Imagine that, after suffering a loss on the battlefield, an American army general decided to galvanize his troops by taking the Declaration of Independence into battle. Sounds a little farfetched, I know. What kind of general would play so fast and loose with one of the most precious artifacts in the nation’s history? Though it may not seem likely to happen with American soldiers, this scenario actually did play out in Israel as the era of judges came to a close.
At this point, Israel had no permanent temple. Worshipers would gather at the Tabernacle, housed in Shiloh, to offer sacrifices to Yahweh. In the holy of holies—where one priest was permitted to enter one time a year—sat the holiest, most precious object in Israel’s possession: the ark of the covenant. On top of the ark was the mercy seat, the place where Yahweh promised to meet with His people (Ex. 25).
Because Israel had never totally conquered the Promised Land, they still had to fight off attacks from nearby enemies, such as the Philistines. First Samuel 4 tells of one bad battle and an even worse military decision. The Israelites lost 4,000 men in a lopsided skirmish with their archenemy and decided they needed a little extra help on the battlefield, so they decided to get the Ark of the Covenant and carry it into battle next time. That’s right. They convinced the wicked sons of Eli—Hophni and Phineas—to go into the Holy of Holies and get the Ark for them (1 Sam. 4:3). They then took it into combat and experienced a slaughter of epic proportions. Not only did 30,000 men lose their lives that day, but Israel also lost its most precious treasure. The Ark of the Covenant fell into the hands of their enemies.
This national tragedy might make a good Hollywood screenplay, but we miss something very important if we just relegate it to the category of high drama. The Israelites had little esteem for the holiness of God, and it cost them dearly. How about you? In this story, and its aftermath, we can find four warning signs of treating the holiness of God with casual disregard.
Warning Sign #1: God Is Your Lucky Charm
After what they considered to be a devastating and unacceptable loss, the Israelites decided to use the Ark as a good-luck charm. They believed that if they took this sacred object with them, God would look on them with favor and rescue them from the hands of their enemies. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the elders—the spiritual leaders—of Israel had to say:
When the troops returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD defeat us today before the Philistines? Let’s bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh. Then it will go with us and save us from our enemies.” (1Sa 4:3)
They believed that the Ark itself had some sort of intrinsic mystical ability to deliver them. So, they treated it like a rabbit’s foot.
That may feel far removed from our own situation, but consider these questions:
- Do you pray only to beseech God to do what you want?
- Do you ever read your Bible thinking that your failure to do so might be why God hasn’t answered your prayers?
- Do you go to church thinking that God will be more likely to bless you if you do?
- Do you give to charity or the church because you are afraid of what God might do to you if you don’t?
We’re all prone to see God as a wielder of a giant abacus, ever sliding beads back and forth keeping track of our points with him. Slide enough the right way, and He will smile upon us. But if too many slide the wrong direction, we’re toast.
Such a caricature of God distorts His holiness and perverts the Gospel. It sounds a lot like a bunch of Israelite soldiers marching into battle with the Ark of the Covenant, thinking it will bring them the favor from God they desire.
Warning Sign #2: Your Circumstances Trump God’s Glory
Israel clearly had little regard for the glory of God as they cajoled two crooked priests to march into the Holy of Holies and come out with an object representing the very holiness of God itself. They were far more concerned with winning a battle. They saw only their circumstances.
How quick we are to react in a similar way. When my circumstances turn sideways, my life can become very small. Suddenly my thoughts, conversations, dreams, and even prayers have just one topic: me. It may be a trial or even just a season of pressure that exposes my tendency to elevate my circumstances above the glory of God. I become more concerned with my situation, whatever it may be, than with what God may want to do through it. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to hear our cries of lament. He most certainly does. But those prayers ought to help us lift our eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
Consider Psalm 13. After crying out to God, wondering how long he must remain in his circumstances and imploring God to consider him, David closes this brief psalm of lament with two verses that demonstrate that the shepherd-king didn’t allow his circumstances to trump God’s glory:
But I have trusted in your faithful love;
my heart will rejoice in your deliverance.
I will sing to the LORD
because he has treated me generously. (Psa 13:5-6)
Warning Sign #3: You Do Things Your Own Way
The era of the judges is encapsulated in one catchphrase: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Though the events surrounding the loss of the ark are recounted in 1 Samuel, they took place in this same era before the monarchy began and clearly exemplify this famous refrain from the book of Judges. You’d think that Israel might have learned its lesson after losing the Ark. But you’d be wrong.
After seven difficult months with their “trophy,” the Philistines decide to give the Ark back. After seven months of tumors, broken idol statues, and other troubles, they devise a plan to return the Ark to Israel—a plan involving cows, hiding their calves, and a wagon. This certainly isn’t how God prescribed the Ark to be transported, but you can’t expect the Philistines to care.
But Israel probably should. Instead, the men who find the ark decide that it’s okay for them to check it over. Apparently, they forgot that it’s the holiest object in the world. As a result, God took their lives.
God struck down the people of Beth-shemesh because they looked inside the ark of the LORD. He struck down seventy persons. The people mourned because the LORD struck them with a great slaughter. (1Sa 6:19)
The seventy people who lost their lives that day in Beth-shemesh perished because they treated the holiness of God casually and insisted on doing things their own way. They didn’t think it really mattered what God had said. Surely, He would make an exception this case, right?
In our society holiness has become a caricature, a meme of a stodgy and prudish nun with a sour look on her face. If that’s the view we have of God—a grumpy old disciplinarian—no wonder we think it’s just fine to do whatever want:
- “It’s just a little harmless fun!”
- “It’s just a joke. Lighten up.”
- “It was just one time. It’s no big deal.”
- “It was just harmless entertainment. No one got hurt.”
- “I was just blowing off steam.”
But God is not a meme. He’s not a caricature nor a cartoon. He is high and lifted up, transcendent above all His creation. His holiness is not something we can withstand or ignore. As Habakkuk tells us, one day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD’s glory, as the water covers the sea” (2:14). Though we have been made clean by the sacrifice of Christ, we must not treat His holiness lightly or casually. God is not a lucky charm. Our circumstances are not more important than His glory. And we must not arrogantly decide to trample on His holiness by doing what’s right in our own eyes.
Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Armies;
his glory fills the whole earth.
The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isa 6:2-4)
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