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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Majestic Not Magic

Thirty-Four-Thousand men dead, the ark stolen and the priesthood decimated. That's what Samuel's Israel faced after they went into battle against the Philistines relying on God as their magic and not as their majesty. The initial defeat at the battle of Aphek led them to ask the question: 'Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today?' (1 Samuel 4:3). With that question still buzzing around their brains they decided to bring the presence of God - the Ark of the Covenant - to the battle field, thinking it would make the difference. It was a mistake. Their second defeat was far worse than their first, and it led to decades of desertion - 'the glory had departed from Israel' (ch.4:21).

The Philistines were not better off with the Ark either. Their priests had warned them before the second battle of Aphek that it was this very God who had caused plagues to land on Egypt (ch. 4:8) all those years ago. And their prediction proved correct. The Philistines moved the Ark from one town to another, but wherever it landed the Lord caused tumours to break out amongst the people.

The reason for the plague is clear: the Philistines were a people of heathen gods. Their most prominent being Dagon, for whom a temple had been erected in the most important Philistine city - Ashdod. When the Philistines returned from battle they placed the Ark at the feet of the image of Dagon. But it took no more than one night for the living God to demonstrate who was really God in Philistia. The Philistines woke up to find their precious god Dagon face down, on the floor, before the Ark. And after being restored to its original position, only one further night to be found fallen again - this time without head and hands. At the battle front, the priests of Dagon had prophetically asked the rhetorical question: 'who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods' (ch.4:8) - evidently not the great Dagon!

Even when the Philistines could stand it no more and returned the Ark on a cart to the nearest Israelite town, seventy Israelites who dared to peek inside the Ark found themselves on the receiving end of God's wrath. Dismayed, they bleakly noted: 'Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?' (ch.6:20). Since they couldn't contend with the Ark, it was swiftly retuned to the supervision of the nearest priest - not in the tent of meeting at Shiloh, as before, but in Kiriath Jearim.

Why had all this calamity come on the people? Why did the Lord bring so much death - both on Israel and Philistia? The answer, sadly, was clearer to the Philistines than it was to the Israelites. Again the priests of Dagon speak the truth: 'Give glory to Israel's God...Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?' (ch. 6:5-6). This is the reason. The people had hardened their hearts against God. They had robbed him of his glory by giving themselves to other gods. But the one true and living God is a jealous God and he will not give his glory to another.

Finally the penny dropped in Israel too - it was their own meddling with other gods that had led to the glory of Israel departing. Once they recognised their sin, they returned to the Lord their God according to chapter 7, verse 2. Samuel capitalised on their contrition, he told them to rid themselves of the foreign gods and to re-commit themselves to the Lord and to serve him only.

So, when the Philistines lined up for battle against them for a third time - this time at Mizpah - they cried out to the Lord alone for deliverance. And this time they treated him as majesty not magic - as they should have done in the first place. And so the Majesty of the Universe did go out before them. With loud thundering Israel's God threw the Philistines into panic and thus they were routed before Israel.

This is the lesson: The Lord will not be marginalised or exchanged for other gods who are really no gods at all. He will have the wholehearted supremacy in our lives or he will not allow his glory to remain. He departed from Saul and he departed from Judas, and his departure from Israel stands as a warning to us, he will not give his glory to another. How happy He is to go before us and contend on our behalf if we gladly admit our need of him and rely on him alone. In that case we can have total confidence that he will fight for us - not as a magic god but as the Majestic God over all.


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