1 Samuel #4
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1 Samuel 6:13 through 1 Samuel 7:15
We left off last week where the Philistines put the Ark of the Covenant into a cart, and hooked it up to two cows who had been separated from their calves. Rather than return home to their calves, the cows pulled the cart into Israelite territory. They stopped near the town of Beth-shemesh, which was a town given to the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi (Levites) were the priests for the people of Israel.
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. 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. (1 Samuel 6:14-15)
The Ark had come home, so to speak. The Lord had refused to let the Israelites manipulate him through the Ark; he had erased their idea that it was a kind of lucky rabbit’s foot. Next, he used the Ark to show the Philistines that he was more real and powerful than the idols and demons they worshiped. But now, he brought it back to Israel. Even so, the Lord does not seem to be finished with the lesson. This perplexing incident is recorded:
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. 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?” 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.” (1Sam 6:19-21, ESV)
The Old Testament has several stories like this. They can be confusing and perplexing. A few years ago I was reading through Leviticus for my daily devotions. I did this almost to dare God to speak to me through Leviticus, which is some pretty dry reading at the points when you can understand it. I got nothing out of it for almost two weeks. Then I read a story from chapter ten. Two priests sacrificed “unauthorized incense” and God burned them up instantly. I said, “What’s up with that, Lord? That doesn’t sound like you. It doesn’t sound my Father, my Comforter, my never failing Friend.” Then I read Leviticus 10:3
I will show my holiness among those who come to me. I will show my glory to all the people.
So also, the Israelites say when they are struck down for disrespecting the ark: “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?”
When I was a teenager, my High School science teacher took a very small piece of pure sodium (which exists as a soft metal) and put it into a tub of water. It immediately began to hiss and steam, and then suddenly the sodium exploded into flames. Pure sodium cannot exist in water. It burns up and explodes in the presence of water, becoming a different chemical in the process.
In the same way, though we often forget it, sin cannot exist in the presence of God. It burns up, explodes and is destroyed. It isn’t a matter of God not tolerating sin – the very nature of God destroys it. The problem of course, is that we human beings are born with a sinful nature. This means that there is no way for us to get close to God without being destroyed. Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? Who indeed? No one with sin in him. So in the time of the Old Testament, unless people took the extreme precautions laid out by God, they were destroyed if they even did something like touch the ark improperly, or offer unauthorized incense.
The difference between these incidents I read about in Old Testament, and my own experience of relationship with God, is the work of Jesus. Jesus took all of our sin – past, present and future – into himself. When Jesus took that sin into himself, “God made him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because Jesus was in nature God, and as a human was not himself sinful, the sin which God laid on him could be destroyed with destroying Jesus also.
So now, through Jesus, we are no longer in a situation where the presence of God destroys us. Now his holiness is not a problem that keeps us apart, because our sin has been removed. This is one reason why I say that if we are in Jesus, we don’t have a sinful nature anymore. If we did, the Holy Spirit could not live in us, and we would be destroyed by God’s presence.
In any case, the point I want us to get from this passage is this: the way the Old Testament tells us of God is not inconsistent with the way God is revealed by the New Testament. They are not two different Gods. But through faith in Jesus, we are reconciled to the holiness of God in a way that people were not. This passage, above all, reminds me of my deep need for Jesus.
The writer of 1 Samuel continues the narrative, twenty years later. An entire generation grew up. Previously, under the leadership of Eli, Hopni and Phinehas, the people were disconnected from God, and they didn’t care. They were arrogant, sure of themselves, sure they could manipulate God through the ark. They blamed God in their defeat, and tried to force him to give them victory.
But after their defeat, and their difficult experiences with the ark, the new generation grew up in humility. By the way, this was Samuel’s generation. He was probably in the middle of it, age-wise, and he led them spiritually. This generation didn’t take anything for granted. 7:2 says that a time came when they lamented for God. For once it wasn’t their circumstances that they were upset about. They truly repented. They wanted to be close the Lord. Samuel told them that they needed to get rid of the idols in their lives, to stop seeking comfort and hope in anything that was not the Lord.
And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only. (1 Sam 7:3-4)
So they got rid of the idols. They were serious about following Him.
What happened next is something that I think surprises most of us in America these days. They turned to the Lord with their whole hearts and then things got worse. While they were gathered to worship God, the Philistines attacked. For some reason, preachers in America have been telling us for awhile now that if you just start following Jesus, everything will go well for you. Funny thing – Jesus never said that. Following Jesus, giving their whole lives to him, brought plenty of trouble to Peter, Paul, John James, Barnabas and many others. Following God brought trouble and hardship to Jeremiah, Ezekiel and yes, to Samuel’s generation.
It’s a bad idea to turn back to God in the hope that doing so will make your life go more smoothly. It just ain’t necessarily so. The great thing about Samuel and his generation was that they wanted to follow God because they believed he was the one true God. They dedicated their lives to him because it was good and right, and their hope was in God alone. If he gave them victory, that would be very good indeed. But they planned to follow him regardless.
One of the reasons I get so angry at people who preach that following Jesus brings mainly prosperity and peace is that when trouble comes, those who believe that lie are undone spiritually and emotionally. A common reaction among those who believe this is that if they experience trouble, either they must have failed to follow God, or God is not truly real. They won’t allow for the idea that God might lead us directly into trouble sometimes.
The truth is, not only did Jesus promise persecution and trouble (Matt 6:10-11; John 16:33), but we also have spiritual enemies who will do whatever they can to make trouble for us – the devil and his demons (Eph 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8-10). The older I get, the more I think we should be surprised if we are truly seeking the Lord with all our hearts, and we experience no opposition at all. At the very least, we should be deeply grateful for those times. I’m not trying to make you depressed. I’m only suggesting that we take what Jesus said seriously:
I have said these things to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)
So how did Samuel’s generation react when the Philistines attacked them? Naturally, they were afraid. No one with any sense at all wants to fight in a war. No one really wants suffering or tribulation. At the same time, they faced it with courage, and asked the Lord humbly for help. They didn’t assume he would deliver them, but they asked for it, in case he would. They didn’t try to manipulate him; they didn’t blame him. They just asked for his help, and they seemed ready to trust him and follow him whether or not he gave it at that particular time.
As it happened, the Lord helped them. The text says that he “thundered against the Philistines with a great and loud voice” (7:10). As I have pointed out before, these older manuscripts were often originally written on animal skins. If you wanted to explain things in detail, you had to go out and kill another animal to make another manuscript. So the thunder is not explained. It may even be an expression that was common in those days, something almost like slang, that we don’t understand the full meaning for nowadays. In any case, it was clear that the Lord intervened, and protected his people on that occasion.
As the Philistines, fled, the Israelites chased them. Where the battle stopped, Samuel set up a stone, and called “Ebenezer,” which means, “stone of help.” It was a way for the people to remember how God helped them that day.
Sometimes it may be helpful for people of faith these days to have our own “stones of help” – something that reminds us of specific times when God helped us. One way to set up an “Ebenezer” is to keep a journal, and record the times when God helped. For other folks, it might be a song that you listened to frequently during a time when God was especially present or helpful. I know of some Christians who collect rocks, and each rock reminds them of something the Lord has done. The principle is to have a helpful, concrete way to remember times when God’s presence was obvious to you.
Take a minute to reflect on what the Lord is saying to you through 1 Samuel 6:13 through 7:15. Do you need to be reminded of your need for Jesus? Do you need to remember that in Jesus, your sin has been thoroughly removed and is no longer a barrier between you and the Lord? Is the Lord calling you to come back to him with your whole heart, like Samuel’s generation? Perhaps you need to be reminded that trouble is a normal part of life when you are walking with the Lord. Or perhaps today you need to set up an “Ebenezer” – a reminder of God’s presence and help in your life. Let him speak to you.