Sunday, September 22, 2013

[Matt's Messages] "God in a Box"

“God In a Box”
A Heart for the Heart of God: The Message of 1 Samuel
September 22, 2013 :: 1 Samuel 4:1-22

Our current sermon series is called “A Heart for the Heart of God: the Message of 1 Samuel,” and we’ve learned a little bit about what it means to have a heart for the heart of God.

In chapter 1, we learned that it involved a prayerful heart, like Hannah who prayed for a child, and God answered with Samuel.

In chapter 2, we learned that having a heart for the heart of God includes having an honoring heart, a heart that wants to honor God. And we learned that God loves to honor those who honor Him.

Last week, in chapter 3, we learned that having a heart for the heart of God includes having a listening heart, a heart that wants to hear God speak and to carry out God’s will. Young Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Those have been the positive things we’ve learned along the way as young Samuel has been born and grown up around the tabernacle, growing in stature and favor with God and men.

However, that’s not all that we’ve seen.

We’ve also seen that Israel is in a bad place spiritually at this time. And a big part of that is because of who Israel has leading it spiritually.

Eli, the high priest who is basically blind, in more than one way. He is both physically blind and spiritually blind.  He has turned a blind eye to the sins of his sons and is not able to recognize genuine holy spirituality when he sees it. He has gotten fat off of the shearing of his flock done by his wicked sons.

His sons are named Hophni and Phinehas and they are lustful, covetous, gluttonous, and ruthless.  And, they are the priests!

Eli has not stopped them and the people of Israel have not stopped them. They have just accepted their wicked spiritual leadership.

And God has promised to judge them.

God has said that He will not only honor those who honor Him, but also that those who despise Him, He will disdain.

No less a prophet than Samuel himself has prophesied the downfall of Eli’s family.

The family he has lived with all of these years.

Today, is when that downfall comes.  1 Samuel chapter 4.

And here is our title for today’s message: “God in a Box.”

Unfortunately for them, the Israelites are going to be shown that you can’t put God in a box.

How often do people try to get God to fit into their little box and to do the things they want Him to do for them?

You can’t put God in a box. He will not fit. He will not crawl in there and cooperate.

This is one of the saddest stories in the Old Testament. In fact, this is probably the lowest of the lows in the time of the Judges.

Lower than Gideon.
Lower than Samson.
Lower than Jephthah.
Even lower than the Levite and his concubine!

Because by the end of this story, it is clear that God has laid the entire nation low under His judgment.

But I think there are at least 2 important lessons for us to learn from it for our lives today, and as we go along, I’ll share them with you.

Now, one of the ways we know that this is going to be bad a sad story is that Samuel disappears in verse 1 and doesn’t show up again for 3 chapters!

Here is he is in verse 1.

“And Samuel's word came to all Israel.” Samuel is the prophet given to Israel.

But before he can step up to the plate, the previous generation needs to strike out for good. V.1

“Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.” Let’s stop there for second.

Now, we’re introduced here again to a very important group of people–the Philistines.

They were mentioned as “bad guys” who had attacked and oppressed Israel during the book of Judges.

They are going to be the main enemies of Israel throughout the book of 1 Samuel.

They are the Israel’s main opponents at this time. They worship other gods, they are numerous and powerful. They have superior weapons to the Israelites, and at times they are going to totally dominate them.

Chapter 4 begins by telling us that the Israelites were at war with the Philistines.

And the Philistines whipped them badly. V.2, “Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.”

A very sad day.

Now, after any defeat like that, there is going to be some locker-room analysis by the coaches.  V.3

“When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?”

That’s a good question! That’s a question they should have been asking.

And we know the answer. We know that Israel had grown spiritually blind and fat.

We know that everyone was doing what seems right in their own eyes.  And they were breaking the covenant that the LORD had made with them at Mount Sinai.

That’s the obvious answer, but these generals of Israel just flat out miss it. V.3

I know what we should do!

“Let us bring the ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

Yeah. What a great idea!

I don’t think so.

The ark of the covenant was a relatively small box, about 4 feet long, 2 and a half feet wide and 2 and a half feet high.  It was made of wood and it was covered in gold.

And there were some pretty important gifts that sat inside of it.

The ark is going to be pretty important in this story for the next several chapters.

The ark was a symbol given by God of the covenant that He had made with His people.

More than that, it was a symbol of redemption because blood was sprinkled on it every year to symbolize the atonement that the LORD provided for His people.

And more than that, it symbolized God’s presence among His people.  It had two winged creatures molded on its lid that faced one another called “cherubim.”

And symbolically, that was like the LORD’s throne.

Do you think that this is a good idea that the elders of Israel have?

Why might they have had this idea?

They might be trying to recreate the battle of Jericho.

Remember that?  The armies of Israel marched around the city with the ark of the covenant, and the walls came tumbling down.

So, here, the leaders say, “Let’s go grab the box. Let’s go grab the LORD’s box and take it with us.”

If you have a footnote on v.3, you’ll see that it’s even possible that they were saying, “Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that HE may go with us and save us.”

Let’s go grab God in His box and take him to war with us!

What could go wrong?

Whenever we’ve got the box, we never lose.

God has to save us if we have the box!

He would hate to look bad in front of the Philistines!  V.4

“So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.”

Oh great! Those two guys.  Here’s the problem. There is no repentance here. There is no seeking the Lord. These two guys are with the ark?

There is no seeking the Lord here. There is just using the Lord like they’ve done all of their lives and ministries.

And God will stand it no longer. V.5

“When the ark of the LORD's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.”

Wahoo! Here we go. We’ve got God in a box, and we’re going to get you back!

It’s going to be just like Jericho.

And that’s just what the Philistines are afraid of. V.6

“Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, ‘What's all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?’ When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. ‘A god has come into the camp,’ they said. ‘We're in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!’”

It almost looks like this plan is going to work, but it actually has the opposite effect. It galvanizes the Philistines to fight harder than ever, and they win. V.10

“So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”

Here’s our first lesson in God’s ways from this sad day.


The LORD will not be manipulated.

He refuses to play that game.

God does not live in a box that can be drug around and used for our own purposes.

He will not let His arm be twisted. We cannot force His hand.

If Israel had 10,000 arks of the covenant, they would not have won that battle.

God is not magic. He does not live in a magic box that we manipulate.

He is not a rabbit’s foot or a lucky charm.

God will not be used.

I can think of a lot of ways that people try to use God.

For one, they try to use His symbols as lucky charms. Some people wear a cross around their neck for good luck. Some carry their Bibles under their arm.  Some slap a fish sticker on their bumper.

Now, it’s fine to wear a cross, carry a Bible, and have a Christian bumper sticker.

But we can’t think that any of those will provide protection or blessing to us.

What really matters is whether or not we believe in the Cross, read and heed our Bibles, and truly witness with our lives and words.

Or on a bigger level, revival is not going to come to America because we post the 10 commandments at the courthouse, or we are allowed to set up a nativity scene in the public square, or have state-sponsored “prayers” led by the staff at our schools, or force employees to say “Merry Christmas.”

Now, some of those are not bad things, but they are not magic.

God will not be used.

Many politicians want to use God, as well.

They want their political platform to appear to be God-blessed, that God is on their side.

Democrats do it. And Republicans do it. And so do many of the others.

Abraham Lincoln was told by a pastor once that he “hoped the Lord is on our side,” and the President wisely said, "I am not at all concerned about that.... But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

God will not be used.

How might you and I have tried to use the Lord recently?

I know some folks try use God to stop or win an argument.

Or to “baptize” some idea of their own as present it as God’s will.

Others try to use prayer or fasting to force God to do their will.

I believe in both prayer and fasting but God will not be used.

God does not live in a box that I can drag around to win the battles I choose to fight.

Does that make sense?

In fact, God does not exist for me. I exist for Him.

God does not exist to make me happy or to feel loved.  I exist to glorify Him.

And amazingly, when I do, I feel joy and know His love!

When we get it into our heads that God will not be used, then some people who have claimed to be Christians will head for the exits.

Because many people only want to be known as Christians for the benefits.

I know people who do their daily devotions because when they do, their day goes better.

Now, I believe that that if you do daily devotions, you’ll experience a better life.

But notice the motivation–I do daily devotions, not to get more of God but so my day goes better?!

Author Dale Ralph Davis says it this way, “Whenever the church stops confessing ‘Thou art worthy’ and begins chanting ‘Thou art useful”–well, then you know the ark has been captured again” (1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, pg. 55).

God Will Not Be Used.

He refuses to play that game.

Now, I think that the elders of Israel thought that God would refuse to lose if His portable throne was brought to the battle.

But God chose, not only to let them lose the battle, but for capture of the ark.

Because God had His own purposes to achieve. V.12

“That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God.”

We don’t know where Samuel is at this point. He might be right there witnessing this, the fulfillment of his first prophecy. V.13

“When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry. Eli heard the outcry and asked, ‘What is the meaning of this uproar?’ The man hurried over to Eli, who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes were set so that he could not see. He told Eli, ‘I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.’

Eli asked, ‘What happened, my son?’ The man who brought the news replied, ‘Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.’

When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. [Smack!] His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had led Israel forty years.”

This is the worst day ever in Eli’s life. And it is his last.

It was a day of death, but also of a birth.

Eli’s grandson was born that day; however his birth was also not a happy one. V.19

“His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains. As she was dying, the women attending her said, ‘Don't despair; you have given birth to a son.’ But she did not respond or pay any attention. She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’–because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’”

This poor boy lost his mother, his father, his uncle, and his grandfather all on the very same day.

And when she died, his mom named him, “No Glory” – Ichabod.

She recognized what had already been true, the glory had departed from Israel. God was gone.

And, yet, I also think she might have been kind of wrong.

She might have thought that God was so tied to that ark of the covenant, that the glory of God was now gone because the ark had been captured.

If that’s what she meant, then she might have thought that God had just been kidnapped! God-napped.  Captured.

But we know that God does not come in a box.

And He does not go in a box!

The glory had departed from Israel because Israel had departed from God.

And the ark being captured was just a very sad symbol of that truth.

Here’s the second and last lesson in God’s ways from this sad story today.


The LORD will do what he said He would do.

The whole point of this story is that God has promised to bring Eli’s family to judgement.

He said it in chapter 2. He said it in chapter 3.

They never repented, and He brought the judgement in chapter 4.

God always keeps His promises, including His threats.

We all know parents who threaten discipline but never carry it out.

Kids learn pretty fast if Mom and Dad really mean what they say they are going to do.

They can hear it in the voice. “Ooh, now they’re serious! Better do it.”

God always keeps His promises, including His threats.

So, we better take Him seriously.

The punishment meted out on Israel here and on the house of Eli stands in our Bible to remind us of the judgement that will come on all of the wicked.

We use the phrase, “There will be Hell to pay,” but we often don’t mean it.

God does.

The Lord Jesus talked about it.

He said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

God will do what he said.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that God is not paying attention.

That you can put Him aside in a little box and go your own way.

No, God is a god of perfect justice.

He will do what He said He will do.

You can count on it.

And we should count on it!

Because we know that God won’t just carry out His threats, He will also carry out every one of His good purposes to bless His people.

God always keeps His promises, and all of His promises are “YES!” in Christ Jesus.

God has promised to save all of those who put their trust in Him.

God has promised to never leave nor forsake His children.

God has promised to work all things to the good of those who love Him and called according to His purposes.

God has promised for King Jesus to return and take His people to be with Him where He is and rule with Him forever.

And God will do what He said.

Therefore, we need to trust Him.

Sometimes, it seems like the worst day ever.  This was a pretty bad day.

But know that God was still working for the good of His people.

We know that God was up to something good, even in the darkest day.

Next week, we’ll see how God got glory for Himself even while the ark was in captivity!

And we know that God was going to do more through Samuel and then through other prophets and kings and eventually in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The day Jesus died seemed like the worst day ever–and in many ways it was, because the God the Son was crucified!  That’s even worse than the ark of the covenant being captured.

But we know that God was doing what he said He would do.

And that makes all of the difference.

Let’s trust Him, brothers and sisters.  He knows what He’s doing.

He’s doing what He said He would do.

He will not be used. He will not be boxed in.

But He will keep all of His promises in Jesus Christ.

And one day, the glory will return and will stay forever!


A Heart for the Heart of God

01. Hannah's Prayers
02. Those Who Honor Me I Will Honor