“When the army came back to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why did the Lord let us be defeated today by the Philistines? Let’s take with us the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. When it is with us, it will save us from the hand of our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4.3
The Israelites spent most of their lives opposed to God’s rule. It seems like to them that they worship Yahweh whenever they are in crisis, but even when they come to worship, they neglect what God desires. So here in 1 Samuel everything has gone wrong. We begin with the continuation of familial strife: Elkanah has two wives, and they are opposed to one another. Hannah can’t have children and Penninah can. But God provided in the broken situation as Hannah pleaded for a child at the entrance to the Tabernacle, and God opened her womb. The child born was Samuel who became a prophet and judge. There was also a problem with the priesthood. Eli and his sons were corrupt, and the nation continued to waver in the same direction as it did during the times of the judges.
So in chapter 4, the Israelites had gone to battle against the Philistines whom they had served all these previous years (verse 9). What should they do? The Israelites think they have an ace in their pocket; they have the ark of the covenant, so they decide to bring it into battle, but the losses are even more humiliating. Instead of losing 4,000 men, they lose 30,000 men. What went wrong? It all goes into how they viewed their God. He was the god they had sitting on the back burner for times of distress; otherwise they lived life the way they wanted which was opposed to what God had commanded them in his law. They viewed the furniture of the meeting place with God as a talisman that would give them victory.
What should the Israelites have done? The ark did not bring victory, but God still worked through their failure. He brought judgment on the Israelites and on the Philistines. They should have remembered what God had told them. He had never said the Ark of the Covenant would be a vehicle for destroying enemies. It is true that it was present at Jericho, but it symbolized there Israel’s dependence on worship of Yahweh as they took the Promised Land. They should have offered sacrifice for their sin. They should have repented, and they should have purified the priesthood. Eli’s family wasn’t the only one descended from Aaron. They could have sought a better high priest.
As we begin considering this, we should realize that the problems couldn’t completely be solved even by fixing all these problems. The nation of Israel had shown that humanly speaking they were unable to follow Yahweh their God. God had given them his instruction, his law, but they failed immediately. They broke the first commandment as Moses was still getting the rest of the law from God. It was not a pretty sight, but it illustrates humanity’s brokenness and humanity’s need for a better priest.
This one of the messages of Hebrews, and we do not merely have a high priest that is just a little bit better; rather, he is a lot better. He is the son of God who has come near to reveal himself to us and to be our great high priest. In fact in Christ, the tabernacle was shown to be what it always was: a shadow of the coming of the Son of God. So we don’t have to live looking for a talisman to save us from our enemies. We don’t have to hack our way to a better life. We can find rest in Jesus Christ our great high priest who has gone before us and offered his own life as a sacrifice.
Now the benefits of his sacrifice are manifold. First, in his death he bore the punishment of our sins. The benefit is glorious. We can cry aloud, ‘O sweet exchange,’ his robes for mine. But as we look at the Israelites, they needed more than just a sacrifice for their sins. They had offered sacrifices on the bronze altar at the tabernacle, but it was just a shadow. The blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. Only Jesus could. They needed a transformation of heart. We also need a transformation of heart. And in this we see another benefit. Through his death we have been justified. We are counted as just in God’s sight because Jesus endured God’s punishment that was due to us. But through Jesus’ work, we also experience sanctification. This is God transforming our hearts. Where once we were like the Israelite, we have been sanctified and are being sanctified through the work of Christ. He has sent his Spirit to dwell in us who convicts us of our sins and works spiritual fruit in us. So again, we rest in what Jesus has done. May we continue to be sanctified by God in Jesus’ sacrifice, through his Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.