Have you ever done something really stupid? I mean one of those things when you just reacted without thinking through the actions. When I was a teenager I was in a big argument with my mother. I was not a very respectful young man and she was given to a quick temper: we were really into it. Suddenly she got into my face, and I reared my hand back and closed it into a fist. This little voice in the back of my head was screaming: You idiot! What have you just done? It was at that very moment I listened to that voice and the immensity of my action filled my brain with dumbfounded horror. As my mother looked down to the ground (we were outside in the pasture), she found a lose 2x4 and proceeded to hit me with it! Raise your fist to your mother will you?! I took it humbly—in recognition I had committed a very stupid act. Actually, she didn’t hit me hard enough to really hurt or damage me—but the humiliation of doing something that stupid hung over my head for some time!
You’ve heard of the Darwin Awards, haven’t you? Every year people are nominated. These are people who have effectively eliminated themselves from the gene pool by doing something fatally stupid. Like the three buddies in Cambodia who were drinking (there is usually a lot of alcohol consumed leading up to these awards) and decided to play foot-Russian-Roulette with an old land mine they found. It didn’t occur to them Russian Roulette with a land mine would probably be fatal to everyone playing the game.
None of the three survived.
If you were actually able to ask any of these unfortunates as to their thought process, they probably would just shrug their shoulders and say: It seemed like a good idea at the time!
Some people just don’t think through things very well. In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites didn’t think through their battle strategy. They thought they could use God as a tool, so they took the Ark of the Covenant into battle. The Philistines crushed Israel’s army and took the golden box. Not to be outdone by the Israelites, the Philistines figured they have now vanquished the God of Israel and can now take the Ark of the Covenant as a trophy to the Philistine city of Ashdod and place it in the temple of their god Dagon.
The story takes place in 1 Samuel, chapters 5 and 6. The story seems so comic, and yet when you consider what actually happens, it isn’t really funny at all. First off, in the morning the people find their idol has fallen face down in front of the Ark—as if in worship. They pick it up and put it back in its place. The next day, the situation is more chilling. Dagon has returned to his prone position in front of the Ark. But now his head and his hands have been cut off and are on the threshold of the temple. Then we are introduced to a phrase that will serve as a rhythm for the rest of the story: the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people. What happens? The population is struck with tumors. This can also be translated as “swelling in the secret places.” Later on the writer will describe an infestation of rats is tied with the presence of the tumors. This has led many scholars to speculate an epidemic of bubonic plague among the Philistines.
The Philistine chiefs get their heads together—much like the elders of Israel in the previous chapter. They decide to send the Ark to another Philistine city, the city of Gath. Again, the writer tells us the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic; he stuck the inhabitants of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. So they send the Ark to another Philistine city: the city of Ekron. When the people see the Ark they cry out: Are you trying to kill us off!? They immediately call another meeting of the Philistine leaders. Meanwhile the plague breaks out in Ekron—the hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors…
The Philistines decide to send the Ark back to Israel. The priests and the diviners told the Philistine leaders to send the Ark back with a guilt offering: five golden tumors and five golden rats to correspond with the five cities of the Philistines*. They said, Perhaps God will lift his hand from you. Why be like the Egyptians who hardened their hearts?** They put the Ark on a new cart with a box holding the golden tumors and rats. They hitched the cart to two cows who had calved but had never been yoked. The plan was simple. Follow the cart. If the cart goes into Israelite territory, then Israel’s God was behind all of the misfortune and they did the right thing. If it doesn’t reach Israel, it was all just a coincidence.
The cows, instead of trying to get back to their calves went straight to the Israelite settlement of Beth Shemesh, lowing all the way. The five rulers of the Philistines followed the cart until it reached Beth Shemesh. When the people of the settlement saw the cart and took possession of it, the Philistine leaders left satisfied they had done the correct thing. Levites unloaded the cart, used the wood to build a fire, and sacrificed the cows on the fire to God.
But the story doesn’t end here. It seems some of the people decided to peek into the Ark. As a result, several of the people were struck down by God. The people were so afraid they sent the Ark to Kiriath Jearim where it was kept for twenty years.
So what’s the point of all of this? Why does God lift his hand against the Philistines and against the people of Beth Shemesh? Like the Israelites in the chapters before, the Philistines did not understand the nature of God. The Israelites, the Philistines, Dagon—no one can manipulate God. He cannot be possessed or limited. He is not to be taken for granted, treated in a flippant manner, or ignored. He is the one who controls—he is the one in charge.
This is hard for us Christians—especially those in my generation: the baby boomers. We are very pragmatic when it comes to faith. We want something to make sense—we want something practical. We want to reduce the stories and the letters of the Bible into “how-to’s.” For some reason we get the idea God’s whole agenda is to serve our need for a good life. So we attempt to manipulate God and the Bible. We want him to give us five steps to a happy marriage, four laws for successful parenting, and seven habits for highly effective people. If I can follow the steps properly, then God will have to grant what I’ve requested.
But we’ve got it backwards. We don’t control God, either by dictating to him or by following some formula. God is the one who controls. God is the one who calls us to live a certain way—not in order to accomplish our agenda for a happy life. Often, following God can cause difficulty. Often, when I follow God I still experience pain and heartache. Instead, I approach God as the mystery he is. Instead of trying to control or manipulate him—I place myself under his control and his authority. Following the example of Jesus I cry out: Not my will but yours—understanding when Jesus prayed this prayer—the will of God was his crucifixion! Instead of seeking my own will and aggrandizement, I trust him totally—believing in the end his desire is best. He will use me to accomplish ultimate good for his purposes.
The attempt to control God is very similar to idolatry. It is an attempt to make God into our own image—to make him obligated to us. The problem with this view of God is it diminishes God. I don’t want a God I can manipulate and control. I don't want a genie-in-a-bottle-god. That kind of God is just too small and feeble. How can he be trusted if he is easily tamed and controlled?
People do stupid things just because it seemed like a good idea at the time. The Philistines and the Israelites discovered that. I don’t want to play Russian Roulette with a mine. I don’t want to try to manipulate God. I’d rather trust the one who made this universe than try to control him. I’d rather treat him with respect rather than flippantly. I would rather follow his lead than try to lead him around and tell him how to conduct his business.
So, may you begin to grasp the power and nature of God. May you learn to trust him and submit to his will. May never take him for granted or attempt to control him. But may you experience the freshness of following a God who is not under your control—a God who is larger than you.
*Perhaps an attempt at a little sympathetic magic.
**Interesting statement. Consider "the finger of God", "the hand of God", and the description of Egypts woes as "plagues". Perhaps this lends greater credence to the idea the Philistines were struck with the plague.