Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.
1 Samuel 7:2-4 From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth and served the LORD alone.
The Philistine domination of Israel (chpts 4-6) coupled with the Lord’s judgment on the people of Beth-shemesh (6:19-21) scarred the national psyche. As a result, Israel is said to have “lamented after the Lord” for twenty years (7:2). Since this Hebrew verb (and corrsponding noun) is used to signify the kind of mourning that accompanies a tragic loss (see Jer 9:17-19; Ezek 32:18; Micah 2:4), it seems safe to say that Israel was convinced that she had lost the Lord. Even though the ark’s return to Israel signified the Lord’s return to the land (see 6:20), the people still labored under a sense of divine opprobrium.
Twenty years is a suprisingly long time to lament after the Lord without any kind of response unless you take into account the people’s continued dalliance with their idols. In that case, what’s surprising is that the people needed a prophet to state the obvious: remove the idols, return to the Lord, and all will be made right.
It’s tempting, and not entirely unreasonable, to interpret Israel’s duplicity as an OT example of what Paul calls worldly sorrow (2Cor 7:10). That is, Israel was more concerned with what she had lost—possessions, security, status—than who she had lost. While there might be something to this line of thinking, it’s hard to square with the text’s assertion that the people lamented after the Lord.
Another approach would be to read 1Samuel 7 in light of Ezekiel 20:
“I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ 8 “But they rebelled against Me and were not willing to listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. (20:7-8)
“Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, 16 because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. (20:15-16)
“When I had brought them into the land which I swore to give to them, then they saw every high hill and every leafy tree, and they offered there their sacrifices and there they presented the provocation of their offering. There also they made their soothing aroma and there they poured out their drink offerings. (20:28)
Reading 1Samuel in isolation, we feel as if we’re coming across a unique instance of spiritual dimwittedness; but Ezekiel indicates that this supposed anomaly was, in fact, the norm for a nation with divided loyalties. Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.
With the added light from Ezekiel 20, I take away three reminders from 1Samuel 7.
First, God is (unfathomably) “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). So much so that “if we are faithless he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2Tim 2:13). My apathetic and guilt-ridden heart needs to hear and believe these truths.
Second, God’s promise of forgiveness isn’t conditioned on perfect penitence. If his forgiveness depends on the quality of my repentance, there is no forgiveness to be had. God help me, I need to repent of my repentance!
Third, in God’s economy one day of repentance is more than sufficient for twenty years of habitual sin because one sacrifice was sufficient for all sin (Rom 3:21-25).