One of the more pernicious effects of sin is how it confuses our thinking and leads us to think we have found a solution to a problem when in fact that “solution” will only exacerbate it. The classic example here is the person who tells a lie and then must keep on lying in order to keep his first lie a secret. The nature of sin is such that we often try to fix the problems created by our sin by sinning more. The old adage: “the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging” applies here. This tendency to keep on sinning instead of turning in repentance can be especially deceptive in the church where there are all manner of ways to make a pretense at piety that are nothing more than a disguise to our rebellion. But God shows us in his word that there is only one way to rightly respond to our sin and that is to repent and cast ourselves upon his mercy. If we try any other way we merely heap more judgment upon ourselves.
Summary of the text:
Israel goes out to battle against the Philistines and lose. The elders of Israel recognize that they ultimately lost because the LORD was against them. In an effort to gain the Lord’s favor in battle, they bring the ark of the covenant to the battlefield believing its presence will grant them victory. The Philistines, recognizing that the presence of the ark in the battle represents the very presence of God in the battle, become deathly afraid and steal themselves for the fight. During the battle they again put the Israelites to flight, slaughtering many, including Eli’s sons Hophni and Phineas. The ark is captured and taken to one of the cities of the Philistines. When a runner delivers word of the defeat to Eli, he falls out of his chair backward and breaks his neck, dying. As a picture of all that has happened, Phineas’ wife was giving birth about the time all of this was happening. When her son is born, she names him Ichabod, saying, “the glory has departed from Israel” (Ichabod translates to something like “no glory”).
One of the dangers of sin is that we can assess facts correctly and still draw incorrect conclusions. The elders of Israel rightly understand that they lost the first battle because they have lost the favor of the Lord but they conclude incorrectly that they can regain his favor by following the ark into battle. Now on a certain level it is not hard to understand why they would have come to this conclusion. Just to give one example, it is the ark that goes out in front as the people circle the walls of Jericho before it falls. It is not hard then to see why they might have drawn the conclusion then that what is missing is the ark of the covenant. This is what will bring us victory. The ark after all hosted the very presence of God among his people. In a very real sense, where the ark went God went. That is not to say that God was no longer everywhere all the time but there was a unique way in which God manifested himself through the ark. The text itself highlights this, saying that the LORD is “enthroned on the cheribum” (of the ark) verse 4.
But as we see, the ark coming onto the battlefield does not lead to victory but to greater defeat. Why? What did the elders miss? To say it in a phrase, they missed that there was sin in the camp. And rather than repenting from it, rather than purging it from their midst, they allowed it to continue and instead treated the ark like a magic totem that would grant victory regardless of anything else going on. Eli’s sons Phineas and Hophni are specifically noted as being present during all of this. These men who had been abusing their authority, offering up worthless sacrifices to God, and committing sexual immorality with the women of the tabernacle in the previous chapter. And I don’t think we are wrong to assume that this their sin is not isolated from the community. The rest of Israel was following them in their sin. And rather than repent they try and buy God off in essence and have his presence and his blessing as well as their sin.
We can often, in effect, do the same thing. We try and buy off God. Sometimes this is as crass as thinking that our faithful giving to the church alleviates the seriousness of a particular sin in our lives (although we would probably not think precisely in those terms), but often this is more subtle. We know God is calling us to do x, yet instead we dedicate ourselves to doing y. And often y is a good thing, that we should be doing. But it is not substitute for repentance. So maybe we faithfully attend worship services, spend time in the word each day, don’t do these things that we know we are commanded not to do but all the while our sin of envy or of discontentment of any number of other things is harbored in our souls. And to all this, God simply says he is not fooled. He is not satisfied with false repentance. He does not bless those who seek him and their sin.
So we can be in a situation where we see things going wrong in our life, our life feels like it is falling apart and we decide the answer to our problems is to pray more, to seek God more, to avail ourselves of all his common means of grace that he has made available to us. And normally those are the right things to do, and they are things that we should be doing. But in this situation they can actually be the wrong thing. Because they are our attempts to disguise one simple fact. We are in sin and unwilling to repent.
Such repentance can only come to those who rest in Christ as their Savior. Who recognize that they deserve God’s judgment and nothing they can do can settle that debt. And yet that debt has already been paid in full by the blood of Christ. Such mercy allows us to see our sin honestly for what it is in all its heinousness and to deal with it accordingly. Such grace opens our eyes to the fact that we cannot gain what we have lost, the favor and presence of God, it can only be freely given by God. Fundamentally we have two choices either we can try and pay our debts or Christ can. The former leads to religion games. It leads to the Israelites recognizing God has left them to fend off the Philistines for themselves and concluding they can trick God into taking the field of battle anyways. It leads to our similarly misguided efforts. But as they old hymn says, “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone”