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God’s Not Your Lucky Charm

This morning we are continuing on in our study of First Samuel. For the first 3 chapters of this book, the author has focused mainly on the birth and early life of Samuel, but for the next three chapters, the focus shifts and the story revolves mainly around the Ark of the Covenant (or the Ark of the Lord.) Samuel isn’t even mentioned again until chapter 7.

And in some ways, this next part about the Ark of the Lord might seem like a bit of a rabbit trail from the story of Samuel – but it’s not a rabbit trail at all. It actually reminds us who this story is really about – this is not a story about Samuel – this is a story about God!

And that’s important to remember when we read through any of these great old testament stories! These stories are not about Daniel and the lions or David & Goliath or Moses or Jonah or any of those guys – the entire Bible is the story of God. He is the main character. These fantastic stories are only in the Bible because they teach us about God – Who He is, what’s He’s like, what He’s done, and what He’s going to do! 

So today’s passage about the Ark of the Lord is most certainly not a rabbit trail from the story of Samuel – but rather it conveys to us some very important information about who God is and how we are to interact with Him! As we go through it, we’ll see that it fits very much within the themes of the book of First Samuel!

First Samuel chapter 3 ends on the note of little Samuel growing up to a confirmed prophet of the Lord. His messages proved to be true and reliable as He faithfully delivered the Word of God to all the people of Israel.

But after saying that, the scene totally changes and we are told in chapter 4 verse 1…

At that time Israel was at war with the Philistines. The Israelite army was camped near Ebenezer, and the Philistines were at Aphek. The Philistines attacked and defeated the army of Israel, killing 4,000 men. 3 After the battle was over, the troops retreated to their camp, and the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?” Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:1b-3

Now just for a little bit of background here, the Philistines are probably the most well-known enemies of the Israelites. We first hear about the Philistines way back in Genesis – during the the time of Abraham. But of course, there was no nation of Israel to fight with at that time – there was just Abraham’s family!

But the real fighting between the Philistines and the Israelites began during the time of the judges. We’re told that one of the first Judges, Shamgar, once killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad! The strongman, Samson, fought his many battles against the Philistines – burning down their crops, killing them with a jawbone of a donkey, pulling down their temple on top of them! Most of Saul’s battles, as the first king of Israel, were fought against the Philistines. David’s first battle was against the Philistine giant, Goliath. And so its not unusual to see Israel at war with the Philistines! But this particular war was going to be unusual.

As we read in the passage, the first battle in this war was a total loss for the Israelites. They were soundly defeated and 4,000 men were killed. So they go back to their camp and regroup. It’s at this point that the elders of Israel ask a very important question. They say “Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?”

Now that’s a very good question! It’s always important to evaluate after a loss to see what went wrong and how you can fix it next time. That’s just good common sense! But there is something conspicuously missing from their evaluation process. Even though they acknowledge that it was God who allowed them to be defeated, notice that no where in this passage do we see them asking God why they failed or what they should do about it! There’s no prayer and fasting! There’s no asking the prophet of God what they should do. They simply evaluated the situation using their own human wisdom and then came to their own human conclusions.

And you know, that’s kind of a dangerous thing to do. Or at the very least, it’s a foolish thing to do. Our human knowledge of any particular situation is always limited. There is always so much that we don’t know. Whether we’re considering a big life decision or we’re navigating some difficult relationship issues, or whatever the case may be – there’s so much that we just don’t know! 

But God knows it all! He knows every detail of every situation! He knows every person, He knows every person’s innermost thoughts and feelings, He knows every possible outcome for every possible scenario… So why would we not ask God to give us help and wisdom to know what to do as we face these difficult situations?

 After all, God has promised to give wisdom to anyone who asks for it! James 1:5 says….

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. James 1:5

God invites us to come to Him – the one who knows everything and is the source of all wisdom. We have a standing invitation to come to Him and ask for wisdom – and He has promised to give it to us!

What an incredible blessing! What an incredible advantage in life! We would be foolish to ignore such an incredible resource that God has offered to us!

But yet, that’s exactly what these elders of Israel seem to be doing. There is no indication that they have sought the wisdom of God – and they are left to come to their own human conclusions.

And their conclusion was that they needed to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle. They say…

“Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3b

Now if you’re not really familiar with the Ark of the Covenant, you might assume, from this passage, that the Ark is some kind of secret super weapon that would assure the defeat of their enemies! And indeed, that seems to be how the Israelites were treating it! In their minds, with the Ark of the Covenant in their midst, there was no way they could lose!

So what was so significant about the Ark of the Covenant? What kind of weapon was this?

Well, it wasn’t really a weapon at all!

If you flip back to the book of Exodus, on Mount Sinai, when Moses received the ten commands and all the other laws and regulations for the people of Israel, God also gave Moses some specific instructions for how to build the Ark of the Covenant. And it wasn’t a weapon! It was intended to be the meeting place where God would meet with his people. Have a look at God’s instructions for the Ark in Exodus 25:10… God tells Moses…

10 “Have the people make an Ark of acacia wood—a sacred chest 45 inches long, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches high. 11 Overlay it inside and outside with pure gold, and run a molding of gold all around it. 12 Cast four gold rings and attach them to its four feet, two rings on each side. 13 Make poles from acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 Insert the poles into the rings at the sides of the Ark to carry it. 15 These carrying poles must stay inside the rings; never remove them. 16 When the Ark is finished, place inside it the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, which I will give to you.

Genesis 25:10-16

Ok, so far this isn’t seeming very weapon-like is it? It’s a wood box covered in gold that comes  with carrying poles – and inside are some stone tablets that have terms of God’s covenant (or His agreement with the Israelites) written on them. But let’s read a little more and see what else God says about this Ark. verse 17

17 “Then make the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—from pure gold. It must be 45 inches long and 27 inches wide. 18 Then make two cherubim from hammered gold, and place them on the two ends of the atonement cover. 19 Mold the cherubim on each end of the atonement cover, making it all of one piece of gold. 20 The cherubim will face each other and look down on the atonement cover. With their wings spread above it, they will protect it. 21 Place inside the Ark the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, which I will give to you. Then put the atonement cover on top of the Ark. 

And this is the part I want you to notice….

22 I will meet with you there and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel. Exodus 25:17-22

So as you can see, the significance of the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t in it’s power as weapon – but rather, it was significant because it represented the very presence of God! In verse 22 God says “I will meet you there and talk to you above the atonement cover.”

The Ark was intended to remind the people of Israel, that as long as they kept the terms of the covenant – all that stuff written on the stone tablets inside the Ark – as long as they obey God and followed His commands, then God would dwell among his people. He would be with them. He would protect them and He would provide for them.

The problem was, the people of Israel had not keep the terms of the covenant. They had not been obedient to God – as we clearly saw over the last few weeks. Even the priests (Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas had dishonoured God.) People did whatever seemed right in their own eyes – they didn’t care about what was right in God’s eyes.

But ironically, even thought they couldn’t care less about God, they still expected Him to care for them. That’s why they trot out the Ark as some kind of secret weapon. They figure that if they bring the ark of the Covenant with them into battle, the symbol of God’s presence, then God would protect them and would give them victory over their enemies. And so that’s what they do.

It says in verse 4…

4 So they sent men to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant
of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, were also there with the Ark of the Covenant of God. 5 When all the Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord coming into the camp, their shout of joy was so loud it made the ground shake!

1 Samuel 4:4-5

That’s got to be a pretty loud shout! I’ve heard some pretty loud shouting in my time and I’ve never felt the ground shake because of it! These guys must be pretty excited to have the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, come into their camp.

But I’m pretty sure they’re excited for the wrong reasons. They’re not really exited to be in the presence of God – they’re really just excited for what God might do for them. They’re excited for what they can get out of God.

And sometimes, I think we fall into that same trap! Sometimes we see God as our cosmic vending machine. Instead of us living to please and serve Him, we end up thinking that God exists to please and serve us! Our prayers end up being more about what God can do for us, than what we can do for God. Our worship and our spiritual disciplines become bargaining chips – where if we do this for God – then God will have to do this for us!

That’s certainly how the Israelites were treating God. They weren’t interested in serving God – rather, they expected God to serve them! Carrying the Ark of the Lord into battle with them was really just their way of manipulating God. God didn’t help them in the first battle, but now He’d HAVE TOO cause they brought the Ark! Or at least, so they thought.

But that’s why we see the Israelites shouting for joy – not because they were in the awesome presence of God (which would certainly be cause for joy!) – but they were shouting for joy because they thought they could manipulate God into doing what they wanted! Well, let’s see how that plays out for them.

5 When all the Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord coming into the camp, their shout of joy was so loud it made the ground shake!

6 “What’s going on?” the Philistines asked. “What’s all the shouting about in the Hebrew camp?” When they were told it was because the Ark of the Lord had arrived, 7 they panicked. “The gods have come into their camp!” they cried. “This is a disaster! We have never had to face anything like this before! 8 Help! Who can save us from these mighty gods of Israel? They are the same gods who destroyed the Egyptians with plagues when Israel was in the wilderness. 9 Fight as never before, Philistines! If you don’t, we will become the Hebrews’ slaves just as they have been ours! Stand up like men and fight!” 10 So the Philistines fought desperately, and Israel was defeated again. The slaughter was great; 30,000 Israelite soldiers died that day. The survivors turned and fled to their tents. 11 The Ark of God was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were killed.1 Samuel 4:5-11

It seems that the Ark of the Lord was not the lucky charm that the Israelites thought it was. Israel was defeated. The Ark of the Lord was captured by the Philistines. And 30,000 Israelites were killed, including Eli’s two sons – Hophni and Phinehas.

It turns out that God was not to be manipulated. God would not honor those who did not honor Him.

Which is exactly what God said to Eli in the beginning of 1 Samuel when his sons, Hophni and Phinehas were stealing from the sacrifices at the Tabernacle – and Ei did nothing to stop them. They had shown utter contempt for God and his commands – and so God had said to Eli in 1 Samuel 2 verse 30…

30 “Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I promised that your branch of the tribe of Levi would always be my priests. But I will honor those who honor me, and I will despise those who think lightly of me. 31 The time is coming when I will put an end to your family, so it will no longer serve as my priests. All the members of your family will die before their time. None will reach old age. 32 You will watch with envy as I pour out prosperity on the people of Israel. But no members of your family will ever live out their days. 33 The few not cut off from serving at my altar will survive, but only so their eyes can go blind and their hearts break, and their children will die a violent death. 34 And to prove that what I have said will come true, I will cause your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to die on the same day! 1 Samuel 2:30-34

And of course, as we just read, this is exactly what happened. Hophni and Phinehas were killed on the same day in battle as the Ark of the Lord was captured. All that God had said would come to pass.

In fact, we read further in chapter four…

12 A man from the tribe of Benjamin ran from the battlefield and arrived at Shiloh later that same day. He had torn his clothes and put dust on his head to show his grief. 13 Eli was waiting beside the road to hear the news of the battle, for his heart trembled for the safety of the Ark of God. When the messenger arrived and told what had happened, an outcry resounded throughout the town.

14 “What is all the noise about?” Eli asked.

The messenger rushed over to Eli, 15 who was ninety-eight years old and blind. 16 He said to Eli, “I have just come from the battlefield—I was there this very day.”

“What happened, my son?” Eli demanded.

17 “Israel has been defeated by the Philistines,” the messenger replied. “The people have been slaughtered, and your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were also killed. And the Ark of God has been captured.”

18 When the messenger mentioned what had happened to the Ark of God, Eli fell backward from his seat beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and overweight. He had been Israel’s judge for forty years.

1 Samuel 4:12-18

Just as He had promised, God was putting an end to Eli’s family. And it didn’t stop with just Eli and his sons. The consequences of sin and the judgement of God would continue impacting the rest of Eli’s family. In verse 19 we read:

19 Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near her time of delivery. When she heard that the Ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth. 20 She died in childbirth, but before she passed away the midwives tried to encourage her. “Don’t be afraid,” they said. “You have a baby boy!” But she did not answer or pay attention to them.

21 She named the child Ichabod (which means “Where is the glory?”), for she said, “Israel’s glory is gone.” She named him this because the Ark of God had been captured and because her father-in-law and husband were dead. 22 Then she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God has been captured.”

1 Samuel 4:19-22

And that last statement by Eli’s daughter-in-law is significant. “The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God has been captured.” I think she was half right – but half wrong.

The glory of God had indeed departed from Israel – but it wasn’t because the Ark of God had been captured. The glory of God had likely departed many years ago as the people and the priests choose to ignore God and his commands.

God’s glorious presence was not determined by the physical location of an Ark. Or even by the location of the tabernacle or temple for that matter! God would be present with those who would humble themselves before Him and seek Him with their whole heart. And that’s something the Israelites had not done in some time.

To them, God had become not much more than a good luck charm or a magic genie. They  thought they could live however they wanted – doing whatever seems right in their own eyes – and then the minute they need something from God, out comes the ark or up goes the prayer or off to the temple they go.

But that’s not how it works. God is not a genie or a vending machine. God is a person – a person who wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. He loves us and wants us to love Him in return.

But if we choose to ignore Him or to neglect our relationship with Him, why would we expect God to do anything for us? We cannot expect to experience the presence and the power of God while we are living in selfish disobedience.

I think James says it well in James 4:8…

8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. 9 Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

James 4:8-10

It is so easy for us to treat God like a good luck charm or a magic genie. If we do the right things or say the right words, then God is obligated to cater to our needs. But God’s not interested in being your personal vending machine! He’s interested in being your God. He’s interested in having a right and real relationship with you.

That’s what the Israelites were missing. They wanted all the benefits of God’s presence and God’s power – but they had no interesting in being God’s people. They had no interest in a personal relationship with Him.

And so as our closing thought for today, I’d ask you, “How interested are you in having a personal relationship with God?”

Are you a Christian just so you can get to heaven? Do you come to church and read your Bible primarily to collect brownie-points with God – in hopes God will bless you and keep you from trouble? Do you pray to Him like he’s your cosmic vending machine – living however you want, but still expecting God to come through for you whenever you put your prayers into the slot?

Or are you sincerely interested in have a real and right relationship with the God of Heaven? Do you obey Him simply because you love Him and you know He loves you? Do you serve Him because He is worthy of being served?

Do you honor and respect Him as the God of the Universe who loved you so much that He died in your place – or is He more of a good luck charm that you keep in your back pocket?

I would encourage you today – to pursue having a right and real relationship with God – to love and honor Him as God. To humble yourself before Him – and as James says, Come close to God – and God will come close to you.

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