Whose God is it anyway?

Bible Readings

  • Exodus 20:1-17
  • 1 Samauel 4:1-11; 5:1-12


My dear fellow believers, during a stop-over flight I had the privilege to do a bit of sight-seeing in Malaysia.  They took us to a limestone mountain, Mount Batu.  Within caves in this mountain is a Hindu temple, to the honour of Muruga, of which a 140 feet statue stands outside the caves.   There is a steep staircase leading up into the caves. Priests and worshippers of this god climb the steps more than once a day with special containers of food to set it up at shrines within the cave.

As I observed the ritual a saw a woman bringing fresh food, which was only put there after the earlier food was removed—all untouched, of course.  The face of the idol was expressionless, the body cold and lifeless, and of course it could not utter a word.  Yet, day after day this ritual took place at least twice a day.  And I wondered in amazement, “Why?”

True worship

Earlier in the service we read the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment reads:

“You must not make for yourselves an idol that looks like anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the water below the land. You must not worship or serve any idol, because I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. If you hate me, I will punish your children, and even your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Exodus 20:4–5, NCV)

The Larger Catechism defines the the duties required in the second commandment “… observing, and keeping pure all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his word; and the disapproving, detesting, opposing all false worship; and removing it and all monuments of idolatry.”

There are perhaps three main reasons why making idols is forbidden. Let’s list them

  • Manipulation
  • Localisation
  • Participation

Once a man has made an idol, one can manipulate it; one becomes its boss; you can even feed it or withhold food at will.  Once man has made an idol, one can localise it – you put it where you want it—you can even lock it away for later use, or put it where it can become the centre of your existence.  Once you have made an idol, you make it do what for what you want done—you make it participate in your activities, and you can participate in its activities.  These three things are closely related.

This is the sort of worship we come across in the first few chapters of 1 Samuel.  The prayer of Hanna, of course, puts everything in perspective gain:  she worshipped the most holy, most powerful, most wise and most sovereign God, the creator of heaven and earth. The sons of Eli did not know God and therefore they invented their own god—one they could manipulate, one they assign a locality to, and one they could use for their own purposes.

One verse which stands out is:

“So the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I promised that your family and your ancestor’s family would serve me always.’ But now the Lord says: ‘This must stop! I will honour those who honour Me, but I will dishonour those who ignore me. (1 Samuel 2:30, NCV)

When God called Samuel He revealed Himself as the most holy, most wise, most powerful God who sovereignly decided to dispose of Eli and his sons. The Creator God, who, according to Hannah’s prayer “… protects those who are loyal to Him, but evil people will be silenced in darkness. The Lord destroys his enemies; He will thunder in heaven against them. The Lord will judge all the earth.” (1 Samuel 2:9–10), announce to Samuel that He is going to “… do something in Israel that will male the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle” (1Samuel 3:11)—this something was directly connected to the judgement on Eli and his family.

It seems this was the message Samuel was preaching, and all Israel heard and understood it to be the word of God (1Samuel 3:19-4:1).  Did all hear it?  Apparently not.  It made no change to the hearts of the sons of Eli.

Is God with us?

The next we read about is the conflict between Israel and their arch-enemy, the Philistines.  It took place at Ebenezer—which means, God is with us.  But in the first part of the battle Israel was defeated and four thousand men fell.  The reaction of the elders was astounding.

“Why did the Lord let the Philistines defeat us? Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant with the Lord here from Shiloh and take it with us into battle. Then God will save us from our enemies.” (1 Samuel 4:3)

The reason for their defeat was God!  Nothing of what Samuel was telling them even came into their minds.  Is God honouring those who honour Him, or is He despising them who despise Him?

For them the solution was to make an idol out of God.  By bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the camp, they fist of all manipulate God, they also localise Him, and of course they wanted Him to participate in their activities, not for his glory, but for themselves!

The outcome was disastrous. Not only did they fall before the enemies, but their defeat was indeed the word of God to Samuel which came true:  Hophni and Phinehas both died, old Eli fell off his chair and died, and Phinehas’s wife died in childbirth—all on the same day.  On top of this, the Ark of the Covenant was captured and ended up in the temple of Dagon.

What humiliation!  More so in the face of an enemy who actually seemed to acknowledge the greatness of God.  Hear them in their own words:

We’re in big trouble! Who can save us from these powerful gods? They’re the same gods who made all those horrible things happen to the Egyptians in the desert. (1 Samuel 4:8, CEV)

The topic of the sermon today is, “Whose God is it anyway?” On which side was God that day at Ebenezer?  Did He forsake this own covenant people and did He side with the Philistines?  Is there something we have missed here?  Or is there something we should learn today?

Where has the glory of God gone?

One way to translate the word “Ichabod” is to translate it as a question, “Where has the glory of God gone?”  God is never without glory.  If his people don’t glorify Him, He is not without glory.  If we give Him less glory, we do not make his less glorious!  In Isaiah God declares:

I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images. (Isaiah 42:8, NKJV)

He who denies God, his existence, his glory, holiness and power, does not make God disappear, just in the same way as one who might deny the sun shining just because he can’t see it in the night sky.  I might say I don’t believe in electricity because I can’t see it, but I will sing another tune once I touched a live wire.  Unbelief does not make God less real—one day we will all stands before his throne of judgement, and no detail of who He is will make Him go away even then.

So, where has the glory of God gone?  Well, first of all, the dead bodies on the side of Israel’s forces were testimony to his glory.  Ask Hannah, she worship the real God of heaven.

“Talk no more so very proudly; let no arrogance come from your mouth, for the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, And those who stumbled are girded with strength.” (1 Samuel 2:3–4, NKJV)

But let’s follow the Ark of the Covenant.  Just be clear at this point:  they did not carry God into the temple of Dagon—God is not captured in anything man’s hand can made, or He would be an idol.  However, they treated Him as if He was an idol, just as Israel thought of God.

Now we see his glory.  Dagon fell over flat on his face before the Ark of God (1Samuel 5:2).  Powerless the lump of rock just couldn’t move.  They picked him up “and put his back in his place”—that’s how you deal with an idol: you put him where you want him (localisation!)  He fell over again, and his head and arms broke off.  The translation is somewhat comical:  only the bit that was Dagon was still in tact!

With Dagon’s hand missing we read:

But the hand of the Lord was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumours, both Ashdod and its territory. (1 Samuel 5:6, NKJV)

His glory was displayed in places not expected, even in the temple of idols.  The Philistines were terrified—their biggest nightmare played out before them: the God who terrorised the Egyptians and all other nations during the journey and the settlement of Israel has come to visit them!  The Ark was moved from one city to the next as they tried to escape the plagues of tumours and mice, and in the end they returned it to Israel.  However, they did not worship God; they only feared Him!

Miracles do not make people worship—it’s only the Spirit of God who applies the Word of God concerning Jesus Christ to the heart of man which brings life.

So, where has the glory of God gone?  Whose God is it anyway?  Someone writes:

It is a story about people playing a game we all know too well: the Israelites were presuming on, and the Philistines were defying, the power of God. The Israelites’ presumption turned to desperation as they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of their enemies. What is to be said about the Philistines’ defiance? (Woodhouse, J. (2008). 1 Samuel: Looking for a leader. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.)

When God becomes an idol

From this episode in the history of Israel we need to learn that there is a real possibility for even Christians to turn God into an idol.  It is indeed possible to try to manipulate God:  God is there for me, and when I pray God has to do as I ask.  This is not to worship a sovereign God.  I cringe when I hear people demand God to do certain things; the new trend is to pronounce a claim of blessing—God is not my servant; quite the opposite is true.

We can indeed make an idol of God if we think that we can localise God.  God is not on our side just because we put Him where we want Him to be; quite the opposite.  And if God does not answer us from where and when we expect Him to answer, we worship an idol, not the living sovereign God.  When we think we can lock God up in the church between Sundays and carry on they way we want during the week, only to call on Him when we are in some need, is to make an idol of Him.  When we expect God to come down to our level to participate in my dreams, ideals, wants and desires, I have made an idol of Him.

Such a God will certainly disappoint, because He is not the God of the Bible.  More than that, such a God will deal with me according to his holiness, justice, knowledge, and unchangeable sovereignty.  Such a God does not answer prayer, but metes out judgement purely He is being treated like an idol.

Whose God is it anyway? Is God with us?

God does not belong to anyone!  We don’t own God, if anything, He owns us!

Can we say Ebenezer, God with us?

The Ark was never meant to be showcase of who God is.  No, it was the meeting point between a holy and gracious God on one hand, and a rebellious people who was called to act and live like people saved by grace.

Let’s turn it all around: our life must show the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Our meeting point is the cross of Christ.  It can never be a point of boasting, never a showcase of what we achieved, but always a showcase of God’s mercy who gave us his Son—perfect in holiness, and perfect in saving grace—and not before I have met the living God at this point to receive mercy and forgiveness, He will just remain an idol which I control, I manipulate, and I want to become part of me.  And life will remain one big struggle of unresolved battles against the enemy.

I proclaim a Gospel to you today of the living, sovereign God who calls you to repentance at the feet of Christ, and live in his peace, completely sacrificed to his service.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 16 July 2017

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