“that it may save us…”
And when the people had come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” – 1st Samuel 4 :3
This is the beginning of a very sad chapter in the history of Israel. There could easily be a study in itself in this one verse, and a very rich sermon as well. But the reason this verse came to mind is the contrast of this particular verse with another one three chapters and thirty years later. But first, a little history in-between the two events:
The outcome of the above battle was not at all what the Israelites had hoped for. Bringing the Ark of the covenant did not help them at all: They lost the battle, many were killed – including Hophni and Phineas, their prominent Levites. Worst of all, they lost their Ark of the covenant. The news of this killed the chief priest, Eli. Also, Phineas’s wife gave birth at this very time. Hearing of this triple disaster (loss of husband, father-in-law, and the ark) hastened her own death. Before she died she told her nurses to name here child “Ichabod”, “The glory has departed”.
A LOSE-LOSE SITUATION
But if this was such a tragic loss for the people of God it was not the victory that it seemed for the Philistines. They brought their trophy (the ark) to the temple of their god, Dagon. But God demonstrated his holiness to them by breaking the idol of Dagon. More overwhelming than this largely symbolic judgment was the outbreak of the plague (probably bubonic, judging by 1 Sam. 6:4- 5) among the Philistines. Wherever the ark went the plagued followed; first Ashdod, then Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and, finally, Ekron. The men of Ekron demonstrated greater wisdom than those of Ashdod – and of Shiloh, for that matter. They gathered all the Lords of the Philistines together and insisted (5:11):
“Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people!”
The priests and diviners knew that they could not send the ark back empty and insisted that it be sent back with “five golden tumors and five golden rats” (6:4). In their limited way, and seemingly by divine counsel, the Philistine priests had a higher perception of God’s holiness than the hardened Israelites at the eve of the battle. Of course, experience had taught them that God’s presence brings judgment.
THE ARK RETURNS TO ISRAEL. ISRAEL RETURNS TO GOD.
To make a long story short, the ark is returned to the land of Israel – though not without additional disasters and painful lessons learned (6:19- 21). After twenty years Samuel admonishes Israel
“If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreth (goddess images) from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
And they did. And He did. But not before they had a serious scare.
SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT RESPONSE
Samuel had called all of Israel to Mizpah *, where he would pray for them, fast with them, and sacrifice on their behalf **. So, Samuel goes up to Mizpah. All Israel goes up to Mizpah. And the Philistine go up to Mizpah!
Did the Philistines go up to Mizpah to repent of their idols? Not at all! They had heard of Israel’s gathering together and, whether they sensed danger, or merely opportunity, they camped nearby in battle-readiness.
This distressed Israel greatly. History was repeating itself. This was very similar to Samuel 4:3. But this time their response shows true repentance from their idolatry and living faith in God. Seeing the Philistines camped nearby, they turn to their intercessor Samuel, and urgently request of him:
“Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”
No appeal to the ark to be brought. Rescue must come from the Living (but invisible) God, who awards naked faith with grace and victory.
Samuel, as priest, offers the unblemished lamb as a whole burnt offering to the Lord, and prays to Him. And God granted the victory.
HOLY THING-ISM TODAY
That is the contrast that I thought of when I read this passage this morning. Israel had learned a valuable lesson to not trust to visible assurances of God’s blessings, but to nobly rely on His Name, and on His promise. But it also occurred to me that the sin that Israel fell into here (and would again in just the next chapter) is a cautionary tale for us today as well. In many ways we seek to have the same visible assurances from God, asking not for Him, but for some “it”. For the Israelites the “its” have been the ark, a visible king (Saul), the brazen serpent (that thing of brass), etc.
But our “its” today are different. But if they sever faith in our living God and His Word, then it is idolatry just the same. Our forms of “it” can be:
The Lord’s Supper,
A church building or other “holy place”,
Prayer (“praying through”),
Walking the aisle,
Special music (whether listening, singing or performing),
Being “in the ministry”,
Revered writers or preachers,
The list goes on. All of these “its” have Bible verses that show just what naked contrivances they are if God is not in them. None of these should take the place of true faith and fellowship in Christ.
A person can have all of the above on their Got-it List and be as far from God as north is from south.
* Why Mizpah? This is the place, centuries before, associated with Israel’s previous putting away of idols, Judges 10: 10- 17. This may be why Mizpah was chosen by Samuel. The Jews found themselves in the same predicament: idolatry.
** Interesting note: Samuel is not from the house of Levi, but from Ephraim. Why is he sacrificing? The fact that he is able to minister as priest seems to prefigure another Priest who also is not of Levi, but of the tribe of Judah and the order of Melchizedek.