Monday, March 24, 2014

1 Samuel 4 : " WHEN A RELIGIOUS NATION GETS IT WRONG!"

It is  our nation’s independence weekend, and   I have thought  that we should  focus our thoughts around something  from the Scriptures that  intersects  with our nation’s  current thought processes. Namibians by and large would consider themselves  a religious nation. As a matter of fact all nations  practice  one or other  form of religion. Many nations are known as Muslim, Hindu,Buddhist  or Christian countries. Others  who have tried to get rid of  a faith based label  have substituted this with an “ism” -  from humanism to  capitalism  to communism or socialism. The   giant statues  of  Lenin in communist countries   and Saddam Hussein in Iraq  were designed to inspire  god-like awe  in people. The religion of  nations like North Korea  is called  emperor worship (also with huge statues of their leaders), which reminds us  of Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian (3:1-7)  and also  the old Roman  emperor  worship!  

Namibia  is constitutionally  speaking a secular country, but  most  of our citizens are  adherents of the Christian  faith.  Like the Israelites of old, most  of  us claim  to be followers  of  YAHWEH,  the One true God. Recently,  in response to a time of  national trouble  our President called  the nation  to prayer. He asked us  to beseech God  to help us  in the matter of gender based violence,  and our nation has been saying  something like this: “God , there is something happening in our nation, and we feel helpless about the matter. We are asking you  to  help us. We are asking you to take charge of this  difficult matter. If  we have sinned, please forgive  our sins and heal us and restore us, oh Lord.” 

As we turn to our text  in 1 Samuel, I remind you that  at this time  Israel was not in a good shape, spiritually speaking. The period of the Judges  was a time  when “ there was no king in Israel. Everyone  did what was right in  his own eyes.[1]   Under Samuel, God is about to make a new beginning in Israel, and when God is about  to do a new thing, He raises up a leader.    In conclusion of chapter 3 and at the beginning of chapter 4  we see how God powerfully endows  Samuel  with an ability to communicate  His Word. 
We read: ”All Israel knew… that Samuel was  established as  a prophet of the Lord (3:20).   
We are inclined to think now – “Israel  will  surely  prosper  under the Word of the Lord, and law  order will be restored in Israel.”  But no !  As is  true so very often in God’s work, things only improve gradually  over time, as  the Word of God  takes gradual  root in the minds and the hearts of people, and sometimes  things  have to get worse  before they get better. Reformation  is no  instant process, and it  can be a painful process. Old structures  and unhelpful  thought processes  have to be torn down and done away with and  new   thinking  and new structures have to be put into place. This is what happens  in our own lives. Our minds have to be renewed (Rom. 12:1,2). We have to put off   our old self and put on the new self (Eph. 4:22-24).

We note then  that  Samuel’s ministry in Israel  does not begin with  a big  bang, but with a crushing  set –back. The very first battle  under Samuel’s spiritual leadership  against the Philistines  ends in disaster. The Philistines kill  4000 Israelites, and Israel is rightly shocked. 
In v. 3 they are asking  a right question  in response to this disaster: “ Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?”  
Understand this. 
God’s people were not supposed to loose  battles against their enemies!   Israel  was taught that God was on their side- IF they would faithfully obey the voice of the Lord their God, being careful to do all His commandments. (Deut.  28:1) He would fight for them, but on this occasion  God did not help them, and  the elders of Israel knew instantly that  God  had defeated them , and  not  the Philistines!  
Before you say,  “well,   that insight is  a good start”, I want to show you that  a fundamentally correct   theology (or knowledge of God)   does not always produce  correct  biblical responses.

Observe the next  step taken by the elders  in  vv. 3 &4 : “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 enemiesSo 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.

Here’s where a religious  nation goes tragically wrong. Before  they  wait for the answer to their question…. “ why has the LORD defeated us today?...”  they already have an action plan: “Let us bring  the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us…”   D.R. Davies calls this  “rabbit foot theology[2]. We would call it  “lucky charm theology”.  It is basically  a cheap substitute for  God Himself!  You know what  I mean?  People  have  lucky charms  dangling from their  necks and  from their rear view mirrors, supposed to  bring them ‘good luck’.  Christians  also do this. They  have crosses around their necks  and  St Christopher’s  around  their  rear view mirrors – same thing! It is a substitute  for  God Himself.  Israel had the ark of God as their ‘magic charm’  and  Israel thought that  “to have God’s furniture is to have God’s power[3] – or so they thought! The assumption is  that you just can’t  lose if you got God in a box  (excuse the pun!)  

This  sort of thinking is very common in a society where superficial religion rules. And we need to understand that  it  is manipulative  and it is wrong , and we  need to search our own  hearts in this regard.  Allow  me  make this very personal . What is the idea behind  our  day of national prayer? What is the idea behind  our own  church   prayer week?  Was this a day  or time of  genuine national humbling?  Was  it a desire to   earnestly  seek God,  and  to seek His  help  for  our church?  Or is there some thinking  that if we organize  such an event,   that God will be forced to grant whatever we are praying about?  
The cynical press  is sometimes wiser than  naïve and sentimental religionists  in these matters. They are very  quick to pick up  on  empty religious  activity  and to point out what a waste of time  such  prayer events are. The cynical press was very quick to report on the next gender based  act of violence after  the  day of prayer!

The point is that  the  whole  scheme  of having this ‘holy furniture’  in the battle field  flopped  for Israel , and we should not be surprised. This text forces us to think again, and it forces us to  consider  at least  two  matters:

(i)      God  will  allow His  people  (and therefore His image) to suffer  rather than allowing us to continue in this false relationship with Him.
(ii)          God will allow us to be disappointed in Him, if this will wake us  up to the  God  who He really is.

And so, ironically, as Israel plans  to  bring the ark of God  into battle for victory, so  God uses this event to  do at least three things:  

       (i)  bring defeat  upon His superficial , superstitious people  
     (ii)   allowing the Philistines  to  take  the ark  away and to teach them and Israel  a
             severe lesson 
     (iii)  and to  exercise His promised judgment on the house of Eli [4].

Has God suffered loss of image? Has his glory  been tarnished?  Well, yes at face value in the eyes of Israel,   and  also at this stage in the eyes of the Philistines who  now thought that  their god, Dagon (see Ch.  5)  had  beaten Yahweh,  the God of Israel in battle. But remember –  this is  only at face value!  In reality God was  judging Israel, by using the Philistines  to remove  the false shepherds of Israel.  With the death of Eli (who is 98 years old, and very heavy and very blind)  in v. 18 there will be a change of  spiritual leadership in Israel… but not without further challenges  in terms of the kingship of Saul – a further  attempt by Israel to substitute  an earthly king for God !

As we  have  said, this 'rabbit foot theology'  has disastrous  consequences for Israel ! This time  30 000  of Israel’s men fell before the Philistines  (4:10) and   to  add insult to injury, the  ark of the Lord is captured by the Philistines, AND, in keeping with  divine prophecy in  1 Sam. 2:34  the  ungodly sons of Eli , Hophni and Phineas are  killed  in 4:11.  
FURTHERMORE the  tragedy  continues as  the wife of Phineas, upon hearing it all – the  terrible defeat of the army, the capturing of the ark, the death of her husband and brother in law, and her father in law -  dies in her labour. The  child born to her  as she is dying  she chooses to call  “ Ichabod – the glory of God has departed from Israel” (vv 21-22).

I remember reading  once of a pastor who was called  “Ichabod Spencer“. I  did some research  on him,  and I wanted to know why  his mother had called him “Ichabod”. I could not find the reason, but I  did find  a man full of grace and truth . He was the pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian church  in Brooklyn (NY) from 1832-1854, and  here is a quote that struck me   from something that he said, in  a book he wrote  entitled “ Pastor’s Sketches“, based on his  evangelistic and visitation  ministry: 
Decision is a vastly important matter  with a convicted sinner. The Bible treats it as such: ‘Choose  ye this day whom  ye will serve.’ A sinner must choose, or he must be lost. Nobody else can choose for him. Nothing can excuse  him from doing his duty at once. If he will not do it, he may expect the Divine Spirit to depart  from him, and leave him to his own way (Ichabod!). 
Spencer believed in  a very direct and personal dealing with God. There was no second hand  stuff in his ministry. There was no luck charm theology  in his ministry.

The  major lesson that  any religious people needs to learn from our text  is that we  dare not use God as our lucky charm. We must never use the holy things  such  as  prayer, the means of grace (baptism, the Lord’s supper) , and  even  the Lord’s day (I have gone to church, I have done my duty)  as lucky charms. We must use the means of grace  very directly  as an act of worship, to glorify God with all our heart, and use such opportunities to grow  in our knowledge of Him. But let us not fall into the awful trap of thinking  that having these things  or doing  things themselves are  substitutes for God.  Remember that the Lord your God is a jealous God. He will not be worshiped alongside created things and beings. He will not stand alongside idols, or foreign gods,   as the next chapter  (Dagon and the ark) teaches  us.  

God   wants us to be personal  and obedient in relation to Him. 
So  then,  in these matters,  let us be careful lest  we grieve the Holy Spirit  and  the glory of God departs from us. 
Amen !





[1]  Judges  17:6 ;  21:25
[2] D.R. Davies : 1 Samuel , Christian Focus Publications, p. 40
[3]  Ibid , p. 42
[4] See 1 Samuel 3:14 

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