implying here? He was saying the same as Samuel: the Law demands serving God with your whole heart, and serving the Lord with your whole heart means keeping the whole Law. In fact, the context of that greatest commandment is interesting in that regard. We are called there to love God with our whole heart, and the very next verse says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:6). In short, give you heart to Jesus, and He will write His Law on it.
Lesson: If you don’t have the Law in your heart, you don’t have Jesus in your heart, either.
Our pulpits today have got to return to preaching the Law. Our daily devotions have got to return to studies and applications of that Law. Without this, our Christian walk is no walk at all. And large part of the failures in families and societies today stems from the pulpits’ neglect to preach God’s instructions for living in these areas.
2. Put away the idols
Samuel focused on the commandment against idolatry. Idolatry is the representation of the true God by a false god or image. It reveals that you have a deficient view of God, a perverted view of divinity. Since theology is at the root of all philosophy—be it philosophy of education, politics, economics, ethics, or other—then your weak view of divinity will result in a weakened and perverted view of everything else that flows from it. A compromised view of God leads to compromised worship, compromised families, compromised governments, compromised ethics and law. Well does the early Church father Tertullian open his treatise on Idolatry by calling it the “principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment.”
Samuel draws the obvious application: put away the false gods and idols. It is good medicine for us, too. Considering the vast array of idols through every facet of our society, the pulpits of America ought to resound with calls to put away the idols of our homes, our institutions, and our land. Christians distract themselves and waste their time and money gluttonously for entertainment, consumption, glamor, beauty, self-image, vicarious experiences, and living beyond our means. Really the list is endless. The pulpits must proclaim the Gospel, yes. But they must also reprove, correct, and train Christians in very specific areas to remove idols and live with dedicated faith to God.
In the text we find out the people were serving Ashtaroth. This was not mentioned back when we were introduced to the corrupt priesthood. Now we learn it was not all the priests’ fault after all, for the people were complicit in the worship of false gods. The people were just as corrupt. This is a good lesson for us. There is rarely if ever a case of the establishment being corrupt while the masses remain perfect, or of the establishment shining purely while the masses are vile and unredeemable. There is always sin and corruption on both levels. The leadership will be judged more harshly, but neither side should be totally absolved. In truth, both sides probably fed and abetted the sins of the other.
Take that concept and apply it to other divisions among us: Republicans and Democrats, free marketers and socialists, anarchist and communists, whatever. They’re all filled with corruption from the heart, and they will be susceptible to it to differing degrees until Christ returns. We should uphold the standard and remedy of God’s Law for all equally. Why should we throw away Ashtaroth and keep the Baals? Why should we lay down the Law upon Dagon and then protect Baphomet from scrutiny? None should escape judgment and discernment of the Law. Some will measure up more closely than others, but we should never uphold one group or other as a knight in shining armor until that knight has bowed the knee before King Jesus and set aside all others. Judging these groups according to the standard of God’s Law and not human rationalizations will slow our eagerness to join hands or arms with certain movements or parties that may not be as pure as we once thought.
We could preach an entire series of sermons preaching one the idols in American life and never cover them all, but it is more important to acknowledge the far-reaching effects of our idolatries on society. Just as we mentioned that a wrong view of God flows into wrong views of pretty much everything else, it is not a far stretch at all to say that one reason we are oppressed by so many Philistines in our government is because we make room for the influence of so many idols. We have idols in the market, in the academy, in the home, in the field, in the Church, in law, in the military (is that an understatement!), and beyond.
It is not enough, however, to complain about idols—we must actually remove them. You can’t complain about taxation when you profit from it. You can’t complain about “big government” when you’re part of it. You can’t complain about Hollywood and the decline of culture when you’re consumed with entertainment. You can’t complain about the effects of leftism from schools and colleges when you keep sending your children there. You can’t complain about tyranny when you’re too afraid of freedom to try it. You must take sacrificial steps actually to remove the idols, or else you lose all moral authority and you lose your society along with it.
Especially in the early days of a movement, when people are depressed, discouraged, defeated, unmotivated, putting away the idols is difficult. People do not really even know what true freedom is. They do not even know what serving the Lord with all your heart means. When they learn, they often fear. They are afraid for two main reasons. First, the life of liberty would require too drastic a change. People fear change in general, especially on a large scale. They prefer the comforts of predictability, even under tyranny, over the uncertainty of change, even toward liberty. Second, and more importantly, the comforts of tyranny often involve self-interest or investment. Change would require the discomfort of sacrifice. People prefer even immoral comfort to sacrifice even for God.
This is one reason the pulpits are so important to the Christian reconstruction of society. They must assuage the people’s fear of freedom by upholding the truth and promises of God. They must call the people regularly and systematically to put away our idols, for only by returning to God in this way can we advance against the enemy in a way in which God will fight for us instead of judging us.
If the pulpit fails in this regard, it is left to grass roots relationships, the most important of which will be the homeschool community. Here are people who have made the first fundamental sacrifice: abandoning the wicked idol of government schools—an idol funded by theft, filled with humanism, and coated on the outside with saintliness. If ever there were an expression of “Satan disguising himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), it is the modern tax-funded school. Some have seen this and fled immediately. Others understand the problem and yet struggle to make sacrifices to their lifestyle. Some end up making it, some end up rationalizing why they stay while knowing better. Still most Christians continue to fight for their right to take your money for overpaid teachers and administrators as well as “free” schooling. Apparently it takes real insight these days to apply the Law, “thou shalt not steal.” But those who do, and who make the sacrifice to remain faithful to it, constitute a rising force of revival in this land. They have gone beyond talk and have actually put the idol away from them.
This is what obedience is, after all: doing what is right, even when you are not comfortable with it or when it requires sacrifice. This is why the people’s repentance was characterized by acts of sacrifice: public confession, fasting, and pouring of water. The last in the list is interesting in that it was purely symbolic, but important in that it symbolizes the full empting of oneself in service to God. This is the example of Messiah: “he poured out his soul to death” (Isa. 53:12). Christians can be expected to follow gladly: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Phil. 2:17).
The bottom line: if you say you follow God with all your heart, you should be willing to apply His law to all your actions, and gladly be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be faithful.
3. Face crises with perseverance in faith
We saw how the Philistines gathered for war when Israel returned to God. We can expect that when the saints get serious about their faith, the enemy will mobilize against them. The moment we put those idols away and make the sacrifices of faithfulness, we can expect that new and vexing challenges will confront us, making us doubt whether we have made the right decision. This is nothing but a test of faith, and we must respond to it the way reconstructed Israel responded: prayer and perseverance. We turn to God for help, and then continue in the battle ahead of us until it is finished.
We should note that we must engage in both of these virtues as both private and corporate duties. We pray privately, and we do all we can to persevere in our faithful works individually as well. But we see Samuel here leading corporate prayer and worship, for social change is a corporate event. We see the same here in regard to perseverance as well. Each man pursued and struck the sword for himself, and yet would they have finished the job had only one gone? No, they needed the full support of the whole believing community. Likewise with us. In our corrupt society full of Philistines and Philistine institutions, a faithful lifestyle sometimes requires the level of sacrifice that needs the support of a faithful community. The enemy confronts us at inopportune times and weak moments. We may be prepared to fight, but our strength alone is often not enough to finish the job. Families in the community must support one another: some sacrifice more at one time when they are able to help those who are down; the others reciprocating the time and care when needed. This is the Law in action: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). I believe God specifically gives us tasks that are larger than we can accomplish alone so that we may learn what the church is really about: it is an organic body in which many members work together for good.
Let us remember these things in times of crisis and need so that we may remain faithful and not fear. Remember always to begin in prayer and worship. Then let us remember to continue fighting until the battle is done, no matter how many miles long the pursuit of victory may be. For should we let one enemy remain within the purview of our mission, we would not be victorious over him, and we would be faced with the same temptations again in the near future.
4. Restoring justice
Once the victory of the Philistines was complete, we see Samuel establishing circuit courts throughout the land. He also judged the people during the gathering at Mizpeh. Simply put, genuine revival should lead to an effort to restore of godly justice in the land.
Let’s be perfectly clear: if there is true revival among the people, it will extend to the institutions of civil justice. If the institutions of civil justice remain corrupt and humanistic, then whatever revival we claim to have had must be admitted to be limited or incomplete. If, even worse, justice tends to decline in the land, we should be quick to check the House of God, for it may very well be her neglect of God, her idolatries, and her refusal to preach God’s Law that have setback and failed society as a whole.
The goal of the kingdom of God includes the following:
For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isa. 2:3–4).
There is no revival without the advance of God’s Law, godly judgment, justice, and peace. Until we have reached this point, we keep working faithfully. But we must do so with this goal in mind. We must have an eye at reforming law and justice. When God affords us opportunity, we must be ready to reform the civil justice system according to His Law. Let us not forget, therefore, that justice is a foundational characteristic of the kingdom. The pulpits ought to be proclaiming this as well.
From the looks of things, the opportunity for reform may be a long way off. Remember, Israel waited for twenty years before God allowed them this reform. We may have such a wait ahead of us as well; or maybe not. There is more work being done behind the scenes than perhaps you are aware. Things on the surface are not always what they appear. There are always Samuels working patiently through that time of silence. They have an eye toward a comprehensive revival that begins in the hearts of individuals and flows like rivers of living water into every crevice of society. When the moment is right, they know it, and they lead the revival with confidence in the Lord, and direction for life. It is our job to be those Samuels, preparing now, and ready to lead when the time comes.
 From this word and passage we get the line in the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which says “Here I raise my Ebenezer, here by thy great help I’ve come.”
 See Blackstone’s Commentaries, III. 4. XI (1979 University of Chicago edition, 3:58).
 Called “Astarte” by the Greeks and “Ishtar” by others, she is the goddess of fertility from whom we get the name “Easter.” Her symbols were fecund things like eggs and rabbits—perhaps a sermon for another day.