As was so often the case, the Philistines once again troubled them. They went to battle and promptly lost 4000 soldiers. What should they do? Talk to God about it? No, they said. Instead, Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh that it may save us, 4:3. Not that God may save us, but that IT may save us, treating it like some sort of magic charm.
When the ark was brought into the camp, the people roared with such a shout that it scared the Philistines. A god has come into the camp, 4:7, they said. Note that there was little difference in the way these pagans thought about the ark and the way the Israelites did. During the next battle 30,000 Israelites lost their lives and the Ark of the Covenant was captured.
The story of how the ark was returned to Israel is an interesting one that would take too much time for this little essay. Suffice it to say that when it found its way home, the Israelites who greeted it said, Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God? 6:20. At least a few people had learned a lesson.
Surrounded by paganism on all sides, they had become tainted by its beliefs, many of which were bound up in sorcery and witchcraft. They equated Jehovah with the idols, and the rituals of His worship with the rituals of the heathens.
Do you think that cannot happen to us today? I have lost track of the number of times I have heard a fallen Christian end his litany of faults with the disclaimer, “But I’ve been baptized!” Somehow that is supposed to keep him safe from the wrath of God, no matter how much he has deliberately provoked that wrath and willingly continues to do so with no intention to change. Baptism, instead of a union of the believer with the sacrifice of his Lord and the resurrection to a new life, has become to such people a ritual performed to break a curse. “Pour the ashes of a rat’s tail on a bird’s wing, and hop on one foot three times with your eyes closed,” would have had as much meaning.
Then there is the matter of the Lord’s Supper. Rather than a memorial feast we celebrate with the Lord and our spiritual family, it is treated as a magic potion. “At least I got there in time for the Lord’s Supper,” is uttered with a “Whew!” and a sigh of relief. Visitors come in late and demand to be served even if the assembly worship is finished. Some members show up only for those “magical” few minutes as if nothing else were worth their trouble.
The same sorts of things happen with prayer, as if it were some magic formula that can only be repeated in certain ways, rather than a pouring out of the heart to a loving Father. And we think we don’t have the same problems as those Old Testament Israelites?
Treating God as if He were on the same level as a pagan deity and could be appeased the same way earned those people some of the most scathing indictments in the Old Testament. The danger is that one will think Jehovah can be swapped out in a fair trade. God took care of that notion in the book of Hosea. Israel actually thought that those pagan gods were her source of blessings, 2:5, and so God said, For she did not know that I gave her the grain, and the new wine, and the oil, and multiplied unto her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. Therefore will I take back my grain in the time thereof, and my new wine in the season thereof, and will pluck away my wool and my flax which should have covered her nakedness, 2:8.9. Suddenly, she figured out where it really came from.
Attitudes that treat God and His worship in such a pagan manner are no better. Rather than reverencing God they demean Him. Rather than showing awe for an all-powerful Creator, they minimize that feeling into nothing more than pacifying a petty, capricious tyrant.
Serving our God is a duty certainly, but not one we can fulfill in a slapdash, haphazard fashion just so we get it done in time to avoid the consequences. It is a service He wants us to willingly offer in a careful, obedient, heartfelt manner—an obligation certainly, but also a privilege.
For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek me in vain. I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right. "Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; From my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance. "Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory," Isa 45:18-25.