By Michael Hoch
What do a horseshoe, a rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover, and a wishbone all have in common? You got it; they’re all considered good luck charms. These types of magical or superstitious trinkets have long influenced the way people interpret life. For example, you may have heard that it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, break a mirror, open an umbrella indoors, or let a black cat walk across your path. Not to mention the famously unlucky number thirteen.
In sports, athletes meticulously follow the same routine to get ready for competition. In China, ornaments of animals face away from the door in fear of luck escaping. In Scotland, a strange dog at the front door implies a new friendship. In Germany, if you sneeze before breakfast you’ll receive a gift that day.
In Israel, God’s chosen people were not immune to this sort of superstitious, if not artificial and irreverent, way of approaching life. On one occasion, they treated the holy and sacred Ark of the Covenant as a sort of good luck charm. After the Philistines defeated them in battle, the elders of Israel decided to take the Ark of the Covenant into combat with them so it would deliver them from the power of their enemies (1 Sam 4:3). Notice where they put their trust – in the presence of the ark, not in God whose presence filled the ark.
The priests at that time were Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, not exactly ideal ark escorts. They were “worthless men” who did not know the Lord (2:12) and who were under the curse of God (3:13). That, however, didn’t seem to bother the Israelites. “All Israel shouted with a great shout” (4:5), as the ark was brought into the camp. Victory was now guaranteed. Yahweh would have to deliver them if He was to preserve the honor of His name. Or so they seemed to think. It turns out that viewing the ark as a lucky charm was not so magically delicious.
Meanwhile, the Philistines got wind of the Israel’s ploy and were genuinely afraid. The thought of becoming like the plagued-infested Egyptians was terrifying (4:7, 8). Nevertheless they lead a fierce charge against Israel and soundly defeated them! Thirty thousand Israelites were killed, including Hophni and Phinehas, and the ark of God was captured (4:9).
Here we should carefully observe that the Lord was willing to suffer shame rather than allow His people to carry on a false relationship with Him. He orchestrated Israel’s disappointment with Him in order to expose their idolatry and reveal His holiness. This is sovereign grace, a severe mercy. On that day, what God’s people needed most was to be slaughtered by their enemy. They needed God to demonstrate that He is mighty to save, but His saving grace operates through faith, not mechanical rituals.
The Philistines soon discovered that the Ark of the Covenant was no lucky charm for them either. Their stone idols mysteriously toppled and every city they brought the ark to experienced plagues and death (5:3-12). In a desperate attempt to end the Lord’s personal attack on them, they sent the ark back to Israel. The ark was placed on a cart loaded with gold and pulled by cows with young calves. God directed it back to His people (6:1-12).
When the ark arrived in Israel, sacrifices were offered. The celebration was short lived, however, because the Lord struck down thousands of Israelites who received the ark too casually (6:19, 20). The people were killed either for looking at the uncovered ark (usually covered) or for their indifference to its return. In both cases the offense was trifling with God’s holiness. The symbolic manifestation of God’s presence had become too commonplace. They were too comfortable and unaffected by the Almighty.
Through these events God brought His people to godly sorrow (7:2). Samuel called them to “return to the Lord with all [their] heart” (7:3) and forsake their idolatry in order to worship and serve the Lord. Israel repented, removed their idols, and put their trust in God. When the Philistines came against them again, they cried out to God for deliverance and He fought for them (7:7-11). That time victory was certain. Yahweh was honoured to defend His people.
What about you? What or who do you put your trust in when it comes to everyday circumstances? Do you expect God to respond to your prayers in a certain way or bless you when you do certain things? Have you become too comfortable, casual, or familiar with the Holy One? Our God is a Warrior. He is holy and worthy of our total allegiance. Our posture before Him should be humility as we approach Him in faith. Israel learned that God sovereignly controls circumstances to maximize His glory. He is gracious, but sometimes His grace means weaning us off of our functional idols to worship Him alone. Then we’ll be able to sing,