When God Feels Absent – Part 1

Are you facing a battle and wondering where God is in the midst of it? This Sunday, we’ll dive into the story of the captured Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 4 and learn valuable lessons on faith and trust when it feels like God is absent. You don’t want to miss it!

We’re starting a two-part series today called — When God feels absent.

What do we do when God feels absent?


We’ll be in the Book of 1 Samuel.

I’m going to summarize most of this material, but if you’d like to follow along, you can turn to the Old Testament Book of 1 Samuel, starting at chapter 4.


Here’s what’s going on in 1 Samuel 4.

The Israelites are fighting the Philistines.

And to understand what’s going on — what’s at stake — we have to understand something about who the Philistines were.

They had come to the Holy Land, to this part of the world, from across the sea. Maybe from Crete somewhere around Greece. They were known as the Sea Peoples.

And they were so powerful that they had quickly gained control of the coastal regions of Palestine along the Mediterranean Sea.

Those were the most desirable areas. Those were their centers of power — the major cities of the Philistines.

These were regarded by the Israelites as town centers of hopeless barbarianism, incivility and cruelty. The cities were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath.


There’s a reason why the Philistines were regarded with so much fear by the Israelites.

There’s a passage from 1 Samuel 13.

This takes place a few decades after chapter 4, but it names a dynamic that was still going on.

Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” (1 Samuel 13:19)

So on the day of the battle [Again, this is a battle in the future, but the same dynamic.] no Israelite soldier had a sword or spear in his hand. (1 Samuel 13:22)


So here’s what’s going on in the ancient world.

New technology was appearing that would change the world forever. But it didn’t start in every place at the same time.


The Philistines were living in the Iron Age. They had that technology available to them.

Israel was living, basically, in the Stone Age.


Now, think about what this means for these two peoples.

The Philistines, to use our language for it, had weapons of mass destruction, and Israel did not.

So this would be like a war where one side is on horseback and the other side has tanks.


And Israel goes to war and is badly beaten.

And they gather together, in 1 Samuel 4:3 to debrief.

They ask the question people always ask when something goes wrong — “Why? Why did this happen to us? Where was God?

“Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?” (1 Samuel 4:3)

And then, someone gets an idea. Someone says, “Let’s have another battle. Only this time, we’ll use our secret weapon. This time, let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant into the battle.”

The Ark of the Covenant is a box of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold. It held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, some manna and Aaron’s staff.

And on it were seated two cherubim.

And it was believed that God was enthroned upon the cherubim.


The idea of the ark was it was the manifestation of the presence of God. Where the ark was, God was.


So someone got this idea — “They’ve got iron. We’ve got the ark.”

That’s like having the atomic bomb. It worked for Indiana Jones against the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”


And bringing the ark into the battle was a symbolic way of saying, “Alright, God. Your glory is on the line now. You have to come through.

“Otherwise, people won’t just think about us as losers. People are going to think about you, Yahweh, as a loser.

“And we know you have way too much pride in your glory to let anyone think of you as a loser. So when we bring the ark into battle, you’ve got to come through. We’ve got to win.”


And what’s going on here is a kind of a shift from thinking about God as someone that they must serve, that they must obey, to thinking about God as someone who could be kind of useful to them, who could get them what they wanted.

You could express it like this — they thought to themselves, “We’ve got God in a box.”


I’ll give you an updated version of Israel’s theology in the beginning of chapter 4.

And to do this I want to quote from the longest running primetime television series of our day — what some consider to be one of the most profound shows of the last 50 years.

Anyone ever hear of a show “The Simpsons”?

Did you know the Simpsons is in it’s 35th season?

Well, in one episode of “The Simpsons” Homer, who’s the dad, pledges money to a PBS Telethon, but it’s money he doesn’t have.

He’s just tired of having his television-watching interrupted, so he calls and pledges money, but he doesn’t have it.

They find out, and as punishment, he’s forced to serve as a missionary on a Pacific island.

It’s not a realistic plot, I recognize, but he goes there to serve as a missionary.

And the people that he’s serving build a new church.

Now, Homer is not real theologically advanced, but he’s quite proud of their accomplishment. And he sums it up like this.

Homer says, as he looks at this building, “Well, I don’t know much about God, but we sure have built him a nice, little cage.”


We’re cage builders.

We build cages for creatures, because then we can control them.

We can keep them where we want them.
We contain them.
We can have them on hand when we desire them.
We can keep them from getting too wild or too free.

We’re cage builders in a lot of areas of our lives.

And the Israelites were more or less saying, “You know, if things don’t go our way, we’ve got the ark. We’ve got God in a box. I don’t know much about God, but we sure built him a nice, little cage.”


And before you and I judge them too quickly, I think it’s worth asking whether this kind of God-in-a-box thinking has died out altogether in our day.

Because I think it goes on all the time. I really do.


Sometimes, we think, “If I just keep up my end of the spiritual bargain in the way the spiritual life is supposed to work — if I read the Bible and pray on a regular basis, or if I avoid scandals, avoid sins the church has decided are unacceptable, if I keep my nose clean, or if I serve the church or participate in a small group — if I tow the line, then God better keep up his end of the bargain. He’d better give me what I want, or my faith is going to get pretty shaky.”

That’s not a good way to operate.


Sometimes people think there’s some kind of magic formula for prayer. — “If I can just conjure up enough certainty, or if I just pray with enough boldness, that’s what needs to happen. We just need to pray with enough boldness or just learn how to say the magic words — whatever the magic words are. Or if I just have enough faith. Or if I just claim what it is that I want. I won’t ask for it — if I just claim it.

“As long as I find the right formula, I’m guaranteed to get what I want. — I’ve got God in a box.”

That’s not a good way to operate, but we do.


Sometimes, I start to think I know all there is to know about God.

I start to develop a judgmental attitude towards the pagans and tax collectors and secular humanists around me because they’re wrong and I’m right.

And I’m theologically correct, and I’m biblically literate, and I’m impeccably orthodox right down to the core of my doctrinally-pure, arrogant, judgmental, little soul.

I have God in a box.


And how harmful that becomes to a fallen, wondering, confused world around us. How harmful to the watching world when there are groups of people and churches of people walking around like they’ve got God in a box.


So what happens if it turns out that God doesn’t like to be put in a box? What if he’s not so tame, this God?


What if his love should turn out to be so fierce, and so pure, and so holy that it can’t be manipulated, not even by real, clever prayers?


What if this God that we serve turns out to be so deep and good and strong and wild and free that he can’t be put in a cage?


What if God uses unexpected people, and un-predicted events, and unforeseen gifts, and unlikely channels, and unplanned callings?


And what if you don’t keep your eyes opened? And what if you don’t keep your heart real humble? And what if you don’t keep your spirit real sensitive and God shows up and you miss him?

|| ||

So I wonder if there’s any area where you’ve been trying to put God in a box.

I wonder, just between you and God, is there any place where you’ve been insisting that God bend to your agenda?

I wonder if there is any area —

Maybe it involves a relationship.
Maybe it involves your finances.
Maybe it involves school or work.

And what you need to say today is, “Alright, God. I’ll quit insisting on my own way. I’ll quit trying to manipulate stuff and control stuff. I’ll quit trying to use you, God, and I’ll just serve you.”


Because I think the real question here is — is God enough for you?

Is God enough for you — just God — even if you don’t win the battle, even if you don’t get what you want?


I wonder, when was the last time you told God, “God, I love you no matter what”?

When was the last time you said to him, “God, these things are the desires of my heart, and I want you to know about them, and I would like to have them.

“But more than that, God, I just want you to know that I love you no matter what — whether you give me what I ask for or not. Whether I ever understand it or not, God, I just love you.”


Well, the people in Israel, in 1 Samuel, remember they built God a nice, little cage. So they say, “Let’s send back for the ark and bring it into the battle.”


The battle takes place between Aphek and Ebenezer. Aphek is controlled by the Philistines, Ebenezer, by the Israelites.

They had to send all the way back to Shiloh, which is where the ark was located, almost 20 miles away.

And then they bring it to the battlefront. It’s their secret weapon.

They go into battle a second time. They know, now, they can’t lose.

Guess what happens?

They lose. They lose big time.


Here’s what takes place after the battle is over in verse 12.

It is so catastrophically lost that a messenger — a man from the Tribe of Benjamin — runs all the way from the battlefield to Shiloh, almost 20 miles. He runs it in a single day. He’s so desperate to get back there.

And to communicate this message, he tears his clothes, puts dust on his head — this is a sign of mourning — so that as soon as the people see him coming, they know how the battle went. They know what this means.


He’s running back to Shiloh for one man, Eli, the old priest who sits by the city gate waiting for the news.

And we’re told in verse 15 that Eli, who is an old, old man now, is blind. He can’t see the messenger has torn his clothes.

He can’t see his stained, dirty face. He can hardly bring himself to ask the question:

Eli asked, “What happened, my son?” (1 Samuel 4:16)

Now, the messenger responds in verse 17.


As a very striking progression, he gives Eli four pieces of news.

And each piece goes from bad to worse. He starts by saying:

“Israel fled before the Philistines,

“We lost the battle.”


“Worse than that,” he says —

and the army has suffered heavy losses.

“The casualty rate was devastating. The army was essentially wiped out.”

In the first battle, they lost 7,000. In this battle, they lost 30,000. The first battle, they lost on the battlefield. The second battle was so bad that we’re told every man fled to his own tent.


Third piece of news:

“Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead.”

Hophni and Phinehas were both corrupt priests.

They followed in the priesthood after their dad, but when families would come — when people would come to offer sacrifices at Shiloh, these two priests would embezzle the money.

They would rip off part of the sacrifices.

When women would come to serve, they would sexually molest and abuse the women that came to serve there.

And their judgment had been foretold some time ago by God.

Now, it has descended upon them and this messenger has to pronounce that news — “Eli, you have no more heirs, no one to watch over you in your old age. Your sons are gone.”


But then comes the climax of the bad news:

And the ark of God has been captured.” (1 Samuel 4:17)

“The ark is gone.”


Now, one of the ways in ancient literature that a real skillful storyteller will underline the most important theme in the text is often by sheer repetition.

It’s a way of signaling without interrupting the story, “Here’s what you need to pay attention to.”

And what’s real striking in 1 Samuel 4 is over and over — in verse 11, in verse 13, in verse 17, in verse 19, in verse 21, in verse 22, what gets said over and over that the writer wants to make sure every reader cannot fail to miss is —

“The Ark of the Covenant has been captured.”
“The Ark of the Covenant has been captured.”
“The Ark of the Covenant has been captured.”


Now, why is this so important?

What’s the big deal about the Ark of the Covenant being captured?

Well, the person who explains it — the theologian who names what’s at stake in 1 Samuel 4 is Eli’s daughter-in-law.

When she gets the news of what’s happened, she is quite pregnant.

And she goes into premature labor. She hears the news, and then what she goes into is so violent that it kills her.

And as she lies giving birth to her child and dying, the midwife who is trying to assist her wants to encourage her and says:

“Don’t despair; You have given birth to a son.” (1 Samuel 4:20)

“Even in the midst of all this death, there’s still hope. You will have a child. You will have a son and life will go on.”


But the mother — this anonymous widow — pays no attention.

But she did not respond or pay any attention. She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel” — because of the capture of the ark of God. (1 Samuel 4:21)


She names him Ichabod.


Ichabod is the negative form of a word that is the most important word in this story.

It’s the word “kabod.” Literally, it meant heavy.

The writer uses it in a number of different, very artistic ways in this story.

But figuratively, it meant glory. The Hebrew word kabod meant glory.


That’s a great word, maybe the best word in their language.

It was a word for everything that was majestic and awesome and worthy of honor.

Where there was kabod, there was dignity and there was meaning.

And in a dark, fallen, sorry, difficult, mostly-illiterate, mostly-impoverished world, there was transcendent purpose. And there was hope — Kabod.


In Hebrew when you put an “I” in front of this word, as with several other words, it becomes the negative form of it.

It’s a little like in English, sometimes that happens with words when you put an “A” there.

An atheist is the opposite of a person who’s a theist — who believes in God.

To be amoral is the opposite of being moral.


She names the child not Kabod, but Ichabod — the glory is gone.


Have you ever seen what happens to a community, to a people when the glory is gone?


I’ll give you an example from my teenage years growing up in Chicago.


When Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls — that was Glory.

I got to relive that glory in the Netflix show The Last Dance.


I actually got to go to a game when I was 18 on Christmas Day against the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls won 98-86.

I remember the United Center was alive and electric.


And every year, the Bulls would win the title. Every year, they would wear the crown.

They had success, fame, money, the adoration of the fans, the envy of their opponents.

Chicago was the center of the whole basketball universe. Chicago had kabod.


And then, one day, Michael Jordan went away.

And when number 23 left town, the glory left with him.

And there were no more titles, and no more acclaim, and no more excitement, and no more crowds — just horrible, brutal, losing records, awful games, nightmarish scenarios year after year after year after year after year.

They used to be the Bulls. Now, they’re the Chicago Ichabods — the glory is gone.


This anonymous, despairing, dying widow, in the last act of her life, hangs this name on her child — Ichabod.

Why would she do that? Why would you do that to a kid?


Understand what’s going on in 1 Samuel 4. Understand what the loss of the ark meant in the mind of an ancient Israelite.

This is not just about losing a battle or two. This is not just losing some religious relic, not just an object of historical interest.

It’s none of the things that it would be to you and me with our kind of mindset.


To them, the ark is where God sits to reign over his people.

And if the ark is gone, that means God is gone.

If the ark is gone, that means either he did not care, or could not hear, or would not help.

If the ark is gone, that means the whole story they had been basing their whole lives on, giving everything to, was all an illusion.


And Abraham was just some dreamer wandering around in the desert. He never heard a voice. He never responded to a call.


And the story of Moses parting the Red Sea was just some fairy tale that parents told their kids to make them feel better. He never heard a voice. He never stood before a burning bush. There never was a Yahweh.


There never will be a day when the Lord will set right all the pain and death and wrong that happens in this world.


This dying woman in 1 Samuel 4 is saying, “My husband and my father-in-law and I have lived wretched, little lives, and now, we die on the same day and all our hopes and all our dreams die with us.

“And all the beauty and laughter and moments of hope in this world are a just cruel illusion, just a farce. This is how it ends for us.”

“And so it ends for everyone. And one day it will end up for this little life as well. And you might as well know the truth now.

“He will grow up an orphan. No mother, no father.

“So every time someone calls him by name, every time someone sees him on the street, every time a teacher notices that he’s raised his hand in school, every time he’s greeted by a friend, let it be a reminder to him of the way things really are. Let him not be disillusioned.

“Ichabod. No glory — not in this world. No transcendent purpose. No hope of something beyond the grave.

“You live and you die, and that’s the end of it.”


There are a whole lot of people in our day who live in that world called Ichabod.


Now, at this point, everything inside of us wants to rush to the rest of the story.

We want assurance that everything is going to turn out great — everyone is going to be happy.

But we have to pause here in the story, because this moment too is a part of the story of the people of God, and yours and mine.


What do you do when there’s a big battle where everything is at stake and you’ve got to win, and you lose?


What do you do when it appears that God — this God that you have based everything in your life upon — is absent and it doesn’t look like he’s coming back?

What do you do when you find out your name is Ichabod?


You lost your job and you can’t find another one, and you’re not asking God to be a millionaire. You just want to be able to work.

And you don’t know if you can pay the bills. And you feel like such a failure.

And the worst part is — where is God?


You carry with you a weight of stress or anxiety or depression. You don’t want this. You want to live in trust and peace.

But sometimes, your mind worries and your heart races so much you can’t sleep. You can’t eat.

You’re not sure you can get through the rest of your life like this. You’re not sure you can get through another day like this. You’re not sure you want to.

And you wonder, “Where is God?”


A mom with young children still at home feels a lump one day.

She goes to the doctor. She gets a phone call. It is malignant. She will not live to see her children grow up.

She wonders, “What did I do wrong?”

She wonders, when she hears other people talk about prayers being answered that seem so trivial to her now, “Why doesn’t God just answer this one prayer of mine — just this one? He can do this.”


Your deep longing was for a God-honoring, joy-filled marriage. But it hasn’t happened.


Maybe you haven’t married, and it looks like you never will.


Maybe you’ve been betrayed by someone.


Maybe you’re married, but it’s a joyless, lifeless, heavy road and you keep pouring out your heart to God, but it doesn’t seem to change.


Maybe your heart breaks over a child that you just love, but is a runaway or a rebel or just hostile.


Maybe you have a dream that looks like it’s never going to come true.


Maybe there’s some kind of brokenness inside you that you keep crying out to God, “God, change it,” but it doesn’t change.


What do you do when the glory is gone?


Well, there is, in this story, no formula, no easy solution, no five simple steps to recapture lost glory.

And you all know we don’t have God in a box.


There is a time in life — there is a time to talk about our part — “What am I supposed to do? How should I respond?”

And we’re going to talk about that next week, but not right now. Not right now because what this story gets into next is not what the Israelites do at all, interestingly enough.

For the Israelites, when the ark had been captured, when the glory was gone, their job for a while was just — “Hold on. Watch, wait, remember, don’t despair.”

And for some of you, that’s what you need to do — watch, wait, remember, don’t despair, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t quit.

Because now, the story is about what God does.

And what God does next is staggering.


Again, I want to ask you to see this from an ancient perspective — from their mindset, not ours.


God allows the Philistines to drag his ark — the manifestation of his presence — from his people to the enemy, from Ebenezer to Ashdod.


And the Philistines would have had a big parade.

And the whole way, the Philistines would mock and taunt this ark, this throne, this God of the Israelites who was being dragged along on a wagon who could, not only not save his own people. He couldn’t even save himself. They taunt him the whole way.


This God of Israel allows himself to be taken captive.

This God of Israel, unlike any other God in that world, this God takes on himself the suffering, and the loss, and the pain, and the embarrassment, and the humiliation of his people. He carries their shame on his back.


What kind of God would do such a thing?

What kind of God would manifest himself in weakness and humility and shame on behalf of, in identification with, his people?

What kind of God would do such a thing?


You understand, this is telling us something about the kind of God we serve. This is telling us something about the true nature of glory.

This is a little foreshadowing of a day that would come, not in a year, not in a decade, but a day that did come, when God would be present on the earth, not in a box, not in an ark, but in a person.

And John says, “And we beheld his kabod.” — “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.

“And we beheld his glory — and it didn’t look anything like what we thought it was going to look like.”

No power. No money. No title. No army.

And at the end of a rather financially-poor life, he becomes a prisoner and his body, which was the manifestation of God in this earth — a kind of new Ark of the Covenant — his body is taken captive.

And it’s paraded in captivity to be mocked, and spat upon, and taunted on the Road to Golgotha.

“You who would save others, you can’t even save your own self.”

And God on the cross becomes Ichabod. No glory.

He takes on our shame, knows our aloneness, our desperate cry for a God who seems far away.

“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why has the glory left me? Why is my name Ichabod?” — Our God says this from the cross.

And the weight of all of that sin, and all of that shame, and all of that God forsakenness is born by this One — by this life the likes of which this world had never seen.

And he dies. He gives up his life.

And his body, the manifestation of God on this earth, is placed in a tomb.

And Pontius Pilate posts a guard to stand watch to make sure nothing would happen to this body, to make sure that the movement that this man Jesus started is thoroughly tamed, thoroughly domesticated.

Pilate says to himself, “I don’t know much about this Jesus, but we sure have built him a nice, little cage.”

But what he didn’t know, and what the human race continually is surprised by century after century after century after century, is we serve a God who just won’t be caged.

“And on the third day…”


Next week we see how God gets himself free and what God does in the night when no one is watching.

Next week, we find out how the kabod comes back home.

It’s a phenomenal story.


The psalmist says, “Sorrow lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”


And this week, this message, this was night.

Next week is morning.


And if you’re sensitive to the Spirit right now, and the person next to you, for whatever reason, is in an Ichabod season — if there’s something going on in their life that is really hard, and the Spirit prompts you to listen, to encourage, to pray, to put an arm around their shoulder or something, I just encourage you. — Be sensitive to the Spirit.


Alright, let me pray for you as Christian and the team come to lead us in a closing song.