The Israelites were used to winning. Sure, they didn’t always win, but they certainly expected to. And why shouldn’t they? Theirs was a history defined by the most spectacular of victories—triumphing over the Egyptians in a war waged without weapons. God had brought their forefathers out of slavery and safely through the sea, overpowering the gods of Egypt with devastating plagues and crushing the Egyptian army under a rush of waves.
Out of Egypt, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob eventually made their way into the land that God was giving to them. In this “Promised Land” of Canaan, they successfully carried out a military conquest led by Joshua.
The land was theirs, but it wasn’t free of opposition.
Much of that opposition came in the form of the Philistines, a union of five cities and their kings in the land to the west of the tribes of Israel, near the Mediterranean coast. Samson had several infamous dealings with the Philistines. And David famously defeated the Philistine giant Goliath.
In 1 Samuel 4, we are given another episode in the long conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. 1 Samuel 4:1 says, “Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek.” The distance between these two sites was roughly two miles, comparable to the distance between Conner Prairie and Target. In just a few words, the scene of the battle is set.
Then comes 1 Samuel 4:2 with something of a surprise: “The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines…”
The immediate response given in 1 Samuel 4:3 shouldn’t catch us off guard; remember, the Israelites didn’t have an undefeated history, but they did have the supreme reason for confidence–they belonged to the Lord of Armies.
The Israelites contrived to take advantage of this by bringing the ark of the covenant into battle with them. The ark was not merely a symbol, it was the seat of God’s presence on earth. Psalm 118 had not yet been written, but the ideas of Psalm 118:6–7 were probably not far from the hearts and lips of the Israelite warriors:
“The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.”
At the sight of the ark entering the Israelite camp, a shout went out that shook the earth. The Philistines, only a few miles away, trembled at the sound. And the Israelites entered battle and defeated the Philistines and praised the LORD.
At least, that’s what we expect to happen.
In reality, 1 Samuel 4:10–11 says, “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured…”
Yes, you read that correctly. Not only did the Israelites lose (again), but the ark of the covenant, God’s resting place on earth, was no longer in their possession. The Israelites lamented that the glory of God had left them (1 Samuel 4:22).
We’ve all seen someone getting pulled along by their dog. Maybe you chuckled as you looked on. Maybe you felt bad. Maybe you were that someone, trying to catch your breath and find your footing as the leash pulled and burned between your fingers. And you might have found yourself wondering, “who’s walking who here?”
Though the pieces are the same, there’s a big difference between a man walking a dog and a dog walking a man. But what’s that have to do with the Israelites in Ebenezer, the Philistines in Aphek, and the missing ark of the covenant?
The Israelites were conducting themselves like a dog pulling at the end of its leash. They were not following God’s lead. Instead, they were following their own noses and counting on God’s protection if and when they found themselves in a thorny situation. But God cannot and will not be dragged along against his will.
Rather than putting up with their foolishness, God handed the Israelites over to defeat. They quickly learned that they couldn’t drag God into their battles and expect to win. They couldn’t wield God like a weapon to conquer their foes. The Israelites needed to learn who was walking who.
As Christians, we must learn and never forget who’s walking who. It is all too easy to take God’s good and precious promises and apply them to our own pet projects. Though the pieces are the same, there’s a world of difference between you serving God and God serving you.
Fortunately, God’s patience doesn’t wear out. His kindness knows no end. But his kindness might take the shape of defeat in order to put us graciously back into place. We can be sure that God will be victorious, but victory only follows where he leads.