Summary: ALthough Israel suffers a defeat, God is still in control
How can we tell the difference between a real God and a false god? How can you know that the God you worship is real?
The Israelites and the Philistines both believed with great sincerity that the Gods they worshipped were real. The Israelites thought that if they brought the ark of the covenant with them into battle they’d win because their God was the true and living God who made heaven and earth. When the Philistines defeated the Israelites they were convinced that it was because their gods were more powerful than the Israelites’ God. So how can we know?
Let’s look at 1 Sam 4. "In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek." Ironically Ebenezer means "stone of help." Maybe the Israelites thought it would be a good omen for them to camp by the "Rock of Help." Certainly, as they soon discovered, they needed all the help they could get!
Then the battle begins. The Philistines spread out and the Israelites are defeated. 4000 men are killed and the armies return to their camp. The Israelites call a council of war to discuss this defeat and the first question that comes up is ’Why?’ ’Why has the Lord put us to rout today? We thought we were fighting with the living God on our side and yet we’ve been decimated by these pagan Philistines. What are we going to do about it?’
Then someone has a bright idea. ’Let’s bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD up from Shiloh so he’ll come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.’ What a great idea! If we want God fighting for us, then let’s get him here.
Now can you see the problem with this approach? Can you see what’s wrong with their theology for a start? They understand God’s presence and the ark as being one and the same thing. They haven’t really understood that the ark is just a visual cue to help them understand God’s presence with them. And they think that if God is with them they’ll win. They have what’s really a superstitious understanding of the presence of God with them. They think that if the ark is physically present then God will be too and so everything will be all right.
But they also have a problem in their approach to working out the will of God. In fact they don’t stop to answer their own question, do they? They’ve asked "Why has the Lord put us to rout today?" But they never stop to find the answer. Instead they find their own solution to their dilemma.
Now can I just say that they’re not alone in that error. Lots of us take the same approach when we encounter difficulties in life. We have a problem so we jump in with the first solution that springs to mind. We don’t stop and ask God if he’s trying to tell us something. We don’t stop and ask God if he has a suggestion for us. Instead we rely on our own ingenuity. And sometimes we even revert to a superstitious approach just like the Israelites. We think if only we change something in the way we’ve been acting everything will be better. Or we try bargaining with God. Or we look for omens that’ll point us to the right way to go. Some people even use religious items, a Bible or a prayer book, a cross, or a religious painting of some sort, almost as good luck charms.
You know, the Israelites actually had an alternative to this approach that we’re told about at the very start of the passage, but they didn’t even consider it. The passage begins with the statement "And the word of Samuel came to all Israel." They have in their midst someone to whom God has revealed himself and who’s able to bring them a message straight from God. But they don’t even think of using him.
If you think about it, we’re actually better off than them, aren’t we? We have the word of God given to us in written form to teach us, to reprove us, to correct us, and to train us in righteousness. And each of us has our own direct line to God. We don’t need to go through an intermediary. We don’t need a Samuel in our midst to bring us God’s words. We can ask God directly for guidance through his Holy Spirit who lives within us. We can ask him to lead us and guide us as we read his word. We don’t need to resort to superstitious approaches. We have the Living God present within us waiting to lead us and guide us if only we’ll ask.