The Philistines drew up in battle array to meet Israel. When the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield. When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us take to ourselves from Shiloh the ark of the covenant of the LORD, that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. 1 Samuel 4:2-4, 10-11
God’s people had been overrun. Four thousand of them lay slain on the field of battle. And they were asking why. So would we. But it doesn’t appear, from the text above, like they waited for God’s answer. They had already conjured up a solution. ‘Let’s bring the ark out with us next time, and the ark will grant us the victory.’
Perhaps this was a case of gross superstition – relying on the presence of the ark more than on the God who was enthroned above it. Or perhaps the Israelites believed that if they took the ark into battle, God would surely come with them. And if God went with them, He would surely be on their side. After all, they were His people!
But, as I say, it does not appear that they ever paused to wait on God’s answer to their original question: ‘Why did God allow us to be defeated in the first place?’ I suspect that if they’d waited on the answer, they’d have discovered that God had left them on their own against the Philistines because they had long since forgotten Him in ways far more significant than a request that He follow them onto the battlefield. That’s the picture that we get in the book of Judges (just prior to 1 Samuel). It’s also the picture we get if we read about Israel’s priests in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel. Israel was a people adrift from their God. And, though the author of our text doesn’t make it explicit, I suspect that this is why they had been defeated in battle.
But they didn’t take time to ponder that. They just thought to themselves: ‘Well, if the Philistines defeated us last time, we’re going to have to bring in the really big guns this time. Someone send for the ark of the covenant.’
And they remind me of a large section professing Christian church in America, adrift from God for so many years: more concerned for numbers than for true conversions; obsessed with being entertained; doctrinally shallow; lacking discipline; pandering to goats rather than feeding sheep; so much like the world in choices of entertainment, in financial decisions, in child-rearing, in integrity, in their marriages, and so on.
And now these ‘evangelicals’ are being overrun by the Philistines. Marriage has been redefined. Gender is a matter of feeling rather than fact. Our children and grandchildren will be told (as advertised on a billboard here in town) that it’s normal for boys to dress like girls (and vice versa). So should evangelicals now begin to bring in ‘the big guns’? Should we now begin to petition God to overthrow the Philistine view of marriage, and gender, and childhood? Many corners of evangelicalism have spent the last half-century watering down the biblical teachings about marriage and family, and allowing their children to be raised by these very Philistines. So will God answer if they now ask him to overthrow the ungodly people whom they have spent a lifetime imitating? Will it work to parade the name of God, like the ark of the covenant, into these national debates? God is merciful, and so He may yet answer in spite of the poor track record of the American church. But He may leave us to our own devices, and to the might of the Philistines. Because it is not enough to haul God out of the holy of holies when the going gets tough. It is not sufficient to call Him in as backup when we’ve run out of our own solutions. He is Lord of all, not a superhero to be called in when Gotham has run out of solutions; not a talisman pulled out of our pocket to add a little magic to our formula.
Here was the problem in Israel. And here is the problem for so many professing Christians in our own day. We run to God when the going gets tough. But do we walk with Him; do we give Him thanks; do we honor His word on all the other days, and in all the ‘little things’? Let us begin there. Let us truly be the people of God. And, if we are, we’ll never have need to worry whether God will show up to fight our battles.