What happens to religion when mankind is left to fend for himself? We always mess things up. We will come up with the strangest notions of what must be pleasing to God. We will compromise what God commands us not to do. We are simply not good at all when it comes to figuring out God on our own.
In one of my daily readings, the plan I’m working through (the Book-at-a-Time plan from Discipleship Journal) took me through 1 Samuel 4-6. And on this day, I saw two examples of people who, when either ignoring or ignorant of the word of God, made up religious suggestions for dealing with bad situations. Both were wrong. One seemed to work while the other did not. And both show us that mankind, when left to ourselves, will really mess things up.
The first mistake is made by the people of Israel.
1 Samuel 4:3-4 – 3 And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
In this instance, the people failed to realize that the reason that they were being defeated in battle had to do with the nation’s rebellion against the Lord and his commands. Instead, they developed for themselves a superstitious and almost pagan view that the presence of the ark of the covenant would make them victorious in battle.
If you know the story, you know that God allows the ark of the covenant to be captured by the Philistines, and it remains with them for 7 months. In that time, God afflicts the Philistines with mice and tumors so long as the ark is in their cities. So the Philistines decide to return the ark to Israel.
The enemy Philistines make the second mistake when they try to figure out the best offering to make to God as they send the ark back to its homeland.
1 Samuel 6:3-5 – 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.” 4 And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.”
In both instances, Israelite and Philistine, the people make a very common human mistake when dealing with the things of God. The people assume a connection between physical elements and spiritual grace which is not biblical, nor has it ever been. And the people assume that they, by their own creativity, can come up with ways to assuage the wrath of God or prompt God to do for them what they want.
When the Israelites assume that the presence of the ark of the covenant will bring them victory in battle, they are assuming that the physical presence of the golden chest is what was the difference in their defeat. They assume, for some reason, that the presence of a physical object would somehow impact their experience of the presence of God. But the Lord is clear throughout his word that he is not confined in any earthly space. Nor is the Lord’s favor to be earned by any sort of special grace infused into or gained from objects. God has never called Christians to use statues, boxes, pictures, or any other physical element as a talisman to somehow gain access to more of his grace or more of his presence. Such thinking comes from other world religions, and steps away from the true gospel.
Yes, Christians have ceremonies that include physical things: WE baptize and we receive Lord’s Supper. But in neither of these ceremonies do biblical Christians assume that the water of the baptistery or the elements of the supper impart grace to us. The elements are symbols. The act of worshipping the Lord through obedience helps us to honor him and to grow in our faith. But the ceremonies do not somehow spiritually grow us through contact with physical items.
The Philistines also erred when they assumed that their offerings to God of golden tumors and mice would please him. Yes, God was intending to send the ark back to Israel. But God hates idols. God does not command that we worship him by focusing our worship through images. In fact, the second commandment particularly forbids the kind of things that the Philistines did.
The problem for those guys was the fact that they assumed they could figure God out or figure out how to please God from their own wisdom and experience. They assumed that, if an idea seemed good to them, then the idea must be good for God. This is perhaps the most common of all human failings, and it is truly deadly.
Friends, there is one and only one way to really know what pleases the Lord. You must rightly handle and apply what the Lord has given us in the Scripture. The Bible is how to know God and know what God wants. Anything we bring to our definition of God that comes from outside the pages of Scripture must be submitted to Scripture as the final authority. That is not to say that we do not draw wise conclusions from Scripture. All systematic and even biblical theology includes conclusions we come to from Scripture. We use terms not in the Bible. But all our life, all our doctrines, all our practices must be clearly justifiable from faithful exegesis and application of the word of God. That will prevent us from thinking that physical elements impart special blessings. That will keep us from trying to please God by making statues of tumors and mice. And that will keep us from deciding that we can come up with our own ways to please God that God never suggested.