There are some great stories that come out of the book of 1 Samuel. Because of this, the writings of Samuel have to be among some of my favourite of the Old Testament.
In chapter 4 we read of the Israelites going to war against the Philistines. After the first day of fighting they get humiliated. It's an absolute defeat. 4,000 Israelites die that day.
That's a bit embarassing.
So they come up with a new plan. It doesn't say who, but someone eventually shares their iedea: "Hey let's go get God."
So they bring the Chest of God, the Ark of the Covenant, a box that is God's seat in the meeting place.
This isn't any ordinary box. To say it is special is an understatement. In Numbers it's reported that Moses heard the voice of God speak to him from between the two angels on the top of the chest.
The Israelites cheer loudly when the ark enters their camp on the front lines of the battle. They whoop and holler so loudly it's as if God himself were walking through the camp.
The shouting is so loud the Philistines grow concerned. They begin to wonder what's going on and they learn that the God of the Israelites has joined them. This concerns them greatly. They resolve to fight harder for fear that they'll become the Israelites slaves if they don't.
Okay, I've got a question, so when they killed 4,000 Israelites in round one, were they not trying their hardest? They seem to be saying that they weren't giving it their all. At the very least they have more to give.
And they do, and they kill 30,000.
And the defeat is as surprising as it is troubiling. God was supposed to help them win. God was supposed to be there with them. Why did God let them loose when he was there fighting with them?
I can't blame the Israelites for wanting to have God join them in the fight. The books of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, and Judges, all leading up to the time of Samuel, are full of stories where God helped them win battles. In those times God showed up, and often it says God delivered the victory. So why didn't God show up when he was with them?
Clearly God wasn't with them in the way they thought. They thought he was with, or even in, the box. He wasn't. Not that it was just an ordinary box, but it didn't have the magical powers they thought. Having the box didn't necessarily mean you had God.
You can't put God in a box and tote him around with you. You can't just pull that box out and begin showing God off.
And I can't help but wonder how often we do this. How often do we carry God around in a box so we can pull him out and show him off at our convienience and whim. Or how often do we keep him in a safe place where we can find him to get us out of a jam?
The box was God's. It was not God. And it did not contain God. God cannot be contained in a box.