In their many battles against their various enemies, Israel knew that their strength and victory came from God. If Israel lost a battle, they would not have blamed their tactics or level of readiness primarily. They would have been confused and amazed at the defeat, and perhaps would have questioned their consecration – did someone sin? When Israel was chased down by the men of Ai (in Joshua 7), Joshua falls on his face before the ark of the LORD in great distress:
“O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their back before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do you for your great name?” (Joshua 7:8-9)
God answers: “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their belongings. Therefore, the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies.” (Joshua 7:11-12)
In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are defeated by the Philistines and instead of inquiring of God, they decide to use the Ark of the Covenant as a talisman by bringing it into the battle field. The consequences are great and in fulfillment of God’s judgment: Thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel are slaughtered, the ark of God is captured and the two sons of Eli are killed in battle.
There would have been shock and lamentation in Israel upon hearing that the Philistines had captured the ark of God. Eli, the priest, falls over backward from his chair, breaks his neck and dies. His daughter-in-law gives birth prematurely and names her son Ichabod. “And she said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’” (1 Samuel 4:22) That she has born a son is no consolation to her in the reality of what seems like God’s departure.
During these ancient days, the glory of God is dramatically revealed on the battlefield or when God routs an advancing enemy. The text implies that Israel was being harassed by the Philistines who were threatening to overwhelm the Israelites, if not already. In these desperate times, the leaders and the faithful would have been compelled to cling to God as their only hope of deliverance from a strong enemy. Philistine triumph in battle could presumably lead to Israel’s worst nightmare, which eventually became a reality with the end of the monarchy in Judah and exile to Babylon, along with all the horrors of war. When God does bring about deliverance, the exultation in triumph, the singing, dancing, memorials, worship and glory given to God as recorded in scripture draws the modern reader into their world and deepens our understanding of what it means for believers to be ‘saved’ by God today.
The battle narratives in scripture are compelling in that God reveals himself as the mighty warrior in glory and brilliance. He is the champion of Israel who in great power scatters and stuns the enemy so that Israel need only rally and pursue. God’s constant teaching to the Israelites is that only He can save and deliver and that only He is God.
In Joshua 5, Joshua has a face to face encounter with God:
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
This was certainly God in the flesh because the scene echoes Moses’ encounter with God in the flames of the burning bush (Exodus 3). God had also instructed Moses to take off his sandals for the ground on which he stood was holy and furthermore, God clearly identified himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Joshua’s encounter is bit more visually compelling to me because here is God appearing in the flesh, as a warrior. Being face to face with God, Joshua falls facedown to the ground and worships. And the response is the outflow of a core longing to worship before a true and long-awaited King, the memory of glory imprinted into the soul of every human being. In those moments of true worship, we have arrived home and our identities are revealed; we have the Spirit to be brave and honorable for His sake and for others.
The Philistines return The Ark of God after 7 months of destruction and “emerods in their secret parts” according to the King James translation. The speculation is that the bubonic plague ravaged the Philistines. At Beth-shemesh, where the ark of God is received, God destroys over 50,000 men (or 70 men depending on translation) because they looked into the the ark – I suppose it was equivalent to gazing at someone’s private parts without permission, an exchange that should only happen between lovers. Later (perhaps 20 years later), Samuel gathers the people together where they commit to turn away from foreign gods and serve the LORD only. When the Philistines hear of the gathering, they marshal their forces to attack Israel. By faith, the people of Israel wait upon God to deliver them from the Philistines:
8 And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car. (1 Samuel: 8-11)
To stand still in weakness and wait for God to deliver us from a desperate situation is to test our belief that God is alive and merciful. And when God to our thrilling amazement intervenes supernaturally, he alone receives praise and the glory.
The book of Judges chronicles several accounts of God working though the Judges to save them from their enemies. The most spectacular account involves God instructing Gideon to go into battle with 300 men into the camp of Midian. Gideon by nature is cautious and doesn’t have the zeal and fervor to risk life and limb in an impossible mission and God knows that of course. With patience and understanding, God strengthens his faith by small miracles and with bits of knowledge so that by the middle night watch Gideon has the confidence to muster his handful of men. All 300 men are set around the camp with torches in their hands and they blow their trumpets at the appointed time as if to herald a charging army into battle. The Midianites in terror and confusion draw swords against one another and flee from what they perceive to be a massive assault. Yet, the strength of Israel was as real as if Gideon had an army of 100,000 at his command because God was present in the battlefield with sword drawn, leading the armies of the living God. And Joshua and his men must have been swept up into reality of God’s glory and power as they watched the enemy crumble away.
Only Israel had the glory of God in their midst. God’s presence was in the camp as a comforting reality that God provided and protected them. But beyond that, they had access to the God of mighty acts, the God who lead them out of slavery in Egypt. They were near to the God of glory before whom they trembled and reverenced.
Much later on in history, God visits again in the flesh, but not as a warrior. He visits as a gentle and supremely approachable carpenter in a story of salvation through voluntary weakness and sacrifice that is heart-wrenching and stuns the enemy into silence.