“Thus far the Lord has helped us”
She was speaking of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord God in the days of Eli the priest. The Israelite army had carried the ark with them into battle with the Philistines, thinking by doing so they were carrying with them the presence of God.
But they were wrong. The physical ark was not God. Their manner of treatment of it was little better than a good luck charm. They may as well each had a rabbit’s foot in their pockets or an amulet about their necks.
Thus, the battle did not go as the Israelites had hoped. The Philistines defeated them soundly, and they even captured the ark. The invading army carried the ark away into their own country. The glory of God had departed from Israel.
The Ark in Temple of Dagon
The Philistines transported the ark to their own city of Ashdod and placed it in the temple of Dagon, which was one of their own gods. They set the ark beside the statue of the idol. Early the next morning when the priests of Dagon entered the temple, they found that the statue of their idol had fallen face down on the floor, prostrate before the ark of God.
The workers returned the statue back to its original standing position, but the following morning the statue was again flat on the floor. This time it had fallen into the doorway, with its head and its hands broken by the fall over the threshold of the door. Only the torso remained intact.
The writer of the account adds an interesting note concerning this event by saying, “That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and all who enter the temple in Ashdod do not step on the threshold” (1 Samuel 5:5).
The Epidemic of Tumors
But the troubles were only beginning for the people of Ashdod.Not only had their god Dagon been broken, but soon the people of the city and surrounding areas began to be inflicted with tumors. The leaders determined that the cause of this must be the fact that the Ark of the Lord was in the city.
They soon declared, “The ark of the God of Israel must not stay here with us, because His hand is heavy upon us and upon our god Dagon.”
Not knowing what else to do, they carried the ark to another of their cities—to Gath. This threw the city into “great confusion,” the Scriptures say, because shortly after the arrival of the ark, the men of that city also began to break out with tumors.
The Philistines then brought the ark to a third city, this time to Ekron. The Ekronites tried to refuse, crying out, “They have brought us the ark of the God of Israel in order to kill us and our people!” Nevertheless, the ark stayed.
And, as predicted, that is what happened. Many died, and those who did not were afflicted with tumors. The people assembled all of the rulers of the Philistines and said to them, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel. It must return to its place, so that it will not kill our people.”
The ark of God had been in their country for a total of seven months. Understandably, no city of region of Philistia would accept it into their presence. The entire nation wanted to be rid of it, but no one knew just how to go about doing it. The leaders summoned their own priests and diviners.
The Ark is Returned
The priests told them, “If you return the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it away empty. You must return it with a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and you will understand why His hand has not been lifted from you.”
“What guilt offering should we send back to Him?” asked the Philistines.
The priests replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats.”
The number was five of each because there were five fortified cities in Philistia: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron, each with their ruler and their own outlying villages. The offering was gold formed in the shape of the tumors that had inflicted the people, and also rats, which although not mentioned before this, were also multiplying and ravaging the land.
In our days of thinking of various viruses, the thought comes that perhaps the rats may have also been the carrier of a virus that caused the growth of the tumors.
Of course, this we do not know. There may not even be any strictly scientific explanation at all. The plague may simply have been done by direct intervention by God. Whatever the cause may have been, the advice of the priests and the diviners of the Philistines was sound. Just as the Philistine soldiers seemed to remember the history of God’s intervention for Israel in war better than the Israelites, so the Philistine priests also seemed to heed the lessons of history even more than Israel.
The Philistine priests told their people, “Why harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened theirs? Make images of your tumors and of the rats that are ravaging the land. Give glory to the God of Israel, and perhaps He will lift His hand from you and your gods and your land.”
They also advised the people of the manner in which they were to transport the ark:
“Prepare a new cart to be drawn by two milk cows that have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Then take the Ark of the Lord, set it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending Him as a guilt offering. Then send the ark on its way.”
The Delivery Service
The instructions seemed impossible. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of animals knows that one does not take untrained cows, place a yoke on their necks to hitch them to a cart, and then expect them to peacefully pull the load down the road. Even more than that, these cows had to abandon their mothering instinct, leaving their calves behind.
It was a test, in a way. The Philistine priests determined that, if the cows would pull their cart and load toward the homeland of Israel, even when left alone to go on their own, then it would be known that it was the Lord who brought the disaster upon the nation.
If not, as they told the people, “In that case we will know that it was not His hand that punished us and that it happened by chance.”
The people followed the instructions of the priest exactly. When all was prepared, the two milk cows headed straight up the road toward Israel pulling their load, all the way lowing for their calves, as cows do. The calves had been kept back and not allowed to go with their mothers. Nevertheless, the cows did not stray to the right or to the left, seemingly not even to get a bit of fresh grass by the roadside. The rulers of the Philistines followed behind them right to the border.
The Ark in Beth-shemesh
The border town of Israel was named Beth-shemesh. At the time when the cart was arriving, the people were in the field by the road, harvesting wheat. When they heard the cows coming and looked up to see the ark of the Lord entering their land, they recognized what was happening and were overjoyed at the sight.
The cows brought the load right to the field and stopped near a large rock. The people of Beth-shemesh chopped up the cart to make a fire and offered the two cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. Some Levites arrived to take down the chest containing the golden offering sent by the Philistines.
But for reasons unknown to us, some of the people of Beth-shemesh opened the lid of the ark and looked inside. This was something that even the clan of the Levites who were charged with caring for the ark were forbidden to do. Because of this act of disrespect, God struck down a number of the people, perhaps seventy men.
Even the citizens of Israel did not escape the rebuke of God because of their treatment of the ark. The people of Beth-shemesh had to learn the same lesson as did the Philistines. The ark is a holy object unto the LORD God and must be treated with respect.
Because of what happened, the people of the village asked the very same question as did their pagan neighbors: “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom should the ark go up from here?”
On to Kiriath-jearim
As did the Philistines, the people of Beth-shemesh also looked for a way to move the ark out of their presence. They sent messengers to another town, Kiriath-jearim, who delivered the request: “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up with you.”
The people of that village agreed to do so, but the lesson had been learned. They went beyond a cold observance of ritual. The people of Kiriath-jearim treated the ark with the respect demanded by God. The ark was brought to the home on the hill, where a man named Abinadab lived with his family. They then consecrated his son Eleazar to guard the ark of the LORD.
The Bible does not explain why the ark was not returned to its original home in Shiloh, but there is some archeological evidence that suggests that city had been destroyed, most likely during the time when the ark had been in Philistia. Perhaps after the first battle when the ark was taken, the Philistines then went on to ravage other parts of Israel.
However, we do not actually know the reasons the ark was not returned to Shiloh. The Bible does not give us that part of history. We only know that the ark was brought to the home of Abinadab, where it then remained for twenty years.
In those years when it remained in the house of Abinadab, all of Israel mourned for their past sins and sought to return their lives to their Lord God. It began slowly at first perhaps, but after the twenty years of seeking the Lord, when Samuel saw that the repentance of the people was sincere, he said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and Ashtoreths among you, prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only. And He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
This the Israelites did. They put away the images of the Baals and the Ashtoreths that they had in their homes, and turned their hearts to serve only the Lord. Then Samuel said to them, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD on your behalf.”
When the people had gathered at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord as a symbol of the confessions of their sins. This act of pouring out water was more than simply ceremonial. On that day they also fasted, and there they confessed in audible voice, “We have sinned against the LORD.”
The Philistines Sense an Opportunity
The Philistines, for their part, caught wind of this large gathering of the Israelites at Mizpah, and in this they saw an opportunity. They believed that they if they would strike such a large gathering, it would put the entire Israelite nation under their control. Thus, the various rulers of Philistia gathered their troops and began their march toward the gathering at Mizpah.
When word of this pending invasion came to the Israelites, the people of Israel began to feel great fear. The Philistines were a warlike people and ferocious fighters who deeply resented the presence of Israel in Canaan. The armies of Philistia were a constant threat to Israel, and looked for any opportunity to weaken them and drive them out of the land.
The Israelites came to Samuel “Do not stop crying out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines,” they said to him.
Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. Then, as the people had requested, he cried out to the Lord on behalf of Israel.
The sacrifice of the lamb was still taking place as the Philistines drew near, but as the armies approached, the written account tells us that the Lord thundered loudly against the Philistines. This may have been a literal thunder as we hear during a rainstorm, or it may have been some other great shout. Whatever the sound, it was so mighty and so unusual that it threw the Philistines into such great confusion that they began to scatter and to flee the area.
Seeing this retreat of the Philistines, the men of Israel charged out of Mizpah and pursued the escaping soldiers, striking them down as they pursued and overtook them.
After it was all over, Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”
Ebenezer—a combination of two words, eben, “meaning stone,” and ezer, meaning “one who helps.”
“Thus far the LORD has helped us,” Samuel declared.
Last Sunday I left you with the question of whether or not the Lord has abandoned our own country of the United States. Our situation is different than ancient Israel, of course. We are not facing an invading army into our land—but then again, in a sense we are.
Our invasion is not from an army of Philistines, but it is being invaded in other ways. One of these invaders in the past years had been a hidden army viruses. These have invaded our land, killed many people, and have ravaged great parts of our economy. Many businesses have been severely set back, and it is likely that many will not be able to survive.
I raised the possibility that the cause for the tumors of Philistia in Samuel’s day was from a virus. This is speculation of course, and I put it forth only as a possibility, perhaps even a remote possibility. But the fact that the tumors were the result of disrespecting a Holy Article of God is presented to us as a certainty.
How Does this Relate to the 21st Century?
Now we fast-forward more than three millennia to our own times and situation—the Philistines in Samuel’s day may not have had the tools to see the microscopic cause of their physical disease, but it is a certainty that what has invaded our own land in our day are indeed new forms of viruses. These may be hidden from us because we ourselves cannot see them or sense them in any way until we are infected, but because of our advanced medical instruments we are able to determine what they are.
Because through these means we can see this army of viruses, we think that it is entirely up to us to fight against them, as the Israelites tried to fight the Philistines. And also as the Israelites of those days, because we still have some remnants of religion in our country, we may even do certain things to invoke the help of God.
Much like the Israelites brought the Ark of the Covenant into the battle with them, we may do our own “religious things.” We may say things like “I’m praying for you” and make some outward signs of devotion to God. These are good, but unless there is a deeper sense of confession of our own sins, these overt and outward actions mean little.
Do we not see that it takes more than an outward demonstration of what we see as our “holiness?” This is a matter of our hearts.
For twenty years after the ark was returned to the Israelites, the entire house of Israel mourned their past sins and sought the Lord.
It was only after all of that time that Samuel asked them if they were actually sincere about returning to the Lord – even after twenty years of expressing sorrow for their sins! He wanted to determine that this was no snap decision on the part of the Israelites.
Samuel knew that we, as people, are capricious by nature. Faced with a difficult situation, we may make a “solemn vow” to make a change in our lives, but then once the difficulty is over, even the very next day, forget all about the promise that we made to God. With the Israelites in Samuel’s day, even after twenty years, he needed to be certain that theirs was no “foxhole conversion.” Samuel had to be sure that this was no simple brash and impulsive decision that the people had made only in hopes that would get them out of their present difficulty.
The Need for Repentance
So it must be today. If we truly want to have God’s blessing in our land once again, we need to begin to honestly examine our manner of living, what wrong priorities have become important to us, and upon what we are placing our confidence. We must show some true signs of repentance to God, and confess that we have sinned against Him.
Admitting a wrong and confession of sin is an attribute that has been largely neglected in our society. Rather than admitting fault, it has become a common trait in our day to deny any wrongdoing when presented with something that we did, and then attack whomever we see as the opposition. Instead of owning up to failure, we cast fault on whomever challenges us, and blame them for the failure.
We see it especially in the leadership in our country. When was the last time you heard someone in government say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It does happen, but not often. We most often only see counter-attacks.
This must change, not only in our leadership, but with you and with me.
“We have sinned against the Lord!”
A Good Leadership Example
Later in his life, the prophet Samuel would anoint the young lad David to be king of Judah and Israel. It is said of David that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” David is largely regarded as Israel’s finest king, but he was by no measure a perfect man. He once committed a horrendous sin by having a child with the wife of one of his best soldiers, and then having the soldier killed in battle before he would find out about David’s affair with his wife.
If you understand the times and situation in which David lived, you will know that he could have very easily dismissed all of this. He could have simply denied any wrong doing at all. There were no DNA tests in those days to prove or disprove fatherhood, and there was no one who would testify to David’s directives to put the husband in the fiercest part of the battle where he would very likely be killed. Even if someone would testify, David was the sovereign king. What he said was law, and he had the last word in all matters.
But that is not what a man who has the heart of God does. When confronted with his sin, David’s simple response was, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
The sovereign of the land could have claimed that he was above any condemnation from the people of the land, but he would not do that. He knew that his guilt went far beyond his sins against the man and his wife. In the end, his sin was against the LORD God.
The entire 51st Psalm was written by David as his prayer of confession. A portion of it reads:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your loving devotion;
According to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.
Wash me clean of my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…
Cast me not away from Your presence; take not Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation. (Psalm 51:1-3, 11-12 BSB)
It is the same attitude of heart that it took the Israelites of Samuel’s day twenty years to learn. When we sin against another, our sin is not only against that individual, but it against our Creator God.
Last week I lamented the indiscriminate killing of our babies in the wombs of their mothers. These acts are horrible and deserve our full punishment. It is clear that we are sinning against these children by killing them, but it is not only that—our sins also reach up to the heavens. By bringing death to these unborn children, we are sinning against the life-giving God of the universe.
But this particular offence, as grievous as it is, is not the only cause of the fracture of our relationship with God. We have an entire litany of sins that are piled up against us. Until we realize that we as a nation need to come to grips with our offenses, and to confess our sins not only to those whom we have wronged, but also to God in heaven, we should not expect God’s presence to be with us.
If we do not do this, we are alone and without the mercy of God. We are left to find mercy only in the world, and in the world, there is precious little mercy to be found.
If we want mercy, let us confess as did the people of Israel under the leadership of Samuel, and as the great King David also confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.”
If we seek the mercy of God, perhaps he will yet be gracious to us. Perhaps we can have our own new beginning. Perhaps after twenty years a new culture will begin to take hold in our society, a culture that will listen to and follow the words of the Lord.
Perhaps after God sees that our turning to him is not simply impulsive resolution that we never mean to fulfill, we will be able to set a stone of remembrance. Perhaps we can have our own “Ebenezer.”
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