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1 Samuel 5, Justice, and the Ways of God

by Stephen Hebert on Saturday - 3 February 2007

in Biblical Studies, Old Testament

Previously, I posted “Gettin’ Evangelical with Samuel.” Some of those ideas are replicated here, but the focus is different. This line of thinking was used for a recent bible study I taught at Friendswood High School’s “Campaigners” (Jan. 31, 2007).

Why would God allow the ark of the covenant to be captured? (1 Samuel 4 [ESV])

The ark was the very seat of God. It was the place where the Spirit of God resided. In antiquity, temples were quite literally the houses of the gods. Most temples held a cult statue which would be used for ceremonies or worshiped by that cults devotees. The ark of the covenant sat in the house of God (whether tabernacle or temple) and tangibly symbolized His presence.

When the sons of Eli go out to battle the Philistines (1 Samuel 5 [ESV]), they take the ark with them (at the behest of the “Elders of Israel”) in order to ensure their victory. But God gives victory to the Philistines on that day, and the ark is captured and whisked away to Ashdod.

The Glory of God Demonstrated

The Philistines place the ark in the house of Dagon (1 Sam 5:2 [ESV]). Dagon is an ancient mesopotamian deity often used in the names of kings and other rulers. (I suppose he’s the mesopotamian god of politics!) The statue of Dagon certainly seems to act like a politician—a sycophant—as the people of Ashdod discover that overnight the statue has fallen down face first before the ark.

The people re-erect the statue. But the next morning, not only is Dagon bowing before the ark, but his hands and head have been cut off.

God allows the ark to be captured in order to demonstrate the fundamental point that there are no gods before Him. He is the supreme god. These mesopotamian gods that the Philistines worship are nothing compared to Him.

God Giving Himself Up

The story of the capture of the ark is not an isolated incident. God’s modus operandi is to give himself up in order to prove His glory. The most famous example of this would be the final week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus is God. Yet, He chooses not to flee from his would-be captors, but gives Himself up in the garden. He is beaten and battered; he is hung on the cross and dies the death of a felon. Three days later, He rises from the dead, having conquered sin and death. His glory is demonstrated when He ascends to the right hand of God, and the Spirit is made manifest on Earth.

A summary of the Christ event can be gleaned from Paul: Philippians 2:6–11 (perhaps the greatest piece of poetry ever written):

English Standard Version
Nestle-Aland 27
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός

I’ve always thought in the back of mind that just about every sermon should begin and end here. This is the perfect picture of the gospel in a nutshell. God humbles himself, allows himself to be lowered to the level of mere mortals. He infiltrates sin and death where they dwell so that He can conquer them. By conquering sin and death, He is glorified above every other name.

God’s “Backward” Justice

God has a backward justice, at least from our human perspective. Jesus’ message is that we must humble ourselves and serve in order to be counted as great in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Gospel of Luke is best at portraying this social reversal. Luke’s text is rife with the paradox of the kingdom: the last shall be first. Look at Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4:16-30, His first public act in the Gospel of Luke.

This backward justice, however, comes about because it is rooted in pure love. Jesus’ sacrifice is the ultimate reversal. God himself was spurned and rejected, beaten and battered, mangled so that He can be first in the kingdom.

Sometimes we wonder why the wicked prevail. We wonder why the good die young. We wonder why the ruthless get rich. Rest assured, it is not God’s justice that is backward—it’s ours. Only in a sinful world is it possible to understand how these events can take place.

Kingdom View

For me, this story of the capturing of the ark is a solid reminder that we need kingdom eyes. We need to be able to see past the sinful world to the reality beyond. If you are Christian, then your world is governed by the reality of God (I would say that this is true if you aren’t Christian…but you probably don’t acknowledge that). Looking beyond the fabric of this world into the next requires kingdom eyes—requires eyes to see the Kingdom.

God’s kingdom is set up in such a way that the last shall be first. It is the humble servant who is exalted. It is not the rich or the powerful who find glory, but those who submit themselves to service. Jesus is the perfect example of this.

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