I used to be a big fan of the Hard Truth.
I thought it was the most important part of witnessing. I thought it was the main thing missing from our churches, our sermons. We needed to hear about all the things we were doing that were displeasing to God. Someone had to point out all the books, movies, jewelry, and music in our lives that needed to be cleaned out.
Then, and only then, could God bless us.
As a result, a large chunk of my faith journey felt like a game of I Spy. If something went wrong, I felt as if God was taunting me, “I spy with My little eye, some sin in your life.” I had to sniff it out and eradicate it in exchange for a reward.
Never mind that this supposed formula did not work as expected each time I tried to balance it. It was all I knew how to do. Eventually, I told myself, I would get it right.
The empty vending machine
The stakes for Getting It Right were much higher for the Israelites in 1 Samuel 4. If they did get it right, God would give them victory over the Philistines. If they didn’t, He wouldn’t, and they could lose their lives.
They had already lost 4,000 men. Something still wasn’t right. “I spy…”
Confused, the soldiers consulted with the elders of Israel. “I’ve got it!” one of them cried. “We need to bring the ark of the covenant out of the tabernacle and into the battlefield. Then God will be with us.” (verse 3)
So they sent men to Shiloh, where the tabernacle was. Soon, the sacred box, which normally resided within the curtains of the Most Holy Place and was only seen by the high priest, sat out in the middle of a field covered in sweat and blood.
It was a big sacrifice. But it seemed to fit their big request. Satisfied, confident, with battle cries roaring from their chests, the Israelite soldiers went into battle.
And then they were violently defeated.
Thirty thousand men died this time. Hophni and Phinehas, the high priest’s sons, died. And the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines.
Why? Why hadn’t God come through? Wasn’t this what He wanted? Why was He still so angry?
A relationship, not a transaction
The Israelites did a lot in an effort to solve their problem. They met. They argued. They traveled to Shiloh and back.
But one thing they didn’t do was pray. They didn’t take refuge. They didn’t pour out their hearts. They didn’t ask for an answer. They didn’t wait and listen.
And that was a problem, not because they had forgotten to say some magic words, but because they hadn’t connected with the God who loved them.
The Israelites treated the true God the way we sometimes do. They treated God the way the Philistines treated their false gods. They treated God like an idol.
We usually think of idols as people, habits, or things we prioritize above God. Things we love more than God. But idol worship was a terrible thing not just because it replaced God, but because it minimized and marred who God truly is.
Idol worship was the first step in a transaction, an empty formalism that pagan people offered up in an attempt to appease their angry gods. You give something, you get something. You’re not getting something? You haven’t given enough. Tick tock. He’s waiting. Feed him, appease him, satisfy him, and then you can go about your day.
But our God, the true God, is nothing like that. He doesn’t lie up in heaven, arms crossed, waiting for us to push the right buttons before He gives us a treat. He doesn’t want our empty, legalistic rituals and forms, He wants our hearts.
God wants to befriend us. He wants to spend time with us. He wants to talk to us every day, hear everything that’s on our hearts and minds. He wants us to trust Him with our deepest fears and darkest secrets. He wants us to get to know Him through His word and listen to His wisdom and let it change our lives.
He wants a relationship with us.
Maybe God allowed the ark of the covenant to be captured to signal to the Israelites that this wasn’t true faith. That His presence, His blessing didn’t lie in a box, symbolic though it may be.
That following Him wasn’t about appeasing Him, it was about inviting Him in.
“I came not to judge your life, but to be a part of it.”
It’s not like Hard Truth isn’t a thing. It’s just not The Thing.
And we lose something critical when we focus on Hard Truth, when we snipe and gripe about jewelry and movie theaters, short skirts and red meat.
We forget about Love.
And we cannot afford to forget about Love because Love is the beginning and end of this whole thing.
We will never accept Hard Truth if we don’t first hear about Love. We will never understand Hard Truth without Love. We will never want to hear Hard Truth unless it comes from Someone we Love.
There is no meaning, no purpose, no point to Hard Truth unless we have fallen in Love.
God is not an idol, a vending machine, or a game of I Spy. He is Love. That is the key, the number one, most important message, perhaps even the only message.
Because when we accept God’s Love, then He transforms our lives.
Maybe that means He removes some books, movies, jewelry, and music from our lives.
But it will be because of Love.
What do you think? Where do you think the Israelites went wrong in this chapter?