Reflecting on 1 Samuel 4 and following, I was struck by Israel’s presuming on God and what resulted. This story relates to what is going on in our world, and the response and role of God’s people, Jesus’ church.
When Israel lost the battle against the Philistines, they asked the right question, “Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us?” (1 Sam 4:3)
BUT they did not wait to hear God’s answer. No self-reflection. No humility.
Instead, the prideful presumption of declaration. “Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant” into battle “so that it may save us.”
They took the visible symbol of God’s invisible Ruling Presence into battle, believing it would defeat their enemies. God was now definitely with them, on their side. Victory was assured!
BUT, the Invisible Reality, of which the material symbol spoke, was not there: “Ichabod” – “the glory has departed!” (1 Sam 4:21). God withdrew his presence, thus his power.
And they did not know it! God would NOT be presumed upon. God would NOT be used for their purpose. God would NOT be coerced into doing their will simply because they possessed the ark. So, the Philistines defeated them, again, and captured the ark.
Therein lay Israel’s presumption: The ideology of the ark, which blinded them.
They trusted in the earthly symbol of rule, not in the heavenly Person and Presence that it represented. It’s the idolatry of what is seen, not the true worship of the true God. Human nature lusts for a visible king, a tall Saul as heroic leader to champion our cause. In so doing, in effect, we reject God’s invisible Kingship, which refuses to be used ‘on tap’ to fight our battles.
The ark was captured because it had ALREADY been captured by Israel’s ideological presumption. THAT offended God. THAT blinded them. THAT, unbeknown to them, is what emptied the outward form of its inner glory and power. THAT is Ichabod reality.
Reality is something we run into when we are wrong.
Only when Israel was defeated and the ark captured by the Philistines were their eyes opened to reality. BUT, they denied it. Refused to acknowledge it, to repent, to ask what they asked the first time round: “Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us?” In contrast, the old priest, Eli, understood what it meant and fell backwards off his chair in utter shock of Ichabod. He broke his neck and died.
How blind are those who refuse to see! It took twenty years (1 Sam 7:2) for “all the people of Israel” to mourn and seek God for the return of his Presence. Yes, sadly, twenty years of desperation to come to humility and repentance! To face Ichabod reality.
Paradoxically, God’s presence ‘returned’ to the ark when the Philistines placed it in their temple. They only saw THAT reality by its effects: The next morning they found Dagon, their national god, face down on the floor before (in homage of) the ark.
They then located the ark in other places. But wherever it went The Presence manifested in defeat of the Philistine gods. Eventually, in desperation, they shipped the ark across the border! God’s victory, ironically, was not through his people, but apart from them, despite them, in rebuke of them!
Therefore… what can we learn from this?
How do our declarations presume on God?
How does the Church (try to) use God for its own purposes? How do we ‘capture’ God in symbols of earthly power (’state-capture’) to fight our battles?
How does ideology/idolatry of power blind us? “Just bow down to me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth” (Luke 4:5-7). “What will it profit a person if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul?” (Matt 16:26).
How can we identify and be delivered from ideological blindness?
How do we honour, receive and live by God’s invisible Kingship more than reliance on heroic leadership in visible government?
How do we let GOD be God, and not play God?
How do we know when we’re operating in ‘ichabod’, a form of godliness emptied of its power? Will it take twenty years of suffering desperation before we face up to it?
How can we keep humility and integrity with God – true worship of the true God – so that our outward forms of godliness have the power of God’s indwelling presence, for which they were made and meant?
Those who have ears to hear, hear what God’s Spirit is saying to Jesus’ church and world.