Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was captured” I Samuel 4:1-3, 10-11
The Israelites asked the right question – “Why has the Lord defeated us today”, but responded with religion instead of relationship. They sought out the ark of the covenant solely for the purpose of defeating the Philistines. When the ark was captured, God removed it from the Israelites for 20 years. Henry Blackaby in his book on the prophet Samuel applies this story to us today by saying, “Evangelicals have their little ‘arks’ they take into battle as well. It makes sense to us that God will hear the evangelicals. Not necessarily. If sin runs rampant in the church of evangelicals, God will not hear (you can count on it). There will be silence from God. He will come into our lives and our churches and allow captivity of our most sacred things.”
Twenty years after the capture of the ark, Samuel said this to the people of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” I Samuel 7:3
The answer is simple, but we often don’t get it. God calls us to a relationship with him – a pure relationship that is not tainted with religion. God is interested in a heart that is wholly devoted to him. He removes the most sacred things out of our lives so that we will get a clue and seek him out. If you read the rest of I Samuel 7 you see how God responds to repentance – mightily. But we should first be asking ourselves, “Why has God defeated us, why are we in such as mess?” Will we respond with religion or true repentance? It took Israel 20 years to repent – how long will it takes us?