God is as good as his word - 1 Samuel 4:12-22

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 24th January 2016.

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Churches die. That is a fact. Church buildings whose packed congregations once bustled with vitality and life, upon whose walls hung the names of godly ministers and saw remarkable revivals having experienced powerful preaching, now stand as derelict, empty barns. Our country is littered with them, not least in the countryside itself. Some have been turned into flats, or pubs, others into workshops, others still, into mosques. Some of these crumbling edifices bear names which testify to the optimism of their founding fathers, names like ‘Bethesda (house of mercy), Ebenezer (the stone of help) and, of course Zion. Others bear more traditional names reflecting the evangelists themselves, ‘St Mark’s, ‘St Luke’s’, ‘St Matthew’s’, and …’St John’s’. But a more appropriate name for such churches and chapels would be that which the wife of Phineas gave to her new born child in the passage we are looking at together this evening, ‘Ichabod’ for, she said ‘the glory of the Lord has departed.’ In fact verse 21 is the climax and commentary on this whole sorry episode so let me read it again, ‘She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. [and, as if to underscore the point she repeats it] 22 She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” It’s said in a way which conveys incredulity, that sense of disbelief that the unthinkable has happened, but it is staggeringly and tragically true- the glory of God has gone.

 

There may be many reasons which account for churches closing and denominations losing their way and folding, but surely one of the main reasons, is given here- ‘the glory of God had departed’ or as it could be translated, ‘the Glory of God has been exiled’ or even as a question, ‘Where is the glory?’ Now I want to suggest to you tonight that if we are going to have any understanding of why we are as we are as a church in the West today, and why Israel found herself in the position she did that day, then we must understand something of what causes the glory of the Lord to be exiled and also grasp where true glory alone can be found.

 

First, we have the problem of the power of God, vv 1-11.

 

The Philistines had been giving the Israelites trouble on and off since they had entered the Promised Land under Joshua. This time, the Jews thought they would give them what Wellington would often say of Napoleon, ‘a darn good thrashing’. But they were to be in for a nasty surprise, for it was they who would be thrashed- 4,000 wiped out in one battle. Not good! And being well versed in their theology of God’s sovereignty, they couldn’t quite work out why the LORD brought them defeat-v3. Why had God done this to them- his people? Exactly the right question to ask. But instead of going to where they should have gone for the answer, namely, God’s Word, such as Deuteronomy 28, which links such defeat with spiritual unfaithfulness, and so seeing repentance as the way forward, they came up with their own answer which was the wrong answer, v 3b, ‘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 enemies.”

 

And what happens? They get completely decimated, much to their surprise, and may I add, to the surprise of the Philistines-v 5 ‘When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. 6 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, 7 the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. 8 We’re doomed! 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 wilderness.’ As far as the Israelites were concerned this was going to be a no contest. However it turned out to be like Manchester United playing at home against Mansfield Town- but with Mansfield winning 6-0! It was carnage, v10, ‘So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.’ And if that weren’t bad enough we are told, ‘The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.’

 

Now to understand what a complete catastrophe this was we need to appreciate what this ‘ark of God’ was. In effect it was a sacred, portable box- 3 and three quarters feet long and 2 and a quarter feet wide. But it was very special as we are told by its full title given in verse 4, ‘the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim.’ It symbolised three very important things about God and how he relates to his people. It denotes God ruling- he was enthroned between the angels. It tells us how he rules, by revelation, for contained in the box were the Ten Commandments inscribed on two stone tablets. But it also provides the means of God restoring, enabling his people to survive with him being in the midst by means of atonement, for on the Day of Atonement the blood of the sacrificed animal was smeared over the top of the box, on what is called the mercy seat signifying the covering of sins from God’s sight- and so bringing forgiveness. Everything about it declared the majesty, might and mercy of God. In short- divine power.

 

And each of these three things was turned on their head by the Israelites. And so instead of submitting to the rule of God, they thought they could rule God by carting him around wherever they wanted to, in this case the battlefield. Instead of listening to God, they decided to tell him what to do, to display a bit of power and blast the Philistines. But they also smeared God’s holiness, presuming upon him not least by having Hophni and Phineas carrying the ark, these two disgraced priests who, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, bullied and molested their way through the sanctuary.

 

Do you see what their fundamental error was? It was de-goding God. Rightly they saw the ark as a symbol of power, but they did not appreciate enough that this was God’s power, not theirs. For them the ark became a religious artefact, a totem, a talisman, a means of manipulating and domesticating God. They thought if they brought the ark out to battle, they brought God out. But the true God is not like that. He is not some tin pot pagan deity like that of the Philistines who can be bribed or cajoled to dance to their tune. How dare they think of the great majestic God of the universe in that way?

 

But of course that is what sometimes churches do, and then are surprised when the power of God is turned against them and they eventually implode. Do you see the problem? God’s presence is presumed upon without any consideration of the terms and conditions which God applies, and so in our minds he becomes a mere genie which we call upon whenever we need him.

 

Of course this was the basic premise of the movie, ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark’, where the crazed Nazi archaeologist sort to tap into the supposed supernatural power of the ark to further the aims of Hitler, and, as we know, the power turned back on the captors and destroyed them- very much 1 Samuel 4 stuff.

 

But churches and Christians can display the same error and contempt the Israelites showed in equally well-meaning ways. Speaking of the American scene (but it could equally apply to the British scene), the writer Os Guinness says this; ‘The concern, “will it work” has long overshadowed “Is it true?” Theology has given way to technique. Know-whom has faded before know-how. At its worst, the result is a shift away from faith to “faith in faith”, which- along with faith in religion- is a perniciously distinctive American heresy. But even at its best, pragmatism, results in evangelicalism rich in ingenuity and organisation but poor in spirituality and superficial, if not banal, in doctrine.’[1] That was the problem here. The Israelites wanted ‘what would work’- ‘know how’, but like Hophni and Phineas they didn’t ‘know whom’-that is God. Let me tell you that I receive all sorts of things from the Diocese about how to grow churches and nurture disciples. But never is the issue of theology addressed- asking the question: What does the Bible teach? It is all pragmatics –‘try this and see if it works’. A few years ago I went to such a meeting in Beverley where the church growth guru revealed to us that after exhaustive research the one thing all growing churches had in common whatever their theological stripe- liberal, catholic, charismatic or evangelical- it didn’t matter what you believed-the one thing which was key for growth was (wait for it) that the congregations could have a good laugh.

 

Someone once remarked that in many of our churches which are slick on presentation but light on God’s Word, you could take away the Holy Spirit and 90% of the work would continue and his absence wouldn’t even be noticed. What is more many of the churches and chapels I mentioned at the beginning once had great Word ministries- i.e. good preaching, but if that is not matched with a genuine response of faith and action, rather than a smug satisfaction that ‘we must be alright because we have sound teaching’- then the fate of that church will be sealed, as it was for these Israelites, for God will not be mocked by mere sermon tasters either, who treat the Bible as a talisman.

 

But more personally could I ask: in practice how do you view God and the things of God? Is coming to a place like this seen as some sort of insurance policy to ensure that you have a ‘good week’? Is taking Holy Communion a genuine act of gratitude for Christ’s blood shed for you or a ritual which, you hope, will keep God on side? In short, do you see yourself as being there for God as a humble servant-ruled by his Word, or God being there for you as an errand boy to be ruled by you? If so, then beware, for you are likely to run into the same tragedy as did these Jews on this tragic day.

 

Secondly, we have the crisis of the glory of God- vv12-22.

 

This is where the full tragedy of what has taken place unfolds, first with Eli in public, and then with Phinehas’s child bearing widow in private. The opening of the scene is given in verse 12 and the escape from the battle, with this unknown Benjaminite. His clothes are torn; he has dirt on his head. Why his very appearance belies what has happened without having to speak a word. We can imagine him running, stumbling, sobbing, devastated and distraught by what he has just witnessed. And who is at the city gates waiting? None other than Eli whom we are told was watching. And Eli’s weakness is indicated for us by something rare in Hebrew narrative as we told of his emotional state- his heart was trembling on ‘account of the ark of God’. Why should he be worried about that? Well, his anxiety is surely linked to the prophecy he received back in chapter 2:31 and repeated again in 3:12 that a time was coming when God would cut off all his offspring and his two sons Hophni and Phineas would die on the same day. Well, who is carrying the ark into battle? Hophni and Phineas! And so the thought would have been going through the old man’s mind that this might be the day. Of course the disappearance of the ark would be the tragedy of tragedies and Eli knew it. Isn’t it ironic that we are told he was ‘watching’ the road, and yet he was as blind as a bat, such that he couldn’t see the escapee, he just heard the cry of despair from the city’s inhabitants and had to ask what was going on v14.

 

And then came the devastating news- v15. In the original it comes over as a series of gasps in between each statement, ‘Israel fled before the Philistines and…the army has suffered heavy losses and…also you sons Hophni and Phineas are dead and …the ark of God has been captured.’  And with that news we read in v 18, ‘Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years.’ You see, it was what Eli had feared and caused his heart to tremble-God had kept his Word; a word of judgement and it killed him.

 

Again the writer expects us to pick up on the ironies contained in this description of what happened to Eli. In the first place he is spoken of as one who had ‘led’ or ‘judged’ Israel for 40 years. But strictly speaking he hadn’t led Israel at all, not like the others recorded in the book of Judges. Judges were raised up by God to rescue the people and usher in a period of peace. But we don’t see any of that with Eli. So the irony is that this one who was supposed to be a leader was a miserable failure. In Eli we have in microcosm the state of Israel as a whole. He had become old and decrepit, hanging on to life by a thread, as was the nation. We are told that he was ‘heavy’ and so when he fell back off his seat he broke his neck- he was killed by his own weight. Here’s the thing: the word for ‘heavy’ is the same root as for ‘glory’- ‘kabod’, which, we are told in verse 21, had departed from Israel- ‘Ichabod’. What happened to Eli is what was happening to Israel, because of a failure to honour the Lord (2:29) by honouring his Word, for while Eli was supposed to be the ‘glory of Israel’ as a leader, he had just become a bulk and just as his ‘kabod’ ‘weight’ tippled him over, removing him from the scene, so now God’s ‘weight’ or ‘glory’ was removed from Israel as symbolised by the removal of the ark of the covenant.

 

And the shear horror and consequence of this is underscored in the next episode recorded in verses 19-22. Here the news is received in the reverse order to the way it was given to Eli, Phinehas’s wife is first told of the loss of the ark of God and then the death of Eli and then the death of her husband. This way perhaps getting us to see where the main tragedy lies- the loss of God’s presence as denoted by the ark from which all other consequent tragedies flow. The news was so bad it caused her to go into labour. And trying to bring her some cheer on such a cheerless day, the surrounding women tell her she has a baby boy. But she is so overwhelmed with the bad news, that even the good news becomes tainted and so she calls the boy ‘Ichabod’ ‘where is the glory?’ as a permanent reminder of the disaster that had befallen the nation. It would have been like a son of Napoleon being called ‘Waterloo’. That disaster is the note that is left hanging in the air at the very end in v 22, ‘She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” It doesn’t get any worse than this.

 

Let me ask: what is the greatest disaster that can ever come upon a church or a Christian? It is this: that the glory of God, the presence and power of God becomes exiled. For a while it may not be so obvious, things can go along pretty much as they have done for a while under their own momentum. But there comes a time when it becomes obvious to everyone, including the church’s enemies- the Philistines, that God is no longer with this congregation or that professed believer, and like Eli our hearts are meant to tremble at the thought. Think of the church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation- to all onlookers’ things couldn’t have seemed any better, it was a prosperous, thriving church. But it had become a worldly church much more consumed by its own success than being dependent upon the Lord. Why, we are even told that risen Jesus stood outside the door of that church knocking in order to be let in. No one had even noticed that he was absent- they were too busy getting on with business as usual- as many churches today are. But Jesus warned that unless they repented, their lampstand (witness) would be taken away. Do you know that church no longer exists- Ichabod you see, the glory of the Lord had departed. Can any church, or denomination for that matter, which while paying lip service to God and using all the right ‘God words’ in its talk, making sure it has its liturgy in place, but which refuses to listen to God’s Word and put it into practice, who thinks that God owes them their existence and so will always be around no matter what, can they possibly escape this dreadful death depicted here when the pronouncement is made- ‘Ichabod’? The Bible, history and experience and some of the empty church buildings here in Hull tell us the answer.

 

So let’s try and answer the question of the dying widow as she poses it in terms of the name of her son, ‘Ichabod’ –‘where is the glory?’ More personally, let me ask, ‘where is your glory?’ What is it that you live for and draw strength and purpose from and delight in? There are plenty of competing glories around us today? So ‘where is the glory?’ Do you remember what the apostle John writes towards the end of the prologue of his Gospel? ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ The glory of God in all its resplendent majesty and beauty is to be found in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Not in a box carried by men, but on a cross carried by the Nazarene. It is now in heavenly glory that he dwells- John 17. And he cannot and will not share that glory with any other. And as we saw with the ark, so we see with Jesus, the glory is experienced when we submit to the rule of Jesus, when we obey the teaching of Jesus and are restored by being cleansed by his blood. But the word we never, ever want to hear and which should cause our hearts to tremble is the word, ‘Ichabod’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ref in ‘True Christianity- Jonathan Edwards’- Strachan and Sweeney.

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