One of the errors that God’s people committed during the old covenant period was to believe that the presence of the tabernacle or temple and the associated furnishings guaranteed that the nation could not be conquered, that Israel would always be victorious. That is certainly what the elders of Israel believed when they went to war against the Philistines near the end of the lives of the priests Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas. Thinking that the reason for their defeat was the absence of the ark of the covenant, the elders brought it to the field of battle. But they lost the ark and the fight because the Lord does not guarantee His blessed presence to disobedient people (1 Sam. 4:1–11; see Deut. 28:15–15). This treatment of the temple and its furnishings as magical objects that guarantee success was common during the history of old covenant Israel. Centuries later, during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the people would trust in the presence of the temple in Jerusalem and not believe Jeremiah when he accurately predicted the fall of the city to Babylon (Jer. 7:1–15; 52).
Yet, though the presence of the ark was in itself no guarantee that God would fight for His people, its loss to the Philistines was a sign that the Lord had left them to fend for themselves. The responses of Eli and his daughter-in-law to the loss of the ark indicate this. As we see in 1 Samuel 4:12–22, Eli fell over and died when he heard that the ark was lost, and his daughter-in-law, just before dying in childbirth, named her son Ichabod because “the glory has departed from Israel!” (the name “Ichabod” means “no glory” or “where is the glory?”).
As we consider the idea that God departed from Israel, we must keep a few things in mind. First, when the Bible speaks of the Lord departing, it does not mean that He is no longer present in any sense in the place where He has left. After all, the Lord is not a physical being, and He is omnipresent—everywhere present. There is no place in creation where God is absent (Ps. 139:7–12). Second, even though the Lord could be said to have left Israel, this does not mean He left everyone in the covenant community of Israel. God always remains with His remnant (Ps. 23:4).
When Scripture says that God has left His people, it means that He has taken His blessing from them, that He is no longer protecting the visible covenant people from harm. Thus, if the church ceases to obey God’s Word and begins to teach and tolerate significant theological error, the Lord will allow the visible community to suffer.