Heavenly Father, as we read in your written Word about your dealings with your people thousands of years ago, please help us by your Holy Spirit to learn what you want to teach us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
How do you react when it looks like God has abandoned you? That’s the question for us this evening. My title is ‘When the Glory Has Departed’. And we’re going to jump in our time machine again and look at a case study of just such a situation which is three thousand years old but which the Holy Spirit makes living history for us. You’ll find it in 1 Samuel 4.1b-22, on p274. What are the lessons for us here? Let me express two of them with a bit of pith, and then I’ll show you where I get them from. You can see them on the outline on the back of the service sheet. Lesson One: Don’t try to manipulate the living God. Lesson Two: When things are desperate, don’t despair.
First, DON’T TRY TO MANIPULATE THE LIVING GOD
This comes from the first half of our passage – that section from 1b to 11. God teaches us lessons through history because stories dig deeper into our hearts and minds than disembodied principles tend to do, so we need to get these events into our heads. So what happens? Before I read it, let me give it to you in brief so you can follow it more easily.
The Israelites suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of the Philistines. The Israelites bring up the ark of the covenant in an attempt to change their fortunes. They then suffer an even worse defeat, and the Philistines capture the ark and kill the sons of Eli the old priest and leader of Israel. Here it is:
1…Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. 2The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. 3When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, Why did the LORD bring 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.
4So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5When the ark of the LORD's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. 6Hearing 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, 7the Philistines were afraid. A god has come into the camp, they said. We're in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! 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. 9Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!
10So 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. 11The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
So, they’re defeated once. They bring in the Ark. They’re defeated a second time and much more heavily. The Ark is captured. Eli’s sons are killed. Those are the bare bones. What’s going on under the surface? Keep your eyes on those verses, and let me draw your attention to a number of things.
Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines.
God’s people do have enemies, and they do have to fight them. Back then it was the Philistines, and the fighting was with swords and spears. For us it’s different. Our primary enemies are Satan and all his forces; the warfare is spiritual and non-violent; and the weapons Christ arms us with are faith, prayer and his Word. But just as the Israelites had to go into battle against the Philistines again and again, we too have to go in to battle again and again.
When the Israelites get badly beaten, they ask the right question in the painful, bloody aftermath. Verse 3:
“Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?”
They recognise the sovereignty of God in victory or defeat for his people. It’s not, “Why did the Philistines bring defeat on us”, but “Why did the Lord do this?”
When Satan gets the better of us, that’s the right question for us to be asking. “What’s God doing in my life? What’s God doing in the church? What’s God doing in the nation? What’s the message?” So for instance, when the church in this nation suffers decades of severe decline, we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and put it down to sociological factors beyond our control, as so many do. We should we cry out, “Lord, what are you doing? What’s your message to us?”
The trouble is the Israelites give the wrong answer to their question. They fail to examine themselves. Instead they decide to bring up the ark of the covenant from its home in Shiloh. The ark is the gilded box with the winged cherubim on its lid, in which were kept the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. It was the symbol of God’s powerful presence with his people. Their logic was that God would never let them be defeated if the ark was among them. They thought they could manipulate God, rather than trouble themselves with examining the state of their own hearts and lives.
What state their hearts and lives were in is not spelled out here, but it’s already been made abundantly clear in the earlier chapters, and it’s strongly signalled by that reference at the end of verse 4:
And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
As we saw in this series before our Giving Review, these men are seriously spiritually and financially corrupt and sexually immoral. The verdict of God’s word is unequivocal – 2.12:
Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the Lord.
And here they are, daring to lord it over the ark in collaboration with the people.
The result would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. When the ark comes into the camp…
… all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.
Think Newcastle United at St James’ Park scoring a fourth goal having been four-nil down against Arsenal. But for the Israelites, that was seriously misplaced enthusiasm. It was hubris – the pride that comes before a fall.
The racket they made alerted the Philistines. They realise the ark has arrived in the enemy camp. And there is this terrible irony that the Philistines, for all their pagan misunderstanding, actually fear the God of Israel more than the Israelites themselves. They’re terrified of defeat, death and enslavement. Fear engenders in us either fight or flight. They don’t flee but steel themselves for the conflict, fight harder than ever, and slaughter the Israelites in the ensuing battle. What is more, they capture the ark and kill Hophni and Phineas along with many thousands of others. It’s the surviving Israelites who flee. The defeat of Israel is comprehensive and terrible.
The cynical spiritual calculation that the Israelites had made was all wrong. They thought they could carry on living contrary to God’s will, either tolerating or actually engaging in the worst kind of wicked and ungodly corruption. At the same time they thought that by literally man-handling the ark they could manipulate the living God into giving them victory over their enemies. Big mistake.
In the light of all that, the lesson is obvious. If we think we can ignore the state of our hearts and lives and by superstitious religiosity twist God’s arm so he gives us what we want, we’ve got another think coming. We think, “Let’s get God on our side”. But that’s the wrong way round. We should think, “We need to be on God’s side”. Don’t try to manipulate the living God. It’s a lesson that we need to apply to ourselves individually, to the church and indeed to our nation.
What might that kind of attempted manipulation look like at the national level nowadays? Maybe it looks like a complacent assumption that we have some kind of divine right to peace and prosperity in this country because we’re a so-called Christian country, however we live and whatever we do. As a nation, do we somehow think that because our towns and villages are littered with church towers and spires that have been there for a thousand years, and because we all celebrate Christmas, we somehow have immunity from national catastrophe – however spiritually, sexually, and financially degenerate we become? This passage warns us otherwise.
What about at the church level? Take the Church of England, of which we’re a part. Are we collectively in danger of thinking that somehow because we still have robed clergy, cathedral choirs, prayer books, christenings, and bread and wine we can drive a coach and horses through Gods’ revealed will and ride rough shod over God’s truth and expect to survive and thrive as a denomination? The writing is on the wall. God will not be mocked.
And what about at the individual level – the level of our own lives. Allow me to put this personally and directly in a way that’s especially relevant to some of you – though thankfully I’ve no idea who you are. Do you think you can carry on persistently, wilfully and unrepentantly on the corrupt spiritual, sexual or financial path you’re on, and expect God to prosper your life, just because you turn up to church now and again and then go away unchanged? Not if what happened to the Israelites is anything to go by. The New Testament says, speaking of the history of ancient Israel,
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.
That’s 1 Corinthians 10.11. The lesson is that any behaviour that uses God but refuses to repent puts us in grave danger. Don’t try to manipulate the living God. Lesson number one.
Secondly, WHEN THINGS ARE DESPERATE, DON’T DESPAIR
Let’s take a deep breath, and look on to verse 12, and the aftermath of the slaughter:
12That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head. 13When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God.
Notice Eli’s faltering faith. Eli is supposed to be the spiritual leader of his people. But why is he afraid for the ark of God? Does he somehow think that God can’t look after himself? Does he think God is vulnerable to the Philistine onslaught? Or did he have an inkling that the Israelites had forfeited the Lord’s protection? Either way, why did he permit the ark to go, in the custody of his sons who he knew to be wicked?
A word, then, to those of us who are getting older. Let’s learn from Eli. We mustn’t allow the fire of our faith to burn low in our declining years. And we mustn’t abdicate our spiritual responsibility for the younger generations. On to verse 13:
When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry.
That’s poignant in itself – the earlier premature shout of triumph from the Israelite army had become a desperate cry of defeat on the lips of those on the home front.
Then the man tells Eli about the loss of the ark and the death of his sons. It’s a heavy blow. But we mustn’t miss seeing the sovereignty of God in the deaths of Hophni and Phineas. On the face of it this looks like a terrible humiliation for the name of the Lord in the eyes of the watching pagan world. But the Lord would rather look humiliated than allow himself to be manipulated. And what is more, in this very defeat God is working his purpose out. We heard in 2.34 the Lord’s warning word to Eli:
“And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you – they will both die on the same day.”
God has not been defeated, nor has he lost control. Even in apparent defeat he is working out his sovereign purpose. It’s reminiscent of the apparent crushing defeat of Christ on the cross, which was actually the fatal blow falling on Satan, and the beginning of the end of all evil.
Then this account draws to a close with two more tragic deaths – of Eli himself, and of his daughter-in-law:
18When he [that is, the messenger from the battlefield] mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backwards off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had led Israel for forty years.
19His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labour and gave birth, but was overcome by her labour pains. 20As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don't despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention.
21She 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. 22She said, The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.
Let me make two comments on that. First, there is no denying that the situation of the wife of Phineas is genuinely desperate. She’s not wrong about that. Family-wise, she’s lost her father-in-law and her husband at a stroke. Physically, she’s dying. Spiritually, she perceives accurately that the glory has departed. That is to say, God has withdrawn his presence from his people, in judgement. Nothing can be worse than that. Some say with good reason that this should be reckoned the lowest point in Israel’s existence since they were in slavery in Egypt before the Exodus. That much the wife of Phineas sees clearly. Even as she lies dying in childbirth, she prophetically names her newborn son Ichabod, which means ‘No Glory’. And it seems she dies in utter despair, unresponsive and inattentive to those trying to comfort her.
But secondly – and thank God there is a but at the end of this – notice what those comforting midwives say in verse 20:
20As she was dying, the women attending her said, Don't despair; you have given birth to a son.
At one level, they’re simply drawing attention to the fact that at least there is this newborn son to bring some hope into this otherwise truly desperate situation.
But at another level, and from a New Testament perspective, I cannot help but conclude that those women are saying more than they know, and that we are to see here an unwitting, prophetic, word of hope. The glory has departed. By all their spiritual and moral degeneracy they brought down on themselves national disaster. The situation is desperate. But don’t despair. The next generation is born.
God will not allow his people to be utterly destroyed. He never will. And one day, in a thousand years, another woman will give birth to another son. And he will not be called Ichabod – No Glory. He will be called Emmanuel – God With Us. The glory will have come down to earth in the person of Jesus. And the glory will never depart again.
So for us, however desperate our situation, we should let that unwitting prophetic word ring in our ears: “Don’t despair.” If we’re in a deep mess, and even if we’re fully aware that we only have ourselves to blame for it, the right response is not despair – but repentance and faith in Christ, who was born, and who died, and who rose again for us.
Lord, these are sombre warnings. Give us grace to hear them. And thank you, Lord, that because of your gift of Jesus, we need never despair. Teach us, Lord, to repent. Teach us to put our faith in him. And glorify your name amongst your people. Amen.