You may worship no other god than me. You shall not make yourselves any idols: no images of animals, birds, or fish. You must never bow or worship it in any way; for I, the Lord your God, am very possessive. I will not share your affection with any other god! [Exodus 20:3-6 (TLB)]
In the days of the judges, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. Following the loss of 4,000 men, the elders wondered why God had allowed their defeat. Rather than pray, however, they decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle. Perhaps they remembered when priests carried the Ark around the city of Jericho. Unfortunately, they forgot that God had specifically commanded Joshua to do just that. Ignoring the law that the Ark was to remain in the Tabernacle, they brought it thirty miles from Shiloh to their camp in Ebenezer. Cheering upon the Ark’s arrival, they acted as if the Ark rather than God would save them and treated it like a good luck charm or an idol rather than the sacred box it was. I wonder if the Israelites blamed the Ark rather than their sacrilege when the Philistines defeated them, captured the Ark, and took it into their territory.
Treating it like a trophy or a spoil of war, the Philistines placed the Ark in the temple of their deity Dagon. Believing the Israelite’s god was in the box, they were pleased to have another god on their side until things went from bad to worse for them. After twice finding the idol Dagon vandalized, they suffered from a deadly plague of tumors. Realizing the Ark was not a lucky talisman, they returned it seven months later.
Upon its return, the men of Beth Shemesh still didn’t understand the sanctity of the Ark and violated Mosaic law by looking inside it. When seventy men were struck down for that sacrilege, like the Philistines, they also wanted to get rid of it. The men of Kiriath-jearim came for the Ark and took it to the home of Abinadab where it was unceremoniously stored for twenty years. Scripture tells us that during that time, “all Israel mourned because it seemed that the Lord had abandoned them.” [1 Samuel 7:2] God, however, had never abandoned them; they had abandoned Him for pagan idols and practices.
A picture of the good shepherd Jesus, a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, the olivewood cross in your pocket, a fish symbol on the trunk, St. Christopher on the dash, a pendant with a Bible verse, an angel pin on the jacket, or even a cross made from Palm Sunday’s palms can all serve as visual reminders of our powerful God. Nevertheless, they are powerless symbols. We must never make the mistake of treating any religious object as a lucky charm or worshiping it as if it had power. Protection and victory come from God alone, not from pictures, jewelry, talismans or even the Ark. There is a fine line between revering an object and idolatry. Philistine and Israelite alike crossed that line; let’s be sure we never do.
The heathen worship idols of gold and silver made by men—idols with speechless mouths, sightless eyes, and ears that cannot hear; they cannot even breathe. Those who make them become like them! And so do all who trust in them! [Psalm 135:15-18 (TLB)]
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