“Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemy.’
“So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
“ When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, ‘What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?’ When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. ‘A god has come into the camp,’ they said. ‘Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods that struck down the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!’
“So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (1 Sam. 4: 1-11).
Isreal, God’s people, were in battle. Surrounded by the enemy and being defeated mercilessly. They were so sure of victory, they went into battle a little under prepared. We know that because they didn’t even take the ark of the covenant with them. It had been at the forefront of their trials in the desert, their crossing the Jordan and stepping into the Promise Land. All the battles won as Joshua was obedient and conquered the land so the people of God could have a place to call home. The ark went before them, symbolic of the presence of their great and mighty God. They knew where their strength lay … for a time, at least.
Then it happened: they went zealously into battle against a great enemy. The giants in the land – the Philistines. Israel, so sure of victory, went into that battle with nothing more than a grand illusion and lost. They had forgotten to bring God into their plans, and subsequently, their plans failed.
An elder knew immediately what was wrong. The ark wasn’t there. But to the new generation of Israelites, who hadn’t been in the desert, it was only a relic. They went after it, of course, and brought along the “priests” as well, but it almost seems like they just set it up ceremoniously on the edge of the field of battle, celebrated their forthcoming victory and again, went into battle in their own strength.
It amazes me to think of how it happened: they Israelites even shouted in praise that the ark was there. Their praise was so loud, it shook the ground and got the attention of the enemy. It scared the Philistines, and awakened them to their impending doom. Their solution? Fight harder.
I literally sat here and cried after reading this. It’s just like us, friends.
I prayed to understand, because frankly, I’m sick of being defeated. Here’s what happened: The Israelites were defeated the first time because they went out high on past victories, in their own strength and completely underestimating their enemy. When they were defeated, someone reminded them that their past victories were due to the presence of God among them, so they went back and grabbed the ark. Sadly, to them, it was the symbolism that mattered, not the reality. They went through the motions and expected that God was in it. He wasn’t … because they hadn’t spent time seeking His will and His way to victory.
The really disturbing part is how their hollow worship scared the enemy into action. The Philistines recognized something the Israelites did not: They had brought gods into the camp. Not God. Little Gs … gods. They had brought their own idolatrous ideas and plans into the camp and worshiped as fervently as they knew how. Their enemy noticed and although they afraid, their fear was based on what God had done for the Israelites. Not what the Israelites had done for themselves. Are you getting this? The Philistines’ fear led them to fight stronger and because the Israelites had a form of worship with no power, they were defeated.
This scares me, church. And humbles me. And suddenly, the continuous battles and frequent defeats make sense. Maybe it’s because, instead of truly seeking God, we’re just going through the motions. Maybe that’s why America’s church is powerless and the world is in chaos. Satan seems to be winning because he is, I’m afraid. Because we’re fighting him with gods; our own ideas and strategies are failing us. We have for so long refused to get still before the Lord and seek His face. Instead, we’ve changed the program a hundred and fifty different ways trying to bring people in, but all this time, what we really need to do is bring God back in. Not with our preconceived ideas of how things need to go, or what people want to hear. People need God. They want to hear God. Not you. Not me. They are dealing with deep calling unto deep, but we’re beckoning them into shallow church services. We’ve reduced the movement of God to a program and put Him in a box we refuse to let Him out of. That’s what Israel did. They went back for the box, but they didn’t open it up and let God do what He wanted to do (technically, they were forbidden from opening the ark, but I’m speaking metaphorically here). They were afraid it would look a little foolish, maybe. After all, they defeated Jericho by walking around the walls and shouting. They defeated the Midianites by breaking clay jars and blowing trumpets. All God’s plans, and let’s face it: it was a little weird sharing the war stories. A little humbling. They couldn’t take credit. Maybe that’s why they went out without Him. Maybe they wanted to actually look and feel like warriors instead of weirdos. How’d it work out? Defeat.
I think it’s time to stop going to war without God. Stop trying to win people to our ideologies and get back to what scripture actually says. Stop trying to make it fancy and give it to people straight. Stop worrying about if they like our worship and just worship. It’s not for them; it’s for Him. Stop candy-coating, or polishing up, the truth and give it straight. It is the truth that sets men free, not a confusing combination of cutesy anecdotes and platitudes. Our sermons have become so devoid of actual scripture, the garbage being fed to the multitudes is quite vomitus. No wonder the world can’t stand the church! God himself would like to spew us out of his mouth, no doubt!
Stop doing your thing, church. Do God’s. And if you don’t know what that even means any more, I think that’s a good indication it’s time to get on our knees and shut up long enough for God to speak. He hasn’t changed. He cannot. He will not. Therefore, we must.