What does it say?
The Philistines and Israel go to battle and the Ark of the Covenant is captured (1Sam 5). Few things could be more devastating to the nation. Eli’s sons die in battle and he dies upon hearing the news of their death and the capture of the Ark. The Philistines place the Ark in their Temple of Dagon (1Sam 5), but the image of Dagon is mysteriously destroyed and God sends a plague upon the city of Ashdod. Desperate, they send the Ark to other cities, but this only spreads the plague.
After seven disastrous months the Philistines send the Ark back to Israel on a specially made cart pulled by untrained cows that would not normally choose any particular route (1Sam 6). They head straight for Israel where the men of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the Ark return. When they open it, over 50,000 die.
The Ark is taken to Kirjath-Jearim where it will remain for 20 years (1Sam 7). The nation experiences revival under Samuel’s leadership and is put to the test by continual conflict with the Philistines. The people clamor for a king and Samuel attempts to dissuade them but fails (1Sam 8).
What does it mean?
The Ark plays a key role in 1 Sam 5-7. Intended to represent God’s presence among his people and a reminder of his covenant with them, it had become a religious object that more closely represented a good luck charm. The Philistines treat it as though any other pagan god, and they suffer the consequences as a result. Back in Israel, the same careless attitude that treats the Ark as nothing more than a national/religious token brings somber judgment on God’s people. When God’s people lose sight of the bigger mission, the results are always disastrous.
God’s people wanted a king like everyone else. God wants his people present among those who don’t know him and to be able to relate to them in relevant and meaningful relationships. Being exactly like them is a different matter. This is what Jesus meant by us being in the world but not of the world.
How will I respond?
New Testament believers have few symbols, but the ones we have are meant to be powerful. Have I allowed things like baptism and Lord’s Table to become nothing more than good luck tokens? My mission is to be Christ’s ambassador in a fallen world. Are there areas where I have crossed the line and become part of the world instead of in the world as a unique being filled with God’s Spirit?