“So that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
Today’s exhortation on Samuel focuses on the Ark of the Covenant, its brief exile from Israel, and its subsequent return. The story is in 1 Samuel chapters 4 to 6, and it tells us some very interesting things about the state of Israel at the end of Eli’s life, as well as contrasting Israel unfavourably with the Philistines. 1 Samuel 4, verses 1 and 2:
Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek. And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men.
Israel was defeated by the Philistines. And how did the people of Israel react? Remember when Christ was tempted to throw himself from the Temple? He responded with “You shall not put the LORD God to the test”. After their defeat, the people of Israel did exactly that. They put the LORD their God to the test. They went into battle again, but this time they took the ark with them, like some sort of talisman that would ensure success. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, so disrespectful of God when it came to worship, were only too pleased to go with the Ark in its percieved glory. Verse 4:
So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.
This terrified the Philistines. Verse 8:
Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.
The Philisitnes assumed that Israel had many gods, just as they had many gods. But it seems to me, at this point, the Philistines had a better attitude towards the God of Israel that the people of Israel did. The Philistines remembered what had happened to the Egyptians a generation or two ago. The Philistines believed that the God of Israel had smitten the Egyptians. The Children of Israel, on the other hand, were using the Ark as a “good luck” charm, as though somehow the Ark would guarantee their success.
I have read some accounts of modern day healing ministries that remind me of Israel and the way they used the Ark on this occasion. These ministries sometimes expect that miracles are handed out by God as if they were sweets to reward faithful followers. The important thing can almost be the miracles, not the God who they expect to perform them, almost on demand.
What happened when the Israelites fought the Philistines this time? Verses 10 and 11:
And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
God was not the servant of the Israelites. He was not their performing dog. He did not perform tricks on demand. The presence of Hophni and Phineas with the Ark is enough to show that the whole attitude behind having it there was wrong. Everybody knew what sort of men they were. The Ark of God was taken, and in the next chatper we see how God defeats the Philistines on his own. But first we have the death of Eli. Verse 12:
And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.
A man of Benjamin. In a few chapters’ time we will be reading a lot more about the tribe of Benjamin, and one particular man, by the name of Saul, in particular. This man of Benjamin is carrying the news of the fall of the house of Eli. I have read suggestions that it may be Saul himself, but even if it’s not (and to be honest I don’t think it is) there is certainly some drama, some poingancy, in the fact that the message that one great house has fallen is carried by a member of the next house to rise, a house that is ignorant of its future greatness at this time.
Verses 15 to 18:
Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see. And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son? And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken. And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Eli, imperfect and weak though he was. He hears this terrible news, falls from his chair, and dies. It is a wonderful thing to see prophecy fulfilled. But how terrible a thing it must be if the prophecy you are seeing fulfilled is against you and your family.
Phineas’ wife was pregnant, and she went into labour when she heard the news. She gave birth to a son. Verses 21 and 22:
And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband. And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.
Lets get back to the story of the Ark now. Chapter 5, verses 1 and 2:
And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.
Dagon was a god of the Philistines. When they captured the Ark they put it in the temple of one of their gods. Why did they put it there? Was it to worshop God alongside Dagon? Was it to celebrate Dagon’s percieved victory over God? Euther way, this was an abhorrent thing to do. The Philistines had defeated the Israelites, but they had not conquered God.
And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again. And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.
The day after the Ark arrives in Ashod, the idol of Dagon is found prostrated before it. God was not defeated by Dagon. God was not equal to Dagon. It was Dagon who was prostrate before the Ark, not vice versa.
The men of Ashod put Dagon back on his feet. And the next day the statue of Dagon is dammaged. It’s head and hands were cut off, the latter being found on the threshold of the temple. This left a lasting impression on the people in Ashod. Because of this they stopped treading on the treshold of the temple. The men of Ashod were beginning to learn respect for God.
It wasn’t only Dagon that suffered. Verses 6 and 7:
But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof. And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.
It’s not clear what the `emerods’ were. They may have been some sort of tumour. They may have been the swellings associated with bubonic plague. They may even have been abscess caused by dysentery, or hemarrhoids. Whatever they were, the people of Ashod put two and two together very quickly. “The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.” First of all, notice how they now knew there was one God of Israel, not many. They also knew that the God of Israel was greater than Dagon. And they knew that it was their disrespectful attitude towards the Ark, and towards God, that was causing the problem.
The Lords of the Philistines decided to send the Ark to Gath, where it caused the same sort of problem.
So the Lords of the Philistines decided to send it to Ekron, but the Ekronites didn’t want it – and I can’t say I blame them. So the Lords of the Philistines got together again. Verse 11:
So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people: for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.
They decided to send the Ark back to Israel. Just seven months after they had captured it they were returning it. It was obviously something that they valued, otherwise they would never have brought it back from the battle with them, let alone put it in the temple of Dagon. But they learned their lesson. It wasn’t theirs. Chapter 6 verses 3 to 5:
And [the Philistine priests] said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you. Then said [the Philistine lords], What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land.
Seven months ago, the Israelites had treated the Ark with contempt, expecting miracles on demand. Yet after only seven months the Philistines were treating it with reverence and respect. They wern’t just sending it back: they were sending a tresspass offering with it.
The Philistines kind of asked for a miracle on demand too. Verses 7 to 9:
Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: And take the ark of the LORD, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.
The cows’ natural inclination would have been to return to their calves. The Philistines decided that if they sent the cows took the Ark to Bethshemesh then that would be a sign that it was the God of Israel that had punished them. On the other hand, if the cows followed their natural instincts and returned to their claves the Ark had nothing to do with their emerods and so on.What did the cows do? Verse 12:
And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh.
The cows took the Ark back to Israel. Why was this miracle on demand performed when the Israelites had been denied their miracle? I would suggest that it has to do with the attitude of the Philistines. First of all, some of them may have been converted by everything that had happened. Any thinking person that worshipped Dagon must have had their faith seriously challenged by all of this. In contrast, consider what the Israelites would have been like. If God had helped them on demand, it would have ended up with God serving them instead of vice versa. Many people in Israel, especially Hophni and Phineas, were showing contempt for God as it was. A defeat, even when the Ark was with them, was what they needed.
Consider also the attitude of the two groups. The Philistines were respectful towards the Ark, and in association were respectful towards God. The two previously unyolked cows were a mark of respect. The tresspass offerings were a mark of reprentance. Israel, on the other hand, brought Hophni and Phineas along with the Ark. Hophni and Phoneas themselves did not respect it. Israel was disrespectful towards the Ark, and by association disrespectful towards God.
Is it really any wonder that the respectful Philistines were granted their small miracle, but Israel, full of contempt, was denied their large miracle?
The Ark arrives in Bethshemesh. The men of Bethshemesh send the Ark on. Verse 21 to verse 2 of chapter 7:
And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the LORD; come ye down, and fetch it up to you.And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
The house of Israel lamented after the LORD. The Philistines learned to respect the God of Israel, but so did the Israelites. The Israelites were punished by defeat in battle and by the loss of the Ark. We will now have a reading, from Hebrews 12, verses 1 to 13, reading from the NIV:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.