1 SAMUEL 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8
Today’s readings describe a key transitional period between the futility of the times of the Judges and the prosperity of Israel under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. God was now disposing of the ‘old guard’ represented by Eli, with his permissive attitude towards his sons and towards the low-grade idolatry the persisted amongst the Israelites. Samuel was waiting to take Eli’s place and Israel needed purging of its reliance upon false foreign so-called gods. As often happens, the Lord used the original worshippers of those foreign gods to teach Israel’s armies a lesson!
Foolishly, Israel took the Ark of the Covenant into a huge battle against the Philistine army – having previously just suffered a moderate defeat by that same army. For superstitious reasons, more than anything, Israel thought that the Ark’s presence would guarantee them victory. Wrong! They suffered a massive defeat, losing nearly ten times as many soldiers as previously, and to make matters worse, the Ark was captured and taken back to the Philistine cities. Eli was the first recipient of the threefold bad news of Israel’s defeat, his sons’ death, and the Ark’s capture; he was clearly most affected by the last one and fell backwards off his chair to his death too. (My mother always warned me not to tilt on chairs – now I know why!) They needn’t have worried about the Ark: God wasn’t fighting for Israel at the time, anyway. Their idol-worship practices had seen to that.
Dagon was a dumb image representing a counterfeit god – a demonic spirit. Faced all night by a gold-covered wooden box, representing the Lord Almighty giving homage to the grain god, by morning there was no doubt who had come out on top! Clearly a mistake, the Philistine priests thought, and tried again the next night. Next morning it was even worse, with Dagon’s head and hands being broken off – a common connection with trophies of war – and showing beyond doubt that the Lord had defeated his hollow opponent. Worse was to come when, wherever the Ark was moved in Philistine territories, the local populations were inflicted with plague, tumours, and death. It became a kind of ‘hot potato’ that no-one wanted to give houseroom to.
Soon, everyone wanted to hand it back to Israel immediately; the problem was ‘how’? Israel’s army was so beaten that they couldn’t have recaptured it if they’d tried. So the Philistine priests resorted to magic, loading the dice against the cart returning on its own. Cows who have just calved do not abandon their young and clear off into unknown territory – like these ones did – pulling a cart for the first time in their lives! Towing the Ark and some golden guilt offerings (not ‘gilt’!!!) they made straight for enemy lands; clearly the Lord was steering these creatures. So far, so good.
The holiness of the Lord was demonstrated when seventy of the Beth Shemesh locals were struck down dead, for peering into the Ark. Eventually some men from Kiriath Jearim did it properly and it remained in their town for 20 years, blessing it by its presence. The message for us is that the presence of God will only be of benefit if it meets the holiness in God’s people – otherwise we are dabbling superstitiously in realms that we have no business being in.
At last, the Israelites got the point and turned back to the Lord. Samuel took over the leadership and his first act was to insist on the people ridding themselves of all idols and foreign gods. In ceremony symbolizing and including repentance, they fasted and confessed their sins to the Lord. God heard them immediately (there IS NO quicker kind of prayer!) and destroyed the Philistine army that had sneaked up on them at that time. Samuel sacrificed a lamb and interceded for the nation, and God did the rest! Repentance like this, combined with powerful intercession, ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity in Israel, under the spiritual leadership of the prophet Samuel – there was no need for any other kind of leadership.
The problem with strong leaders is that they often have little time for their own children – witness the many good kings of Israel who were succeeded by a bad king! Samuel should have learned his lesson first-hand from Eli, who had messed up his parenting responsibilities completely. We cannot be held responsible for how our children turn out – they make their own choices in life and the Lord will hold them accountable for those choices – but we will be held responsible for how we have parented them whilst under our authority. Samuel, it appears, did as bad a job as Eli, since Israel instantly rejected his sons as his successor – despite the nation having an obvious affection and gratitude towards their leader – and demanded a ‘proper’ king, like the nations around them had. So, Samuel’s poor parenting had led to God’s rejection as King! Instructed by the Lord, Samuel warned Israel about the big mistake that they were about to make, but they dug their heels in. Where were these people when brains were being handed out!?!
A lesson for us: if the Lord, through his Word, has already forbidden a course of action, we will not get him to change his mind simply by asking again and again.