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Bible Passage: 1 Samuel 4
A few times during his ministry, Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah. “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
The world today has an abundance of knowledge. We have more information than we could ever need. But knowledge is not the same thing as understanding. Look with me at 1 Samuel 4, beginning in verse 1:
1 Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
This right here… this is why knowledge is not the same thing as understanding. Let me say that again – knowledge is not the same thing as understanding.
Notice they say, “the Lord defeated us today”. They did not say “the Philistines defeated us”. And they are correct. Their fate in this battle was in the hands of God. God ordained their loss, and they know it. But they obviously don’t understand it.
They think the solution is to bring the ark into battle. Why do they think that? It may have been because they remembered the battle of Jericho. The ark was central to God’s plan during that battle, and Israel won.
But again, this is knowledge without understanding. Instead of asking God what they should do, they make their own plans. Can you guess what happens next?
4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.
For one moment, it seems like they made a good decision. The enemy was afraid. But instead of running, they turn and fight.
9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty-thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Thirty-thousand dead… Eli’s sons dead… the ark of God captured…The embarrassing failures of Israel continue.
What happened? Well, they treated the ark of God like a good-luck charm. They thought the ark would guarantee victory. Instead, God used their ignorance to fulfill his plans of putting Eli’s sons to death. Remember that prophecy from chapter 2?
12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
Notice it says that Eli was heavy. In Hebrew – “kebed” – meaning that Eli was a gloriously fat man. That sounds crude, but there’s a purpose in telling us Eli was “kebed”.
19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
She gives birth to Eli’s grandson, names him “Ichabod”, and then she dies.
“Ichabod” or “I-kabod” means “where is the glory?”
“Kabod” is the Hebrew word for glory. It is related to the word for heavy – “kebed”. Do you hear the sound? The irony here is obvious. The “kebed” man dies as the “kabod” leaves Israel.
Those two words almost mean the same thing. In ancient times, people expected their king to wear his glory. The kings wore the heaviest robes and jewelry. They displayed their glory by walking around in heavy vestments. They did it to look big and important – more important than anyone else in the room.
But the name Ichabod suggests that the glory of Israel has departed. It’s gone.
And it was gone long before the ark was captured. The ark was captured because God does not share his glory with us.
In Philippians 3:19, the Apostle Paul says this about false teachers:
“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
That is a perfect description of Eli and his sons. Their end was destruction. Their god was literally their belly. And their glory was their shame.
They abused their position and God would not tolerate it any longer.
There are at least three lessons here for us today.
First, we need to stop trying to use God to get what we want.
Tim Chester says we treat God like a waiter in a restaurant. We sit with our friends, enjoying a meal together, and most of the time we ignore the waiter… unless we want something. “Can we order now? Can you bring me more water? Can we get the check?”
The waiter doesn’t sit with you. He’s not part of your evening. You just call on him when you need him. And sometimes we treat God like that… He’s not really part of our lives. We don’t take Him seriously… we just call on God when we need Him.
We come to church. We read the Bible. We give a little time and money. We pray when we need something. And in return, we expect God to perform. Keep us happy. Keep us healthy. Get us to heaven when we die.
But that is all completely backwards. God is not there to serve me. I’m here to serve God. He doesn’t owe me anything. He’s not in my debt. He’s not trying to earn my respect or love. He’s not sitting in heaven hoping we notice Him. “I really hope Mike thinks about me today… I hope he talks to me.”
That is not the God we worship. But it is the God we think we want… a god that answers to us. Doing Christian stuff because we want God’s help is like taking the ark into battle expecting victory when God hasn’t promised it. He doesn’t work like that. He’s not your good-luck charm.
But second, God does know what He’s doing. And He can use even our failures to accomplish His plans. God’s glory departs Israel for a season – not only to punish them, but to teach them.
Sometimes, before we can learn something new, we have to unlearn something else. Our brains have powerful bias. Once we learn something, it is very difficult to unlearn it.
To prove this, Destin Sandler spent 8 months teaching himself to ride a backwards bicycle. Everything about the bike was normal, except the handlebars had an extra gear. If you turn the handlebars to the right, the bike goes left. If you turn the handlebars to the left, the bike goes right. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Watch the video later – it’s crazy. It took him 8 months!
At the end of the video, he says this – “I learned that knowledge does not equal understanding and I learned that truth is truth, no matter what I think about it. So be very careful how you interpret things, because you’re looking at the world with a bias – whether you think you are or not.”
Israel was stuck in a pattern of rebellion. They did what seemed best to them and ignored God. So, God took a vacation. Not completely, of course. But He took enough of an exit for His people to unlearn some bad habits.
Ralph Davis said it like this – “Sometimes God must depart from us in order that we may seek Him rightly.” [Repeat]
But what is the lesson Israel needed to learn? It’s actually a deep, Gospel principle that God teaches us in this chapter. It’s a kingdom principle – one that Jesus taught His disciples.
This is the lesson: Success in the kingdom might look like failure to the world.
Israel carried the ark into battle assuming that God would not let them lose, because losing the battle meant losing the ark. And God would never let something so shameful happen. It would damage God’s reputation – at least that was their reasoning. But God did the unexpected. He let the ark be captured.
And something that appeared shameful for God turned out to be a new beginning. Does that sound familiar Christians? It should sound like the cross of Jesus.
Jesus let himself be captured, tortured, and crucified. But the shame of the cross was a new beginning. It was victory. It was the death of death in the death of Christ.
Jesus offered up His spirit. The sky went dark. The Father turned His back on the Son. His glory departed the earth. All seemed lost. It was unexpected. God let the Son be crucified.
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, we crucified and killed…”
But it was not failure. It was victory. The ark would not stay in enemy hands for long. And Jesus did not stay in the grave.
We live in a culture driven by performance. Failure is not an option. We are conditioned to seek glory for ourselves. But in the kingdom of God, there’s only One person worthy of the glory we seek – Jesus Christ. And He earned it through sacrifice. It didn’t look like victory. It was selfless. It was humble. It was love.
God does not promise us most of the things we think we need. But He offers us entrance to His kingdom through Jesus Christ. May the God of glory humble us to forsake this world and follow Jesus.