Yahweh takes matters into his own hands. God’s victory over the Philistines. 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11

We are in 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11 today. We have seen previously how the Philistines crushed the armies of Israel, even though they brought the ark of God to the battle. God wouldn’t help them due to their sin and unfaithfulness.

God’s purpose is to work through his people. Leviticus 10:3 states this principle – “through those who are near me I will show myself holy and before all the people I will be glorified.” But if those near him, the Israelites, are unfaithful, so that God can’t bless them, and they are defeated and the ark is captured – it looks like God is not the true God. That’s certainly the message the Philistines took from this.

But in our story today we are powerfully reminded that God is still God, even when his people’s unfaithfulness makes it look otherwise. In a case like this God, or to use his proper name – Yahweh – has to take matters into his own hands. He has to act for his own name and glory.

And this is just what he does –

God wins a great victory over the Philistines

We begin with the defeat of Dagon, god of the Philistines

5:1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.

 Ashdod was about 30 miles southwest of Aphek/Ebenezer where the battle took place.

2Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.

Dagon was the chief god of the Philistines (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Some think he was the god of grain.

The idea is that Dagon defeated Yahweh, so the ark is brought into his temple as a spoil of war to honor or even serve Dagon,  which, of course, is blasphemous.

3And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.

The statue of Dagon is on its face before the ark in a pose of submission, honor and worship to Yahweh. And the Philistines pathetically have to put him back on his idol stand. Some powerful god, right? Well, it gets worse.

4But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

Again, he is on his face (stomach) before Yahweh, but this time his head and hands are cut off indicating that Yahweh has killed him in his own temple. That his hands and head are on the threshold might indicate that Dagon was trying to flee from Yahweh out the door!(These two defeats of Dagon may mirror the two times that the Philistines defeated Israel – 4:1-10. Klein)

5This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

Since Dagon’s head and hands touched the threshold the priests no longer walked on it, thus preserving the memory of Yahweh’s victory “to this day.”

Having defeated Dagon, cutting off his hands – now the hand of Yahweh turns to the Philistines who have dishonored him. God’s hand is mentioned 7 x in these verses.

God punishes the people, cities and lords of the Philistines

6The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”

God afflicts them with tumors, or it could mean boils. This recalls the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians. As we will see below, God also sent a plague of rodents (6:4). It’s so bad that Ashdod wants nothing more to do with the ark.

They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.

10So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.”

Can you imagine? “Hey, we didn’t want this! What are you doing? Are you trying to get rid of us?”

11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

All this didn’t just happen to these three cities. As we learn below, all the cities and territories of the Philistines were affected (6:4; 17).

The story goes on to show how God is honored by the priests and diviners of the Philistines

6:1The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”

It’s not a question of if they send it back, but how.

God’s victory is complete. They know that Dagon is defeated because of what happened in his temple and that he can’t protect them from the plagues. And in humiliation they only seek to get rid of their suffering by sending the ark away.

The priests and diviners were so-called pagan experts in things supernatural and divine. So the thinking is, they should know what to do and how to send the ark back in an appropriate way.

3They 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.” 4And 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. 5So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land . . .

They have dishonored God and so now they need to make amends, and they do this by giving gifts of gold. The idea is that these images of their miseries – rodents and tumors – represent their plagues. And if they send these representations away with the ark their miseries will go away too. God will be appeased.

So they are to give these gifts –

. . . and give glory to the God of Israel.

 Yahweh has totally defeated them. Dagon bowed before the ark and now the Philistines give honor to Yahweh.

Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. 6Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?

Perhaps by sending these gifts and honoring him, God will have mercy. They appeal to the example of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Don’t be dumb!The Egyptians were stubborn and that only served to increase their suffering. The result was the same, so get rid of the ark quickly!

7Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”

Back to the question of how to properly send the ark away. In addition to guilt offerings, they are to use two milk cows to send it away.

And then, there is a test, just to make sure their misery is from Yahweh. They are hoping against hope that they can say that Yahweh didn’t do this to them, so they stack the deck. If the cart makes it to Beth-shemesh, an Israelite town, then Yahweh did do all this. But the cows have never carried a load or worked as a team, and no one is leading them. And their calves are back in the barn and so their instinct would be to go to them.

10The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors.

As we will see next time, the cows did indeed go straight to Beth-shemesh, turning neither to the left or to the right.

What do we learn from this very interesting story?

1. Yahweh is the true God

  • Even though the Israelite armies were decisively defeated, God is still God – the only true and living God.
  • And even though the ark of God was captured, God is still reigning, even over Israel’s enemies.
  • And even though the Philistines thought that their god had prevailed, God revealed his awesome power to them.

This story clearly teaches us that there is only one true God. And that God is Yahweh, and he is all powerful. And this should  lead us to acknowledge this, be in awe of God and worship him.

2. We need to align ourselves with God so he can work through us, not in spite of us

As we saw, it is God’s purpose to work through his people to accomplish his purposes in this world; to show the world who he is; his glory. But Israel was unfaithful. And so instead of being used they are judged and bring dishonor to God.

And when we are unfaithful, we also are judged and bring dishonor to God. We too fail to fulfill our purpose as God’s people; to make him known in all his glory. Unlike the Israelites of this time, we should give God our faithful obedience. In this way, God doesn’t have to work despite us, taking things into his own hands, but he can work through us to bring glory to his name. And then we will be blessed as we fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.

[Note: There is a strong exodus theme in these verses with the ark standing in for Israel:

  1. The ark is captured – enslaved/ Israel was enslaved.
  2. God overcomes Dagon – 1 Samuel 5:1-4/ God judges the gods of the Egyptians – Exodus 12:12
  3. Plagues on the people – 1 Samuel 4:8/ Exodus 3:19-20
  4. The rodents “destroyed” the land – 1 Samuel 6:5/ The destroyer – Exodus 12:23.
  5. The ark is sent away – 1 Samuel 6:6, 10-11/ Israel is sent out of Egypt – Exodus 12:33.
  6. It is sent away with gold – 1 Samuel 6:10-11/ Israel is sent away with silver and gold jewelry – Exodus 12:35-36
  7. God gained glory over the Philistines – 1 Samuel 6:5/ God gained glory over the Egyptians – Exodus 14:4, 17.]

The other shoe drops. Judgment on Eli and his house. 1 Samuel 4:11-22

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:11-22

We are continuing on with several stories about the ark of God in 1 Samuel that prepare us for the emergence of Samuel as the prophetic leader of Israel.

As you will remember from earlier in 1 Samuel, God has foretold judgment on the high priest Eli and his two sons – Hophni and Phinehas. They treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt, taking the best portions for themselves. And also his two sons treated the women workers at the tabernacle as prostitutes. 1 Samuel 2:12 says of these two, “They were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.”

And so an unnamed prophet came and told Eli that his house would no longer be the high priestly line – 2:27-33. And that the sign that this will surely happen is that his two sons would die on the same day – 2:34. And then the Lord told Samuel as a boy, “11Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” – 3:11-14

The title of the sermon is “The other shoe drops.” You know the phrase “waiting for the other shoe to drop” right? It means waiting for something bad to happen. Something bad has happened and something else bad will happen. If these pronouncements of judgment are the first shoe that drops, then waiting for the fulfillment of these words of judgment is the other shoe. And it drops decisively in our text today.

Our story picks up with the fallout of the battle between Israel and the Philistines that we looked at last week, where Israel was severely defeated, even though they brought the ark of the covenant to help them.

Judgment on Eli and his house

4:11And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Not only did the use of the ark not bring victory, it was captured by the Philistines. It was under enemy control.

And just as the Lord had said, Hophni and Phinehas died on the same day as a sign to all that Eli and his house were being set aside as the high priestly line in Israel.

12A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head.

So this man ran for some twenty miles from Aphek/Ebenezer to Shiloh, quite a feat. And he comes with torn clothes and dirt on his head as an indicator of mourning for the many who have died.

13When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.

Eli was devoted to God in his own way. We see this in his teaching Samuel about the Lord and here in his concern for the ark. Despite his sin, he still had this.

And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out.

As the Lord said to Samuel, God would “do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” (3:11). And they must have all been stunned to hear the report. They are crying out not just in general, but because many of their own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were now dead. And their lives may well be in danger, as we will see.

14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see.

So Eli can hear – he hears the city cry out, but he can’t see, which is why he didn’t see the messenger or how he was dressed. He is still wondering what’s going on. So the messenger comes and tells him the report in person.

16And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

The man tells Eli in ascending order of importance about Israel’s defeat, the death of his two sons and then that the Philistines now have the ark of God.

Eli doesn’t seem that concerned about his sons, for the story continues . . .

18As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

His sons are dead and now he dies after hearing the fate of the ark. In a way his own sin is a part of this, for he fell off his chair and broke his neck not only because he was old, but also because he was heavy –perhaps related to his eating the best portions of the Lord’s offerings.

This is the only place that mentions Eli as a judge; he ruled for 40 years. The Hebrew word for “seat” here (and also in v. 13) also means “throne.” So Eli is symbolically dethroned and his reign comes to an end.

19Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention.

The bad news induced her labor. She was so overcome by what happened that she didn’t even care that she had given birth to a son.

21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

Before she dies, in the naming of her son she gives insight into the situation that is going on in Israel. Ichabod is taken by her to mean “the glory has departed.” This a reference to God, who is the glory of Israel (1 Samuel 15:29). 1) God was not with the Israelite soldiers, even though they brought the ark; 2) the leaders of Israel are now dead – Eli and his sons, including her own husband; 3) but above all else, repeated twice here (5x in whole story) the ark of God is now gone. God has truly abandoned them. What was apparent, even when the ark was present, is made perfectly clear with the capture of the ark. God had already left them because of their sin and unfaithfulness.

In the phrase “the glory has departed,” the word “departed” can also be translated, “has gone into exile.” God has gone into exile in a foreign land. God is absent. Why? Israel’s sin drove God away.

If the pattern later was Israel left the land and went into exile, here God leaves the land in exile. And they become slaves in their own land (1 Samuel 4:9; Psalm 78:62-64). (But also see Ezekiel 10:18 where the glory leaves and the people go into exile.)

Psalm 78:59-61 says of this event, God “utterly rejected Israel. He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt with people, and delivered his power to captivity.”

And then we have something that is not recorded in this passage, but almost certainly happened at this time –

The destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh

In Jeremiah 7:12, several centuries later, the Lord says, “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” In other words, God is saying to the people of Jerusalem, “you think I won’t judge you because you have the temple in your midst? I’ve don it before! Just as I destroyed the tabernacle in Shiloh, so I will destroy the temple in Jerusalem. (Also 26:6, 9)

And this fits with what we find in 1 Samuel. Shiloh is never again mentioned as a worship center in Israel; the ark is not taken back there when it is recovered from the Philistines later; and Samuel goes back to his home in Ramah as his center of operations. (Bergen. Even Eli’s descendants are later found in the city of Nob.) 

Given this, along with the capture of the ark, this was surely the lowest point for Israel since their time of slavery in Egypt.

What do we learn from all this?

1. Our sin drives God away from our lives, just as we see in this story. In Isaiah 59:2 the Lord says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” Our sin creates a barrier or a wall between us and God. And so we have to deal with our sin through confession, repentance and receiving forgiveness from God, so that we can have a relationship with God. This is what Israel failed to do, but this is what the story teaches us. Don’t be like them! Act and make decisive changes so that you can be reconciled with God and experience renewed relationship and help.

2. God keeps his word. Now we like it when God keeps his word to bless us and help us. But God just a surely keeps his word when it comes to judgment and the many warnings that he gives us about walking in sin and unfaithfulness.

In Eli’s case God spoke it through two prophets – and as Scripture says, let everything be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). And it surely came to pass. And just as surely God will keep his word of judgment if we walk in sin. We may think we are fine because nothing bad has happened yet, so it seems like God doesn’t care or that God won’t act, but the other shoe will drop – whether it is today, tomorrow or on the final day. We will reap what we sow. There are consequences for our unfaithfulness to God. Our sin will find us out. And so this should encourage us all the more to deal with our sin and come back into a right relationship with God.

The futility of lucky charm religion. 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

This morning we are back into our series on 1 Samuel. And today we begin a sequence of four stories that focus on the ark of the covenant, and which don’t even mention Samuel. These stories show Israel’s sad state at this time and God’s judgment on their unfaithfulness. And they also tell how Israel came to a place of repentance that sets up the narration of Samuel’s ministry in chapter 7 and beyond.

Our story today is about a battle between Israel and the Philistines, starting in the last half of v. 1 of chapter 4.

Israel is defeated

1bNow Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle.

The Philistines were settled along the coast in five key cities. They were the archenemies of Israel at this time and were dominating them militarily (some of the Israelites were forced into servitude – 4:9). The battle took place in Aphek about 20 miles north of Philistine territory and about 20 miles west of Shiloh (where the tabernacle/temple was). Israel was encamped at Ebenezer, probably just East of Aphek. Israel suffered a great loss.

3And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?”

When ancient peoples fought, as they saw it, it really involved a fight between the God or gods of the two nations. And so if you lost it meant that your god was defeated, or perhaps it would be interpreted that your god was unhappy with you. And this was certainly the case for Israel’s God, Yahweh – the only true God. The Lord God is all powerful, so he must have allowed this, as the Elders surmised.

So the Elders of Israel come up with a plan.

“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.” 4So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

(One is justified in wondering why the Elders didn’t consult Samuel.) The ark of the covenant looked something like this.

ark of the covenantIt was approximately 4x2x2 in size and covered in gold. (Exodus 25:10-22). On the top were two cherubim; angel-like creatures. It served as the visible throne of Israel’s invisible God. He sat, as it were, above the cherubim. As v. 4 says, the Lord, “who is enthroned on the cherubim.” (Also, Jeremiah 316-17; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 99:1-3) In other places it is also called God’s footstool, which is also throne language (1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalm 99:5; 132:7).

Now it wasn’t necessarily wrong to bring the ark. The ark was used in battle, for instance when Israel defeated the city of Jericho (Joshua 6). And the title for God here, “Lord of hosts,” refers to God as the leader of his armies, both human and angelic.

The problem is that the diagnosis of their defeat is too shallow. In truth God allowed them to be defeated because of their unfaithfulness – which is highlighted here by the mention of “the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas.” As we have already seen these two sons of Eli the high priest were publicly known, flagrant sinners. And Eli did not stop them from being priests while they broke God’s law.

The proper course of action would have been to seek the Lord and to repent of their sins, thus restoring God’s blessing to their lives. But they didn’t think the problem was with them. They just thought that if the ark came, God would come and help them. As v. 4 says,  “that it (the ark) may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”

The story goes on,

5As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded (or shook).

Israel has new morale and boldness, because they think that God is now with them. [The shout here and the movement of the earth echoes the story of Jericho – Joshua 6:6-21].

6And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”

You can feel their concern rising. And they must have sent some people to check out what was going on, because next it says,

And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.

Here their fears are on open displayThey don’t quite get the details right – they talk about Israel’s gods and think the plagues took place in the wilderness, but they have heard of how Yahweh’s power struck the Egyptians. And now here is the visible presence of Yahweh, his throne, in the Israelite camp, which must have been quite unusual for the Israelites to do, at least with the Philistines, since they say, “nothing like this has happened before” – v. 7.

They can only say, “Woe to us, woe to us.” This is certainly what the Elders of Israel had wanted, to put fear into their enemies. But then something suddenly changes, because they don’t stay afraid.

9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

After having said “Woe to us” twice, here they rally and call each other to “be men” twice. Instead of giving up, they decide that they need to fight harder than they ever have to overcome such a powerful foe, so that they don’t become the slaves of the Israelites.

And then the story ends,

10So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell.

Even though they brought the ark, the Israelites suffered a much worse defeat, more than seven times the losses.

Israel’s problem

The title today is “The futility of lucky charm religion” A lucky charm is something that you think has power to protect you and give you success. In Israel’s time of difficulty – a military defeat – instead of coming to God and repenting and moving into faithfulness, they treated the ark of the covenant as a lucky charm; as an object that would bring God’s power to protect them and give them success. Instead of right relationship with God, they went with a mere object that represents God to bring them the help they needed.

I say “The futility of lucky charm religion,” because we see the results of this – their defeat was increased over seven-fold. 

This just isn’t how a relationship with God works. God and the things of God are not magical. God can’t be manipulated by us. It is God who is important above all else, including the ark that represents him. And right relationship with God is important above all else – and not other things that represent God to us.

Well, there is –

A challenge for us

– in this story. Sometimes we act just like these ancient Israelites. We are not walking in right relationship with God; we are unfaithful to God. And when God disciplines us with hard times for this – instead of dealing with the real issue – our unfaithfulness (hey, the problem can’t be with me!), we look to things that are connected to God and think that these will guarantee that God will take care of us.

  • Perhaps coming to church is a lucky charm for some. You are walking sin, but think, “If I go to church I believe God will take care of me.” Well, going to church is great. But it can’t take the place of repentance and walking in a right relationship with God.
  • Perhaps it’s calling yourself a Christian. You are unfaithful to God, maybe you don’t even have a relationship with God, but you think, “If I identify as a Christian God will take care of me.” Identifying as a Christian is wonderful. But it can’t take the place of having a right relationship with God. Calling yourself a Christian is not a substitute for actually being a real, faithful Christian.
  • Maybe it’s wearing a cross or having a cross or a crucifix on your wall. There is nothing wrong with this. But jewelry or artwork that represents God will not save you in the day of trouble. Only being in a right relationship with God can do this.
  • Maybe it’s your connection to a godly person. You know that you are not walking with God, but if you know someone or have a family member who is godly you think, “God will take care of me too.”

None of these things are wrong, just as it wasn’t wrong to bring the ark. They are wrong only when we make them substitutes for dealing with the core issue of our sin and unfaithfulness. And given our undealt with unfaithfulness, we turn these things into lucky charms which can’t protect us and take care of us.

No, God is patiently waiting for you to turn from your unfaithfulness and come into a right relationship with him through confession of you sins, repentance and finding forgiveness. And then God will make his power and love known to help you and take care of you.

[This is also the message of Jeremiah in chapter 7 to a later generation of Israelites, who thought that God would not judge their sin because they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Jeremiah refers back to this episode in 1 Samuel. That’s because, as we will see next time, the tabernacle/temple at Shiloh was destroyed, even as the ark was captured by the Philistines. God brings judgment, not salvation when we turn his things into lucky charms.]

Jesus ministers to us in our weakness. Hebrews 4:15-16

Have you ever come to someone to share a weakness or a failure, to get some help, only to have them be hardhearted or even condemn you? A story from my life . . .. Notice in our Scripture today how Jesus is not like this.

15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We all have weaknesses. We are human. And as Jesus said of us, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). This phrase, “the flesh is weak” refers to the frailty and weakness of being human; our fears and our desires which so often control us.

And so when we go through times of trial and suffering we are tempted to give in to our fears and our desires and to take the easy way out so that we fail, so that we sin – instead of doing God’s will. As James says, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). This is what the writer is talking about when he speaks of “our weaknesses” – our frailty and our failures.

Well, Jesus was fully human. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” As a human, he knows all about human weakness and frailty.

And he went through trials and suffering as well, which tempted him in all the kinds of ways that we are tempted. As the author puts it in v. 15, “in every respect (Jesus) has been tempted as we are.”

  • Remember, just before he began his ministry – the devil tempted him in the wilderness three times.
  • Jesus himself characterized his whole time of ministry as a series of trials in Luke 22:28.
  • And at the end of his ministry, in the garden of Gethsemane, facing death, he was tempted not to go to the cross. The writer of Hebrews refers to this in chapter 5:7. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.”

Jesus knows all about human frailty and weakness.

And this is precisely why he can sympathize with us in our weakness. Hebrews 2:18 says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

The word “sympathy” includes in its meaning the ideas of empathy and compassion. He can relate to our situation. And the word also can carry with it the sense of giving help (Hebrews 10:34). He is not waiting to condemn us. Rather he understands our struggle and wants to help all who desire to overcome.

You might say, “Well, yes Pastor, but Jesus was sinless. That makes him different than us.” This is true. But the difference doesn’t disqualify him from helping us, it is exactly what qualifies him to help us. It shows that he knows how to overcome in the midst of weakness and temptation – and so he can help us overcome as well.

Because all this is so, v. 16 exhorts us to act. “Let us then, with confidence draw near to the throne of grace . . ..” We can come with confidence – or courage or boldness, and draw near, that is, into the very presence of God, because we know that through what Jesus has done, we can find grace with God (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Indeed, God’s throne is called here “a throne of grace.” It is often associated with judgment, but because of Jesus it is a throne of grace for us.

16 tells us that we are to draw near to God so “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Mercy is mentioned first, and this certainly includes forgiveness for our failures.

But we also receive aid. It says, “that we may receive . . . grace to help in time of need.” Jesus gives us the mercy of his forgiveness, but he also wants to strengthen us in our weakness and to cause us to overcome in our times of testing and suffering, just as he did. This is an empowering grace; this is the strength that the Spirit gives. For thought the flesh is weak, the Spirit is willing (Mark 14:38), that is, willing to empower us to do God’s will even when it seems impossible.

Are you weak this morning? Are you struggling? Are you going through trials and temptations? Are you in a “time of need”? Have you failed? Come to Jesus in prayer; draw near with confidence “that you may find mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”