My family is reading through 1 Samuel right now. Recently we read chapter 4. As we debriefed there were some sobering dynamics that jumped out at us. I’d like to rehearse the salient points of the story and break it down for us.
It is an old OT dynamic: the Israelites drew up for battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:1). Day one ended in a rout. The Philistines killed about four thousand Israelites. What a mess. When Israel did their post-battle debrief, they concluded that they needed a more powerful weapon. They needed the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was a sacred object to Israel. God ordered it to be made and gave the specifications. It contained the ten commandments, a bowl of manna, and Aaron’s budding rod. It was a very holy and sacred object. It was central to the worship of YWH.
So. The Israelites reasoned this way. This holy object will surely give us the strength and power to defeat our enemies! Let’s bring it to the battle. There is no way we can lose if we lead out with that.
What happened next looked pretty good. As soon as the ark came on the scene, the Israelites shouted with a mighty shout (v. 5). The ark boosted morale. This morale boost was not lost to the enemy. They observed the commotion and were afraid. They knew something was afoot, something unfavorable to them. However, they determined to not back down.
Then came the command – ‘forward the light brigade!’ The fight began but Israel was defeated. The army fell into disarray and every man fled the battlefield and ran home (v. 10). Thirty thousand soldiers of Israel fell that day and the ark was captured (v. 11).
The strategy didn’t work. The ark didn’t save them. It not only didn’t save them but it was taken and attended with a staggering loss of life. What happened, what went wrong?
The nation was riding on the fumes of a defunct relationship with YWH. Worship was lost, power was gone, and all that was left were the forms. They viewed the ark as a relic, almost like a rabbit’s foot, a lucky charm. Having no real integrity to their faith, they latched on to the most sacred object available and threw their hope into that.
One subtle twist to the story is this. The good luck charm did boost morale. Not only that, it made the enemy draw back in fear. The projection of courage and morale worked – but only in the short term. Eventually, it was a dead end.
After reading the story, the gravity of such foolishness hit me. I asked my kids, “what do we use to project strength?” The following answers came back, to name a few: friends, church, and parents. I have my own list too.
The story never ends well for us when we head into battle on the momentum of projection. Your enemies will soon discern your faulty foundation and gleefully rejoice at your demise. A proper foundation, namely trust in YWH alone, will sustain battles a thousand times over. The Lord is more concerned with his own glory than he is propping up an unsustainable situation.
We should note that Israel did rebound from this stage of its journey. The ark made its way back home, miraculously. They got better leaders. In one-two generations they hit their stride and fought lots of battles against the Philistines and won. Their golden age was ahead, the days of David and Solomon – great days indeed.