So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
1 Samuel 4:10-11
1 Samuel 4 reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The Israelites go to war with the Philistines and lose the first round of battle. They then bring the Ark out to the battlefield, thinking that God would give them victory if only they had the Ark with them. They were wrong. Not only are they defeated, but they lose the Ark in the process. A man escapes from the battlefield to take news back to the people at home and brings news to Eli that both of his sons are dead and that the Ark has been taken. That last bit of news is too much, and old Eli falls out of his chair and breaks his neck. Eli’s daughter-in-law, in labor with a child, hears the news that her husband and father-in-law are dead and that the Ark is gone and names her newborn son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed” before she dies.
It does not seem like there is much hope in this passage. And there really is not. I know that God throws down with the Philistines in the very next chapter — and it is epic — but that does not decrease the body count or make Ichabod any less an orphan. This chapter serves as a sobering testimony to the cost of doing things the wrong way.
Should the Israelites have gone to war with the Philistines? There is no way to know, They should have asked God what He wanted them to do. Instead, they got themselves prepared for battle and went out to fight because they thought it was right. Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 both state that There is a way [which] seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. When I go off without consulting God, I can expect that I will sometimes, perhaps often be wrong.
Should the Israelites have brought the Ark out onto the battlefield? In this case, no. There are plenty of times where God tells people to bring out the Ark as a symbol of His presence, because He sanctioned the action being taken. But this battle is not sanctioned. God was not consulted. And the Israelites brought the Ark that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies (v. 3). They saw the Ark as some idol that could carry the Presence of God wherever it went or as a sort of leverage to make God come out t the battlefield and give them victory. Neither of these is true and both represent terrible misunderstandings of Who God is and how He operates. If I come to God on any terms other than His own, then I will have a false god.
This chapter is a sort of illustration of how the first three Commandments can be violated. The Israelites did not consult the True and Living God because they had set up some other god in His place — possibly themselves. They used the Ark as a sort of graven image, acting as if it had some power in and of itself; like it was a lucky charm. And they took God’s Name; God’s reputation to themselves in vain when they brought the Ark into the camp. The Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all [kinds] of plagues in the wilderness (vv. 7-8). God had not come into the camp. There is no record of whether He sanctioned this battle or not, but it seems likely that He did not, since the Israelites are soundly defeated and the Ark is captured.
First, if I am not consulting God about decisions in my life, then I am in danger of setting up a false god in His place. I need not pester God with questions about where I should eat lunch or what I should have, but I might meet neat people and avoid a bout with food poisoning if I do. God is not disinterested in the minutiae of my life, but He is not going to force His inputs on me.
Second, nothing can act as leverage with God and I should not think that anything — tangible or otherwise — is going to make God do anything. The only thing that will make God do something is God Himself. He is the I AM and He cannot be forced to do anything. Additionally, He will remove my crutches — my lucky whatsits and my comfort thingamabobs — until He is all that I rely on.
Third, I need to leave God’s reputation; God’s Name out of things wherein I have done something without consulting Him. Many years ago, a younger and much less mature me dated a young woman whose morals did not align with mine and with whom I argued about many things. I knew that it was a bad decision, but we had been friends and got on well in that capacity. We tried to make it work, soldiering on even when it was becoming evident that the mismatch was tearing one or both of us apart. Instead of owning it and ending things, that younger me brought God into things and gave His disapproval as a reason for ending the relationship. It may very well be that He was unhappy with the relationship — they were many reasons to think that He might have been — but there was no voice from the clouds or prophetic dream in which He told that younger me to end things. God was thrown under the bus. It was not His fault that the relationship was a shambles. It was, however, definitely my fault.
Father, I confess that I have, at times, taken Your Name; Your reputation to my actions and myself when what I did was nothing to do with You. I confess that I have sometimes set up other things in Your place — my wants, my self (most often) — and have not properly recognized those usurpers. Please forgive my wrong and work in me to see You rightly and to honor You properly and to live in such a way as to take Your Name to myself in an appropriate way. Teach me how to honor You as my King; to obey You as my Master; to be loyal to You as my Friend; and to love You as my Father. Please keep me from idols and from attempts to strong arm You into doing anything. Thank You for this lesson and for this reminder and for the light that illuminates both past and present.