God’s Work in Human Conflict

In the first four chapters of 1 Samuel, the truth of God’s authority stands out from the pages. From Hannah’s declaration, “The Lord brings death and gives life; he sends some down to Sheol, and he raises others up. The Lord brings poverty and gives wealth; he humbles and he exalts” (2:6-7), to God’s promise regarding Samuel, “I will raise up a faithful priest for myself. He will do whatever is in my heart and mind. I will establish a lasting dynasty for him” (2:35), to God defeating the Israelites before the Philistines so that He would accomplish His own purpose regarding Hophni and Phenehas (4:1-22). God has been working all things, from the birth of Samuel to the death of Eli’s family, together for His own glory and for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

We remember Isaiah, whom the Lord spoke through, “The past events have indeed happened. Now I declare new events; I announce them to you before they occur” (Isaiah 42:9) and again, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like me. I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: my plan will take place, and I will do all my will. I call a bird of pry from the east, a man for my purpose from a far country. Yes, I have spoken; so I will also bring it about. I have planned it; I will also do it” (Isaiah 46:9b-11).

It is no question that in the text of Scripture, God has all authority over life and death, heaven and hell, and over the particular events of human history. In fact, there is nothing that happens outside of God’s providence. Everything that transpires does so because God has declared it before it occurs; He has declared the end from the beginning. He does everything that is His will to do. He brings it about. His plan will take place. This is a declaration that He has made. I can’t do enough, pray enough, be moral enough, or reason with God enough to change His mind or to sway His action. What He has determined will be. What He has not determined will not be.

We perceive a problem. There are people who deny God, the Philistines. God has defeated His chosen national people before the Philistines. Around 34,000 Israelites have perished. The Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant. God has, in His providence, elected for there to be a people who deny Him and who worship a figurine that they have named Dagon. Why would God, who by His own proclamation declares the end from the beginning and does all His will, planning and carrying out His own plan, provide for such conflict and provide that people, even entire nations, would deny Him?

1 Samuel 5

After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod, brought it into the temple of Dagon and placed it next to his statue. When the people of Ashdod got up early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and returned him to his place. But when they got up early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. This time, both Dagon’s head and the palms of his hands were broken off and lying on the threshold. Only Dagon’s torso remained. That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and everyone who enters the temple of Dagon in Ashdod do not step on Dagon’s threshold.

The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod, terrorizing and afflicting the people of Ashdod and its territory with tumors. When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of Israel’s God must not stay here with us, because His hand is strongly against us and our god Dagon.” So they called all the Philistine rulers together and asked, “What should we do with the ark of Israel’s God?”

“The ark of Israel’s God should be moved to Gath,” they replied. So the men of Ashdod moved the ark. After they had moved it, the Lord’s hand was against the city of Gath, causing a great panic. He afflicted the men of the city, from the youngest to the oldest, with an outbreak of tumors.

The Gittites then sent the ark of God to Ekron, but when it got there, the Ekronites cried out, “They’ve moved the ark of Israel’s God to us to kill us and our people!”

The Ekronites called all the Philistine rulers together. They said, “Send the ark of Israel’s God away. It must return to its place so it won’t kill us and our people!” For the fear of death pervaded the city; God’s hand was oppressing them. The men who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.

The glory of God v. 1-5

As we continue in the story, we see again that God does not need any person and that He is absolutely sovereign over all things. It was God who not only permitted, but provided that His ark would be stolen and it was God who crushed the statue of an imaginary being (or a demon posing as a god). God fought His own battle. The Philistines recognized the power of the Lord.

God was not only working things together to achieve His glory in Israel, but also among the Philistines. As we think about conflict, we make this realization from the outset: God is not so small that He only receives glory among His true children. The Philistines did not know Him. They had about 700 years to repent as a nation. They had access to knowledge about God through the observation of creation. In Genesis 10, we learn that the Philistines descended from Noah’s son, Ham, as did the Egyptians. God was a direct part of their history and upbringing (as He is with all people groups). Ham was the cursed son (Genesis 9). In 1 Samuel, 1,000 years later, Ham’s descendants are still a cursed people, a people enslaved by their own nature, unable, even given the great period of time, to recognize the God of their father, Noah, and come to worship Him. God was still glorified even in their depravity and as they were in the midst of their curse. God was making his power evident, though the Philistines, as a nation, would never know God or understand Him.

There are many nations in our day that do not recognize God. There are many religions and they are all the same when we see how they define faith and righteousness. Follow these steps and you will get to heaven, have satisfaction, get God (or the gods) on your side, or achieve true happiness. The Bible is the only book that gives us something different. There are even many churches that teach this idea that we must do something in order to be chosen and saved by God. That’s works-based righteousness and we don’t see it anywhere in the book that God gave us. There is self-worship, idolatry, and people who are so concerned with their preferences that they fail to see God at work. We get so upset because there are fake churches, false teachings, unbiblical ideas, and people who refer to themselves as Christians without having any idea what Christ has done by grace. Then we read about a God who was gaining glory for Himself in the midst of a people who did not understand Him and most of whom would not receive salvation. God does the same thing today.

Where false gods are worshipped, those gods ultimately fail to provide. Where there is false doctrine, it ultimately falls. Where there are unhealthy churches, they ultimately serve as a testimony to the insufficiency of the human pursuit of self-glory. God is not so small that He only receives glory among His true children. Where unhealthy local churches gain a voice, that voice was provided by God. If false teaching prevails for a time, it prevails because God has determined that it will. When the Philistines won a battle, it was by God’s will in order to accomplish God’s purposes for God’s glory.

God is not as small as we have tried to make Him.

The humility of people v. 6-12

The Philistines could not send the ark away fast enough. After juggling it between a few cities, they feared God because God ravaged them. He afflicted them. God oppressed the people of Philistia. God was making the breadth of His own power known. What kind of God would do this to people? Is God not kind? Is He not nice? Is He not merciful?

In Romans 9, Paul quotes Exodus 9:16, which states explicitly that it was God who raised up Pharaoh to display His own power and glorify His own name. As Paul explains and applies the Old Testament Scripture (we call this expository teaching and most of the New Testament is an exposition of the Old), he uses a logical device called a rhetorical question to get his audience to think about the implications of this truth. We understand what a rhetorical question is. If I am about to eat my wife’s leftovers and she sees and asks, “Are you going to eat that?” and gives me that look (yeah, you know the one). That’s a rhetorical question. What she means is, “You had better not eat that because I plan on enjoying it later.” She wanted me to come to that conclusion on my own. Paul employed the same sort of language, “What if He did this to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory- on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24).

We are created. God is creator. The potter has the right over the clay. God’s will be done because He is the one who has rights, not me. God has created vessels for dishonor and vessels for honor. He has done this so that He might be known and so that we might see His power and experience the riches of His glory. God is in the business of humbling people. He is the one to be glorified, not us.

We have to make a clarification when we start down this path. We will chase this idea like a rabbit and draw certain natural conclusions. Ultimately we end up having a discussion regarding our ability to choose God. Since it is clear through the Scripture that God is the one who does the choosing (see Ephesians 1:4, 2 Timothy 1:9, Isaiah 42 and 46, and we see that here with God’s 1,000 year rejection of the Philistines), we start asking things like, “Well, am I really responsible for my sin?” Is God the one causing me to sin? Is God the one who forced people to choose conflict and division and self-glory?

This is the part of the conversation in which we need to understand our human nature. We were created in the image of God (Genesis 1-2). God is righteous. We were the image of righteousness. God is glorified. We were the image of His glory. Our disposition was to try to be righteous and to pursue glory as God is and does. Righteousness and glory were not ours to gain. So God gave a command that He knew we would break in the Garden. We assume that somehow God did not have authority over original sin. He did. He declares the end from the beginning, remember? From before the foundation of the world, He declared the end. This means that even before Adam and Eve sinned, God had His plan of grace in motion. Romans 11:32-33 states this idea explicitly, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that He may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways!” Through the book of Romans, Paul explains how God did this so that we could be brought from our own pursuit of self-righteousness and self-glory into true righteousness, which is God’s alone. Our nature is to pursue self-glory. God is the only one who is glorified. So, from the beginning, God provided that we would fall into sin and that sin would point out our desperate need for Him. This is what we mean when we say that people are totally depraved. Without God’s intervention (even with Adam and Eve before the first sin), people are entirely focussed on self-glory. God provides conflict even in the simplest form- our struggle with right and wrong. He uses that to raise up the people that He has chosen for Himself. By nature, I always choose self-glory. It is God who intervenes by grace alone.

James 1:14-15 says this: “Each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.” It is so humbling when we have to come to grips with our own nature, our inability, our fruitless pursuit of self-glory. God, by grace alone, hands us over to sin so that His power is made known and His chosen people get to experience the riches of His glory.

We are not as great as we have tried to make ourselves.

What this means

Regarding false doctrine, unhealthy churches, and division in local churches; God is working that division together, division we choose because of our nature, for His glory and for the benefit of the elect. In John 13, we read about Judas leaving the company of Jesus and the other eleven disciples so that he might betray Jesus. Jesus tells Judas to go and do what he is doing. This was being worked out by God (John 17:12). Judas betrayed Jesus because God’s word was to be fulfilled. What God declares is done. Jesus also predicts that Peter will deny Him three times. Between these two actions, rooted in the human, self-righteous nature, Christ gives a command, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Do we see what God is doing? He is working together human conflict and division, which we choose because of our nature. I will quote Paul again, “What if He did this to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory- on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24). God works human conflict, division, false doctrine, false religion, and unhealthy local churches together to make known the breadth of His power and the riches of His glory. That is the reason He has created vessels for glory and vessels for wrath, vessels for honor and vessels for dishonor. Scripture tells us this explicitly. Those who love God and are called according to His purpose will also love one another. God is working out that love through human conflict and division and false doctrine and betrayal and denial. If there were not adversity, we would only love ourselves, which is the very self-righteousness that God has been ruining in His people from the moment He gave the very first command, rather from before the foundation of the world. It is all a part of His purpose of grace, which He has been working out from eternity.

This application is the same when we think about all of society, about ethical debates (what is right and wrong), and about political controversy in this world. It was true during the reformation 501 years ago. It is true as we address the ideas of works-based righteousness, the prosperity gospel, false teaching, and the idea that one must contribute in some way to his or her salvation. As we fight for the doctrines of grace, the thing we need to realize is that God is working together all of this to reveal the breadth of His power and the riches of His glory. This is of great benefit, especially for the elect (those who are called according to God’s purpose). The day of adversity has its place, and we have our places on the day of adversity according to God’s will and purpose. Consequently, it means that we must be present in the marketplace of ideas instead of secretly condemning other ideas that are voiced. Let us reason in our churches, communities, denominations, and in the world. Let us do so using every available platform. Let us pursue understanding and strive as best we can to bring understanding.

There will be division. Sometimes we try at all costs to keep division from pervading our numbers. We do so at the high price of truth, sound doctrine, and of following Christ. Division is worked out by God for His glory and our benefit. Doctrine divides because we are enslaved by our unrighteous nature. Those who have been chosen by Christ are coming to know the riches of God’s glory, which are bestowed on them by the creator. In God’s glory, they come to love one another without condition. The more we grow in the glory of God, which is so mercifully and gracefully placed upon us, the more we will grow in genuine love for one another to the glory of God. The more we know God, the more we love Him. The more we love God, the more we love one another. True unity and community come as we know God’s glory. We know the riches of God’s glory through the adversity of this world, which God is working out for our benefit. We cannot come into the riches of God’s glory without ending our pursuit for self-glory. Our nature prohibits us from doing this. God must reach into the darkness and accomplish this. I am so glad that He has all authority. I am so glad that He rescues His people despite what they choose because of their own nature. I am so glad He has made this a process rather than completing my sanctification all at once. That would be too weighty for me! One day I will be brought into the fullness of the riches of God’s glory. I will never stop growing in my understanding. What is impossible with people is possible with God (Jesus when talking about Salvation in Luke 18:27)!

God is bringing His people into the riches of His glory.


God is not as small as we have tried to make Him.

We are not as great as we have tried to make ourselves.

God is bringing His people into the riches of His glory.

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