Things were desperate. The Israelites had just lost 4,000 men in a battle with the Philistines, a battle that took place a mere twenty miles or so from the tabernacle in Shiloh. If the Philistines should continue to decimate the Israelite army, what would stop them from destroying Shiloh itself?
The elders held a council of war, and asked, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” (1 Samuel 4:3). This was not just a good question, but a great question. The elders not only wanted to learn why they the lost the battle, but why God had brought about this defeat. The question was a great one because it showed the elders understood that their defeat was, at bottom, the Lord’s doing. God is sovereign over all things, even over the bad things that happen to his people, and the elders were wise to acknowledge this.
But then their wisdom left them. Instead of repentance and prayer, seeking God’s forgiveness for their sins and the sins of the people, and instead of humbly asking for God’s help in future battles, they decided to take matters into their own hands (quite literally): “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (v.3). Surely if the ark is with us, they reasoned, God will save us from the Philistines. It’s a slam dunk; where the ark goes, God goes. “Bring up the ark of God, we can’t lose with God on our side!”
But they lost, and lost big time. In the ensuing battle, the Philistines slaughtered 30,000 Israelites. The two sons of the priest Eli were killed. And by far the greatest calamity of all, the ark itself was captured by the Philistines.
The problem was not that the Lord had failed, but that the Israelites thought God could be manipulated. The ark had become to them little more than a magic charm; with the holy ark their midst, they thought, God would give them victory. They thought they had God in their pocket, so to speak. He had become their “iGod”.
But the Lord of heaven and earth will not be approached in that way. He is both sovereign and free, and cannot be manipulated or pressed into our service. The Israelites learned this the hard way.
By nature, we are no better than the Israelites. Rather than serving the true God, we would rather have our own personal “iGod” – a god who is conveniently available for us to call on him when necessary, to do our bidding.
The wonder of the gospel is that, despite our sin, God has promised to be our God. And in the person of Jesus Christ, he has given himself to us in order to be our God. But he is ours only as we give ourselves to Christ in faith. Only as we (by the sheer grace of God) submit our will to his will, and only as we serve and worship Christ as our sovereign Lord, does God then shower us with blessing upon blessing and give us the victory over sin and death that we could not obtain on our own.
By grace God is truly ours, and out of his love and mercy, he does for us “far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).