1 Samuel 4: 1 – 7: 14.
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8) is a familiar Scriptural refrain, but what does it mean as God is invisible, omnipresent and sovereign. Perhaps this rather poignantly counterpoints story soon after Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of God will aid us in our understanding of the dynamics of being in God’s presence. It occurred during the sunset years of Eli the Levitical High Priest, when his two infamous sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were responsible for the corrupt administration of the temple at Jerusalem (1Sam 2:12-17). Their behaviour was a reflection of the nation’s iniquitous disposition as religious unrighteousness is symptomatic of a decrepit political and spiritual institutions. After an initial skirmish when the Philistines defeated Israel, the elders sent for the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, under the impression that now God will battle for them to victory. In the ensuing battle, Hophni, Phinehas, and 30,000 Israelite soldiers perished and the ark was captured by the Philistines. The ark, representing Yahweh’s sacred and formidable presence, remained impotent through the battle and its seizure! When the news reached Eli, it killed him. God is sovereign and cannot be manipulated, and any relationship with Him demands our unmitigated commitment to Him. Although the ark at some point in time represented a permanent abode for God in Israel, it appears that God’s choice of how He would manifest His presence through an assortment of objects and modes is quite unpredictable: e.g., a whirlwind with Elijah, the appearance of three strangers in the Mamre incident with Abraham, and Peter’s vision on Cornelius. He is not in the habit of attaching Himself permanently to one locality or a person, and neither is His palpable presence fixated on a particular object. What we do know is that when He does express His presence in our world, He has chosen to limit Himself as He breaks into the constraints of time and space.
The ark, now considered a valuable trophy of Israel’s defeat, was brought into the Philistine temple of Dagon at Ashdod, to honour their fertility deity. Yahweh had lessons for both the Israelites and the Philistines as He waited and allowed the pragmatically victorious Philistines to bask in the apparent superiority of Dagon. On the following two consecutive mornings, the Philistines found that the statue of Dagon had fallen before the ark. In a well-timed dramatic demonstration, God exercised His unequivocal omnipotence over Dagon; on the second occasion, its head decapitated and hands broken in pieces. Yahweh needs no one to defend His authority, neither a Levite nor the Israelites. Then suddenly, the Ashdodites succumbed to a blight of fatal tumours. The fear of annihilation compelled them to send the ark away to Gath, and finally, to Ekron. The epidemic followed the ark. The Ekronites decided to test the authenticity of the divine curse by hitching the ark on two locally milch cows, releasing them to prognosticate their journey. As a matter of course, these creatures would normally find their way back to their rightful owners, but instead, they took off in a mysterious direction straight towards the Israelite village of Beth-shemesh. Irrespective of one’s spiritual persuasions, being in God’s presence elicited consequences concerning one’s idols. To desire to follow Him faithfully is to have our idols surfaced and destroyed.
The Israelites were euphoric over the recovery of their national icon. It seemed ironic that God initiated its return and they played no part in it. An attempt by 50,070 men to catch a forbidden glimpse inside the ark resulted in their premature deaths. A further endeavour by Uzzah, a non-Levite, to stabilise it by handling it, also killed him. The ark was eventually transported by the sons of Kohath, from a Levitical tribe to Kiritath-jearim, and it remained at the house of Abinadab for the next 20 years. God’s presence is enduringly identified with absolute holiness (c.f., Ex 3:4-6; Isa 6:1-7), and certain rules concerning the movement of the ark had been laid down in Scripture since its dedication (Num 4:15). As believers, being in Christ is such a deep privilege, as holiness is imputed to us, and we have access through Him into the Holy of Holies (Heb 10:19-22; c.f., Acts 3:14; 2Cor 5:21; Heb 7:26-28; 1Peter 1:15-16). It, therefore, becomes our responsibility to order our lives in line with our Lord’s will as we seek to serve Him faithfully and ceaselessly.