When the ark of the covenant returned to Israel after 7 months in exile in Philistia (1 Samuel 4-7), God showed the Israelites that things were not going to return to “business as usual” concerning His holy presence. For many years before the ark was captured, the people were steeped in sin and idolatry; even the priests were committing abominations in the holy place. The loss of the ark was among the consequences for these sins. But with the ark now back under Israel’s control, God would not allow this darkness to continue unchecked. When the people of Beth-Shemesh treated the ark as common by looking into it, God reminded them of His holiness in a very sobering manner, prompting them to ask the question, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Samuel 6:19-20). A good question! In the entire Bible, none but a priest or a king could stand before the ark. In 2 Samuel 6, King David was the next one to see the ark, as he danced and offered sacrifices before the ark.
When the Israelites had the ark taken away and safeguarded under the priestly household of Abinadab, Israel underwent a season of prayer, repentance, renewal, and peace as they heeded the command of Samuel in chapter 7 verse 3: “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 …” In response, Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only (7:4). There are two things that stand out in Samuel’s command in verse 3. The word “returning” does not refer to a single punctiliar action but underlines the present and ongoing nature of repentance. While the Israelites responded well, their repentance did not continue. This is evidenced by their desire for a king, “that we also may be like all the nations” (8:20). Serving Yahweh ONLY meant not only merely “not serving foreign gods,” but also “not serving a king.” But they wanted a king to “go out before us and fight our battles” (8:20). Had they forgotten that God had just done that for them, all by Himself?
Samuel would be the last of the cycle of judges that began in Judges 2:11 after the death of Joshua. Against his caution, the people would finally prevail in their desire to serve a king, the consequences of which they will soon find to be disappointing.