“And when the troops 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 see from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).
John Calvin wrote that “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.” That may seem a little harsh, but I think we prove it just about every day. Certainly, we’re not out carving little wooden idols that we place on our mantel at home for worship, but the time and energy we’ve devoted to our smartphones alone ought to make us stop and wonder if they haven’t become our idols today.
The worst part is, we tend to turn the good things that God has given us into objects of worship, where we value the gift more than the giver. If God grants us health, become obsessed with staying fit and looking young. If God grants us wealth, how easy is it for that wealth to become a trap, where all we can think about is earning more money! If God promises His presence will always be with us, we tend to idolize our own security, and we treat God as a cosmic genie who is there to do our bidding.
Consider, for example, the passage above. The people of Israel had just been soundly defeated by the Philistines in battle at Ebenezer. Losing over 4,000 men, the troops returned to the camp and the elders asked, “Why has the Lord defeated us today?”
Now any healthy amount of self-examination probably could have led to the right answer here. The book of Judges offers plenty of help. The people all did what was right in their own eyes (Judg 21:25). They repeatedly turned their backs on God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. They ignored their heritage as the chosen people of God, a holy nation called out of slavery in Egypt and set apart for God’s glory. Any one of these might have been the reason the Lord handed them over to the Philistines in battle that day.
Instead of confessing the truth of their sinfulness, the Israelites in effect blamed God. They reasoned that the reason they lost was because God must not have been with them in battle. On the surface, that makes sense; when God fought on Israel’s behalf, their victories were overwhelming. However, their solution demonstrated the heart of their problem.
Realizing they had lost the battle because God had not fought for them, did the people repent of their sins and seek the intercession of the Lord? No. Instead of turning to the Lord, the elders decided to find the Ark of the Covenant, the golden chest that represented the meeting place between God and man, and let that lead them into battle. “Bring us the ark!” they cried. “Then those Philistines will get what’s coming to them.”
The ark had become for the Israelites and idol, or at least a good luck charm. Without giving any thought to their standing before God, the Israelites simply thought if they had the ark, that would be enough.
Sadly, they were wrong. The Israelites were defeated, again, in battle. The ark was taken by the Philistines, and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phones were killed. The glory of the Lord departed from Israel, until a time when the people would learn to once again reverence the name of the Lord.
What has become an idol for you? What occupies your thoughts, your energy, your time? Where do you spend most of your money? What one thing can you not live without? The answer to these questions reveals that which our hearts have created as idols.
Often, the biggest idol we have to deal with is our own misconception of God. We take God’s promise of forgiveness as a license for indulgence – “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission…” We hoard God’s blessings as though they were ours to cling to, rather than pass them along to those for whom they were intended. Without listening to God’s voice, without obeying the teaching of Christ, we run headlong into temptation and sin, and then we wonder why God lets us fall on our faces in defeat in sin.
Israel learned the hard and slow way to cast down their idols. And each of us must learn that too. So fix your eyes on Christ, listen to his voice, and leave behind the idols of your heart that you might run after him.