I Samuel 4-6, Psalm 81, John 16
Do you trust that God longs for you to experience peace and joy?
I Samuel 4 – 6
Sometimes even a disaster can turn out to be a blessing. Such was the case when Israel lost the Ark of the Covenant as they fought with the Philistines at Ebenezer. During the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.) Palestine was a battlefield where various parties fought for control. When the Sea Peoples invaded around 1200 B.C. the Hittites were destroyed and the Egyptians were subdued. During the Iron Age (1200-550 B.C.), however, a power vacuum was created.
The Philistines took advantage of this as did King David and his son Solomon, enlarging Israel without threat from the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and others. The Philistines, who are frequently mentioned in Judges and in 1 and 2 Samuel, arrived in Palestine with the Sea Peoples, who were responsible for destroying major Palestinian coastal cities such as Ugarit, Tyre, Sidon, Megiddo and Ashkelon. In turn, the Philistines established five capital cities, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza.
The Israelites faced the Philistines in battle at Ebenezer, a city located 20 miles west of Shiloh and 20 miles north of Ekron, the furthest northern capital city of the Philistines. The Israelites were routed and 4,000 men died. The elders of Israel asked, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” (1 Sam. 4:3b)
This did not escalate the battle to the level of a “holy war” for every war at that time was considered a holy war. Gods of one group were enlisted to fight other groups. The Canaanite Baal, Babylonian Marduk and Philistine Dagon were warrior gods conscripted to fight beside their peoples. Yahweh was viewed no differently, except Yahweh’s presence was carried in the Ark.
The Ark was a wooden box about three to four feet in length and two and a quarter feet in width. It was open at the top. The Ten Commandments were placed inside. The box was covered with the finest layer of gold and sealed with a golden cover with two winged cherubim on top. Poles adorned with gold were used to carry the Ark, but only the high priest could touch the Ark. Others, who touched it, would die. Similar boxes were carried in procession by the Egyptians and are depicted in ancient artwork.
The Ark was then carried into battle, but to no avail. Once again, Israel was routed. This time 30,000 soldiers died. The Ark was captured and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died, just as the unnamed man in 1 Samuel 3 had predicted. (1 Sam. 3:34) When Eli was informed that the Israelites had been routed again and his sons were killed and the Ark was captured he was devastated. “When [the messenger] mentioned of the Ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died…” (1 Sam. 4:18) Losing his sons did not appear as startling as losing the Ark.
When the Ark was captured, mysterious tumors began to appear on the bodies of those in whose city it was housed. They transported the Ark to another city where more tumors broke out. The priests and the diviners of the Philistines proposed returning the Ark to the Israelites and fashioning golden tumors and mice as a guilt offering to go with it, since there had been a plague of mice in the cities afflicted. Archeologists have uncovered images of mice and other animals in the ancient Near East that may have been used for magical invocations.
When the people of Beth’shemesh, who were harvesting, saw the Ark being returned, they rejoiced, went out to meet it and offered cows as a burnt offering. The descendants of Jeconiah, however, did nothing to celebrate the Ark’s return, and 70 of them were killed. More convincing manuscripts note that the number who died was actually 50,070, but only about a thousand people lived in the area. Hence, this is highly unlikely. The Bible does not tell how they died, but they may have looked into the Ark. Numbers 14:20 forbids anyone, including priests, to peer into the Ark.
When I lived in Nashville, Tennessee and worked as a newspaper reporter and later as a priest, a man who owned a farm and a large barn located between Nashville and Franklin held “Full Moon Parties.” Individuals paid $10 per car to enter his property and park near the barn, where, bluegrass musicians from all over came to play in various lofts and parts of the barn. Visitors roamed from stall to stall and loft to loft drinking beer and listening to wonderful bluegrass music. Full Moon Parties were great fun.
The full moon has fascinated people throughout history. In Psalm 81:3, we read, “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.” Many groups living in ancient Mesopotamia celebrated the full moon. Israel followed a lunar calendar and marked the first day of the month with the new moon. It was treated similar to the Sabbath, and no work was to be done on this day (Amos 8:5). Sacrifices were offered (Num. 28:11-15). When the monarchy was established, the king had a featured role at the new moon celebration (Ezek 45:17). After the Israelites returned form captivity in Babylon, new moon celebrations continued in postexilic period (Ezra 3:5, Neh. 10:33). Scholars, however, believe that Psalm 81 is referring to the Feast of the Tabernacles, when calling for the trumpet to sound “at the new moon.” So much for Full Moon Parties!
John offers a slow, meditative journey to the cross. Jesus had ample time, according to John, to prepare his disciples for his death and departure and for what would come after his crucifixion and ascension. Preparing others for our own death and departure, especially our family and friends, is one of the most important final acts that we do in life. It begins now by insuring that we have a life insurance, a good, up-to-date will, a carefully worded living will and our affairs in order. We ought to take time to insure that we leave a legacy to those things that have blessed us in life, especially our church, as well as other institutions that have touched our life. A friend of mine recently wrote that he was leaving 20 percent of his estate to each of his children, 5 percent to his church, 5 percent to his seminary and 5 percent to his other schools. He is planting trees under whose shade he will never lie, but others will.
Jesus informed his disciples that trying times lay ahead of them. “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to god.” (John 16:2) Indeed, by the time that John wrote his gospel, some of this was occurring. Jesus’s prophecy was being fulfilled. Jews scorned those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Romans punished Christians, fed them to the lions or covered their bodies with tar and lit them afire on the terraces of Nero’s palace. Today, some Muslims believe that they are honoring Allah by persecuting and killing Christians. Communists in China and North Korea have done similar things.
In the most recent Religious Freedom Report, a monthly update about the persecution of the Church worldwide, produced by The Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it was reported that President Kim Jong-Un of North Korea ordered 33 people to be executive because they made contact with a South Korean Baptist Christian missionary, who had received funding to set up 500 underground churches.
Christian girls in Egypt are being kidnapped, raped, made to convert to Islam and forced into arranged marriages. Muslim Brotherhood members attacked Coptic Orthodox churches in March, killing four people. Two churches were set ablaze in northwestern Nigeria in response to an alleged blasphemous comment on Islam’s Prophet. A Kenyan infant shot in the head during an attack on a church by gunman on March 23 has been flown to Nairobi for surgery. Religious minorities including Christians in Vietnam are facing government persecution and scrutiny.
Pakistani Christians have had to evacuate their neighborhood after an angry mob destroyed homes and businesses based on an allegation of blasphemy against a Pakistani Christian. The UN reported that persecution of Christians in Iran has reached unprecedented levels. At least 50 Christians are in prison Iran tries to suppress a rising tide of Christian conversions. Thousands gathered in Shanghai to mourn the death of “underground” Catholic Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, whose faith led him to endure decades of suffering at the hands of China’s ruling party.
Christians in the West are often oblivious to the suffering of fellow Christians around the world. We need to be more connected, outspoken and active in helping and praying for persecuted Christians. John’s community was beginning to grasp the significance of Jesus’s warning. Likewise, they grasped his promise that “…if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) While on earth, Jesus could be in one place at one time. After ascending to heaven, the Advocate or Holy Spirit, which Jesus sent and continues to send to his disciples, can be with each one of us at any time and in any place. God’s power is universal and sovereign.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:13) Like the fans of Liverpool Football Club, we trust that we “never walk alone.” God’s Spirit abides within us. Jesus is always with us. The truth is available to us. It will guide us, steady our feet and put steel in our spine, if we but listen, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s Word and pray fervently and regularly.
Jesus said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” (John 16:16) His disciples were perplexed by this. Jesus finally spoke in a plain fashion. “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” (John 16:28) All four gospels make is clear that the disciples had difficulty understanding what Jesus said and what would occur. On one level they understood. On another level they were clueless. Only after he had died, did they piece together what he said and start to comprehend what had transpired, who he was, what the significance of his death was and how his prophecies came true.
Jesus promised them, “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” (John 16:23) This is a hard saying of Jesus, because many have tried it and found it wanting. We simply cannot ask Jesus for a new car and walk outside and hope to find it in our driveway. The same goes for healing our bodies or the body of a loved one, repairing a relationship, finding a job, making our boss or our teenager like us.
I counsel people to offer prayers that will always be answered. If a person is seriously ill, I counsel them to pray that God will give them the strength to endure what they are facing and to be able to accept what occurs. Such a prayer will be answered. It is alright to pray for miracles, but one must pray recognizing that not all situations result in miracles, no matter how many people are praying for one.
“Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:24b) The purpose of our prayers is to connect us with the joy and the abundant life that God has in mind for us and for others. Abundant life does not mean that we will never suffer or die. Christians are afflicted as much, if not more, than others. Yet, even within wretched situations there are ways to discover abundant life and joy.
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33) God longs for us to experience peace and joy. These are the gages or barometers that reveal that we are following God as our North Star or compass. If these elude us, we should seek out good spiritual counsel and be prepared to examine our life and our priorities, ask God to provide these spiritual gifts and be prepared to make whatever changes in our life are necessary in order for God to bless us with peace and joy.
Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to god. (John 16:2)
Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. (John 16:23)
Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:24b)
I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world! (John 16:33)
Have you been aware of how many Christians are being persecuted around the world? Have you been frustrated by requesting things from God and not receiving them? Are you afraid to ask God for things for fear that you will not receive them? Does your joy fill complete? If not, what is missing in your life? How you spoken to God about this in your prayers? Do you believe that God’s chief desire is for you to experience peace and joy, so that you might be free to serve God in the fullest way possible?
Heavenly Father, you created us for yourself and our hearts our restless until they rest in thee. Grant us this day a deep and abiding trust that you have created us to share in your joy and for our joy to be full and complete in you. We pray that peace and joy may rule within us and free us to devote our lives to serving you and others who are in need. This we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania