(1 Samuel 4:3) And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.
In this chapter we see the bitter judgment of God against Eli and his sons (1SAM 4:10-18), the death of Eli's daughter in law, and the awful legacy of her son's name,
Ichabod: the glory had departed from Israel (1SAM 4:19-22).
The ark of the covenant, that precious token of God's abiding presence, God suffered to be seized by the church's enemies. The ark was the particular interest of the high priest of Israel who alone could approach it once a year to offer sacrifice for his own sins and those of the people (HEB 9:7) and its loss was a clear signal of God's displeasure with both priest and pew-filler. In our text today we note that the elders of Israel in distress looked not to God (Who was their glory, PSA 106:20; LUK 2:32) for deliverance but to a token which He had given them: "Let us fetch the ark....when IT cometh among us, IT may save us..." When divine tokens are ascribed divine power, they become as idols and are properly taken away, as Moses' brasen serpent (NUM 21:8 c/w 2KI 18:4). Israel's error was basically that they were attributing saving power to the visible forms and elements of religion instead of to the invisible God, a durable folly with which the church of both testaments has struggled. Israel over time also made pedigree from Abraham and circumcision into sacraments. But the seed of Abraham of God's interest was Jesus Christ (GAL 3:16) Who alone has power to save those given to Him of the Father (JOH 17:2 c/w GAL 3:28-29). And circumcision was only a token of God's favor which pointed to Jesus Christ Who was cut off for sins and Who uniquely can perform a saving circumcision of the heart without hands (ISA 53:8 c/w COL 2:11 c/w ROM 2:28-29). But when the veil of the temple was rent from top to bottom (MAR 15:38), Ichabod was repeated and Israel's house was left unto them desolate (MAT 23:38). The Glory of Israel (LUK 2:32) died under a new testament and rose to glory as Head and King over a spiritual kingdom: the church (EPH 1:20-23 c/w HEB 6:20-HEB 7:1-2). But the error of Israel's elders (per our text) did not die with their economy; it continues in many forms under the New Testament. Consider Catholicism, which historically has attributed inward saving power to the outward forms of religion and evidences of grace. That token which was the ark of the covenant was where unique communion with God could be had under the Law (EXO 25:21-22).
So Catholicism has taken the token of New Testament communion which was given to "...shew the Lord's death..." (1CO 11:26) and turned it mystically into His re-execution as a sacrament to confer saving grace upon sinners. And to this recipe are added all manner of sacramental tokens like baptism, marriage, etc. The Roman church to which Paul wrote has for many centuries had only one bishop: Pope Ichabod. But the Catholics are not alone in the "IT shall save us" business, for the bulk of professing Christianity has seized upon another token of divine favor and presence (the sinner's faith) and "sacramentalized" it. But the sinner's faith is "...the evidence of things not seen..." (HEB 11:1), the proof of the invisible free work of the Spirit within the soul and an earnest of glory (JOH 3:8; JOH 6:63; JOH 6:47). It is His fruit (GAL 5:22), not His bait. And by his faith a believer shows that already he "...hath passed from death unto life" (JOH 5:24).
Similarly, many read where Paul said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for IT is the power of God unto salvation..." (ROM 1:16), and interpret that to mean that the gospel has the power to eternally save the dead sinner. But this is only another version of the "IT may save us" error, swapping the Bible for the ark. The Spirit of God shows us that the word gospel means good/glad tidings (ISA 61:1-2 c/w LUK 4:18 & ROM 10:15), i.e., good news. It is the publishing (announcing, declaring) of salvation (ISA 52:7) by "...Christ the power of God..." (1CO 1:24) Whom the Father gave power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him" (JOH 17:2). Therefore, the good news (gospel) is that Christ Who alone had power to lay down his life and power to take it again (JOH 10:17-18) did indeed rise again for our justification (ROM 4:25) and entered heaven victoriously "...having obtained eternal redemption for us" (HEB 9:12) by himself purging our sins (HEB 1:3). So it is not a matter of life and immortality brought through the gospel, but rather Jesus Christ "...hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality TO LIGHT through the gospel" (2TI 1:10). Another form of the "IT may save us" error might be the zealous efforts by well-intended (but misguided) Christians to defend Christmas in the face of the increasing antichristian humanism which is taking over our culture. At least the Jews (per our text) had the ark which was a token which God had given them, not one conjured up by synthesizing paganism, fantasy and materialism with the name of Christ. Oh, that God's people would attribute the power of salvation only to Jesus Christ and not to tokens of the outward forms of religion nor the outward evidences of inward grace, and cease giving glory to the "...form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2TI 3:5). The church in Sleepy Hollow which was built upon truth and grace but slips into "Tokens Salvation" (as did the Galatians) may find itself to be a body without a Head, its candlestick removed, the glory departed and a new name over its door: ICHABOD.