1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to 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 here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
(1 Samuel 4:1-11)
In yesterday’s post we read about a battle between the Philistines and Israel in which Israel was soundly defeated, suffering 4,000 casualties. The elders rightly recognized that their loss was attributable to God [1 Samuel 4:3]. But rather than humbling themselves and going to God in prayer and fasting to find out why He had let them be defeated and what their next step should be, they resorted to human logic. That is never a good idea.
Rather than seeking God’s help in their fight against the Philistines, the elders relied on superstition. They decided to bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to the battle site.
The Ark of the Covenant was the center piece of the Jewish religious experience. God ordered it to be built and placed in the holiest room of the tabernacle and later the temple. It was a gilded box in which was placed the two tablets containing the ten commandments, written by God Himself. It also contained a jar of manna, from the days the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years [Hebrews 9:4].
On top of the Ark was the mercy seat on either side of which were two golden angels, facing each other, with their wings spread. The mercy seat was God’s throne – the very place where God dwelt in Israel [Exodus 25:10-22]. The Ark may have looked something like this:
Notice that the elders thought that the ark would save them (“it may… save us”). It was not God they were relying on. They were relying on the ark forcing God’s hand. They were trying to manipulate God.
The elders knew the Ark was sacred. They apparently thought, therefore, that God would want to save the Ark and, by extension, they would win a victory over their enemies. We’ll see how that turns out in a couple of days (hint: it doesn’t go as well as they hoped).
The elders actually had no authority over the Ark. The Ark was in the custody of the priests, namely Eli the high priest and his sons Hophni and Phinehas. We know that by this time Eli was old, feeble, and blind [1 Samuel 3:2]. He could have done nothing to stop the Ark from leaving the tabernacle. And since his sons go with the Ark, they apparently didn’t see anything wrong with this plan either.
Of course the elders weren’t the only ones wrong here. The people apparently agreed with this suggestion and sent to Shiloh to have the ark brought from there. It’s obvious everyone in Israel had no idea what they were doing when it came to their relationship with God. They didn’t remember – or hadn’t been taught – that they were to go to God; He didn’t come to them [Deuteronomy 12:5, 11].
Of course, this entire scene reveals the complete spiritual dysfunction in Israel at this time. Notice that no one asked Samuel what should be done. It was through Samuel that God spoke to the people at this time [1 Samuel 4:1]. But no one inquired. No one sought God’s wisdom. They just did whatever they thought was right [Judges 21:25].
When people fall away from God they turn to superstitions and believe external rites will bring blessings. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that a baby that is baptized will go to heaven. They believe that the act of baptism itself is all that is needed to save a person from hell. Likewise, a dying person may have the sacrament of last rites performed, thinking it will ease her transition into the next life. This is all nothing but man-made superstition.
It is not man-made rites or talismans that bring salvation to a person. It is Jesus Himself. We are not told to look to the ark, or to rosary beads, or temple garments (aka Mormon “magic underwear”). We are told to look to God [Isaiah 45:22].
But the problem is we, just like ancient Israel, don’t have godly leadership anymore. Our leaders are just as ignorant as the elders in Israel. So they cannot offer any real solutions to the problems we face. Those who are ignorant cannot lead people to wisdom. They can only lead them to ignorance.
The majority of America is unchurched. Hence they have no relationship with, or understanding of, God because they aren’t being taught how to do so. Our government doesn’t teach this. Our education system certainly doesn’t.
To fill that void, people will turn to other human beings – like their friends or Oprah or Ellen – who don’t have any better understanding of life than they do. This is a classic example of blind leading the blind [Matthew 15:14].
The answer to our problems – both individually and collectively – lies in prayer. We must humbly bring our problems to God. He wants us to do this. If we do, He will answer [Psalm 55:22; 1 Peter 5:7]. Relying on anything – or anyone – else will ultimately result in disaster.
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