Terrifying, Mysterious, and Untamed
What would you do if you were given an object that represented all the power and presence of God on earth? Would you be delighted? Terrified? Would you use it like a talisman? Would you give it away? Steal it? I think I would be a bit terrified at first, but then I’d probably be excited to use its power — I’m a little power hungry sometimes.
Well, the ancient Israelites had just this kind of object in their possession. It was the golden box–the Ark of the Covenant–placed in the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelt among the people. It was a sacred object, and some REAL PEOPLE didn’t handle its power very well.
Trying to Use the REAL GOD
Our scene opens with a defeated group of Israelites. They’ve lost a terrible battle to the Philistines, they’re upset with God for letting them be defeated, and they don’t know what to do. Until one of them gets a bright idea…
“Let us bring the Ark of the Lordʼs covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3 NIV
In their hour of desperate need, one of the elders of Israel remembers Who is powerful enough to save them—their REAL GOD. And all the Israelites agree! As the Ark enters the camps, they lift up a great shout. Their hope is in the Lord! But…we must also remember that we cannot force or coerce God to work on our behalf. He will not be used by us.
There could have been some measure of humility at the root of the Israelite’s idea. But it sounds to me a bit like, “Hey, remember that object we have in the Tabernacle, the one where God sits? Let’s bring into battle with us this time. Last time He let us be defeated, but this time He will have to fight for us.”
GOD Decides for Himself
The Israelites enter into the next battle with God’s presence (the Ark) in their midst. But…they don’t win the battle. In fact, they lose more soldiers than they did in the first one. And what’s worse, the Ark of the Covenant is stolen from them! Their power, and the very presence of God among them, stolen by a mighty Philistine army. Why would God let this happen?
Well…what happens next is one of my favorite little stories in all of the Old Testament.
Treating GOD like a Trinket
The mighty Philistines take home the Ark, but they don’t quite know what to do with it. They know it is an object of some “god,” so they stick it in the temple with their own god—just a trinket to look at now and then. But our REAL GOD is no trinket, and He is no mere “god.”
“Then they carried the Ark into Dagonʼs temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the Ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the Ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” 1 Samuel 5:2-4 NIV
Wow! Our REAL GOD showed them! Battle won—Dagon: 0; REAL GOD: 2.
Philistines Terrified in God’s Presence
The Philistines get spooked about this Ark, this powerful object of a “real god.” So they pass it around from city to city within their region. It’s like a game of hot potato, in which every city is afraid to get burned by the REAL GOD. And in every city God brings tumors and chaos upon the city, for the sin that the Philistines have committed against the Lord, until finally the Philistines wise up and decide to get rid of the Ark.
“If you return the Ark of the God of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you…Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s God dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?” 1 Samuel 6:3,6 NIV
The Philistines have realized that this is the same God who dealt harshly with the Egyptians. They don’t want His hand against them anymore, and they desperately hope to appease Him. So they send the Ark back to Israel, on the backs of a couple of cows.
Israel Rejoices at God’s Returned Presence
When the Ark comes back to the Israelites at Beth Shemesh, the ones who see it coming rejoice and promptly sacrifice to the Lord!
“The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.” 1 Samuel 6:14 NIV
What a beautiful response of these REAL Israelite PEOPLE. Sometimes we have to feel God’s absence before we can truly rejoice in His presence.
REAL GOD Still to be Revered
Still, the Israelites have some repercussions for how they treat the Ark…
“But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the Ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them. And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, ‘Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?’” 1 Samuel 6:19-20 NIV
After having taken for granted His presence for so long, Israel now had to relearn the essence of His holiness and power. They had forgotten how to worship selflessly. Their worship had become about their needs and desires, instead of God-centered—which is the definition of REAL WORSHIP.
So, what about you?
When you interact with the Lord of Lords, the One Holy God, how do you approach Him? We no longer rely on a golden box to hold God’s presence on this earth. Every one of us can enjoy His everlasting presence through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit by simply believing in Jesus Christ as the One and Only sacrifice for our sins (John 3:16) and declaring Him Lord of our lives (Romans 10:9).
While both fear and joy can be appropriate reactions to our REAL GOD today, perhaps the wisdom of the people of Beth Shemesh should still be our guideline for true worship—“Who can stand in the presence of the Lord?”
Let us fall face down in awe of the terrifying, mysterious, and untamed powerful presence of our REAL GOD.
- Fall face down in awe of the terrifying, mysterious, untamed, powerful presence of our REAL GOD.
- Sometimes we have to feel God’s absence before we can truly rejoice in His presence.
- Our REAL GOD is no trinket, and He is no mere “god.”
- Which requires more faith for you—to remember God’s presence with you? Or to remember the same power He displays in Scripture dwells in you?