TODAY’S READING: 1 Samuel 4–8
Israel made a mistake common to many idolaters: they assumed an artifact had the power of the deity it represented. They took the ark of the covenant to war and whooped and hollered so loud the earth shook (1 Sam. 4:5). They even momentarily intimidated the Philistines who assumed similarly that “God [was] in the camp” (v. 7). This assumption proved false when 30,000 foot soldiers on “God’s” side perished (v. 10) and the ark “of God” was captured. Obviously, God was not with them or in the ark.
We look disapprovingly at the hicks of the Old Testament who fell for this folly without realizing we have contemporary idols of our own. Now we worship worship. We have our fog and light machines, and we shake our stages and auditoriums. We convince ourselves (and maybe a few others) that God is in the camp. Then we go to spiritual war and get decimated. We worshiped the creation, not the Creator. We bowed before the artifact, not the Architect. For years the church worshiped faith. Then we worshipped worship. Now we’ve graduated to worshiping preaching, and I assume we will eventually get our doctorates by worshiping prayer. All these worships are idolatrous.
God has ever looked for a people who would have no idols whatsoever. Modern anthropologists criticize those who condemn idol worship for not understanding that the idolater is not worshiping the idol, but the god the idol represents. Old Testament prophets, however, understood this perfectly and condemned idol worship because the false god being worshiped had no power to save either the idol nor the idolater. False gods tend to go missing when idolaters need them most. Biblical prophets made fun of the supposed gods who couldn’t even defend their own representative images, let alone their worshippers. Christopher Wright points out about the Philistine god Dagon that “the fact the idol falls over twice (losing his head and his hands the second time) clearly means that Dagon’s alleged power was unable to keep his own statue vertical before the symbol of the God of Israel.”
Bluntly put, all idols and arks will fail us. When we worship faith, worship, preaching, or prayer, we wake to find them all fallen over with broken head and hands. We deceive ourselves by thinking we worship Jehovah when really we have slipped to worshiping the beautiful (but not divine) means by which God gave us to worship. Faith is not the savior, Jesus is the Savior. Worship is not the deliverer, Jesus is the deliverer. Preaching is not the solution, Jesus is the solution. Prayer is not the answer, Jesus is the answer. The nations of the world, every false religion, all have faith, worship, preaching, and prayer. But they don’t have Jesus. The lesson of the captured ark is that
YHWH was not to be identified with any physical object in Israel’s manipulative possession—not even an object commanded by himself and built to his own specification. Then as the ark does its unwelcome circuit round the cities of the Philistines, the Philistines clearly learn to distinguish it from the God of Israel that it represents. The ark is the physical object present, but it is the hand of YHWH, the God of Israel, that smites them.
When God has departed, the glory is gone (4:19–22). It doesn’t matter how loud we shout or how artistically we manipulate the sacraments, we still lose. And so do the nations because when God is not glorified, all of humanity is at a loss.
Samuel used the lesson to remind the people to put away all foreign gods (7:3) and to glorify Jehovah alone. They did, and then the Lord thundered with a loud thunder against the Philistines and they were subdued (vv. 10, 13). In other words, God was glorified amongst the nations only when His people stopped worshipping worship (also faith, preaching, and prayer) and again glorified only Him. It’s the same with us. Then, and only then, will we see that God helps us. That’s when we will be able to “raise our Ebenezer” (v. 12) in the sight of all the peoples of earth, including the 294 unreached peoples of Bangladesh. Ichabods (departed glory) can only be followed by Ebenezers (the Lord’s help) among the nations when we purely worship Jesus and carefully avoid worshipping what so beautifully can represent Him and what so wonderfully ushers us into His presence.
 Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. 151.
 Ibid. 151.