Samuel's ministry is summarized militarily (1 Samuel 7:13), yet it is no more than a summary, in light of the amount of land gotten from the Philistines during his time (7:14).
Earlier his ministry was summarized personally and in regard to God (3:19-21). Yet these chapters give us more of a sense of the presence of God than of the succession of leaders. Indeed, that is one of the points of the problem being addressed in chapter 8, that God has been the Israelite king all along, but now the Israelites at the end of Samuel's years as judge don't want that (8:7). The summary of the reason why is very familiar.
The presence of God is distinguished early in the book in the way He characteristically chooses the unexpected and/or rejected (cf. 1:6) person. Even Eli fits into this mold: with all his problem with his sons (3:8), he had, as a ninety-eight-year-old, his priorities right (4:13,18) -- and so did his daughter-in-law (4:19-22).
And yet, with the capture of the ark, the way God works is more fully separated from the agents He uses. The extremely humorous (to the reader, not to the Philistines) story of chapters 5 shows that God Himself is sovereign through whatever means He decides to use: even the physical presence of a spoil of war that represents His name among the conquerers.
And what do we find God doing, and thus teaching the reader about? 1) His superiority, to the point of mockery over the gods of the other nations; 2) In chapter 6, the spread of the knowledge of Him to other nations (6:6); 3) The way even the twisted logic (6:4) of the Philistine "priests and diviners" (6:2) is used: their gold, in the shapes we can only imagine, and the cows' direction they took, are such that God even uses those things to instruct them, lest they miss the point of who He is (6:9).
When it comes to the Israelites, however, this teaching takes a more serious turn. The problem of syncretism was all over the country (7:3). Saying so evidently was not enough. There were two severe object lessons about the holiness of God that were learned at great cost (6:19-21). The first was a type of temerity: "they had looked into the ark of the Lord." The second was a disregard for the proper place of the ark's keeping (6:20-21).
We learn how completely God is "sovereign" over Philistia in Chapters 5-6, and how serious is His kingship over His subjects in the last part of chapter 6. The Philistines must have handled the ark many times, moving it from doomed city to doomed city, putting their little golden shapes all around it to get it ready for transport, etc.... But in Israel, the ark was not to be handled as a tool. Not a tool to win battles, as we saw at 4:11. Not as a tool of curiosity, or as a tool to just "keep around."
They got their idolatry (temporarily) straightened out (7:4), and their battles went great against the Philistines, under Samuel. But a pure military thing didn't last, because of the syncretism: they wanted something "that we also may be like all the nations" (8:20).
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