In the last month, my wife and I were sitting in a Bible study for young adults and an illustration was made by the group leader. As part of his illustration, he asked if anyone ever knew anybody who naturally did well in school, getting A’s without even trying. Immediately my wife looked at me in that, sort of, “He’s talking about you,” way. Our performance in school is one of the ways we measure success in school. There are some other ways that we measure success or prosperity in this world. They include our income, the material property we own, our relationships in this world, political affiliation, authority or power we perceive ourselves to have, and even our level of comfort or happiness on this earth.
Most often, we define prosperity by our material possessions, material success, and level of comfort. I want to take a few moments and challenge this definition of prosperity. I think that the Bible does teach a type of prosperity for the people of God, but it is not described by the “Prosperity Gospel” proper. In fact, there are many times the people of God will be afflicted, as we learned in 1 Samuel 3. In 1 Samuel 2, we discovered that God has authority over all of this. What is true, biblical, godly, and lasting prosperity?
1 Samuel 4:1-11
And Samuel’s words came to all Israel.
Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and camped at Ebenezer while the Philistines camped at Aphek. The Philistines lined up in battle formation against Israel, and as the battle intensified, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who struck down about 4,000 men on the battlefield.
When the troops returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord let us be defeated today by the Philistines? Let’s bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh. Then it will go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” So the people sent men to Shiloh to bring back the ark of the covenant of the Lord of Hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the covenant of the Lord entered the camp, all the Israelites raised such a loud shout that the ground shook.
The Philistines heard the sound of the war cry and asked, “What’s this loud shout in the Hebrews’ camp?” When the Philistines discovered that the ark of the Lord had entered the camp, they panicked. “The gods have entered their camp!” they said. “Woe to us, nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us, who will rescue us from the hand of these magnificent gods? These are the gods that slaughtered the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Show some courage and be men, Philistines! Otherwise, you’ll serve the Hebrews just as they served you. Now be men and fight!”
So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and each man fled to his tent. The slaughter was severe — 30,000 of the Israelite foot soldiers fell. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
God defeats (v. 1-3)
The Israelites had this understanding about who God is. Even when they were defeated in battle, they recognized that it was God who worked together all things and that there was nothing beyond His control or beyond His authoritative rule. It was the Lord who defeated and the Lord who had the authority to deliver.
The Israelites went to battle, as they often did, against the Philistine armies. The Philistine military decimated the Israelites. When the survivors returned to the war camp, Israel’s leaders asked, “Why did the Lord defeat us today before the Philistines?”
God was often with Israel. He chose Israel for Himself in spite of the nation’s small size and unrighteousness (Deuteronomy 7:7-9). He miraculously led them from slavery to the land of Canaan (Exodus). God gave the people many victories in the land of Canaan and gave the land to them (Joshua, Judges). Here, we see the Israelites recognizing that God defeated them in the presence of the Philistines. If we are going to believe that God is working all things together, that He has all authority, then we must also believe that God, in His sovereign providence, provides both victory and defeat. The Israelites most certainly believed this. They had a robust theology of God’s sovereignty, a theology that is lost on our society today and I think that is a travesty (I don’t know who Travis is, but I’m sorry his name was utilized for this particular word). Remember Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2? It is God who breaks the bows of the warriors and clothes the feeble with strength (2:4). It is God who brings death and gives life; it is God who sends some down to Sheol and raises others up (2:6). This idea, God’s sovereignty especially as it works out in Christ, is scary. In the modern church, we have failed to think about it despite the fact that the text of Scripture is clear throughout her story that God is working all things together.
If we want to know God, if we want others to know Him, we have to consider the very thing that makes Him God- His authority. I am not insisting that God was made, nor am I suggesting that God’s sovereignty is His only characteristic. Sovereignty is an essential part of who God is. If God is not absolutely king, then He is not God. In the same way, if God was not love, if He was not just, if He was not holy, or if He was not creator He would not be God. Sovereignty is God’s essential nature along with all of His other attributes and characteristics. Furthermore, it is not God’s authority that has caused Him to be God. It is because sovereignty is part of God’s essential nature that He has all authority. Neither God nor His sovereignty could have possibly caused the other. Sovereignty is God’s make-up. It is His essential nature. So, God’s authority makes Him God.
God defeated Israel in the presence of the Philistines. The Israelites knew this. Yet, they presumed that they could do something (bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant) to earn some sort of victory. There is the same sort of disconnect between our thinking and our action, between our heads and our hearts. The Israelites had a clear and robust theology of God’s sovereignty, but for some reason, it didn’t carry over. Their hearts were hard, and we are naturally disposed to this same tendency. That is part of our essential nature.
For instance, many professing Christians know the verse out of Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you’ – this is the Lord’s declaration- ‘plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” We have taken this verse and placed it on posters, coffee mugs, rugs, wall art, graphics, GIFs, and we quote it to make ourselves feel good about our lives. Then, we back up one verse, to verse 10, “For this is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm my promise concerning you to restore you to this place.’”
The Israelites were in exile. Many would not live seventy more years to be delivered from Babylon. They had been forced from their homeland into Babylon. God, through Jeremiah, was instructing the Israelites to pursue the well-being of the Babylonians who razed their cities, killed innocents, and deported the Israelites (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Israel’s good was experienced in affliction and in the building of endurance. This is not a statement of comfort or of momentary happiness on this earth. We know Jeremiah 29:11, but in our hearts, we have assumed that God is working out our comfort or happiness on this earth. There is a disconnect. God was working together something greater, and the Babylonian exile, just like the Israelite’s defeat before the Philistines, was part of His plan- His plan to prosper His people in a way that worked out for their good, not necessarily for their comfort, happiness, or material wealth.
God defeats us in order to accomplish His purposes.
God is glorified (v. 4-9)
As we continue, we see two figures from 1 Samuel 2 make a reappearance, Hophni and Phinehas. These were Eli’s sons who habitually embezzled from the sacrifices that were being made to the Lord, causing all of Israel to break the Law of God. God had promised, due to Eli’s negligence in this matter, to cut off Eli’s family and raise up for Himself a priest who would do all that was in His own heart and mind. This priest was Samuel. God was using this battle (yes, working it together) to fulfill His own promise. The Israelites thought that bringing God’s ark into battle would help them win. God was even working together this self-righteous, works-based mentality to accomplish His own work. Hophni and Phinehas, who bore the responsibility to go with the ark, would be killed in battle (v. 11). When the ark arrived, the Israelites shouted and the Philistines were fearful. Both the Philistines and the Israelites assumed that God’s presence was bound to this material object. The Philistines, who over the previous 300 years had contended with Israel, feared the power of the Israelite God, “These are the gods that slaughtered the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.”
God had worked things out in such a way through history that the Philistines recognized His power, even if they did not understand who He was.
I want to be very clear about this. God does not and cannot sin. Do we see His authority working out in this text? God said that He would do something. He is working it out. He is working it out even by working together human pridefulness and sin. God does not have to sin to have authority over sinfulness. In fact, if God does not have authority over sinfulness, then He is incapable of forgiving sin or atoning for sin. God does these things. He forgives. Through Christ (God the Son) He has atoned. I am so thankful that God has authority over sin and over human pride! So, as He works all things together, all people are being drawn to recognize Him as absolute Lord. This is what we mean when we say that God receives all glory. He doesn’t receive glory because I make some attribution to Him. He receives all glory because it is literally Him who works all things together. God is glorified. The rocks cry out (Luke 19:40). History bears His signature. The sunset He paints every evening at dusk causes us to recognize the artist. The heavens declare the majesty of God (Psalm 19:1) He is the source and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). All things are from Him, through Him and to Him (Romans 11:36). God is the artist, He is the author, He is the master engineer, and He is the landscaper. By His word, gravity pulls planets and solar systems and galaxies together. By His brush, the clouds roll across the sky with shades of pink and yellow and blue. By His pen, the annals of human history unfold. By His breath, we were given physical life. By His grace we are born again, not by works so that no one can boast; we are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:8-10).
God receives all glory as He works all things for His purposes.
God accomplishes (v. 10-11)
The power of God was never contained in the ark of God, but, as we remember from verse 3, God has complete authority over and in every event. He brought the destruction of Hophni and Phinehas just as He had promised earlier.
God is the one working all things together. God is the one who receives all glory. This is why we preach a Gospel of grace, not of human works. As we see with the Israelites, our works don’t accomplish the things of God, especially salvation. God gives. It’s a gift. There is nothing we can do or have to do to receive this gift. In popular Christianity, we often get the order wrong. Through Scripture, this is clear: God draws people to Himself, then people repent and follow after Him. We say, first, repent. If you are anything like me, I’m hard-headed. There was something I did as a child (I don’t remember what it was), and I needed to apologize for what I did. My mom ordered me to apologize and I would not. My mom started counting and with each number, I received another spanking. I still would not apologize and I received twenty-something spankings because I would not. My dad instructed me as a child not to touch the face of the cigarette lighter in his truck. As soon as he turned away, I took that thing out and touched it.
We are unrighteous, so we sin. We are unrighteous, so we are unrepentant. We are unrighteous, so we assume that we must contribute to God’s work of salvation by somehow doing something to earn His grace. That is our nature. We, in some ways, place ourselves in a position that is rightly God’s because we were created in His image. God is the one working. God is the one who has all authority. God is the one who is bringing us to repentance. We are responsible for our sin. We choose it. God, by grace, saves us out of that. As God saves us, our response is repentance and change and obedience. God may be calling some into salvation as this is being read. Romans 10:9-10 states that if we believe with our hearts that Christ was raised from the dead and confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will be saved. Not that we will save ourselves by our confession, but that we will be saved. Is God calling you by grace? He will accomplish this salvation for us, on our behalf. In fact, He has already accomplished it in Christ. That is why we can have faith in Him.
A works-based gospel is exactly the same as the prosperity gospel, proper. If you do this, you will receive this. If you have faith in Christ, you will receive peace, comfort, blessing, or wealth on this earth. If you follow these rules, pray the sinner’s prayer, or say the ABC’s of salvation, you will receive the love of God. They are the same, and it is not what we read in any part of God’s Bible. I’m not saying that God can’t use the sinner’s prayer or the ABC’s of salvation as tools, but we have to recognize what we actually mean when Scripture states that salvation is by grace, through faith. It is 100% a gift of God and everything that would imply.
Here is what this means for true, biblical prosperity. God isn’t necessarily interested in our material wealth. He owns everything. God isn’t necessarily interested in our worldly success (as we clearly see in 1 Samuel 4). The numerical growth of a local church or church network can be a worldly pursuit. God is interested in His purpose. He is interested in a good for His people that is farther reaching than even our mere survival on this earth. God is working together something far greater than we could imagine.
We read the words of Jesus during His bodily ministry on this earth,
“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness — how deep is that darkness!
No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money” (Matthew 6:19-24).
Do we understand the depth of what Jesus is getting at? We cannot serve both worldly prosperity and Christ. This is especially true for the local church body as she does ministry. If our goal is worldly prosperity or works based righteousness, we will hate Christ and the things of Christ. If we are trying to contribute to our salvation in some way or have expected that because we pretend to love God that He will grant temporary happiness, peace, success or make us comfortable in this life, we show that we are full of darkness. The fruit reveals the root. If the light within us is darkness, how deep is that darkness? If we are outwardly religious because we think that is the thing that pleases God, we prove that our darkness is deep. Salvation is by grace! True prosperity is eternal and is worked out by God, not us. This is not only a deeply convicting truth, but a freeing one.
We beat ourselves up because of our sin and our failure and think that God is somehow disappointed in us. If we are saved by grace, through faith by a God who has all intimate knowledge, then He cannot be disappointed in us. He does hate sin. Disappointment is caused when we have unmet expectations. If God has all knowledge, then He cannot have unmet expectations. He knows us. He knows our unrighteousness. He knows our darkness. He knows all of our secret sins. He knows the depth of our thought life. He knows our depression. He knows our anxiety. He knows our desires and our fantasies. We cannot disappoint Him. In fact, He does not depend on us. Our salvation is not predicated upon our works. Our prosperity is not predicated upon our material success. Our identity is in Christ. Period. This truth takes the weight of the world off of our shoulders. It is convicting. It is satisfying. It is encouraging.
This is why I beg you not to do more to please God. This is why I refuse to say that if you do this thing you will be blessed or happy. This is why I cannot ask you to take these steps to be saved. The only thing I ask, in fact I plead with you, if God is calling you into a relationship with Him that is based entirely on His grace and on nothing that you have done or will do, respond. Surrender to Him. God is offering you eternal life and prosperity that is much greater than the little goals and pursuits we make for ourselves on this earth. He is offering you a deeper satisfaction, joy, and peace that we receive a taste of here on this earth and that will be experienced to the fullest extent possible in eternity. In the fleeting throws of this life and in the bipolar nature of this world, this is such good news. God defeats us so that we will be broken of this world’s patterns, much like a horse must be broken of her wild nature. In the scope of eternity, God is even working together death for our humility, His glory, and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
God accomplishes His purposes.
God defeats us in order to accomplish His purposes.
God receives all glory as He works all things for His purposes.
God accomplishes His purposes.