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Jun 04, 2017

Presence or Pain

Presence or Pain

Passage: 1 Samuel 4:1-6:21

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Becoming a Person of Blessing

Keywords: god's glory, good luck charms, presence of god, samuel, traditions, christian magic


The presence of God can either be a blessing or a curse. This message looks at the dangers Christians today can succumb to treating religious traditions as a form of "Christian magic" that seeks to manipulate the presence and blessing of God rather than looking at what we can do to actually welcome and facilitate the glory of God's presence.


Presence or Pain

I Samuel 4-6

June 4, 2017

My thanks to Eric for so ably standing in to preach last Sunday.  For a church our size, we’re amazingly blessed to have a good number of people here who can bring the Word of God well.

So today we’re back in 1st Samuel 4-6.  We’re in a series about Becoming a Person of Blessing to the people around us.  This book started with 1 woman, Hannah, who blessed an entire nation with her passion for a godly son.  Then we saw how 1 young boy, Samuel, who learned to hear and heed the voice of God, brought fresh words from God to a nation that hadn’t heard from God in a looonnnng while. 

Clearly God can do amazing things through simply one person who genuinely seeks the heart of God. 

  But that doesn’t mean the road will be easy for a genuine God-seeker.  As we’ll see today, having God’s heart for people and for His glory will mean speaking hard truth into rebellious people, often for a looonnnnggg time. 

For the backdrop to today’s story, we need to catch the last few verses of chapter 3:19-4:1.

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. [That’s a figure of speech that simply means everything Samuel said actually came true.  That’s usually a pretty good credibility-builder.] 

20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.  [It’s like saying “from Canada to Mexico…from north to south…the whole nation recognized that Samuel was God’s man, God’s prophet.”  That’s a pretty amazing reputation, especially among a people who are turning more and more pagan with each passing day.] 

21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. [The most frequent demonstration of God’s presence with a people or person is that He speaks.  God most often uses His speech…His word…to reveal himself to us.  Samuel was a tested prophet to a skeptical people.  He delivered God’s word, not his own wishes. 

That’s why you better not say “God told me such-and-such,” unless you are absolutely sure he did.  That’s also why everything including every supposed prophecy in the N.T. era is, according to Paul, to be “tested” (see 1 Thess. 5:21).    

 4:1 And Samuel’s word came to all Israel. 

Samuel was no small town preacher.  He got around and his teachings got to the whole nation.

So here is a young man whose whole childhood and life has been radically and utterly shaped by his passion for God.  His daily routine revolves around serving God.  His sleep gets interrupted because of his love for God.  While others in the priesthood are getting fat (literally) off the people and are using their office to cultivate sexual favors with the women, this young man is daily, probably many times a day, saying “NO” to temptations so he can say “YES” to God. 

APP:  When we stand before God, the peer pressure or social pressure or even domestic family pressure isn’t going to wash as an excuse for compromise of God’s clear word and truth.  That excuse will evaporate when God simply points to Samuel and the thousands like him through the ages who used the evil around them to make them more committed to and more passionate for God and His truth.  As much as we wish the world were more like heaven, the truth is that living in a hell-bent culture provides great opportunity to make you stronger and more godly than living in a tepid, religious-appearing culture. 


It’s at this point that the story takes a rather distinct left-turn.  Chapter 4 tells us that the Israelites, the people of God, the ones God had promised this Promised Land to, were actually living under the thumb of the Philistines.  They weren’t living in victory.  They were living in shame and defeat. 

            That wasn’t what God had promised them before they crossed into this land.  It wasn’t what He promised them if they would keep His commandments.  It was what God said would happen if they wandered from Him and served other gods. 

            Somebody should have been asking, “How on earth did we get here?”   The answer was in God’s covenant, His agreement with the Israelites.  It was in black and white.  But nobody seemed to care.  Oh, they hated the servitude.  But they didn’t love the word or voice of God. 

APP:  It’s not just enough to hate what sin does to you or someone else.  Lots of people, running from the pain of sin, still refuse to run into the arms of God.  They would rather experience more pain than humbly admit they’ve been wrong and turn around to seek God rather than continue running from Him.  It’s the insanity of sin.  It makes no sense at all…but people by the millions do it every day. 

APP:  This story is a good reminder that when life is painful (which it often can be), a very appropriate question to ask God is, “How on earth did I get here?”  And being open to true men and women of God speaking back into our lives truth about that ought also to always be on the table. 

That doesn’t mean all suffering is the result of our own sin.  We know that’s not always the case.  But not to ask that question and not to entertain the possibility that God may want to use the pain to push us in a better direction, is folly. 

            So the Israelites are living like captives in their own country.  Apparently someone convinced enough of them…tens of thousands of them… that the best way out of that oppression was to go to war. 

APP:  It’s amazing how often war looks like the best solution to a nation’s problems.  L  True, God had told His nation to make war against these people.  But He had also told them that in order to WIN, they would need to WALK with Him. Nothing like a good, patriotic war to take your mind off your own sins!

            So they go to war.  1 Samuel 4:1-2

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. 

            Remember that old hymn (hum?), Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing?  There’s that one line in the 2nd verse that reads,

Here I raise mine Ebenezer; 
hither by thy help I'm come;”

It doesn’t come from this verse but from one we’ll encounter next week in this passage.  But Ebenezer simply means “stone of help.”  The Israelites chose to camp at a stone/rock that must have been famous as a place of good luck. 

            Everything about this fight looked right:

  • It was Israel, God’s people, vs. the Philistines, a pagan people.
  • It was the true and living God YHWH against the pagan idol, Dagon.
  • It was God’s people taking initiative instead of God’s people passively suffering.
  • It was justice verses injustice…war vs. wimps.
  • …magic stone vs. no-name city. 

Vs. 2-- The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. [Oops!  That wasn’t part of the plan.]

When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines?  [Good question?  Sure.  Why?  As the people of God, they had it right that failure on the battlefield was symptomatic of failure with God. 

So what conclusion did they come to?]

Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

Q:  Were they right in assuming that God was not with them and did not save them from their enemies that day?  I think so. Under the Old Covenant, that old “binding agreement,” God had promised national prosperity and victory when the people were practicing obedience to the agreement.  Conversely, He had promised losses and judgments when His people didn’t keep their end of the agreement, i.e. obedience. 

Q:  Is the same true today under the New Covenant?  God never binds himself to bless disobedience.  BUT, New Covenant living does involve suffering and trials even for the most godly of people. 

Q:  So how can you tell when trials come as discipline from God for disobedience OR when they come as part of the sufferings we’re given because of obedience to Christ? 

  • Live a self-examined and Spirit-examined life.
  • Get feedback and counsel from godly people (the Samuels of your life).
  • ???


In Israel’s national history, God’s people years before under Joshua’s leadership had used the Ark of the Covenant in their victory over Jericho (Joshua 6).  They had marched around Jericho with the ark for 7 days and then God had granted a tremendous and miraculous victory. So having the ark in battle was not a terribly far-fetched idea.  There was precedent. 

But like so many religious traditions we continue to develop today, what was the error in their thinking when it came to connecting the presence of the ark with the presence of God?  Were they right in assuming that the presence of the ark of the Lord would guarantee God’s presence and victory? 


APP: It never ceases to amaze me how much of our religious practices and traditions are wedded to PAST experiences of the presence of God.  That isn’t necessarily wrong.  But it can easily fall into the trap of teaching people by WHAT we do that we really believe God’s presence with us depends on doing this or that a certain way. 

            By saying that, I’m not advocating as some do that we throw most of what we are doing out the window.  I think God can and does bless a host of things we do that are not commanded or mandated in the N.T.  The freedom God gives us to seek him with all our heart is amazing. 

ILL:  I’ve been reading a book called Pagan Christianity that essentially seeks to deconstruct just about every church structure, practice and tradition while claiming that what we need to do is find out how church was done in the 1st and 2nd centuries and get back to that. 

For example, you name some religious or church tradition or practice we observe today and I’ll tell you what they would say about it. 

  • Church buildings
  • Order of worship
  • Days of worship and weekly calendar
  • The sermon
  • The pastor
  • Clothes: vestments of the clergy and dress of the people
  • Paid clergy—be it lead pastors or associates
  • Tithing
  • The Ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  • Christian Education

On the other hand, it is probably a healthy thing to ask ourselves, “Have we become so dependent on any of our traditions that we really look to them to bring us God’s presence rather than looking to God in every new challenge and battle for something fresh He may want us to do?” 

Q:  Where do you think we, Mosaic, may be too dependent on our traditions in ways that insulate us from seeking God in fresh ways and fighting new battles with new direction from God?  [Responses?]

I think we need to avoid the dangers at both ends of that spectrum.  We need to avoid doing things just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” AND we need to avoid throwing things out just because we/the church has been doing things that way for a long time or because the early church didn’t do it that way. 

APP Today: no PowerPoint slides!  That “tradition” has led to most of us leaving our Bibles at home rather than carrying them to church in public, using them more, taking notes in the margins, getting familiar with where certain passages are in our Bible, etc.


I think there was another thing going on with this defeat.  Apparently, the Ark of the Covenant had become a sort of “good luck charm” in Israel. 

Have the charm around; get the victory. 

Lose the charm; lose the battle.

But the very name of the ark, “the Ark of the Covenant,” should have reminded them that it was the Covenant, not the ark, which was the important thing. 

APP:  It’s no more correct to assume that, say, having a Bible in your suitcase will keep your plane from crashing than it was for the Israelites to assume God had to grant victory if they took the ark into battle.  Our God is not a god of magic and lucky charms.  But when tragedy strikes, it is easy to think things like, “If I had just prayed more, this might not have happened.” Or “If I had given more to the church…or that struggling single mom…or that missionary…I wouldn’t be struggling so much financially.”   

God is not a god whose arm we can twist or hand we can force through human rituals, religious though they may be.  We are not in the business of practicing “Christian magic”—do this or say that and you will get the desired result.  Nobody likes being manipulated that way, least of all God. 


Well, the story gets worse.  They call for the Ark.  Eli’s two selfish and immoral sons bring it to the staging ground.  When it arrives, Israel’s army has a Seattle Seahawks moment (the noise they make is measurable on the Richter scale).  So the Philistines get a little worried but decide to fight all the harder.  And the end result is that Israel is trounced again, only ten-times worse.  This time some 40,000 troops lose their lives.  (Now were approaching the number of troops we lost in the entire Vietnam War from 1961-1975).   

But according to the biblical author, the worst thing is that the Ark of the Covenant is captured by pagans.  Five times in chapter 4 alone we are told that “the Ark of God was captured” (4:17, 19, 21-22). 

APP:  So what might God be trying to tell us with this story?  Let me suggest a couple of things.

1.) Don’t confuse emotion, noise and enthusiasm for God’s presence.  Just because the ground shakes due to your shouting or dancing doesn’t mean God’s heart is moved.  Obedience and surrender move God’s heart far more than noise and enthusiasm.  2.) Group experiences can be great.  But the group…the crowd… the mob can ALL be wrong.  It’s possible to be so immersed in our own cultural sins and failures that we mistake the “herd behavior” for God’s approval. 

Q:        Where do you think Samuel was during this time?  What do you think he was doing?  We’re not told, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t with the crowd.  I’m pretty sure he was at Shiloh, praying for his wayward nation, pleading with God to be merciful.  And when news of the 40,000 dead came back, I’m pretty sure he wept…alone.  When Eli and his sons and his son’s wife died that day, I’m pretty sure Samuel grieved. 

            Speaking of Eli’s daughter-in-law, this is what chapter 4 records about her that day:

19 His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains.20 As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention.  21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” 

ILL  There used to be a tavern on North Division at Indiana called Ichabod’s.  For once I think the tavern owners got it right in naming their bar.  The evident and visible presence of God (the glory of God) had departed from Israel.  God preferred to let a pagan nation move that Ark of God into a pagan temple next to a pagan idol than to continue the charade that all was well in the Tabernacle in Shiloh under the Eli’s impotent priesthood and the debacle of his wayward priest-sons. 


Q:  The related question and issue for us today is, how does God manifest His glory today…& how do we know when ‘the glory has departed’ from the church, the people of God today? 

            Let’s take the first part of that question:  How does God manifest His glory today among His people?

  • John 1:14
  • John 2:11
  • John 11:40
  • John 15:8
  • John 17:10
  • Romans 4:20
  • I Corinthians 10:31
  • 2 Corinthians 4
  • Hebrews 1:3


1.) God’s glory is displayed in Jesus Christ.

2.)  When the church displays the life, nature, person and presence of Jesus, God’s glory is present and evident. 

3.) That happens in suffering, in weakness, in witnessing, in fruit-bearing…in displaying Jesus in this world. 


Now the 2nd part of that question:  How do we know when “the glory has departed ” from the people of God/church today? 

1.) When we display ourselves rather than Christ in our life together.

2.) When we stop growing in Christ.

3.) When we stop witnessing.

4.) When church becomes about US rather than displaying and experiencing Jesus Christ.

5.)  ???


The humor in this passage plays out over chapters 5-6.

  • Dagon—defaced multiple times just by the presence of the true and living God.
  • The Philistines—tumors and plague for having the Ark among them. 

They finally send it back by a rather unusual means used to test whether the tumors and plague were just coincidence or whether they were actually connected with the presence of the Ark.  (The 2 oxen with calves held back.)

            Chapter 6 ends with the Ark back in Israelite hands but also the death of 70 more Israelites there because they didn’t treat the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, with any sort of appropriate respect and fear.  Instead they decided to jump right in and have a good look-and-see.  The treated God’s holy presence pretty much like the pagan Philistines had done…and the result for God’s people was even more severe.  They were struck dead. 

            So eventually the Ark was taken to Abinidab’s house and they “consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the Lord” (7:1). 

APP: Here, I think, is one of the truths for us to embrace:  The presence of God will either be a rich blessing to God’s obedient people OR it will spell disaster and trouble for disobedient people (both pagans in the world and saints in the church).

Isn’t this what Paul in essence told the Corinthian church when he said the abuse of the Lord’s Supper was actually producing judgment and death for some of God’s people, the very meal and event that was designed by God to bring blessing.  (See 1st Cor. 11.)  

Possible Study Questions:

  1. Do a word study using the passages above that talk about the glory of God in the New Testament. What can you conclude about how God displays His glory in our day?  What can we do to display that glory?  What might hinder that display of God’s glory?  How have you seen God’s glory in Jesus’ church?  What can we as a church do to display God’s glory more? 
  2. We talked a lot about religious traditions verses actual encounters with the presence of God. How do you see the church today possibly relying on or looking to traditions rather than to fresh encounters with the presence of God?  What traditions are currently most helpful in your life for connecting with God?  Which ones are least helpful?  What changes would you suggest we make in our worship that would facilitate more of God’s presence and glory in our experience?  How about taking notes and passing them on to the Mosaic leadership for consideration?
  3. What trials or suffering are you going through right now? How can you tell whether it is God’s hand of discipline seeking to bring you closer to Him or it is the result of participating in the sufferings of Christ because you have been living righteously?  You may want to look at the following passages for further help.  See Romans 5:3; 8:17-18; 2 Cor. 1:5-7; Phil. 3:10; James 1:2-4; Hebrews 12:4-13; 1st Peter 1:6,7.  Also, what might Job’s suffering have to teach us about how to discern the difference?
  4. I referred to the notion of “Christian magic” as things we do or use in hopes of getting some desired blessing from God. How do you see Christians today in danger of practicing things that could be classified as “Christian magic”?  What’s the difference between that and genuine spiritual practices or disciplines?