THE BOOK OF 1 SAMUEL—Week 4
Crisis 4: When God Feels Distant (1 Sam. 4-7)
It is hard to adequately describe just how cataclysmic the events of Chapters 4-7 are. I tried to think of some events in our national history to which I could draw a comparison, but nothing quite compared. Not only did Israel lose 34,000 men in battle, but the only political and spiritual leadership they had known for the last 40 years was wiped out in a single day. Even worse, the ark of the covenant, which had been the symbol of God’s presence in their midst and the place where they went to encounter God, had fallen into the hands of their mortal enemies and carried off to a foreign land. The grief was so great as to cause old men to drop dead and pregnant women to go into premature labor. For the Israelites, it must have seemed as if their entire world had become unraveled in a moment. They felt as if God was against them and had abandoned them.
Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt as if God had abandoned you? If not, maybe you can at least identify with feeling as if God is distant. I have to admit that though there have been many times when God’s presence felt very real and near, there have also been times when I struggled to perceive God’s presence. There have been times when I have felt as if I’m groping about in the dark, trying to understand who God is and why he’s allowing me to struggle in a certain way. In this passage, we see several reasons why God may seem distant, and we see reason for hope when we are experiencing such a season.
One of the chief causes of God feeling distant is us neglecting to give God space to speak into our lives. Chapter 3 ends with Samuel listening to God’s call, and God responding by revealing himself to Samuel. Chapter 4, on the other hand, begins with Israel taking drastic military action without any mention of Israel consulting with God. Samuel opened his heart to hear the Lord, and God revealed his will to him. Israel made major decisions without consulting God, and then they were left to wonder why God didn’t bless their endeavors. It is foolish for us to complain about God feeling distant when we’ve made no room for him.
Another reason God feels distant is because we’ve placed our trust in something other than him. In this passage we see two ways the Israelites did this—one of which was obvious, and the one of which was much more subtle and insidious. In Chapter 7 we read that the Israelites were engaged in outright, obvious idolatry. There were foreign gods in their midst to which they were looking for deliverance and guidance. However, in Chapter 4 we see a much more subtle form of idolatry. The elders of Israel called for the ark of the covenant so that IT could deliver them. The ark of the covenant was a good gift from God. It played an integral part in their religious life and experience. It was powerful, both literally and as a symbol of God’s presence and deliverance, but it was not their Deliverer. Their Deliverer was God. Sometimes God feels distant because we’ve placed idols in our lives. But sometimes he feels distant because we are more enamored with his gifts than we are with him.
The last reason that God may feel distant that we will address is because we are under God’s discipline. Years before, a prophet had warned Eli that this calamity was coming because of their sin. Yet, there is no record of any repentance or change of behavior by Eli or his sons. But it wasn’t just Eli and his sons who needed to repent. Chapter 7 makes clear that the entire nation was actively engaged in idolatry. Though the discipline of the Lord is often portrayed negatively, God’s discipline is actually an expression of his love for us (Heb. 12:3-11). We should be thankful for a God who will not allow us to settle for anything less than his best.
So, where is the hope in this passage? Even though God felt distant to Israel, even though Israel didn’t see it, God never stopped working for their good and his glory. Even as their leadership was wiped out in a single day, God had a better leader prepared to step into the void that had been created. God used the tragedy of the loss of the ark of the covenant to show Israel’s enemies that he was more powerful than their gods and to bring judgment and defeat to the Philistines. Ultimately, God defeated the Philistines in battle and brought restoration and peace to the Israelites all the days of Samuel’s judgeship. Most importantly, God used the difficulties the Israelites faced to bring them to repentance. Unlike the pattern of Judges, where the Israelites merely showed regret, here we see them truly repent and put away idolatry all the days of Samuel.
- Have you ever been in a season where God felt distant? What was that like for you? What moved you out of that season?
- Sometimes idolatry is obvious, but sometimes it is much more subtle. What attitude led the Israelites into making the ark of the covenant an idol? What are some good things that you may be making an ultimate thing?
- What’s key differences do we see in the two battles between the Israelites and the Philistines? What can we learn from this example? Have you made space for God to speak in your life?
- Why is it important to look for how God might be moving in our lives even though he feels distant? How can this restore hope?