We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.
There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.
But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.
In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.
In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.
In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.
In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.
In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.
And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.
Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.
Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.
Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.
Living stories of a living book coming alive.
While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).
You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.
And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.
When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.
And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.
History of Israel
There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.
They were saved out of Egypt.
They were given the Law at Sinai.
Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.
For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.
And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.
But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.
Captivity of the Ark
Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.
In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.
At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!
But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.
This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.
But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.
Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.
The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.
Exile of Judah
Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).
As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.
Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).
They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.
Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.
There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.
Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).
Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.
Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.
As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.
Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.
Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)
Hear my prayer, O Lord!
Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.
Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?
Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.
Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.
Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.