One of the saddest and darkest days in Israel’s history was the defeat of Israel by the Philistines in the days of Eli the priest. But there is a also a kind of dark humor to the story as told in 1 Samuel 4-6; and a wonderful foretaste of the Gospel.
1 Samuel 4 – In an effort to gain advantage over the Philistines, Israel decided to bring the Ark of God to the battlefield. This was truly a brazen and bizarre act as the Ark was to remain hidden in the most holy place of the Tabernacle, never to be seen by Israel, and only by the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy place with the Ark containing the tablets of the Law was the place of God’s presence with His people. When the Tabernacle was completed by Moses in the wilderness, the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:35). But it was now several hundred years later, an extension of the days of the Judges when everyone did as he saw fit. Complete disregard for God’s direction, they made up the rules as they went along.
Yet disregarding God for the most part, they still tried to manipulate God as a form of magic for their own advantage. And in this case, they decided having God with them on the battlefield in the Ark would give them victory. It had the desired result of frightening the Philistines, A god has come into the camp…We’re in trouble!… Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? (5–8) But they used this fear as a psychological advantage to rally the troops and fight harder, resulting in the defeat of Israel and the humiliating capture of the Ark of God. In a sense, Israel not only lost the war, but lost God, who was “captured” by the Philistines.
As news of the defeat was reported, Eli fell over dead, his wicked sons were killed in the battle, and his daughter in law died in child birth, her last words naming her new born son Ichabod meaning “no glory” because “The glory has departed from Israel for the ark of God has been captured. (22)
1 Samuel 5 – An example of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” the Philistines’ win proved to be their undoing. In one sense, God had come into their midst, but not as a blessing. Wherever the Ark was taken, there was trouble. In the temple of Dagon at Ashdod, the Dagon idol fell over before the Ark. The people of Ashdod broke out with tumors. They moved it to Gath — more tumors; on to Ekron with more tumors and death. The presence of God was a curse throughout Philistia.
1 Samuel 6 – Deciding to return the Ark of God, they also sent an offering of golden tumors and golden rats, loaded the ark on a cart, pulled by two cows and sent it back home to Israel to the town of Beth Shemesh, where some of the citizens decided to look inside the Ark, resulting in the death of seventy Israelites.
From that point on the Ark of God was somewhat in exile within Israel until King David finally brought it to Jerusalem where it eventually took its rightful place in the temple built by Solomon. When the Ark was placed in the temple, the Exodus 40 event was repeated, “the glory of the LORD filled the temple” (1 Kings 8), But several hundred years later, as Israel (Judah) is unfaithful, Ezekiel sees a vision of the Glory of God departing the Temple once again.
Is God with us? Or is God absent? Is it good or bad to have God’s presence?
One of the big themes of Israel’s experience is the assurance of God being “with” His people. But there seem to be varying levels of “with-ness” or the nearness of God. For example in Exodus 33, after the Golden Calf incident of Exodus 32, God told Moses that he would keep his promise to Abraham and give them the land, and would send an angel before them to clear the land, “But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way. Exodus 33:3 But Moses pleads with God, If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here…What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth? Exodus 33:15, 16
Truly, God’s presence with His people is a powerful and comforting theme throughout Scripture. The promise to Joshua included, Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9 Jeremiah has a similar promise, Do not be afraid of them for I am with you and will rescue you, says the LORD. Jeremiah 1:8
But the ultimate promise and example of the with-ness of God is in the Advent narrative, one of the great fulfilled prophecies from Isaiah 7:14 is The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’ God came to be with us by becoming one of us, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
And even as Jesus commissioned his disciples to take this message to the nations, that is, all ethnicities, all people groups, the concluding words of the Gospel of Mathew are, And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20
So, let’s celebrate the Gospel that God the Son has come to be with us, to be one of us, to die for our sins on the cross, to provide a way for us to be always with God.