Follow That Ark

1 Samuel 4-7

This is one of those curious stories.

Eli is Israel's chief priest. But he's an old man and his sons have taken charge of the religious life of the nation. Well. "irreligious" might be a better word because they are not worthy priests.

Israel is facing one of those persistent enemies that never seemed to go away throughout their history—the Philistines. They meet in battle at Ebenezar (the Stone that helps) and Israel is soundly defeated. Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, get the brilliant idea to take the ark of the covenant out of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and drag it into battle. Their theory? "Let us bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies" —1 Samuel 4:3.

Bad move. Bad theology. The ark was sacred and not intended to be tossed around like so much used furniture. And it wasn't the ark that would save them, but the Lord himself.

This part of the story reminded me of the processions we often have in Venezuela. There are times of the year, Easter being one of them, when crowds of people bring out the statues from the churches and parade around town with these religious emblems. To many there is power in the masonry.

Israel was to learn what some still haven't learned. There is no power in wood, stone, or precious metal. The ark was taken by the Philistines and Israel was soundly defeated once more. They wondered why God had abandoned them, not realizing that they had abandoned God by their actions.

But, follow the ark. It ends up in the temple devoted to Dagon, the god of the Philistines. While the ark may have been only masonry, it was still a sacred symbol of God's presence with his people, and he soon convinced the Philistines that it wasn't in their best interests to keep the thing around. Dagon literally fell to pieces in the presence of the ark of the covenant and the Philistines were afflicted. "The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god…for death had filled the city with panic; God's hand was heavy upon it" —1 Samuel 5:7, 11.

So the ark is returned to Israel—a fascinating adventure that I won't go into here—but God still had lessons in respect to teach Israel. "…God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked on the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them" — 1 Samuel 6:19.

In the end, the whole episode brought Israel back to the Lord. They are instructed to put away the Baals and Ashtoreths that they had been worshiping. Samuel says to them: "If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines" — 1 Samuel 7:3.

I heard a friend comment that, on a recent visit to Haiti, he had been impressed by the faith of the Haitian believers in spite of the tremendous suffering they were going through because of January's devastating earthquake. He said it made him feel ashamed because our faith is often faith plus whatever makes us feel secure. Unconsciously we trust as much in our families, possessions, or positions, as we trust in God. In Haiti, he commented, all they have left is God, and their faith in him is evident to everyone.

It's easy to acquire "idols" — things we substitute for faith in God, or things we add to our faith in God. Israel learned a lesson. Ebenezer refers to the "Rock" that is God and and God alone. He is the only One worthy of our faith, and he is the only One who can help us. The masonry doesn't cut it.


  1. Good thoughts, so true. Sometimes it takes courage to examine our own hearts to see if we have, even as Christians, set up any god but God!


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