A couple weeks back, my husband and I got some disappointing news. Okay, it was more than disappointing. After much prayer and excitement, we thought things would go one way but they didn’t. I didn’t even realize how much I had riding on hearing “yes” until I heard “no”. I felt discouraged and devastated for several days afterwards. I had an angry conversation with God…or several. “Why did you let me down? Seriously, it’s not fair!” [For the full effect, you have to read this out loud in a grating voice, a la whiny toddler. Go ahead, I’ll wait.]
With this in mind, I read the story of Israel facing the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4. Day one, the Philistines attacked and killed 4,000 Israelite men. Their lament was just as whiny as mine: “Why did the Lord allow this to happen?” [See note above.]
So Israel immediately devised a plan to help them defeat their enemies: bring the Ark of the Lord. Yes, THE Ark. You know, the one that melted all those people’s faces at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie (see also 1 Samuel 6:19-21)? The Ark that represented the presence of the Lord, and was covered by the mercy seat, AKA his dwelling place in the Tabernacle. It’s kind of a big deal.
Israel knew it was a big deal and was sure they’d be victorious with this development. In fact, they shouted with joy so loudly when the Ark arrived that the Philistines were sure Israel would be victorious, too.
But Israel lost.
It wasn’t 4,000 men, but 30,000 Israelite soldiers who died the next day. Seven-and-a-half times the number who died the first day. To add insult to injury, the Ark of the Lord was captured and taken away by the Philistines (…and hilarity ensues. Seriously, read about Dagon and the Ark and the rats and tumors in 1 Samuel 5. Who says the Old Testament is boring?).
At first glance, it seems like Israel did everything right. They were God’s own people. They brought the Lord into battle with them because they knew they couldn’t do it on their own. Why didn’t they win?
Because they didn’t actually bring the Lord into battle. They assumed that all they’d need is the Ark to win, as if they could force the Lord’s hand into doing what they wanted. They didn’t actually seek him. They didn’t listen to and follow him. They wanted one outcome and wanted the Lord to rubber stamp it though right behavior.
In essence, they made the Lord into an idol that they could use to achieve their own ends. Unfortunately for them, he’s not made of wood or stone and subject to manipulation. He’s alive and he’s king. He calls the shots.
With hindsight, I realized just how easy it is for me to do what Israel did. I assume if I do the right things that Jesus will give the results I want. I fall into believing that years of ministry service and following the Lord means I can decide which path my life will take without his input. It doesn’t work that way. His ways aren’t my ways. My plans aren’t necessarily his plans. Instead of putting so much energy into getting him on board with what I want, I should put my energy into figuring out how I can get on board with what he’s already doing. He’s still king.
There’s an epilogue to our disappointing news. After several days of feeling discouraged and stuck, I finally came to peace with the fact that the “yes” into which I wrapped up so much hope wasn’t to be. Yesterday, my husband and I got some very unexpected, wonderful news. I could clearly see how God was still at work, since it wasn’t even on our radar. A few weeks ago, I could only see one answer to prayer, the “yes” I didn’t hear. Yesterday, I was reminded that God sees angles we don’t.
He’s still at work. May we persevere in hope, no matter what the outcome, as we remember that we worship a living king who sees what we can’t and understands what we don’t.