Tuesday, April 03, 2012


“So the people sent men to Shiloh, to bring back the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” (1 Samuel 4:4 HCSB)

Is God our sovereign or our servant? Oh, we know the correct answer—that we are to serve God. But, the way we behave proves what we truly believe—and we may instead treat God as though He exists to serve us.

That’s why the Israeli army sent for the ark of the covenant. The ark plays a prominent role in these early chapters of 1 Samuel. The ark was the visible reminder of the invisible God. The mercy seat was the golden lid atop the ark and was the place where God said He would meet with His people. They needed to meet with Him to receive orders, but for most of these chapters we find people coming to make demands instead.

There is a lesson here about USING GOD in 1 Samuel 4. Following a defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the people of God decided that the reason they were beaten was that they did not have the ark with their forces. So, before the next fight, they decided they would bring the ark to the front of their lines and we hear these telling words, “Then [the ark] will go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3c HCSB). They don’t say that God will save them, but that the ark will. Basically, the Jews were viewing the ark as a good-luck charm—a four leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot! It was all an attempt to use God, rather than be used by Him. You cannot treat God as though He is your servant! He won’t allow it. That was demonstrably proven, as Israel is crushed by the Philistine foes, and the ark they trusted is taken. A statue of Mary, a St. Christopher medallion around the neck, a family Bible on the coffee table, a religious poem hanging on the wall—all these and many other ways can be mere superstitious attempts to manipulate God. True faith is not about getting our will done in heaven, but submitting to God’s will on earth!

There is a lesson about ABUSING GOD in 1 Samuel 5. The Philistines wrongly concur that they have a superior god in Dagon since they have defeated Israel and taken its “god,” the ark of the covenant. So, they place the ark in Dagon’s temple as a trophy of their victory. They abused and mocked the true God in doing so, and so God showed them who was boss! The next day, the idolatrous image of Dagon had fallen face down before the ark—as though submitting to God. So, the Philistines prop their god back up. By the way, would you want a god you had to stand up, instead of the God who can enable you to stand? How foolish we can be! The next time, Dagon not only falls, but his head and hands break off. So, in seeking to abuse God, the Philistines are abused by Him. Dagon’s hands are broken and useless, but Yahweh’s hands are active, “The LORD’s hand was heavy on the people…terrorizing and afflicting the people…with tumors” (1 Samuel 5:6). A horrible plague broke out on those who sought to mock God. There are many in our world today who abuse God in comic monologues, venomous diatribes, blasphemous writings and the like. One day, maybe soon, God will get the last laugh, the final word, judgment written clearly and irreversibly.

Also, we find a lesson about MISUSING GOD in 1 Samuel 6. The Philistines had enough of the ark! They put it on a cart drawn by two milk cows and shipped it back to Israel. When the ark arrived at Beth-shemesh, the Hebrews were so happy. They did the right thing and offered sacrifices of thanksgiving to the Lord. But, then curiosity got the better of them and they did what God had expressly forbidden them to do—they looked into the ark. This was a misuse of the ark, and the result was a judgment, in which 50,000 died! Like Pandora, of ancient Greek mythology, they looked into the box and curses were unleashed. How do we misuse God? When we turn worship into something that focuses on us rather than God. We misuse God by arrogantly treating Him as our Heavenly Buddy and not bowing before Him humbly as the Holy God. If you have gone to the carnival and attended a “freak” show, it is the same attitude that the citizens of Beth-shemesh had. It is sad to treat people as things to bring cheap thrills; how much worse to so treat God! Yet, that is an attitude which pervades much of what is called “worship” today. It’s entertainment. Are we amused by the spectacle? God isn’t amused.

Further, we see a lesson about CHOOSING GOD in 1 Samuel 7. They send for the ark, set apart a priest to minister and summon Samuel to pray for them. Samuel is willing to seek the Lord on behalf of Israel—a people weary of losing at war and suffering in wrath. If they want relief from the symptoms only, then Samuel can’t assist them, but if they want repentance from the sin-sickness that afflicted them, Samuel instructs, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, get rid of the foreign gods…” (1 Samuel 7:3a HCSB). They fast in desperation, they beg forgiveness with confession. They choose God. The result was that God gave them peace and protection. Samuel helped maintain that spiritual climate by constantly making a circuit through the nation, teaching them the Word of God. Everybody is going to serve somebody or something. We have to choose. Jesus said, “No man can be a slave of two masters…” (Matthew 6:24a HCSB). It is impossible to straddle the fence. Neutrality is impossible.

Then we come to a lesson about REFUSING GOD in 1 Samuel 8. We arrive at a spot in the sacred history where Samuel has grown old and his sons have not grown up to fill his sandals. They have the same biological genetics as their father, but not the same spiritual DNA. That Israel would see this problem and want to resolve it is understandable, but the cure is worse than the condition—they demand a king. There was a leadership vacuum that needed to be filled, but not with a worldly model. They want to be like the pagan nations and have a man to rule over them. In so doing, they were refusing God. Samuel was tempted to take it personally, but the Lord tells him, “They have not rejected you; they have rejected Me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8:7b HCSB). Samuel would warn them that what they thought they wanted would turn out not to be what they needed, but also he had been instructed by the Lord to allow them the freedom of choice. They would get a king—Saul—and he would be a disaster! Sometimes, God’s way of teaching us is to just allow us to have what we want. We thus become our own God, try to make God our servant rather than our sovereign—and that never turns out well.

So, we’ve come full circle haven’t we? We still say—perhaps more emphatically—God is sovereign and we are servants—not the other way around! Great! That is the right thing to think, the proper thing to say.

But, do we treat the Bible as a talisman; do we read it as a self-help manual to make life better instead of an instruction manual to convey God’s demands? Do we flippantly joke about holy things and laugh at the irreverent humor of the world? Do we attend a worship service for the entertainment value—the focus on our feelings—and not to exalt the Lord and focus on pleasing Him? Are we swinging like a pendulum from Saturday and living for self-interest, and Sunday going to church and by Monday life has swung back again to the concerns of the material world? Bottom line: if Jesus is not Lord of all, can we truly say He is Lord at all?

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