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Our culture blasts self-gratification at us from every side, declaring it to be a virtue and a right. We are promised the health we deserve, the job we love, the relationships that will make us happy, and financial security until the day we die. Americans are schooled to feel unjustly deprived if they lack for any comforts. The corollary is that when bad things happen, we protest. We assume that what we want is what we deserve. We sue for damages and complain to God. Somebody else is to blame—tobacco companies, government agencies, or God Himself.

God humbled Israel with defeat at Aphek and rebuked her superstitious use of the ark by delivering it to the Philistines. But God’s people went on disregarding His will and suffered the inevitable disabilities that flow from choosing the wrong way. The way of the transgressor is hard (Prov. 13:15; cp. 4:19), but the sinner is addicted to himself, his autonomy from God, his “right” to make his own decisions. He has so much invested in his chosen path that his pride will not let him admit he has been wrong and brought himself to destruction (Prov. 21:29). It is not easy to admit you are an idiot, even if the facts are staring you in the face!

What we believe is our business!

The Philistines were “sea people” who worshiped the fish-god Dagon. Capturing the ark did not convince them that Yahweh was any great shakes. After all, “God” had come into Israel’s camp (4:7), and now the closest thing to God was cowering before Dagon in Ashdod (5:2). Maybe you remember arguments with some neighbor kid in elementary school: “My brother can beat up your brother!” Well, the Philistines were saying: “Our god has beaten up your God! We don’t need to listen to Him!” But God gave the ark to the Philistines to humble His own people, not to kowtow to Dagon or meekly admit the right of any man to believe in his own god in his own way. The balance had to be retrieved and the binding truth of Exodus 20:3–4 established. So Dagon fell and his followers suffered a plague of rats and an outbreak of tumors, until eventually, still clinging to their doomed religion, the Philistines cut their losses and sent the ark back to Israel (5:3–6:12).

The essential point is that God gives no one the right to believe whatever he wants to believe, as if sincerity is all you need to make it to heaven. The nations will come in their diversity to heaven, but nobody who denies the living God will enter in (Rev. 21:2427). Diversity does not extend to false gods and human autonomy from Jesus Christ as the only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5).

We want to do things our way!

The men of Beth Shemesh wanted to see inside the ark, even though God’s law prohibited this (6:19; cp., Num. 4:5–615–20). God let them act on their own responsibility. They came, they saw, and 70 of them perished. The rest recognized the majesty of God and gave some indication of genuine repentance: “ ‘Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?’ ” (6:20).

Doing things God’s way is hard for God’s people, it seems. Paying serious attention to God’s Word—the only way to know His way—is too restrictive for many. They may ask, “What would Jesus do?” but they are more likely to look to their own warm thoughts of Jesus for the answer than to the Bible and its sound teaching. Careful Bible study is not as exciting as having a so-called “word of knowledge” pop into your head out of what you are sure is God’s blue sky! But God Himself directs us to Scripture: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). That doesn’t seem to leave much room for doing things our way, does it?

We want to be like everybody else!

Israel did have something of a revival for several decades after the ark came back. The people repented at Mizpah, defeated the Philistines at Ebenezer (“ ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us,’ ” 7:12), and enjoyed the peace of God in the covenant community. But they wanted to be glamorous and successful like other nations. They wanted their own king. Samuel was aging and his sons were not much better than Eli’s. So the elders began to think of what came next (8:1–6). God gave them what they wanted, but warned them of trouble to come, and noted that this meant the Israelites had rejected not Samuel but God Himself as their King (8:7). They got their Hollywood image king in tall Saul (9:2), but it was to be false start with sad lessons along the way.

Have you noticed, in all this, that God also answers the prayers of unbelief? The Philistines got their victory (at first). The men of Beth Shemesh got to see into the ark (but died). The people of God got the king they wanted (the wrong one). Even the lost in hell get their way. In this world, they “pray” for God to get out of their lives, and God grants their wish for the next world also! No one in hell can say, “I asked Jesus to be my Savior, but He wouldn’t accept me and sent me away against my will.”

Before you say, “Just give us what we want,” you should rather ask, “Lord, what do You want,” and then confess: “I want what You want. You are the Giver of every good and perfect gift. I want to be like You” (James 1:17).

A Lesson for the Israelites

God or Chance?

Keep Reading Made in Man's Image: Open Theism

From the February 2003 Issue
Feb 2003 Issue