Have you ever sat down on a bump on a log and discovered it to have been a toad? Or more shocking yet, the entire log turned out to be a great alligator? Look out! you scream, It’s alive! What kind of shock would you have? Here professor Peter Kreeft imaginatively pictures what it will be like for his fellow academics who study religion as if God were dead, when they one day discover that He is, much to their shock, very much alive.
What happens when people who have been pretending to believe in God suddenly meet Him? There is no shortage of individuals who use their religion without any intent on actually coming to know, much less meet, God. One can think of politicians who slip vague religious sentiments into their speeches to win votes, or prosperity preachers who use God to get rich. Or there are others who view God as an impersonal force, an inert pool of energy to be tapped into, harnessed, and shaped into whatever they please. For them, God is a jet pack on their back getting them where they want to go. Others imagine God to be like a therapist or cheerleader in the sky, eager to root you on and eager to make sure you’re happy.
In all of these perspectives, God is useful, malleable, and light. The spirit of this perspective is encapsulated well in the phrase: I like to imagine God like…
But what would happen if someone were to encounter the person of God as He really is, not as we would like Him to be? The man who mistakes a lion for a statue will experience quite a shock if he attempts to lean his elbow on it.
In our story today, we find what the consequences are of imagining God to be lesser than what He actually is. The main thrust of this story today is the weightiness of God. And that is the biggest problem with our world today—God is not weighty. Your anxiety about the future, the spouse contemplating an affair, dictators commiting genocide and war crimes—all flow from a heart that views God as small, inconsequential, incapable, impersonal. And like a mountain flung into the sea, our passage today seeks to throw a tidal wave up to recalibrate our hearts and minds with the power and weight of glory of God.
And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” – 1 Sam 4:21-22
From 1 Samuel 4 to the very end of 6 we have three panels of a story that more or less correspond to each chapter. We will spend the majority of our time on the first, but we will follow a story of the Loss of glory, the Exile of glory, and the Return of glory.
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.”
Here we read of a humiliating defeat for Israel. As the old men of Israel watch the men return to the camp with their heads hung low and hear of the embarrassing loss, they ask, “Why would God let this happen?” The question isn’t primarily a question of military strategy, it is a question of theology. They know that God has done this to them.
God had promised that they would inherit the land and He would fight their battles for them—so long as they remained faithful to Him. The elders have a right question, “Why did God do this?” That is precisely the question they should be asking; that is the question that should be leading them to see their sin, and humble themselves in repentance. But notice two things: 1) they don’t ask the prophet of God, Samuel (despite his word spreading to all Israel—in fact, we won’t hear of Samuel again till chapter 7), and 2) they run to a wrong answer, “Ah, we didn’t bring the ark with us! That’s our problem!”
The right answer to Israel’s question was a hard one—their sin and rebellion had caused their loss. But that’s the gift of God’s Word, it can give us hard, but right answers. If you are troubled by a question, but do not seek to hear from God’s Word, then we can be seriously misguided even if an answer feels intuitively correct (we forgot the ark!).
The ark of the covenant was a small box, about four foot by two foot, overlaid with gold. It represented God’s physical presence with His people. It remained inside the holiest place in the tabernacle and temple, the place that the high priest was only permitted to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement. This is the most sacred, and holy object Israel has because it represents the presence of their sacred and holy God. But here they use the ark like a lucky rabbit’s foot. Superstition has replaced faith and God has become a tool to be utilized for their own ends.
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.”
So, it’s halftime and team Israel is slumped over in the locker room, feeling despondent, feeling bruised. But then they remember: they have their secret weapon, the ark! Of course! How could they have forgotten! They parade back onto the field with swagger and confidence. They slap each other’s helmets, hooting and hollering, jumping in excitement as they see the fear on Philistine’s face. And the Philistine’s tremble. They have heard of this god. Now, they get some details wrong (God didn’t judge Egypt in the wilderness, and there is only one God), but they know enough to know that they should be scared. But the figures who attend the ark (the wicked Hophni and Phinehas) portend a disaster coming.
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.
What a dramatic reversal! Israel doesn’t just lose like before; it wasn’t even a fight, it was a “very great slaughter.” They lose more than seven times as many men this time. The prophecy that was made to Eli back in 1 Sam 2:34 comes true: his wicked and worthless sons, Hophni and Phinehas die. But the great calamity that no one saw coming was the loss of the ark! The seriousness of the loss of the ark is immediately displayed in the reactions that follow:
16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
Calamity upon calamity. We can discern the import of how serious the loss of the ark is by what happens to Eli and his daughter-in-law. It isn’t the defeat of Israel or even the death of his own sons that cause Eli to plunge to his death—it is the loss of the ark. Similarly, it isn’t the death of her husband or father-in-law that is on the wife’s lips as she dies—it is the loss of the ark. The tabernacle is the gateway into God’s presence, and the heart of the tabernacle is the ark. The physical, visible presence of God has been taken away from them. In fact, it has gone into exile. The word for “departed” in 1 Sam 4:21-22 is the word “exiled” (gala).
What happened? How did everything go so wrong?
There is a subtle play on words in this section. Phinehas’ wife names her son Ichabod, because the “glory has departed from Israel.” “Ichabod” in Hebrew simply means, “No glory.” The “glory” is a reference to the ark, where God would visibly manifest His presence in a bright cloud of glory. But the word for “glory” is the same word for “weight” or “heaviness” (cavōd). That is actually the idea of glory—something is glorious to the degree that it has gravity, substance, weight. Eli is described in 4:18 as a “heavy” man, whose own weight leads to his death.
Back in 1 Sam 2:29 God confronted Eli because he was “fattening [himself]” on the forbidden sacrifices that his sons had robbed from the worshippers of Israel. And then God promised: “those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed,” (1 Sam 2:30). Eli made himself (literally) heavy because he did not treat God as heavy, he did not honor Him. So God responds by returning the favor and treats Eli “lightly.” And the weight of Eli’s sin breaks his neck.
And Eli is a fitting representative of the people who treat God like a tool to be rolled in like an Abrams tank into battle. God wasn’t actually dealt with like He was a person, let alone like His holiness deserved to be treated. They didn’t even speak with the Lord before they brought the ark out—we don’t want to hear from you God, we just want to use you.
And I wonder, what has weight in your life? Picture your mind like sheet of fabric stretched taut, holding your thoughts, loves, and commitments—which thing sinks down the most? What pulls your mind and heart in most easily? Or, to look at it another way, who or what gets to tell you you’re wrong? What is substantive and enormous enough in your life that it can stop you in your tracks, and turn you about? Is it God? Is it your Lord? If not, then He is not yet given the weight He deserves.
You can see why they killed Jesus. This is the kind of obedience and allegiance He demanded. Jesus didn’t come to offer pearls of wisdom to be considered as you planned out your life; Jesus didn’t come to be another puff of wind in the sails of your ambitions—had He done that, He never would have been executed. He was killed because He taught that He was a king who deserved our complete fealty and obedience.
So now, the opening scene of loss closes and the camera follows the ark as it goes into exile into the land of the Philistines.
1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.
In the ancient world it was very common to take the religious icons of the people you had defeated and bring it home to your own temple. It was a symbolic gesture that showed that your god was superior to their god and now, just like the people you defeated were subject to you, so too were their gods now subject to your gods. So, the Philistines carry the ark like a prisoner of war into their temple and place it before their triumphant god, Dagon.
3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
False gods require the assistance of their worshippers. Do you see the irony here? Israel treated the living God like a thing to be used; here, the Philistines must support and help their fallen god because it is just a thing, a lifeless statue that can’t even help itself up. More than that, he has been decapitated and de-handed. Dagon is rendered completely incapacitated and humiliated. Dagon falls prostrate before Yahweh, the one true living God. Yahweh goes to the gates of Hell, so to speak, and demonstrates that even there He has total authority and all powers and all principalities must bow the knee to Him. The Philistines foolishly thought that the defeat of Israel was because of their superiority and the superiority of their god. They too treated God lightly, now notice the repetition of the word “hand” and “heavy” in verses 6 and 11:
6 The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory…They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there.
In verses 6-11 the ark makes a kind of parade around Philistia, and four times we are told that the “hand of the Lord” is working, while Dagon has had his hands cut off. And God’s hand is heavy, it is cavōd. 1 Samuel 4 showed us what happens when God’s people treat Him lightly, and 1 Samuel 5 show us what happens when God’s enemies treat Him lightly.
“You may sport with the whirlwind and trifle with the storm, you may lay your hand upon the lion’s mane and play with the leopard’s spots, you may go to the very crater of a burning volcano, and laugh at the lava which it belches out in thunder; you may trifle with any and everything; but trifle not with God,” J.H. Thornwell.
1 The ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”
Yahweh the prisoner turned out to be Yahweh the victor. Every city the ark goes, panic, sickness, and death break out. The Philistines realize that they cannot keep the ark any longer lest they all perish. So, they decide to return the ark to Israel, but do not do so empty-handed. They create golden figurines representing the plague that afflicted them:
So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.
They then place the ark on a cart pulled by two cows that have recently calved and leave their calves at home. The cows, who have a strong natural desire to go to their calves to feed them, will serve as a test. If the cows do not return back to the stall to their calves, but walk towards Israel, the Philistines will know that this was a divine plague that visited them. This is precisely what the cows do, walking in a straight line directly for Israel.
13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the LORD.
The ark of the covenant has been gone seven months. The people of Israel have no idea where it was, what has happened, but they look and see it returning on an unmanned cart—almost as if the Lord is driving the cows Himself. And not only that, He has returned with spoil and plunder. The people rejoice in worship and sacrifice. Hooray! The bad guys lose, the good guys win, right? Not so fast.
19 And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you.”
1 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
Looking at the ark was not forbidden, but the word for “upon” can also mean “into.” So, it could be that the men of Beth-shemesh were attempting to open the ark and look at what was inside. They again were treating what was holy as if it was common, as if it was light. Even the phrase, “And to whom shall he go up away from us?” sounds almost exactly like what the Philistines were asking—the Israelites look just like Philistines here! Three scenes, three chapters, three pictures of mankind’s typical posture towards God. Is there anyone in this story who isn’t corrupt or faithless?
There is one. The God of the ark. In each of those three scenes it is Yahweh who proves to be the one source of goodness, of faithfulness, of light, of justice, of righteousness.
Three scenes, three pictures of God’s goodness.
In scene one, God’s people are faithless, they treat him lightly and break the covenant, and the consequences of the covenant being broken is exile, but who goes into exile? God does. He takes the punishment that His people deserved.
In scene two, God goes into the belly of the beast, into the very heart of the enemy of God’s people and destroys their false god.
In scene three, God returns back from exile, back from the dead like a triumphant king with the spoils of war in hand.
Three scenes: loss, exile, return. And the God of the ark of the covenant makes a comeback much later with three more significant scenes: death, burial, and resurrection.
In scene one, Jesus explains to his disciples that He is going to have to go away. And they are heartbroken: what we will do without the visible presence of God with us? God’s people (you and me!) treat Him lightly, disregard Him, and break His commands. But, Jesus takes our place and our punishment. As Jesus nears the cross He explains that His soul is “burdened” and “weighed down” (Mark 14:33). What is happening? The hand of the Lord is heavily falling upon Him because we treated the Lord lightly.
Scene two, Jesus goes down to death, to the very pit of Hell and destroys the works of Satan, decapitates death, and cuts off its hands.
Scene three, He resurrects gloriously with the spoils of war in His hands, our salvation earned!
This God deserves your attention, He deserves your heart. He is not only glorious in power or glorious in strength, His glory is seen and displayed supremely in the work of Christ at the cross in His rescue of sinners, in His defeat of Satan, and in His resurrection to new life.
Whatever imaginary picture of God you have in your mind, whatever you like to picture God as, it is not as good as this.
“An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion…suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” C.S. Lewis, Miracles