1 Samuel 4:3
And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Why has the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines?…
Let us fetch the ark...that when it cometh among us it may save us. (Compare with ver. 10, and 1 Samuel 7:3.) —
Superstition and religion: — "Let us fetch the ark." What was the ark? It was a chest made of wood. It was overlaid with pure gold, within and without, and crowned with a mercy seat of pure gold. What was its purpose? It was a material thing representing a spiritual idea. It was a thing made with hands to symbolise things not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. It was a temporality pointing to a spirituality. That is how humanity deals with unseen presences; it makes visible vestures for them, garments that can be touched. Here are ten thousand men, a nation's army, moving with one step, to one music, on one mission. They are possessed by one sentiment, that of patriotism; they are swayed by one idea, that of freedom. But these sentiments and ideas are intangible, spiritual, unseen. The nation must give them visibility; they must become enshrined in vestures that can be handled and seen. So we give our army a flag, and a flag which cam be touched represents the unseen which cannot be couched; it represents patriotic sentiment, national enthusiasm, the common hope. Through that flag there gleams the idea of duty and of right. To abuse the flag is to insult the nation. The ermine which our judges wear is the symbol of an idea. That visible robe represents the unseen vesture of authority with which their fellow men have clothed them. All these are visible representatives of unseen forces and powers. Our very instinct leads us to give these unseen presences a local and visible habitation and name. And here was God, an unseen Power, and men hungered for some material symbol to represent the unseen and. eternal. And God said: "Make an ark of wood and gold," and it shall stand as the symbol of the meeting of God and man, the confluence of time and eternity, the blending of the unseen influences of heaven with the unseen aspirations of earth. Now the character of symbols depends upon the character of man as men become better, symbols become enriched. As men deteriorate symbols become degraded. Is that not so with the commonest of all symbolism which we call language? These words which I am now addressing to you are all symbols which I am using to represent my unseen thought. The corruption of language follows the degradation of man. Language loses significance; it becomes debased, and its deterioration must be traced to its essential cause in the deterioration of man. It is the same with other symbols besides language. They become emptied of their royal significance when men lose their royalty. The more high-minded is the soldier, the more illustrious is his flag; the more debased is the soldier, the more vulgar is the flag. And so symbols wait upon character, they can become gradually impoverished in their meaning, until at length they become as empty as those shells which are strewn in myriads along our shores, empty houses which have lost their tenants, forsaken and lifeless forms. But now, mark you, a strange foible and trick of human nature. When our feelings and enthusiasms have deteriorated, and the symbols have lost their life, we are prone to hug the empty shell, and we delude ourselves into the belief that the empty symbol can do what only could be done by its living guest. Thoroughly bad men wear a crucifix, an empty shell, a cross without a Saviour. One of the most notorious criminals of our time was found with a crucifix next to his skin. Now let us realise their position. They had lost the purity of their character, and they tried to pervert a religious symbolism into unreligious magic. They thought that a dead symbol would do the work of a living devotion, and that is superstition. It would be just as reasonable for a man who was being drawn headlong to ruin by drink to seek end save himself by putting on a blue ribbon, a symbol of sobriety, and yet to continue to grovel in the waste and slough of passion and lust. For bad men to send for the ark to protect them is evidence that their religion has degraded them into the grossest superstition. There are homes in which Bibles are kept, not to be read, but because their presence is supposed to surround the home with a certain sanctity and protection. But are we not prone to use these symbols and means as the Israelites used their ark, to obtain a sort of magical protection from physical peril, and not deliverance from the captivity of sin? And is not the divine purpose of prayer sometimes forgotten, and is it not often employed as a spell to save us from poverty and loss of danger, but not from sin? There is a short paragraph in the life of one of the saintliest men of our time which I will read to you, as it specially illustrates my argument. In one of his letters, written in manhood, he writes: "Once I recollect I was taken up with nine other boys at school to be punished, and I prayed to escape the shame. The master, previous to flogging all the others, said to me, to the great bewilderment of the whole school: 'Little boy, I excuse you, I have particular reasons for it.' That incident settled my mind for a long time; only I doubt whether it did me any good, for prayer became a charm. I knew I carried about a talisman — which would save me from all harm. It did not make me better, it simply gave me security." Will you mark that last phrase? "It did not make me better; it simply gave me security." That was what the ark did for the Philistines; is that all that prayer does for us — composing our fears but not affecting our morals, giving us a sense of security, but not delivering us from our sin? If the exercise has been thus debased, it will betray us when we need it most; refuge will fail us when we stand at last in the presence of the pure and holy God.
(J. H. Jowett.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.
WEB: When the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, "Why has Yahweh struck us today before the Philistines? Let us get the ark of the covenant of Yahweh out of Shiloh to us, that it may come among us, and save us out of the hand of our enemies."