At the end of the previous chapter the ark of the covenant was returned to Israel. For twenty years the ark was located at Kiriath-jearim. It is not clear if the people were seeking the Lord for these twenty years or whether it took these twenty years for the people to seek the Lord.
In the chapter we are introduced again to Samuel. Throughout these years he has been active. Verses 15–17 describe his regular activities. He travelled the country preaching to the people at strategic locations. His message is summarised in 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, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’
Samuel’s strategy is clear: there had to be personal repentance before there could be corporate repentance. His message is a call to wholehearted commitment to the Lord.
For this to happen, there has to be a renunciation of worldly behaviour. The sin of which Israel was guilty was not open rejection of the Lord. Rather what they did was to mix the worship of Yahweh with the worship of the pagan tribes around them. They had been guilty of compromise. If they wanted to know divine blessing they would have to repent of their action. Repentance is more than sorrow for having done wrong; it also includes change of direction. The change required of them was total dedication to the Lord. They listened eventually to the preaching of Samuel: ‘So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.’
It is not clear how long this process took. This is a reminder that in looking for restoration we have to be patient. God will not move until the situation is changed, and the situation for which he is waiting is the repentance of each believer. I wonder who was the last person to repent in Israel at this time, and what was the time-gap between that person and the first one to repent. As we apply this to ourselves, each of us knows the necessity of repenting from our compromises with sin before restoration will come. The longer we resist repenting the longer the blessing will stay away. How many unrepentant members does it take to prevent the Lord’s blessing? The answer is one.