During the transition between the Judges Era and the Kingdom Era, the ark of the covenant loses its original meaning and purpose. It no longer symbolizes the sacred meeting place between Holy God and sinners, but has become a lucky charm. Though Israel and her priesthood live sinfully before the Lord, they think that to have the ark of the covenant in their midst is to have God's blessing of protection. Much like those who wear crosses around their neck today-to wear the cross is to have God's blessing regardless of how one lives.
When Israel meets the Philistines in battle and loses the first skirmish, they think that taking the ark into battle will give them power, "Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies" (1 Sam. 4:3). At first, the Philistines panic. They too, think that the ark of the covenant is Israel's good luck charm. God, however, allows the ark to be taken by the Philistines as a rebuke to Israel.
The Philistines take the ark and place it in the temple of their god Dagon. They soon discover that possession of Israel's ark isn"t so lucky, "But the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors" (5:6). The ark becomes an object of terror among the Philistines, finding no resting place among them. After seven months they return the ark to Israel.
Twenty years later the whole house of Israel begins to seek the Lord under Samuel's leadership. Samuel leads Israel in great repentance as they prepare to face the Philistine army, "If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines" (7:3). Samuel commemorates Israel's victory by setting up a stone between Mizpah and Shen and naming it Ebenezer, which means, "The Lord has helped us." Samuel teaches Israel that it is more important to have God's presence than to have a symbol of God's presence.
This story reveals a number of truths about man and religious objects:
What do the death of Eli and his sons and the people's request of Samuel reveal about the failure of the priesthood at the closing of the Judges era?
How does the LORD describe life under the reign of an earthly king?
Why does the LORD permit Israel their request for a king?
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