Dragging God With Us

On Sinai, God gave Moses verbal blueprints for constructing His tabernacle—the tent in which He would dwell with Israel during their time in the wilderness.

The very first blueprint God described was for the ark of the testimony. This ornate golden box would be crowned with a mercy seat guarded by two golden angelic figures, and it would serve as a physical representation of God’s heavenly throne. “There I will meet with you,” God told Moses, “and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:22).

The ark was the core of the tabernacle. It was a reminder of God’s continued presence within the nation of Israel. Once the tabernacle was constructed, “Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). Throughout Israel’s time in the wilderness, whenever “the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle of the Testimony” (Numbers 10:11), it was time to move.

So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said:

“Rise up, O LORD!
Let Your enemies be scattered,
And let those who hate You flee before You.”

And when it rested, he said:

“Return, O LORD,
To the many thousands of Israel.”

(Numbers 10:35-36)

The important distinction, of course, is that God did the moving. He chose where to move and when to move, and the ark followed.

* * *

Centuries later, Israel forgot that lesson.

When Eli was the high priest in Shiloh, Israel was fighting with the Philistines. After losing one battle, 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 from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).

Look at the mental gymnastics going on here. The elders believed that God had caused their defeat on the battlefield—while simultaneously believing that if they just brought God’s ark onto the battlefield, they would be guaranteed a victory. Look at the phrasing:

“That when it comes among us it may save us.”

They thought getting their hands on God’s magical golden box would turn the tides in their favor.

They thought God followed the ark.

They were wrong.

* * *

And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook. Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”

So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

(1 Samuel 4:5-11)

In a stroke of poetic irony, it was the presence of the ark of the covenant that prompted the Philistines to fight back as hard as they could. They were terrified of the mighty God who had crushed the Egyptians.

But God hadn’t come into the camp.

He doesn’t work that way.

The Israelites thought they could drag God onto the battlefield to fight their battles. They thought they had a divine cheat code that would get them whatever they wanted.

They didn’t realize that, without God’s presence, the holy ark of the covenant was just a gilded box.

Without God’s help, the Israelites only managed to lose a second time. And not only did they lose to the Philistines, but they also lost the ark itself. The object they trusted more than God was captured by their enemies, who placed it as a war trophy in the temple of one of their false gods.

When Eli heard it, he fell over backwards and broke his neck. When his newly widowed daughter-in-law heard it while giving birth to her son, she named him Ichabod—literally, “Where is the glory?”—because “the glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:22). Then she died, too.

* * *

The loss of the ark, so closely related to the presence of God, was a crushing blow for Israel. But the reason they lost it in the first place was because they failed to understand how God’s presence was tied to it.

While the ark was away, Eli’s “heart trembled for the ark of God” (1 Samuel 4:13). He knew it wasn’t going on a divinely ordained trip. God’s instructions aren’t mentioned anywhere in the decision-making process of the elders of Israel. They decided to engage the Philistines again. They decided to bring the ark up from Shiloh. They decided where God should be and what He should do.

Centuries later, Jeremiah stood in the temple and brought a warning from God to Israel: “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel” (Jeremiah 7:12). And in one of Asaph’s psalms, we learn “that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had placed among men, and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy’s hand” (Psalm 78:60-61).

God’s presence had departed long before the ark was captured. By the time Israel hauled it onto the battlefield, it was no longer the earthly throne where the presence of God dwelt among His people.

It was a box.

And boxes don’t win battles.

* * *

But that’s ancient history.

Where does God dwell now?

Not in “temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). Not in a cloud over that beautifully crafted ark, enshrined within a tabernacle which was only ever intended to be “a copy of the true one” in heaven (Hebrews 9:24, NIV).

No—through His Spirit, God dwells in His people.

In you.

Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.

(1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Instead of the golden ark, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, ESV).

We still don’t get to decide where (or when) God moves. But we do get to decide whether or not we’ll follow.

Trying to drag God someplace He has no intention of being will end as disastrously for us as it did for the tabernacle in Shiloh. We can’t drag Him into the battles He never told us to fight. We can’t force Him to travel the routes He never told us to walk.

We can either follow the cloud or leave it behind.

When Jeremiah told Israel to look at God’s former location in Shiloh, he was standing in the gates of the temple. God inspired him to call out,

Stop putting your confidence in the false belief that says, “We are safe! The temple of the LORD is here! The temple of the LORD is here! The temple of the LORD is here!” …

But just look at you! You are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you. You steal. You murder. You commit adultery. You lie when you swear an oath. You sacrifice to the god Baal. You pay allegiance to other gods whom you have not previously known. Then you come and stand in my presence in this temple I have claimed as my own and say, “We are safe!” You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins! …

So I will destroy this temple that I have claimed as my own, this temple that you are trusting to protect you. I will destroy this place that I gave to you and your ancestors, just like I destroyed Shiloh. And I will drive you out of my sight just like I drove out your relatives, the people of Israel.

(Jeremiah 7:4, 8-10, 14-16, NET)

Having God’s Spirit in us doesn’t make us bulletproof. On the contrary, having God’s Spirit within us requires us to pay special attention to whether or not we’re in sync with that Spirit. Are we going where God leads us, or are we trying to tug it where we want to go?

Carrying the Spirit of God doesn’t make us bulletproof. And it doesn’t mean we get to take that Spirit wherever we want it to go. The onus is on each of us to listen carefully to God’s still small voice—to keep His dwelling place free of the wicked things He hates and to go where He goes, whether it lines up with our plans or not.

When the sons of Korah thought about God’s dwelling place, this is what they wrote:

How lovely is Your tabernacle,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, even faints
For the courts of the LORD;
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home,
And the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young—
Even Your altars, O LORD of hosts,
My King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
They will still be praising You. …

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
The LORD will give grace and glory;
No good thing will He withhold
From those who walk uprightly.

O LORD of hosts,
Blessed is the man who trusts in You!

(Psalm 84:1–4, 10-12)

Do your heart and your flesh cry out to be close to God? Does your soul long for it? Would you trade a thousand days anywhere else for a single day in God’s presence? Would you sacrifice all the greatness this world has to offer if it meant serving in God’s house?

What happened at Shiloh is a warning. We can’t drag God with us. But we can—we must—go where He leads us.

Even the sparrow has a nest, but we—we have an invitation to dwell in the house of the living God.

Until next time,

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