on Going Where God Goes

Four thousand lifeless bodies were strewn about the battlefield. The army of Israel had suffered a terrible loss at the hands of their Philistine enemies, and the defeat had left them reeling. In the eyes of the nation’s elders, God had brought this defeat upon His people, granting their enemies the victory. In response, they called for the only solution they could think of—if the battle had been lost from a lack of God’s presence, then they would have to bring God’s presence to the battle. The elders said, “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).

And that’s exactly what they did. The people knew that the ark belonged to “the Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4). After all, He had said so Himself when He had instructed Moses to construct the ark so long ago, saying, “And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony” (Exodus 25:22). The ark of the covenant wasn’t just a nice ornament—it was a seat for the living God. As the elders saw it, to take the ark into battle was to take God into battle.

That’s how Israel saw it, too—because when the ark finally made its way into the camp, “all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook” (1 Samuel 4:5). This didn’t escape the notice of the Philistines, who quickly deduced that the God who had laid waste to the mighty Egyptians was now on His way to raze their army to the ground. And when the two armies clashed again on the battlefield, Israel made short work of the Philistines, decimating their forces and erasing them from the pages of histo—

Except, no, wait. That’s not what the Bible says. Nowhere in the pages of God’s word do we see God sanctioning that battle or the use of ark in it. The Philistines whipped themselves into such a self-preservation frenzy that, when the two armies faced each other, Israel was defeated even worse than last time. According to the account, “There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured” (1 Samuel 4:10-11). Instead of victory, the Bible describes what happened to Israel as a slaughter. More than seven times as many men died as in the first battle, and to the distress of everyone, the Philistines had captured the ark—the seat of God. The very relic that Israel had expected to win them this war was now a trophy for the enemies who had left them with a gaping wound.

A house for God

We’ll leave the scene of this defeat alone for now, and skip ahead to the reign of Israel’s third king, Solomon. The ark had long since been recovered from the Philistines, and Solomon’s father David had more recently brought it amidst great celebration to the city of Jerusalem. Now, finally, the ark was to have a home. With God’s blessing, Solomon had completed construction of a spectacularly ornate temple, a house intended for God to “dwell in forever” (2 Chronicles 6:2).

After the dedication ceremony, where Solomon prayed for God’s continued presence in His temple, “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord’s house” (2 Chronicles 7:1-2). There could be little argument on the subject: God had accepted this temple as His own. And there, in the inner sanctum of that temple, the Most Holy Place, the ark of God had found a permanent resting place.

Mostly permanent, anyway. God had given Solomon a caveat after filling the temple with His glory. Solomon had already acknowledged, “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18), and God wanted to make something perfectly clear: This was His house, but He would not remain there if His people turned from Him. It was His temple, not His prison—He was not bound to a people determined to disobey Him. In His own words, “And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and this house?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, and worshiped them and served them; therefore He has brought all this calamity on them’” (2 Chronicles 7:21-22).

The temple of the Lord

Like most of God’s warnings to Israel, these words of caution went in one ear of the nation and out the other. Solomon himself, by the end of his reign, had begun seeking other gods thanks to his rampant polygamy with pagan wives (1 Kings 11:4). Soon after, Israel splintered into two separate kingdoms—the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Israel had already been carted off as slaves because of generations of idolatry and other sins, and Judah seemed determined to follow in its footsteps.

Like the Israelites who had carried the ark into battle so many years before them, Judah had come to believe that the temple afforded them a special protection. God inspired Jeremiah to deliver a pointed attack against that belief:

Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ … Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 7:4, 8-11, New American Standard Bible)

As long as Judah laid claim to the temple, they believed themselves invincible. Sound familiar? Sound like an army that thought they could force God to protect them by carrying His seat with them into battle? Jeremiah continues:

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. And now, because you have done all these works,” says the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.
(Jeremiah 7:12-15, NASB, emphasis added)

In God’s boxes we trust

You may remember that Shiloh from the beginning of this story—the place where the Israelites brought the ark from right before the Philistines trounced them and stole the ark. The ark never again returned there, and it was by Jeremiah’s time a desolation. God’s name had once been there, as the location of His tabernacle, but when His people turned from Him, He removed it.

Whether we’re talking about Shiloh, or the battle with the Philistines, or God’s temple in Jerusalem, we’re going to encounter the same problem: The people in these stories weren’t trusting in God. They were trusting in God’s boxes. When Israel carried the ark, they believed that because God had elected to dwell between the cherubim, they could take Him wherever they wanted Him to go. When they had the temple, they trusted in the house called by God’s name—not God. Instead of looking to their Creator, they looked to created boxes (be they arks or temples) as magical totems at their disposal—as if controlling the box meant controlling God.

The vast majority of the Old Testament is a pretty detailed account of how that worked out for Israel.

New boxes, old problem

It turns out that’s just generally a hard lesson for people to learn…because today, millennia later, we’re still struggling with it. No, we don’t have the gilded ark of the covenant to carry around, nor can we look to a majestic national monument hand-crafted in honor of God’s majesty, but there is a place where God still dwells—and that’s in us. The apostle Paul asks converted, baptized members of God’s Church, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). When we became baptized members of the Body, we became vessels of God’s Holy Spirit—members of the temple of God.

Like the ark and the temple of old, that’s a powerful encouragement in our pursuit of a relationship with God, but how many times have we allowed it to become a stumbling block instead? How many times have we decided that, as containers of God’s Holy Spirit, we can take Him where we want to go? How many times have we overlooked God’s will in our lives and attempted to supersede it with our own? How many times have we ignored His law in favor of our own interests?

We are the temple of God, but that doesn’t count for anything when we begin to disobey Him. When Israel disobeyed God, it didn’t matter where they took the ark of the covenant—because God left it. When Judah disobeyed God, it didn’t matter that they had His temple—because God left it. And when we become determined to set ourselves against our Creator, it doesn’t matter that He made us part of His temple—because God will leave us.

We don’t get to tell God where He’s going.

Before the boxes

Before Solomon laid the foundation for that magnificent temple, before God had ever given instructions to Moses on how to build the ark, the Israelites making their exodus for Egypt had something else to look toward—a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). God was present in these pillars (Numbers 14:14). There was no box, no container, no vessel to hold them, and there was no one but God who could move them from place to place. When the pillar moved, the Israelites moved. When it stopped, they stopped. If other Israelites—or even Moses himself—had been foolish enough to try and take another path, or to stop moving while a pillar continued onward, they would have quickly found themselves lost and without shade in the day or light in the darkness.

As Christians, we are journeying toward the Kingdom of God. God knows the way; we don’t. He loves us and will do everything in His power to get us there, but we don’t get to take up the ark and march God where we want Him. We don’t get to point to the temple and say, “We’re protected and don’t need You.” We don’t get to tell God where He’s going. He tells us. And we can choose to follow Him, or be left behind in the wilderness. There are no other options.

The ark, if it still exists in this world, no longer holds God’s presence between its cherubim. The temple Solomon built is nothing but overturned stones today, and God no longer claims it as His house. But you and I are part of the temple of God, in whom dwell His Holy Spirit. The decisions we make today and every day determine whether we will learn from Israel’s example…or repeat it.

Until next time,

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