Summary: The story of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem is a sharp reminder of what happens if God’s instructions are flouted and the blessing that obedience brings.
THE ARK OF THE LORD
I expect some of you will, like me, have wasted a couple of hours watching the film "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark". It’s a fantasy adventure story loosely based on the fact that the Ark of the Covenant was lost without trace nearly two and a half thousand years ago. The land of Israel was invaded by the Babylonians. Jerusalem and its temple was plundered, and the Ark was never seen again.
In the film, the Ark was sought after because of its supposed magical powers. Now there’s hardly a grain of truth in the film, so the account in the biblical story we’re going to consider is hardly "the book of the film" - but the Bible story is true and it’s got a real message for us today because it tells us a good deal about God and ourselves.
This interesting if sad story was included in the Jewish scriptures to remind the people of Israel and ourselves of the fundamental need of mankind - first to be made right with God, and then to live rightly under him.
The people at that time when the historical books of the Old testament were written were confused and dispirited; they needed to be recalled to their faith so that they would be ready for the coming of the Messiah which had been confidently predicted by the prophets of Israel over the previous centuries. In the same way we, in the 21st Century, need to be ready for the Second Coming of Jesus. The storyteller outlines the events covering one of the most important features of early Hebrew religion:
THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
The first readers of the story would be familiar with its physical appearance although they had never seen it. In fact very few people had seen it in its seven or eight centuries of existence. This is because its location in the ritual worship of Israel was in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, and later the temple. This inner sanctuary was only entered by the high priest, and that once a year. But its description was detailed in the books of Moses. In fact it was a rectangular box made of wood, about 4 feet long and two and a half feet wide and high, covered with gold. The Ark was a beautiful piece of furniture because on its lid were two golden cherubs with outspread arms, but what was more important was:
THE PURPOSE OF THE ARK
Its physical appearance was nothing compared with its religious function, as it served as a receptacle for the two tablets of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Hebrew people’s relationship with their God. But of even greater importance was that it was designated as the meeting-place in the sanctuary where the Lord revealed his will to his servants.
Over the years there was a sad decline in Israel’s spiritual life. Religion became more of a form than a reality, but the nation hung on to its traditions believing that its outward ceremonies would take the place of a meaningful relationship with God. Of course God, although long-suffering, would have none of it, and allowed the nation’s enemies, the Philistines, to punish them in battle.
Some clever Israelite general thought he had the answer. "Let’s bring out the Ark, and take it with us in battle. God will be forced to fight on our side!" But God cannot be manipulated. Their scheme of using the Ark as a kind of lucky charm didn’t work and the Ark was captured by the infidels. What a warning to us: if our faith deteriorates into merely an outward symbol and we use religion only as a crutch it will surely let us down. After this sad episode someone whose family was involved in the sad drama named their child Ichabod, meaning, "the glory of the Lord has departed". Let’s beware. God is not someone to be taken for granted, to be used for our own ends, a type of "heavenly slot-machine" with a handle to pulled and out pops a blessing!
Strangely enough the Ark began to be an embarrassment to the Philistines, and they passed it from one city to another like a hot potato, and eventually they returned it to its homeland. The purpose of the Ark was to be blessing, but because of disobedience it became a bane, and so we come to the point where the storyteller takes up his story of how God taught the people an important lesson of the:
ABUSE OF GOD’S HOLINESS
King David was basically a godly man, but godly men and women are not infallible. He believed it was God’s will for the Ark to be brought back to Jerusalem. In fact he got very excited about the project and his enthusiasm ran away with him. It was to be a religious spectacular! His motive was good, but his method was wrong. He was right in his intentions, but wrong in his implementation. There were to be singers and dancers in the grand carnival procession in which the Ark would be transported in triumph. It was to be a real celebration. But in all the excitement, David forgot something of vital importance.