And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only.
— 1 Samuel 7:3-4
The ark of the covenant has been returned, but still Israel suffered at the hands of the Philistines, who had slaughtered many and taken their lands. Assuming this misfortune to (once again) be the result of Israel turning away from God and towards foreign deities, Samuel appeals to the nation to repent. Repentance is more than regret or remorse, it requires action, both inward and outward, first a change of heart and then a change in behaviour.1, 2
Samuel calls for a return unto the Lord, which means to recognise, and admit that one has strayed and then to become willing to make amends. But being willing is only a beginning and as yet nothing is visibly different, so Samuel asks the Israelites to then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you. This is the outward manifestation of the change of heart, which alone is invisible, known only to God and not to those in the community. Taking action to change a behaviour allows others to see that our espoused change of heart is a serious one, a meaningful movement towards improvement.
We don’t use the term ‘repent’ much today, certainly not outside the sphere of religion, but we do use the term resolution quite often, especially around the start of a new year. Many resolutions start well, certainly in intent, and we can feel very noble and righteous as we decide to make changes in our lives, exercise every day, eat healthy food, express less anger, be kinder, and so on. But unless we take steps to realise these desired changes nothing will happen. In this time of entitlement and instant gratification we want the benefits, but overlook the need to do the footwork. God provides the reward, but it is we who must do the work. When we take our work seriously change will happen. In the case of Samuel’s Israel the Philistines were subdued by the new found faith of the nation, war ceased and the land was restored—at least for a time.