Shift and Drift
In 1 Samuel 4 we discover what that end was to be. The Philistines were pressing and Israel’s army was unable to get the upper hand against them. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, thought that by taking the ark of the covenant out of the Tabernacle and taking it into battle with them, that this would guarantee success against the Philistines.
The end result was that the Philistines won the battle, the two sons were killed, the ark captured and Eli died of the shock. Even Eli’s daughter-in-law died in childbirth that same day, declaring as she passed, “The glory has departed from Israel” (4:21).
In the midst of all this tragedy and all the lessons to be learned from it, I thought about the ark. It was a symbol of God’s presence among His people. It was upon that ark, wherein resided the promises exchanged between God and His people, that the glory of God descended when He was in communion with Israel. It was special.
It got to be too special.
God had announced that Eli’s sons would die. We weren’t told when the announcement was made through Samuel, how those deaths would happen. They didn’t die in the first battle against the Philistines, but in the second—during the one in which the ark of the covenant was present. Whether or not that affront to the Lord was the proverbial “straw” that brought about their deaths, we aren’t told. But it seems inevitable that God would have had to allow the symbol of His presence to be captured by the Philistines even apart from whatever judgment He brought down on the boys.
Consider this—the Israelites thought that the ark would bring them victory if they took it into battle. “Why did the Lord being defeat upon us today before the Philistines? 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). Read that slowly. The Lord brought defeat down on us, and now we believe that a box, however special it may be, contains some greater power that will reverse that divine decision?
The symbol took on a significance greater than that of the One who had given Israel that same symbol.
Worse yet, the Philistines thought that same thing. When they heard that Israel had brought the ark into battle, “…the Philistines were afraid, ‘A god has come into the came,’ they said, ‘We’re in trouble!…Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert’” (4:7, 8).
The symbol was, to the Philistines, a god.
Almighty God will not share His glory, even with the symbols He has given to represent His presence among the people. God had to allow the ark to be taken in order to show both Israel and Philistia that the power was not in the symbol but in its Creator.
I heard it said recently that the church is the hope of the world. That sounded good—for a few seconds. Then I realized that such a statement was making the symbol of God’s presence more important that the presence! Paul, reflecting on his calling wrote in Colossians 1:25-27: “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the Word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (emphasis mine).
What was the “hope of glory?” Paul? The church, which he mentions in verses 24 and of which he was a servant? The individual believer? No, the hope of glory was “Christ in you.”
Christ is the hope of the world.
God will not share His glory even with the symbols He has created and through which He has chosen to demonstrate that glory.
The shift in Israel’s focus may have been accidental, but probably wasn't. For the Philistines there was no shift at all—they were idol worshipers. It was quite natural for them to think the ark had some kind of power. For us, the shift of emphasis from the Creator of the symbol to the symbol itself may be inadvertent. The story from Samuel 4 reminds us of how much care we must take to make sure we don’t shift and drift—that we take care to ensure that the glory is not taken from the Lord and given to a symbol—even those which are important to our faith. The results could be disastrous just as they were for Eli, his sons, and Israel.