A Lamb, a Stone, and an Altar
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A Lamb, a Stone, and an Altar

1 Samuel 7:8-17  (ID: 3368)

At Mizpah, the Israelites received thunderous, dramatic deliverance from their Philistine oppressors. Samuel had once again prayed on their behalf, his access to God granted through a blood sacrifice as atonement for sin. Alistair Begg helps us realize how this moment anticipated the perfect Lamb to come and depicted God’s enduring faithfulness to His children. As we praise God for all He has done and trust Him for all that is to come, our lives remind others that our help comes from the Lord alone.


Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read just briefly from 1 Samuel and chapter 7. Those of you who were present this morning know that we endeavored to come to terms with this and sit under it, and in such a way that we just needed to come back again. And so here we are. But let’s read—let me read from verse 8 to the end of the chapter.

“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.’ So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.

“Then Samuel took a stone … set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘[Thus far] the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.

“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. And he built there an altar to the Lord.”

Amen.

Now, I want to read Morning and Evening from the twenty-ninth of December, because it is on the verse that is central to this. Spurgeon now is commenting on the twelfth verse, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up,” and he “called [the] name Ebenezer”: “Till now the Lord has helped us.” And this is Spurgeon:

The phrase “till now” [or “thus far”] is like a hand pointing in the direction of the past. Twenty years or seventy, and still [it will be] “till now the Lord has helped us.” Through poverty, through wealth, … sickness, … health, at home, abroad, on the land, on the sea, in honor, in dishonor, in perplexity, in joy, in trial, in triumph, in prayer, in temptation, “till now the Lord has helped us.” We delight to look down a long avenue of trees. It is delightful to gaze from end to end of the long vista, a sort of verdant temple, with its branching pillars and its arches of leaves. In the same way look down the long aisles of your years at the green branches of mercy overhead and the strong pillars of loving-kindness and faithfulness that support your joys. Are there no birds singing in those branches? Surely there must be many, and they all sing of mercy received “till now.”

But the word also points forward. For when a man reaches a certain point and writes “till now,” he is not yet at the end; he still has a distance to go. More trials, more joys; more temptations, … triumphs; more prayers, more answers; more toils, more strength; more fights, more victories; and then he faces sickness, old age, disease, death. Is it over then? No! Then there is wakening in Jesus’ likeness, … songs, psalms, … the face of Jesus, the company of saints, the glory of God, the fullness of eternity, the infinity of bliss. Be of good courage, believer, and with grateful confidence raise your banner, for—

 He who hath helped thee hitherto
 Will help thee all thy journey through.

When read in light of heaven, how glorious and marvelous a prospect will the “till now” provide for your grateful eye![1]

Father, help us, then, as we prepare to come around your Table. As we come to the Scriptures, may our hearts be drawn again to your dearly beloved Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Well, let’s pick up our study, then, midway through the chapter as I read. And let’s try and gather our thoughts under just three brief headings. Let’s think, first of all, of a lamb, and then of a stone, and then of an altar. I found this helpful just this afternoon to try and create some kind of structure with which to deal with the balance of the chapter.

A Lamb

So first of all, in verse 9: “So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord.”

Now, the context of that, of course, is that the Philistines, realizing that the people of God had gathered at Mizpah, determined that they would come and attack them. And as we noted in our previous study, the Israelites were actually fearful. They weren’t presumptuous as they had been on the prior occasion in chapter 4, but they now had been humbled. They were now aware of their dependence upon God. And since Samuel had promised to pray for them, they had now come to him and essentially said to him, “We want to hold you to that promise. So do not cease,” they said, “to cry out to the Lord our God for us, because it is only in him that we will have salvation.”

Now, in actual fact, later on in 1 Samuel, in what is essentially Samuel’s farewell address, one of the things that Samuel says to the people is simply that: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”[2] And his role in the judging of the people, in the setting them in the right direction and in calling them to repentance and so on, is bathed, if you like, in prayer. And it is as he prays for them that he’s made aware of them and of their need.

It is a very challenging thought, and it is a necessary challenge. Simeon, who preached for what, fifty-four years, in Cambridge, remarked in one of his evening services, in the hearing of Henry Martyn, who was home on furlough as a missionary in somewhere in the East, and Martyn writes in his journal, “And I heard Mr. Simeon say tonight that it is far easier for a pastor to study for five hours than it is for that same pastor to pray for one half hour on behalf of his congregation.” So it is both wonderfully encouraging and at the same time very challenging.

And the answer that comes is striking, isn’t it? The “so,” the conjunction there at the beginning of verse 9, the request of the people is “Please, cry out to God for us; pray for us.” And then it is to Samuel and to this issue of sacrifice that we then come. “So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it …. And Samuel cried … to the Lord.” Now, surely there is something there that we’re supposed to notice. And it is straightforward—namely, that Samuel knew that the only access to God in prayer is along the pathway of atonement. The only access to God is through the shedding of blood. And therefore, in fulfilling the call to pray for the people, he comes to God in the way that he must and in the way in which we must. When we read the Old Testament and we think about it in light of the unfolding of the New, we realize how this is—in the most Old Testament of the New Testament books, Hebrews—this is reinforced again and again, isn’t it? “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of the eternal covenant, let us then pray.”[3] So in other words, Samuel is picturing that in the approach that he now takes. And by this means, he causes the people to see.

Now, this picture of a nursing lamb—if you’re reading this with your children and your grandchildren, eventually they must say to you, “But why? Why? What was this lamb? What did this lamb ever do? Was it a bad lamb?”

“No, honey. It was a good lamb. It was the best lamb that Samuel could find.”

“But doesn’t it say that he killed it?”

“Yes.”

“And it was burned up in a sacrifice?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Well, straightforwardly, because Samuel was saying to the people in this sacrifice, “What I am doing to this lamb right now is what should be happening to you. The punishment that you deserve is now falling upon this innocent lamb. The lamb is a substitute.” And so when you come to this as we do in a section like this, we have the benefit of reading it in light of the unfolding, cumulative story of the entire Bible. So we are able to read this incident in light of the fulfillment of the picture itself.

Samuel knew that the only access to God in prayer is along the pathway of atonement. The only access to God is through the shedding of blood.

But one of the things that we need to keep in mind is this—and I’m gonna take a moment and say it to you in the hope that you will be helped by it. I just quoted you from Hebrews 10. Earlier, in Hebrews 10:4, the writer to Hebrews reminds the readers that “the blood of bulls and goats” cannot take away sin. All right? And yet it is the offering up of the blood of bulls and goats that is both prescribed by the Levitical law and performed in the sacrifices in which the people of God engaged. Which raises the question: surely the people, then, in the Old Testament are not to be regarded as having been involved in a religion that is unreal, or engaging in ceremonies that are without any substance, or providing sacrifices without any benefit? No, not for a moment.

This is one of the helps of the Psalms. Because in the Psalms, we have the opportunity to see the Old Testament saints singing and praising God and rejoicing in the provision of God. So, for example, imagine joining some Old Testament saints, and we’re going to sing together Psalm 103:2–5. And so we stand together to sing. Someone gives out the psalm: “We’re going to stand as Old Testament saints, and we’re going to sing together”:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
 and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
 who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
 who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
 so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Now, it is accurate to say that these Old Testament saints (for example, singing that song) enjoyed a forgiveness—in the exercise of those sacrifices, they enjoyed a forgiveness—in light of what Christ would achieve, in theological terms, proleptically. For those of you who are medics, you know the word: “in anticipation of,” the science that is involved in that. That was true. That was absolutely true.

But here’s the thing: they were not busying themselves with unrealities. They were not walking around in the shadows. If we had met them coming out of the temple, they would have said, “My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—my sin, not in part but the whole…”[4] In other words, if we could step inside the Old Testament and be with them, we would rejoice with them in the reality of the forgiveness that was promised to them in the doing of what God required of them in the sacrifices. The fact that the cumulative impact of it is revealed ultimately in Jesus is also grounded at the other end of the fact, in that “the Lamb of God” that “takes away the sin of the world”[5] was chosen before the foundation of the world and “slain [before] the foundation of the world.”[6] So it’s enough to keep you up all night thinking about it. And you said, “Yes, well, we’ve thought about it finally and long enough, thank you very much.” All right.

But look at what is happening there. In this lamb, Samuel had spoken the word to them, and they trusted it. Samuel had prayed for them, and they trusted him. Samuel had offered a sacrifice, and they trusted in the sacrifice. Allow the cumulative impact to lead you forward. Jesus comes and speaks the very word of God to us, and we trust it. Jesus intercedes on our behalf before the Father, and we trust him. Jesus offers up the sacrifice of himself, and we trust in it.

And so, Samuel took a lamb.

A Stone

Secondly, as you go on, you will notice the place of the stone.

A remarkable deliverance came about, as we saw just in passing earlier: this appearance of the thunder. God is in control of the affairs of our world—the tides, and the movements of the planets and the spheres. And so, for him to thunder with this mighty sound and throw them into confusion and to lead them into defeat and the men of Israel going out and chasing them down the hill, as it were, as far as Beth-car—nobody actually knows where this place is; well, nobody that I know knows—and then a deliverance like this couldn’t be allowed just to pass away and sink into oblivion. And so, in keeping, again, with a pattern in the Old Testament, Samuel decides to take a stone and to set it up as a memorial. The lamb has now been sacrificed, the Philistines have now been vanquished, and so the stone is put in place, a memorial, not to recall the names of the dead but a stone to highlight the living Lord God.

The word “Ebenezer” means just simply “stone of help” or “He is their help.” Perhaps you were wondering why I read, to begin with, from Psalm 115. Well, I didn’t do so arbitrarily; it was for this very purpose:

O Israel, trust in the Lord!
 He is their help ….
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord!
 He is their help ….
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!
 He is their help.[7]

And so Samuel says, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to put a memorial right here so that every time everybody comes past this way, comes back into this place that we know as Ebenezer, they will not be in any doubt.” It is vitally important that this happens, so that with the psalmist in one of the Psalms of Ascent, “I lift … my eyes to the hills,” and “where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.”[8] In years to follow, there will be picnics, and the people will be there at the stone, and they will be opening up their stuff, and some of the children will be running around and saying, “And what is this stone about, Grandpa?” And they’ll say, “Well, we have a wonderful story to tell you about that.” And then the story will unfold. And one generation will praise his name to another[9] and will say, “This is how the Lord helped us. When I was young, this was it. In my middle age, this was it. He kept me to all these years, through all the changing scenes of life. That’s why we put the stone here.”

Did you see in the press—was it only today?—the piece by this young lady, a forty-one-year-old lady? And she is an entrepreneur and something else. I was struck by it because of the things I was thinking about, about memorials. Her company is called Recompose. The system is recomposition. It is a trendy alternative to burial or to—what do you call it if you don’t get buried? Cremation! That’s it! You think I would know that.

It’s not nice to talk about, but I want to show you how different things are in the Bible to this nonsense. The theory on it is that your remains will be turned into compost, into a kind of sanctified form of mulch. You will pay dearly for this, but you will be able to feel good about yourself because it will make an impact on the generations to come, not least of all in relationship to your carbon footprint. Quotes from the material: “We have calculated carbon savings of over a metric ton per person.” And the reason this is so significant: “Recomposition allows us”—now, notice carefully—“allows us to give back to the earth that supports us all our lives.” Mother Earth birthed us. Mother Earth supports us. And therefore, we will be returning ourselves to the mother who has watched over us and provided for us.

Loved ones, this sounds esoteric. It is increasingly mainstream—not necessarily the company but the concept. Do you see how vastly different it is—how vastly different—from the prospect of the believer? “God, you created the heavens and the earth. ‘There’s a land that is fairer than day.’[10] You are the risen Lord Jesus Christ. You triumphed over death. There will be a new heaven and a new earth in which dwells righteousness.”[11]

Well, people think I’m crazy; they say, “Well, you’re all into gravestones and funerals, and you’re always on about you want a cemetery and all these kind of things.” Yes, I absolutely do. It’s about time somebody other than myself step forward and acknowledge that one of the ways in which we speak to an alien culture like this in the matter of death itself—is in being able to say to our children and grandchildren, “There is a marker here, and the marker is here purposefully, so that people might know when they pass.” There’s a reason why Noah built the memorial. There’s a reason why Moses built the memorial. There’s a reason why Samuel put this in place—unless you’re an evolutionist who thinks that any old news is just old news and to be discarded. But if you’re a Biblicist, then you realize that these things are there to teach us and to help us.

Goodness gracious, the Beatles have got it better, haven’t they?

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed,
Some for good but not for better;
Some have gone, but some remain.
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.[12]

The bus stop, the graveyard: Ebenezer!

“What are you doing with that lamb?”

“It’s a sacrifice. It’s the way we meet God.”

“What are you doing with that stone?”

“Well, we want to make sure that everybody understands—and that when we’re long gone, they will be there to say, ‘We praise him for all that has passed, and we’re gonna trust him for all that’s to come.’” I like the “thus far” translation better than the “till now,” because the “till now” sets it in temporal terms. “Thus far” gives you the opportunity of spatial terms—in other words, “up until this point geographically,” as well as “up until this point temporally.” We don’t have to decide between them. In fact, I think they sit side by side.

Now, here’s a wonderful thing—and I hope that this will be of encouragement to all of us. As I tried to say in our earlier study, Ebenezer previously had been for these people the place of defeat, the place of sin, the place of sorrow, and it has now become for them the place of repentance and the place of victory, so that in a just fantastic way, it is a reminder that God is able to take all of those past disappointments and failures and sins and stuff—the things that when you go back to that point, you find yourself there again—he’s able to take that and say, “Now, look, we’re gonna put up a new marker here, right on this very same spot, so that you will be able to say that God has done this for us.”

Can I quote you Spurgeon again? This is Spurgeon day today; it has to be. Because he does such a wonderful job on this. He’s talking on the spot, the place where the Ebenezer stone was set up. And this is what he says:

Twenty years before on that very field Israel was routed. Twenty years before, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the Lord, were slain [on] that ground, and the ark of the Lord was taken, and the Philistines triumphed. It was well that they should remember the defeat they had sustained, and that amidst the joyous victory they should recollect that the battle had been turned into a defeat unless the Lord had been [on] their side.

And then he says,

[Brothers and sisters,] let us remember our defeats. Have we forgotten when we went out in our own strength determined to subdue our corruptions, and found ourselves weak as water? Have you forgotten when you reposed in the ark of the Lord, when you rested in ceremonies and ordinances, and not in the rock of your salvation? Have you forgotten, I say, how you were discomfited before your sins and found no place of refuge from your adversaries? Have we forgotten our pitiful failures in preaching and prayer when we waited not upon God for strength? [Of] those times of groaning, when none have believed our report because the Lord’s arm was not revealed. I call to remembrance all my failures as I stand on this hill of joy.

What a sentence that is! “I call to mind all my failures as I stand on this.”

I doubt not, that on the field of Ebenezer there were the graves of thousands who had been slain in fight. Let the graves of our past proud notions, the graves of our self-confidence, the graves of our creature-strength and boasting, stir us up to praise the Lord who [thus far has] helped us. … Look to your former defeats. Do you return victorious? You would have returned [in a right mess], and your shield [broken], if God had[n’t] been [on] your side. Oh, [you] that have proven your weakness, perhaps by [a] terrible fall, or in some sad disappointment, let the recollection of the spot where you were vanquished constrain you all the more to praise the Lord who ha[s] helped you even to this day to triumph over your adversaries.[13]

That seems to me just to be intensely practical and very, very honest.

An Altar

A lamb. A stone. An altar. And just a word.

The impact of the victory is such that in verses 13 and 14, the Philistines are “subdued.” The border towns are now back in the territory of Israel, and peace has been established not only with the Philistines but with the Amorites, who are part of the larger Canaanite population. And then a little summary statement there that takes us to the altar at the very end of verse 17: “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.”

It’s interesting, when you read the Bible, the few times in which Samuel appears other places. For example, in Psalm 99, the psalmist writes, “Moses and Aaron were among his priests”—that’s the priests of God. And then it says, “Samuel [was also] among those who called [on] his name.”[14] So he gets special mention, along with Moses and Aaron, because each of them had been gifted by God to lead his people. And so all the days of his life he was preaching to them and praying for them, and he—verse 16—“went on a circuit” from place to place, providing them with guidance and encouragement and direction and saying to them, “Make sure you direct your hearts to the Lord.” And he did this “all the days of his life.”

Samuel identified himself first as a sinner in need of the provision of God; secondly, as a pilgrim in the service of God; and thirdly, as a worshipper in the praise of God.

This wasn’t a short-term project. This was the long haul. If you compare the excitement of the earlier part, in the chapter at Mizpah and the thunder and all that went along with that, you say, “Few people’s lives are sustained, few lives are marked, by Mizpah events. Most of our lives are marked by ordinary events: the long haul, the work, the children, the care, the preaching, the praying, the coffee making, the giving, and so on.” And Samuel is a wonderful reminder to us, isn’t he?

So he would go around, and then he would go home. And he went home because “his home was there,” and he did the same thing when he was in his own home: “And he built … an altar” there. In other words, like Noah before him and Moses before him, he publicly and privately identified himself by the building of an altar. Whether it was in his front yard or his backyard or in his house or up on the top of a hill, we don’t know. But people would’ve said, “You know, that Samuel, if you want to know anything about Samuel, you go up there. He’s there. He has an altar there, you know. And it’s not an altar to himself but to the living God.” And so, what he did was he identified himself first as a sinner in need of the provision of God; secondly, as a pilgrim in the service of God; and thirdly, as a worshipper in the praise of God. Sinner. Pilgrim. Worshipper. That pretty well does it, doesn’t it?

But you know, just when you want it to then read, “And they all lived happily ever after,” you go to the beginning of chapter 8. And what do you discover? You say, “Well, we’re not doing chapter 8 yet.” Yes, you are. Right now you are.

Old age—“When Samuel became old”[15]—old age became the occasion of errors in his judgment. We might say towards the end of his life, he began to allow his heart to rule his head. It seemed to him a good idea to bring his boys into the family business, as it were, in terms of the judging of Israel. But it proved to be a bad decision. Because they were able to engage in the routine, but they didn’t enjoy the relationship with God that their father did. He toured the circuit. So did the boys. But they failed in the matter of truth. They failed in the matter of righteousness.

Scripture and history record that the best of leaders may be called to bear heavy burdens in this regard. That’s why we all need the Lamb, we all need to set up that stone, and we all need to make sure that in the secret place—not in the public arena—that your children and your grandchildren will be able to say, “She was a sinner, a pilgrim, and a worshipper.” That’ll be a fine legacy.

Let us pray:

God our Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you for the way it brings us again and again to Christ. Thank you that as we come to him, we do come aware of our sin, of how easy it is for us to wander off track. How we thank you that you in your mercy have not only set up memorial stones, but you have given us a memorial meal. The simplicity of it speaks to our need and to our ability to remember: “Do this in remembrance of me.”[16] So, Lord, as we take these final moments of our day to gather and do as you’ve bid us do, grant that we may do so with a glad heart, in the awareness of all that you are to us. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), December 29 morning reading.

[2] 1 Samuel 12:23 (ESV).

[3] See Hebrews 10:19, 22; 13:20.

[4] Horatio Gates Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1873).

[5] John 1:29 (ESV).

[6] Revelation 13:8 (KJV).

[7] Psalm 115:9–11 (ESV).

[8] Psalm 121:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Psalm 145:4.

[10] Sanford Fillmore Bennett, “In the Sweet By and By” (1868).

[11] See 2 Peter 3:13.

[12] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “In My Life” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.

[13] C. H. Spurgeon, “Ebenezer!,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 9, no. 500, 159–60

[14] Psalm 99:6 (ESV).

[15] See 1 Samuel 8:1 (ESV).

[16] Luke 22:19 (ESV). See also 1 Corinthians 11:24.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.