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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Ebenezer Stone No Other Gods Before Me

The Ebenezer Stone
No Other Gods Before Me
It’s a short little Bible story, but one that we may have overlooked.  An Old Testament story (1 Samuel 7) about one of the many battles fought so long ago between the Israelites and the Philistines.  And a strange story because when the battle ends, Samuel sets up a stone and names the stone “Ebenezer.”  Could this story from antiquity have anything to say to us today?
The date was around 1,000 B.C. and the nation of Israel had no king and no human ruler.  Every other nation in the area had a king to rule and lead them.  And every other nation back then worshipped idols.  It was the thing to do!  All of Israel’s neighbors sacrificed animals and sometimes humans to their gods.  And carving idols (gods) out of stone and building elaborate temples and altars to the idols was a money making business in the ancient world.  
 But the nation of Israel was different.  Different from every other nation in the world!  God was the ruler of Israel and He ruled the Jewish people by speaking to them and leading them through their prophets and judges.  Through visions or dreams God would raise up a prophet or judge to give His message to Israel. The Spirit of God would come onto this willing person and he (or she) would speak God’s words to the people of Israel.  The Jews were used to receiving Gods’ guidance through their prophets and judges.
 Moses was one of the prophets that God used to lead the Jewish people. God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses to give to the nation of Israel.  The first commandment of the Ten Commandments commanded Israel (and us) to worship God only.  (Exodus 20:3)  And the lucrative business of carving idols and worshiping other gods was strictly forbidden by God in the Second Commandment.  A Jewish person was commanded never to bow before an idol.  (Exodus 20:4-6)  God promised the Jewish people that He would protect them from their enemies and heal their diseases if they would worship and obey Him.  And Him only!  
Earlier God had instructed the Jewish people to build the Ark of the Covenant and He told them just how to build it.  After the Ark of the Covenant was built, Gods’ holy presence came and rested over the Mercy Seat on the Ark.  And the Jewish priests could only come into the presence of God when they brought a sacrifice for the people’s sins.  The sacrifice was a perfect lamb without any blemishes or diseases.  If a priest would come before the Ark of the Covenant (where God’s presence was) without the blood of the lamb he would die. The Jewish nation learned that their God was holy and they couldn’t enter His presence on their own.   
None of Israel’s neighbors worshipped like they did – the Jews worshipped an invisible God who spoke to them through a prophet.  The Jews followed their God by faith. Their neighbor’s gods were often gigantic stone idols covered in gold or silver and placed in a grotto or an impressive temple up on a hill.  And some of their idols were small so they could keep them at home. Exciting ceremonies and sacrifices took place in front of their idol gods.  Weren’t the Jewish people missing out on all the fan fare?  Why did they have to be so different from all of their neighbors?  Why couldn’t they see their God and even carry him around like their neighbors did their gods? Since they had been forbidden to worship idols, would you like to guess what so many of the Jewish people wanted to do? 
You guessed it.  In 1,000 B.C. many of the Jewish people worshipped idols along with worshipping their God.  Just worshipping one invisible God was too simple!  Couldn’t they add some extra work of their own?  Follow the crowd?  Two of the popular Canaanite gods were Baal and Ashtoreth.  These were attractive nature gods; Baal being a fertility god, and Ashtoreth being the goddess of love and war.  Such pressure to join the crowd and purchase small replicas of these cool gods that one could carry around!  So many Israelites were rushing in to buy these small statues of Baal and Ashtoreth for themselves.  How could they go wrong?   
We read in 1 Samuel that around the year 1,000 B.C.  Samuel, a Godly man, had become God’s judge to the nation of Israel and he traveled from town to town judging the people and giving them God’s message. And Scripture says that at this same time the priest’s sons were corrupt and were making a nice profit off of the animal sacrifices that the Jewish people were offering to God.   
During this time frame the Jewish people were under constant attack from their neighbors the Philistines, who were raiding their land and driving them out of their villages.  When the Philistines showed up for yet another battle someone suggested carrying the Ark of the Covenant out into battle for protection.  No need to follow the commandments God had given them as to how to handle the Ark of the Covenant.  They could do it their own way. Several of their priests for profit grabbed the Ark of the Covenant and rushed out into the raging battle with it.  (1 Samuel 4:1-9)  It was nice to carry God around for an emergency like this one!
“When the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.” (1 Sam.4:5)  Even the Philistine soldiers were worried.  But the battle raged on and thirty thousand Jewish soldiers were killed.  The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and killed the corrupt priests.  Things had not gone the way the Israelites had expected!  Where was God when they needed Him?
The Philistines were overjoyed with their victory. They carried the Ark of the Covenant back to their land and put it in one of their temples next to their god Dagon.  But the next day Dagon fell over and broke into many pieces.  And then soon after that the Philistines began developing tumors all over their bodies with thousands dying.  It seems that keeping the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t working out so well for the Philistines!
The Philistines sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel but the Israelites still hadn’t learned their lesson. Thinking of the Ark of the Covenant as a magic talisman instead of it being a place where God’s presence was, the Israelites again didn’t follow God’s commands concerning how the Ark was to be handled and they played around with the Ark of the Covenant.  And again many Jewish people died and again the sound of wailing and mourning could be heard throughout the land. 
Finally Samuel, the man of God, called the Jewish people together and begged them to remember that God was holy and put away all of their idols and return to the Lord with all of their hearts.  And this time all of Israel agreed.  Samuel asked them to gather together at a place called “Mizpah” (which means “watch”).  The whole Jewish nation traveled to Mizpah and cried and fasted together.  They all threw away their idols and they “drew and poured out water before the Lord” – an ancient sign showing sorrow for their sins.  (1Sam.4:6)  And Samuel made a sacrifice and asked God to forgive the Jewish people for worshipping idols while all of the Israelites cried and fasted. 
When the Philistines heard that all of Israel was fasting and praying at Mizpah they decided that this would be a good time for a surprise attack! As all of the Jewish people were praying to God the Philistines came near.  Samuel prayed for God’s help and this time God came in like a storm. “But the Lord thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel.”  (1 Sam.4:10b) The Jewish soldiers pursued the Philistines and drove them back beyond their borders.  And Scripture says that of the cities the Philistines had taken from Israel were all given back that day.  There were no more battles for many decades and Israel finally enjoyed peace.
And Samuel took a stone and set it up near Mizpah and named the stone “Ebenezer”.  The name “Ebenezer” means “God is our help”.  The “Ebenezer” stone or memorial would help the nation of Israel to remember that God was with them and that God would protect them if they followed Him, and Him only. 
But why hadn’t God protected the Israelites in their other battles with the Philistines?  And why had God allowed the Ark of the Covenant to be stolen? Could it be because the Israelites did not obey God’s commands concerning the handling of the Ark.  They blasphemed the holiness of God. The holy presence of God over the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant could not be approached without the priest reverently bringing a sacrifice as a covering.  (our covering and sacrifice is Jesus – the perfect Lamb.  We can only come to God through Jesus- the Lamb that was slain for us)
 God is not an accessory to our battles and His presence is not a piece of magic to be carried around and used for good luck!  God is holy and we are to come before Him with reverence. He commands us to love Him with all our hearts, to trust Him only, and to live by faith.  “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3)  He wants our whole hearts and He will not put up with our spiritual unfaithfulness.  We are to be led by the Spirit and trust in our invisible God (like Israel).  And we, like Israel, are not to run after the idols that the world follows. 
As long as the Jewish people were worshipping their idols along with worshipping God, they kept losing their battles with the Philistines.  They kept losing more livestock and losing more ground.   God will not share His glory.  He wanted to be first in the lives of the Jewish people three thousand years ago.  And He wants to be first in our lives today.  It’s that simple.   


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