Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Ark of God in the Hands of the Philistines

By John Jefferson Davis
Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

In recent Old Testament daily readings (I Sam.4 &5) we have stories that remind us of some of the all-time low points in the history of God’s people. The ark of the covenant in Shiloh, the center of divine worship and the place of God’s presence, has been captured by the Philistines. Thirty thousand Israelite soldiers had been slaughtered in a devastating military defeat. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli and the corrupt religious leaders of the day, have been killed in battle. Eli the high priest, the highest level of leadership in the nation, falls dead at age ninety-eight. His daughter-in-law dies in childbirth, giving her newborn son the name of “Ichabod” – “the glory has departed” – tragically descriptive of the spiritual state of Israel at this time. Israel was not to experience such a state of spiritual desolation again until 586 B.C., when Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonian armies, and the people sent into exile.

These are the spiritual conditions under which the boy Samuel, the future leader of Israel was being raised. As we look around the troubled Anglican communion today, and consider the current state of the Episcopal Church, we may feel that “the ark of God is in the hands of the Philistines” and that God has written “Ichabod” across the doorways of the denomination’s headquarters.

God brought judgment on the faithless religious leaders of Samuel’s day, and is still able to do so now. The sovereign God was able to defend his own cause and honor, and to bring his ark back to a place of safety (I Sam.6). God remained faithful to his people despite their sins, and from the dark days of Eli was able to bring new hope and spiritual vitality through his faithful servants Samuel and David.

God’s call to Samuel was not to abandon the ark of the covenant and to start over, but to remain faithful to the God of the covenant who was able to bring light out of the darkness. Let us not allow the dark days in the Episcopal Church cause us to forget the lessons of this Old Testament history: the God of the covenant is able to preserve and protect his faithful people in the midst of the most desolate conditions, and bring to his people to a better place of spiritual vitality and hope.

As God’s people we are called to persevere in the midst of troubled times, for “God is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 24).

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