14. Even Unbelievers get the message

Meditations in 1 Samuel   14. Even Unbelievers get the Message  

1 Sam 6:1-2   When the ark of the LORD had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”

The ‘useful’ thing about unbelievers is that they are superstitious. In other words, they are often more alert than believers for ‘signs’, things that point to a deeper meaning for what is going on. We see this a number of times in the Bible. We find it, for example in the case of Pharaoh and Abram when Abram has passed off Sarai as his wife and we read, But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?” (Gen 12:17,18) There is no indication of how long it took Pharaoh to work out what was going on, but he does! There was a later repeat of this situation but with Abimelech but he at least was open to hearing God in a dream: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” (Gen 20:3)

In the bringing of the plagues in Egypt the magicians came to their senses faster than Pharaoh who refused to listen to Moses: “The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” (Ex 8:19). Yes, it had taken then several plagues to get it but get it they eventually did!

When it comes to our present situation it takes a while for the Philistine leaders to get to the point where they realised they were the losers: When the ark of the LORD had been in Philistine territory seven months.”   In that time the ark had first been taken to Dagon’s temple at Ashdod with disastrous effect that we have already noted (1 Sam 5:1-5). The Lord had then afflicted them with tumours and it hadn’t taken them too long to realise they needed to get rid of the ark, so they sent it to Gath (1 Sam 5:6-8). But then tumours had broken out there and they quickly put two and two together and panicked (v.9,10) so they quickly sent it to Ekron, but the people there had already worked out that having this ‘god’ in their town was seriously bad news: “So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it.” (v.11)

It is then that we read it had been there seven months and “the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.” (6:1) Now I commented about the world coming to their senses faster than believers because the evidence of the New Testament shows that: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:29-32) This follows after the apostle Paul has chided them for their bad attitudes and bad behaviour as they came to Communion.

Something had been happening and they (unlike their unbelieving worldly counterparts, the Philistines) had not noted what was happening and certainly the link between it and their behavior. Look at that devastating verse 30: “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”  People in the church are dying because of their bad attitudes and their bad behaviour – and the rest don’t realise what is going on! Paul tells them that with these bad attitudes and behaviour each one of them, “eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  You are being judged by God, is what he is saying, and you don’t realise it! Be under no false illusion about this; look at the language Paul keeps on using: “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement,” (v.31)

The death of Christians in Corinth was specifically the judgement of God on them for their abuses of each other and of the name of the Lord.  And they didn’t realise what was going on! This rises the bigger question, do we realise when God is disciplining us? The writer to the Hebrew understood this: “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Heb 13:6) Oh but, you say, we’re Christians; surely Jesus has taken all of our punishment for our sins?  Yes, he has but that is the bigger context of your salvation; here we are talking about your sanctification, the process of change that God is working in us to deliver us from the ways of ‘the old life’ and to make us more like Jesus, free from all bad attitudes, bad thoughts, bad speech and bad behaviour.

If you hang on to any of these things, then expect the Lord in His love for you to discipline you, and be under no illusions. First realise that, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness, “ (Heb 12:10) and second, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)  The purpose of discipline is to train us and that means to change us so that when we learn from it and come through it, righteousness will be a primary characteristics of our lives, together with peace.

This is what God was doing through the people we observed earlier, Pharaoh with Abram, Abimelech with Abraham, and the Philistines with the ark. All of these were remarkable examples of discipline not destruction. When we think of the ‘judgment of God’ it can be disciplinary or destructive depending on God’s intent. Ezekiel reveals to us three times that God does not want to bring death but would far rather see repentance and change and ongoing life (Ezek 18:23,31,32 & 33:11): “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (18:23) As we’ve also seen recently, the New Testament equivalent is, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

So how about the Corinthian church? They already have salvation (as did Ananias and Sapphira – Acts 5.) so for them it is a case of being called home prematurely so that the rest of the church will change and grow. If we believe in heaven and the wonder of it (and we do!) then being ‘called home’ is not a bad thing. Maybe we need to adjust our viewpoint and perspective and grow to mature understanding. May it be so!

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