Today’s reading was a reminder of two important principles.
#1 – All professed spiritual leaders do not necessarily know the Lord.
#2 – The things of God are not our “lucky charm” to be brought out and used at our whims.
The young Samuel that was dropped off at Shiloh has grown into an adult, but his mentor, Eli, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are still in charge of Israel’s worship. The children of Israel and the Philistines are engaged in an ongoing battle as God’s people failed to take full control of the land and eliminate their enemies.
The Philistines are winning. After suffering the loss of four thousand soldiers, the elders of Israel have an idea. They remember crossing the Jordan River while the priests stood in the middle, holding the ark of the covenant. They know the ark represents God’s presence among His people and decide it’s a good idea to bring it to the battlefield, essentially treating it as a talisman. There is no mention of prayer or asking for God’s help in the battle. Instead, they put their faith in the object, not who the object represents.
What’s worse, they recruit Hophni and Phinehas to be responsible for the ark. The Bible calls these two “worthless men” or “sons of Belial;” they did not know the Lord (1 Samuel 2:12). Their reputation was well-known, taking the best of the offerings for themselves and using force to rule over the people for their own advantage. Everyone knew the kind of men they were, yet for some reason, the elders thought it was a good idea for these two to be involved. They assumed because God allowed them to continue to live, practicing the priesthood while participating in open sin, that they still had some connection to God that would benefit the battle.
The plan fails miserably, just as all our plans to manipulate God will fail. The Philistines capture the ark, and thirty thousand men of Israel are killed, along with these two self-serving, wicked false religious leaders. When word gets back to Eli, it’s not the death of his sons that shocks him. Scripture is clear; the news that the ark of the covenant has been captured causes him to fall off his stool and he dies from a broken neck.
Lest we think the ark had somehow “lost its power,” the story includes what happens to the Philistine cities that host it. The Philistine god, Dagon, miraculously falls down twice in the presence of the ark; the Philistine people are plagued with tumors, as the hand of the Lord was heavy against them. A deadly confusion settles upon the people until they devise a plan to return the ark to Israel’s borders. The ark of the covenant was still as holy and precious as ever, the sign of God’s presence and power.
Victory over the Philistines is delayed until Samuel leads the people to repentance.
1 Samuel 7:3 – Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the Lord with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the Lord and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
No wonder they tolerated Hophni and Phinehas. No wonder they thought the ark was a lucky charm. Their hearts were far from God – personally, individually. Once they confessed their sin and turned back to following the Lord alone, He easily routed the Philistines and gave them victory.
As you know, this lesson is repeated over and over in Israel’s history, but this story in particular is a warning. We cannot trifle with the things of God. We cannot live for this world, enjoying the world’s culture and seeking the world’s success and think God is going to bless us if we just go to church and hear a good “talk,” wear a cross around our neck or put a fish on our car and call ourselves Christian. The things of God are not our “lucky charm” to call on when we’re in trouble, and there are many false teachers and preachers who claim His name but are far from Him, serving this world and their own desires.
Who are you putting faith in? Who do you follow? Whose podcast is on your playlist? Whose “pleasant words” satisfy your flesh but never convict your spirit? How much reverence do you hold for the things of God? Is your heart following Him, or are you simply religious?
If you’re struggling to win a spiritual battle, make sure the advice you’re hearing is from God. Don’t presume on God’s presence or power. Examine your heart for any allegiance to other gods, and make sure the teachers you’re following truly belong to the Lord.