1 Samuel 4:22
And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.
These histories have a permanent meaning, and an up-to-date application. God deals with the Church today as He dealt with Israel in days gone by. The spiritual Israel is akin to the natural and the national Israel. Well, the Church of God, the chosen seed, is doubtless suffering defeat. I doubt very much if the Church of God is even holding its own today: I believe in the final triumph of Christianity, I am sure that Christ will reign from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth; but I confess that if I look candidly and without prejudice at the signs of the times I am bound to say that here and there if not everywhere, Israel is getting the worst of it, and the Church of God is being beaten slowly back. Be sure of this; the fault is not with God. You know the advice of these elders of Israel. They decided that the ark of the covenant of the Lord, which was resident at Shiloh, should be brought, and that the battle should be renewed with this as the standard. Surely victory would then result. The mischief was deeper than the elders of Israel imagined; it was not to be cured by the presence even of the ark of the covenant of God. That seemed only to add to the disaster, for itself was taken prisoner, and the two licentious sons of Eli, who bore it into the battle, who, we may believe, fought bravely for its preservation, were slain hard by the outspread wings of the golden cherubim. Wherein did the mistake of these people consist? I think we shall find that it was a three-fold error.
I. In the first place, THEY ACTED ON HUMAN IMPULSE, INSTEAD OF ON DIVINE COMMAND. A distinct command is recorded, that when once Israel was settled in the land of promise the ark, with the Tabernacle, should remain at a fixed place. It was not to be brought to the people. The people were to be humble enough to come to it. In this case, therefore, if they were not distinctly disobeying God's command, they were acting without a Divine injunction, and this is always a dangerous venture. We may he as disobedient by acting without a command as we can be by actually running in the face of a distinct injunction. We cannot be too precise. Let us do what God hath bidden us, and none other. Let there be no alteration of God's way. Add not to the ordinances, nor detract from them. Make no addition to, or adulteration in the doctrines. Do not imagine that enthusiasm will suffice. You Christian workers, there are a hundred plans for doing work for God today of which we have to ask first of all, "Has God appointed this?" If we enquire of the Lord before we go down to the battle, and before we take any weapon in our hands, certain of those things which are most approved by men will be found not to have the warrant of Scripture, and to be therefore mere wooden swords, which, whereas they may inspire some enthusiasm, mainly because they are our own manufacture, will be broken at the first onslaught of the foe. So much for Israel's first mistake. Let us not do likewise.
II. Secondly, and still more seriously, THEY SUBSTITUTED THE SYMBOLICAL FOR THE SPIRITUAL. Therein they grieved the Spirit of God, therein they played the fool exceedingly, after the fashion of the dog in the fable, who let go his goodly joint of meat that he might grasp the shadow. Now, it must be admitted that the ark was, by Divine institution, a symbol of God's presence. The contents also pointed in the same direction; but these people, elders though they were — and who can wonder that the multitude went wrong when their leaders were astray? — these people confused the symbol with the Presence itself. This superstition was the natural result of the decay of religion. I venture to say that the Israelites in this case were little better than the Philistines themselves. The Philistines, if I mistake not, had images of their gods in the battle by way of standards and flags, and Israel seems to have said, "We must have a standard, too, we must cherish in our midst a symbol of our God." They craved for something tangible and visible. Nor are we less guilty who forget that our religion is altogether spiritual, that our warfare and its weapons are spiritual. We are not less guilty who mistake forms for internal power. We are not less blameworthy who, having a form of godliness, deny the power thereof. How careful some are of the externals. I believe in creeds, but oh, it is an awful thing to have a creed only. A religion of the head does not cleanse the heart, a religion that touches only externals evidently does not affect the internals, and the heart and the soul are the things with which we have to do. Thank God for the Sabbath, but a rigid observance of the Sabbath is not enough; we want to be in the Spirit on the Lord's Day.
III. But there was another mistake, deeper than either of these. THEY FAILED TO PERCEIVE THAT SIN WAS THE SECRET OF DEFEAT, sin on the part of Eli's two sons, sin on his own part, and sin, if I mistake not, which was shared in by all the people, for there is an indication in Psalm 78, which speaks of that time, that the people were estranged from God. This it was that weakened their arms, and prevented their success. Even Balaam could not curse God's people, though he longed to do it. Why? Because there was no iniquity in them, because God Himself beheld no perverseness in them. Therefore Balaam had to say, "The Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them." These people shouted, but it was not the shout of a king; it was the shout of presumption, and therefore closely preceded and heralded a disastrous defeat. A worldly Church is nigh. unto cursing. A grieved God means a conquered Church. I tell you the ark itself is valueless if there be an Achan in the camp. Do you know that in this same place God wrought wondrously a little later. Read the story, at your leisure, in chap. 1 Samuel 7. It is only a chapter or two further on than this, but oh how the scene has changed. Ichabod then gave place to Ebenezer. The days of the Church will brighten and her power be as of yore when she comes back to primitive practices and doctrines, and to the old-time holiness, and to zeal for God, love for souls, and reverence for the Holy Ghost.
Parallel VersesKJV: And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.