“And when the people 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 here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been to a magic show? I’ve seen a few live, but I’ve watched plenty of them on TV. I love magic shows. I enjoy trying to figure out the tricks, but I enjoy even more being completely stumped. The best magic tricks always leave you feeling a bit like the magician has some kind of power over the natural world. He can make things happen that aren’t supposed to happen naturally. This is the connection modern magicians have with their more ancient counterparts.
In more ancient times, magic was about being able to control the gods. The best magicians were able to either tap into godly powers or else convince/coerce the gods into doing what they wanted. That’s the whole thought behind things like magic words and spells. If you say the right words in the right order, you can gain some power over the universe. If you perform the right series of actions in the right place and in the right order, you can make things happen that wouldn’t happen normally.
Now, of course, we modern people know that there’s nothing to this kind of magic. Nobody has power over the natural world. That’s all just superstitious thinking without any real basis in reality. But, the thing is, it remains popular because sometimes it works. What I mean is, if you are looking for certain things to happen your way, sometimes they will. And, if you’ve been saying a certain “spell” or something like that regularly, you can convince yourself and sometimes even others that whatever it was ultimately happened because of your work. This is magical thinking and it is a whole lot more popular than we’d like to admit.
Every time someone says (and does) “knock on wood,” that’s magical thinking. I had friends in high school who would touch the roof of their car every time they went through a yellow light so that it wouldn’t turn red on them. Magical thinking. Even something like making the sign of the cross can be magical thinking because the people who do that the most often can gradually come to believe the act of doing that is what makes something happen to their preference.
What we see in this passage is magical thinking too. The people of Israel had been defeated by the Philistines once again. And as they were thinking through why the Lord would allow them to lose the battle, they rightly concluded that it was because they had gone into battle without Him. From this, though, they very wrongly concluded that if they would bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them, they would have HIs presence and blessing and win the next round.
So, that’s just what they did. They took the Ark from Shiloh. It comes as no surprise at all that Eli’s sons Hophni and Phineas were leading the charge. They carried the Ark with them to the front lines. The Philistines heard about it and were terrified. Their line of thought was that the Israelites now had the power of the God who had done all those terrifying things to the Egyptians on their side. This is deeply ironic because the thinking of the people of Israel was the same. When the Israelites were thinking in the same terms as their enemies, this is a huge clue that they had wandered very far off course.
The Philistines concluded that they were going to need to fight extra hard in order to not be wiped out by the power of the “gods of Israel” (the Philistines wrongly concluded the Israelites were polytheistic which was itself an indictment of Israel’s lack of faithfulness to their God). Their self-motivation worked since Israel didn’t actually have the presence of their God with them at all, and they won the next battle rather decisively.
Here’s the lesson for us: The things of God have no power without the presence of God. And, we can’t control the presence of God. We can’t make God do anything. There is not a single thing we do or say that compels Him to act on our behalf. He is free. Too often we fool ourselves into thinking that if we say a certain thing or do a certain thing, then God will do something for us. It may be that He wanted to do whatever it was anyway, but we are wrong to make a connection between our action and His action.
And the thing is, this kind of thinking is really subtle. We try to bargain with God. God if you’ll do this one thing for me, I’ll be faithful forever. Or, if you’ll act on my behalf here, I’ll do something for you in return. We think if we say a certain prayer, He’ll do what we want. This is exactly the same way the people of Israel were thinking here. It failed for them, and it will fail for us too.
The way to gain the presence and blessing of God is not through any particular words or actions, but through faithfulness. When we do the things of God, we will gain the presence of God. When we follow the path of God no matter which path we’d prefer to follow, we will gain the presence of God. When we study the ways of God, we will gain the presence of God. Faithfulness, not magic, is what leads to blessing. Try that instead next time.