Picture of Pastor Carlson

Sermon delivered August 14, 2004 by Pastor Paul Carlson

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New King James Version, NKJV, unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

Samuel: Respecters of the Lost Ark

1 Samuel 4-7

Someone was pulling into a gas station one day when he saw a woman drive off with the nozzle still in her gas tank. As you can imagine, the nozzle was jerked right off the hose as she pulled away. Realizing what she had done, she pulled back in, took the nozzle out of the tank, and put it back on the pump. Then she went inside to straighten things out with the management. While she was inside, a young man pulled up to that pump. He took the nozzle, with no hose attached, and he put it into his tank. He couldn't seem to figure out why he wasn't getting any gas. He even took the nozzle out and repositioned it in the tank a couple times. The person who watched all this happening thought about pointing out the obvious problem to him but then decided that he'd be embarrassed enough when he figured it out on his own. From the Internet. Source unknown.

In chapters 4 7 of 1 Samuel, we see a whole nation, like that young man at the gas pump. We see an Israel that is disconnected from God, and unaware of its spiritual bankruptcy. We see an Israel that was about to experience the utmost humiliation and defeat of its history. If we had been there at the beginning stages of the battle, we might have had to put our hands over our ears. The noise was deafening. As the procession came in full view to the army, everyone in the camp gave a huge cheer. Salvation had come. The shouts were like thunderclaps shaking the very ground (1 Samuel 4:6, Message Bible, MB). The ark of the covenant, the ark of God, brought back memories of the conquest of Jericho. Surely, they knew, that by having the ark of God with them would force God to act on their behalf this time and destroy the Philistine [fil'isteen] army. Surely they would be liberated. Just opposite the Hebrew camp, the Philistines heard the shouting and wondered what on earth was going on: "What's all this shouting among the Hebrews?" they asked themselves. (1 Samuel 4:6, MB) When they learned that the ark of the covenant had entered the Hebrew camp, they were depressed.

Depressed was actually too weak a word for what they felt. They panicked. They said, "Their gods have come to their camp! Nothing like this has ever happened before. We're done for!" (1 Samuel 4:7-8, MB) These heathen soldiers even recalled the stories of the exodus from Egypt. Paraphrasing their words, "Who can save us from the clutches of these super-gods?," they cried. "These are the same gods who hit the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues," (1 Samuel. 4:8, MB).

But their discouragement was only temporary. In desperation from being turned around to slavery to the Hebrews, they rallied like cornered animals. The enemy soldiers were so motivated by their generals' rousing pep talks that in battle they turned the tide. They fought for all they were worth and they thrashed the Israelite army so badly that the soldiers ran for their lives, leaving behind an incredible 30,000 dead. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Ark of God was taken and the two sons of Eli Hophni and Phinehas were killed (1 Sam. 4:11, MB).

Disaster screamed upon Israel like an ugly siren, like a nightmare that wouldn't stop. The worst that could possibly happen to Israel happened. Having heard the horrible news, the wife of the now-dead Phinehas, while giving birth to a son in her last living moments, expressed the horror of a nation about what happened as she named her son, Ichabod. Ichabod. How would you like to be named Ichabod, with the meaning, "The Glory Is Gone?"

Today as we read about these events in 1 Samuel 4 7, it would be well for us to ask ourselves how such a tragic thing could happen to God's people? And even more importantly, what can we learn from these stories?

This is the third message from our sermon series on the life of Samuel. Next Sabbath, Pastor Crutcher will speak on "God Did It My Way," a study of 1 Samuel 8 and 9.

In this scene from 1 Samuel 4, we begin to unveil a terrible state of affairs for the Israelite nation. Not only had the priesthood been perverted, as we heard about last Sabbath, but as a whole the Israelites were not living in harmony with God; idol worship was still prevalent among them. So God allowed them to experience defeat at the hands of the Philistines. It was sort of a wake-up call. The lesson for the Israelites then and for us today, I believe, is that God wants our complete attention, our full attention.

Let's pick up the story again in 1 Samuel 4:12. There the Bible tells us that there was one soldier who came from the tribe of Benjamin and raced back to Shiloh with bad news for the town and for Eli the priest. The account describes this soldier with his clothes torn and his head smeared with dirt. Out of breath and sweaty, he broadcast the mournful and appalling news. Now, Eli had been sitting beside the road because he was anxious to hear the fate of the ark of the covenant. Old, blind Eli could only hear the commotion around him. As he heard the loud wailing, he asked what the uproar was all about. He wanted to know. So the messenger hurried over and told this ninety- eight-year-old man the sad story. 1 Samuel 4:17 tells us what he said, "Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead; and the Ark of God has been captured." The next verse tells us, Then it happened, when he made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell off the seat backward 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.

Now, let's pause for a moment, because I think that it is important to view these events as long in coming. As previously, warned about by God for a long time. In 1 Samuel 3, you remember God calling Samuel in the middle of the night in the temple. God told Samuel, "Behold, I will do something in Israel which both ears of everyone who hears will tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house from beginning to end." I think also these warnings should be viewed side-by- side with what Samuel said later on, many years later in 1 Samuel 7:3 about the Israelites needing to lay aside their pagan idols. So, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites were not in harmony with God. That is the picture. It was not just something wrong with the priesthood, but with the whole nation.

In fact, referring back to chapter 4, verse 1, the first part reads, "The word of Samuel came to all Israel." The Seventh-day Adventist [SDA] commentary suggests that this sentence actually belongs to the last verse of chapter 3 "for it was certainly not Samuel's counsel that Israel go to war with the Philistines." Since Samuel was not mentioned again till many years after the ark had been returned to Israel, it must have been "that the princes of Israel had refused to acknowledge or consult with the newly ordained and established prophet," (ch. 7:3). "The prophet of God would never have counseled sending the ark away from Shiloh (see on v. 3). But those who rejected the instruction of the Lord regarding the worship to be offered Him would come to look upon the ark with superstitious fear and to think of it as a talisman whose magic qualities assured them blessings of every kind" (SDA Commentary, Vol 2, p. 469).

Something else I'd like you to notice: This story tells us something about God that is not often appreciated. The characterization of God in the past has many times painted an angry God who is a vengeful presence. But this text tells us that we have a loving God who disciplines His people by His absence most of all. That was so because He had been driven away momentarily by the sins of His people, and with His absence the nation also lost God's blessings. We worship a God who is infinite in power and majesty, but also a God who wonderfully and amazingly respects our decisions, especially even when we are not listening to Him. Even when he allows us to choose to go our own way.

You may remember that one of the ways that God had told the Israelites, while Moses was still alive, how God would help the Israelites conquer the land, was that He would send fear or terror before them into the hearts of the heathen (Exodus 23:27). You may also recall that when the town of Jericho was about to be destroyed, Rahab described what God did in the hearts of its inhabitants. She said, in Joshua 2:9, "I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you." Furthermore, do you remember that in the destruction of Jericho, the army followed after the Ark of the Covenant? Perhaps it was this memory that led the Israelites to think that if they just brought the ark of the covenant in battle with them, they would be assured of God's protection and blessing upon them. But in contrast to the conquest of Jericho, God did not send His terror or fear of the Israelites before them into the hearts of the Philistines. And the presence of the ark was meaningless because the people were not in step with God, they were not in harmony with Him. I think, however, that God wasn't imposing punishment upon them, even though He could have intervened, and has intervened in many other cases; directly involved. But God was in this case withdrawing from them and letting them experience the consequences of going their own way.

And so Israel was beaten decisively in a battle that was "supposed" to be won by them, because of the presence of the Ark. Eli's two sons were dead. The Ark was gone, lost to the idolatrous Philistines.

Isn't it amazing that God is like that? That God is so patient, and such a gentleman, waiting for us and not forcing His way upon us, or the Israelites here? If God's people insisted on going their own way, and not listening to God, what more could God do for them but to allow them to experience the results of their stubbornness.

Going on to the next scene, in 1 Samuel 5, we find God speaking to the Philistines in a way they could understand. You recall how after the battle, the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant from Ebenezer and they brought it into the shrine of their god Dagon and placed it right beside their idol.

Now this is where the fun began, at least, as I imagine God's angels were to view it. The following morning when the citizens of Ashdod got up, they were shocked to find Dagon toppled from his place, flat on his face before the ark of God (1 Sam. 5:3, MB). They carefully picked the half-man, half-fish idol up from the floor, dusted him off and placed him back on his stand. But the fun was just beginning. The next day these same citizens and priests of Ashdod found that their beloved idol had not stayed put overnight. This time, again, it was toppled and flat on its face before the ark, apparently a position of subservience and worship to God. But the situation was worsened by the fact that Dagon was no longer in one piece. The head was chopped off and the arms were chopped off, the massacred parts strewn across the entrance of the shrine. Did you hear those righteous snickers among the angels? I wonder if angels do something similar to high-fiving each other, like we do? I don't know.

Anyway, by now the dense Philistines concluded that they must remove the ark from the shrine of Dagon or there would be nothing left of their now humiliated god. The Bible then tells us that God continued giving dramatic lessons to the Philistines. They were hit with tumors and the plague. Some Bible versions say that rats or mice or both swarmed all over the city. The leaders of Ashdod realized soon enough that God had to be behind it and decided that the ark had to go. They realized that all the prayers they could make to Dagon wouldn't stop these terrible things from happening.

So the musical-chair-style ark-hopping began. And the same thing happened in all the principal cities of their nation. I believe that this was the only way God could tell the Philistines, "You may defeat my people in battle, but I stand alone. I'm still more powerful than your false god, Dagon. I am the true God. And I am the One in charge." What a witness that was of the impotence of their pagan gods. Through these powerful signs that God worked in Ashdod and Gath, and Ekron, the Philistines were made to respect the God of the Ark.

So since they couldn't argue with God, they devised a plan to get rid of the ark and at the same time make sure that what happened to them wasn't just a coincidence. As if everything the humiliation of Dagon and the plagues following the Ark around wherever it went in the land. As if that was not enough, they would make the ark's return a test in and of itself. So they put the ark on a new cart attached to cows who had nursing calves as a test. They separated the calves from the cows and hitched the cows to the cart and if God was behind all of these events, then the cows would march straight to the land of Israel and if not, then the cows would probably go right to their calves who were surely mooing or crying or whatever calves do when they are upset. The Philistines said (1 Samuel. 6:9), "And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us it happened to us by chance."

1 Samuel 6:12. Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh. What more powerful appeal could be made to these worshipers of Dagon? Contrary to nature, these unintelligent cows followed an unseen, invisible force straight back to the land of Israel. Shouldn't they have put 2 and 2 together and realized that they needed to worship the true God? We had dumb cows and dumber Philistines. It was dumb and dumber.

But now let's pause and stand back a moment to ask ourselves, what really was going on here? Did you notice that, in all of this, God didn't seem to be worried about His reputation? He allowed the Philistines to win most of the battles and even to capture the most revered object of the sanctuary, the very symbol of His presence. But God was not powerless. He was just willing to let it look that way for the moment because the Israelites were out of step with Him and He needed to discipline them. He cared more about them than He did about His own reputation. You see, in those days, right was decided by might and power, and not by truth. So long as the heathen respected the God of Israel, they wouldn't attack Israel because He was too strong. But when God looked weak to them because He couldn't bless them, they would attack. But, no, God was not concerned at all that the Philistines might think their gods were more powerful since they lived on the basis of power. God still knew how to speak to them on their level. Here, in this story, the Philistines definitely learned that you don't play with the God of Israel. You treat Him with all due respect and you'd better return His ark.

Going on to 1 Samuel 7, God wins the Israelites back to Himself and He routs the Philistines.

I think it is important to recognized that all during these years, Samuel was preaching. He was giving Israel a message year after year, and the message was in 1 Samuel 7: 3,4 (NIV): And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve Him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." Verse 4 tells us that message was finally heeded by Israel. It says, So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.

Israel assembled to worship God at Mizpah. There they confessed the sin of idolatry. They fasted and prayed. They turned their hearts to God. They established Samuel as their judge. And there Samuel cried out to the Lord on Israel's behalf and God answered him.

I like the way the Message Bible renders Samuel 7:10. While Samuel was offering the sacrifice, the Philistines came within range to fight Israel. Just then God thundered, a huge thunderclap exploding among the Philistines. They panicked mass confusion! and ran helter-skelter from Israel.

What are the lessons from these stories in 1 Samuel? I believe the first lesson here is that in order to fully appreciate the meaning and significance of God's sacred symbols, we must respect God and give Him our full attention. God will not be used as a pawn by our selfish desires. Nor will He be treated like just one God among several idols. The second lesson, I believe, is this: God will lovingly do what it takes to win our attention and our cooperation and our trust back to Him. And the third lesson is this: Nothing is more important to God than winning us back to cooperation and trust. He may even take the necessary risks that people may misunderstand Him and think He is vindictive or sometimes think He is not very powerful, but He does all that He does, always prompted by an unselfish motive, and that is to win us back to love and trust. What a wonderful God we have!

The fourth lesson is that God cares enough to hang in there with God's people through the worst of situations. He doesn't give up on them. He pursues them through the messages of Samuel over a period of twenty years or so.

Perhaps just as important, what can we do about these lessons? Here are two very doable actions that affect our relationship with God: First of all, we can ask ourselves the question, "Are we really listening to God's voice?" A little self-examination is good for all Christians. Examine your own heart. Are you listening to what God is saying? Don't misinterpret what I'm saying, though. If you go away from here thinking that you must live right and do all the right things or else God won't like you or love you, you will have completely misunderstood. The problem in this passage was never God to begin with. The problem was with the people. God stayed the same. It was Israel that failed. So it would be good for us from time to time to examine ourselves. "Where am I in my walk with God?"

As chapter 7 indicates, the Israelites were worshiping the Baals and Ashtoreths. These were pagan deities that were connected with rites of fertility and sexual rituals. All of that stood out in complete contrast to the religion of Yahweh, which had detailed descriptions for how the priests were to be dressed so that immodesty or anything sensual would never be associated with the worship of the God of Israel. So the worship of pagan deities that Israel had allowed to infiltrate their land was not some dull, bland or ho-hum, non-interesting cult. It was exciting, it was sensual, and it involved rites of sexuality with cult prostitutes. Of course we don't have those kinds of idols today, do we? Applied to our secular age, I believe God is telling us today to forget the stand-in "gods" of immorality, immodesty and imbalanced sexuality that scream out to us and try to yank us away from total commitment to God.

Why else would the popular culture of today, the entertainment industry, depend upon those things? Why else would the clothing and fashion industries urge the immodesty of dress today for both men and women? Because it turns the wonderful, genuine gifts of God into a sort of neo-pagan idolatry. It turns us away from our devotion and love and trust and commitment to God just as it for the Israelites.

Bottom line for us, friends: we must examine ourselves to see if there is some area in our lives that is robbing us of the power of a life fully dedicated to God.

The second doable action is this: We must remember that God gives us time. Time for a very specific purpose: It's time to absorb His messages. God gives us time for the message of His word to sink in. He loves us so He gives us time to become immersed in His word so that we will be transformed by it. So let's use the time we have in our lives for the important things in life: prayer and God's Word and influencing our family member for good

A story is told about Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, a Hasidic leader during the early days of Russian Communism. The rabbi spent much time in jail, persecuted for his faith. One morning in 1927, as he prayed in a Leningrad synagogue, secret police rushed in and arrested him. They took him to a police station and worked him over, demanding that he give up his religious activities. He refused. The interrogator brandished a gun in his face and said, "This little toy has made many a man change his mind." Rabbi Schneerson looked at the gun and looked at him and answered, "This little toy can intimidate only that kind of man who has many gods and but one world. Because I have only one God and two worlds," he continued, "I am not impressed by this little toy." Philip Yancey, in The NIV Student Bible (Zondervan, 1996).

May God help us to always draw close to Him and to steer away from the distractions. Let's direct our full trust, our full attention, to Him only and His healing and transforming power.

Hymn of Praise: #12,  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
Scripture Reading: 1 Samuel 4:1b-4
Hymn of Response: #334,  Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

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