No, Your Religion, or Irreligion, is Not Good Enough

There is a show on A&E called Hoarders, and the things that we witness on this television series are scary. A hoarder is someone who has a compulsive disorder to accumulate stuff and never throw anything away because there is a fear of detachment. The result is a house or property so full of stuff, trash, and animals that it is hazardous to the health of those living there. Often, the authorities have to condemn a property because the hazardous conditions are so terrible. Hoarding causes families to be separated, sickness, and even death. In order to overcome these hoarding issues, hoarders need an intervention.

We have seen God defeat Israel. We have seen God kill the Philistine idol and oppress the Philistine nation. The Philistines have decided that they want to get rid of God’s ark.

1 Samuel 6:1-12

Now the ark of the Lord had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its place.”

They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.”

Then they said, “What shall be the guilt offering which we shall return to Him?” And they said, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for one plague was on all of you and on your lords. So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed? Now therefore, take and prepare a new cart and two milch cows on which there has never been a yoke; and hitch the cows to the cart and take their calves home, away from them. Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go. Watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth-shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”

Then the men did so, and took two milch cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the golden mice and the likenesses of their tumors.

And the cows took the straight way in the direction of Beth-shemesh; they went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or to the left. And the lords of the Philistines followed them to the border of Beth-shemesh.

Focus of manmade religion (v. 1-3)

Up to this point in the story, we have read about God’s hand against Israel. He defeated Israel before the Philistines in order to accomplish His own purpose. The Philistines have taken the ark of God’s covenant. God’s hand has been against the Philistines. He decapitated their false idol and caused its body to fall prostrate before His ark. He caused the people in each territory the ark was present to develop visible tumors. God is making known the breadth of His power and the riches of His own glory through the humbling of the nations. He intervened with Israel when the nation was sinning and when the priests were using the worship to please themselves. He is intervening in Philistia while the Philistines expect worship to profit them in some way.

Now the ark of the Lord had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its place.”

For seven months, God’s ark remained in Philistia. For seven months, the people were plagued by God, and even after they eventually send the ark away, God will still oppress them (1 Samuel 7:10). After seven long months, the Philistines called their diviners (an umbrella term used to describe people like mediums, tarot card readers, astrologers, sooth-sayers, people who see signs in dreams, etc…). This practice is strictly forbidden in Scripture (Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 18:10-11). They sought information from these diviners on how they might send the ark away. They didn’t want this plague to inflict the people any longer. The Philistines would try to remove their affliction by their own action and would hope to gain understanding on their own through the Israelite religious practice of sending a guilt offering.

Here, we have this scenario in which the Philistines have tried to use human religion to claim victory. When God gave them victory, they tried to grasp His power according to their own religious ways. Now that God is oppressing them, they are trying to use their religious ways to discern how to get rid of this God who cannot be silenced. The Philistines are being oppressed by God and God has extirpated their idol, Dagon. Even though they are only met with frustration, instead of submission and repentance to God, they are still trying to figure out how to escape the frustrations and failures of their own religion. They have chosen to use things that seem to work in order to try to achieve some end (the use of diviners) even though the use of diviners is detestable to God. I wonder how many things we have added to Christ for the sake of religion or for the sake of accomplishing some end goal when these things may, in fact, be detestable to God. God, as we see in this text, is the great interventionist and unrighteous people have a tendency to be spiritual hoarders.

They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.”

The Philistine people came up with this plan to send a guilt offering by cart to the Israelite people at Beth-Shemesh. They placed God’s ark, along with gold tumors and gold mice on the cart and would send it off. If the cows took the cart to Beth-Shemesh, the diviners advised that they would know it was the God of Israel who was oppressing them. If the cows took the cart in a different direction, the diviners said that they would know that all this happened by chance.

When we turn to Leviticus 5, we read the purpose of the guilt offering. We read verses 1-6 and recognize that a guilt offering was to be brought by an offender of God’s law. Recompense was to be made if people were sinned against and a sacrifice was to be brought before God. The Philistines went through these steps, following the Israelite ritual, but the ritual would not work for them. God would still oppress the Philistines. In Leviticus 5:6 we read that “In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin.” Atonement must be made on someone’s behalf. For the Israelites, this was symbolized by the work of the priest. The sacrificial system painted a picture and foreshadowed Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, but it was worthless without actual, eternal atonement being made.

The Philistine diviners tried to use works that looked like what was written in the Bible so that they could appease God or get something to work out in their favor. They were mixing their own ways with what they thought the Bible instructed. What they did not know is that without real atonement, ritual meant nothing.

There are a couple things we see in popular religion today that match what we see from the Philistines in this passage. The same is true for people with worldviews in which they do not consider themselves to be religious. First of all, when we see our entire systems crumbling and our sacred cows dying, we have a tendency to try and defend and recover those things, and we complain about everyone who doesn’t see the importance of the things that we have loved so deeply for so long. We fail to recognize God’s sovereignty, repent, and submit to His plan as He works all things together. Sacred cows are a form of blatant idolatry and we have a tendency to dress it up with religious language so that we can justify it and maybe God will give us a pass. 

Second, we convince ourselves that it is up to us to accomplish the things of God when, in actuality, the things of God must be accomplished on our behalf because we are insufficient. So, we mix the ways of the world or our own ways with the ways of God and think that God is somehow honored. We collect everything we can because we think it might be useful to accomplish some end that we perceive. Here, in 1 Samuel 6, God has been working out His purpose for His people and among the nations in spite of people- not because of them. In the same way, God is working out His eternal purpose in the world today in spite of us, not because of us. God doesn’t need us or our religion and it doesn’t matter what kind of Christianeze we use to describe the good we think we are doing. Christ has His throne. He is king. He calls His people to Himself.

When we see our sacred cows dying and when this spiritual clutter in our lives is actually making us sick, God intervenes by killing our sacred cows and frustrating our efforts to accomplish some end goal. We haven’t yet seen how God’s people respond in this story. Those who are not chosen by God and consequently do not truly love God respond by exiling the things of God when their sacred cows are threatened or destroyed and by clinging to the spiritual clutter by convincing themselves that these will eventually prove necessary. If we find that we are attached to either sacred cows or worldly ways in any arena of life and are unwilling to part with those things, then we prove that our faith is in something other than Christ. We have loved something other than Him. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, we are spiritual hoarders convincing ourselves that we must, by some means, accomplish something or achieve some sort of satisfaction.

Worship in manmade religion (v. 4-9)

In this passage, we see that worship was about what people could give to God in order to appease Him or please Him or make things happen for them rather than about praising God for what He has done and for what only He can do.

The Philistines tried to atone for their own sin. This cannot be done. God must atone for our sins on our behalf. We make penance (the act of making up for our sin) sound very spiritual. We make it seem like our trying to atone for our own wrongs is a really spiritual thing to do, so we try and confess all of our sins or help enough people to make up for what we’ve done. We try and gain some sort of righteousness so that we can be weighed as good. We can’t do this, yet we make it seem very spiritual. So, we pray facing Mecca, light candles, go to confession, or do good deeds to try and make atonement. We pollute the Gospel with the ways of the world by convincing ourselves that, in some way, God depends on us to accomplish His work.

When we do this, we haven’t understood the meaning of grace. I am unable to atone for my sins. I am unrighteous. It is freeing to know that I don’t have to. Christ is my atonement. He did this on my behalf. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, He is that atonement on your behalf, also. Will you declare your faith in Jesus Christ today?

Jesus Christ came and shed His own blood, an atonement for sin. The last guilt offering. Jesus lived as a perfect human person. He is God. 1 and 2 Samuel are about God preparing Christ’s throne within His creation. This is accomplished in the real atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Consider Romans 3:21-28:

“But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed — attested by the Law and the Prophets — that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

God’s glory in manmade religion (v. 10-12)

The Philistines did what the diviners instructed. This was not chance. The cows went straight to Beth-Shemesh. The Philistine rulers followed the cows. We continue to see how God is working all things together. It is God who builds nations. It is God who places kings and emperors and presidents. It is God who gives influence to and sustains every world religion and every worldview including atheism.  It is God who even raises up false teachers and all those who would deny Him as He raised up Pharaoh. It is God who brings a faithful people to Himself. It is God who works together the unfaithfulness of people. It is God who has authority over unsaved people who refer to themselves as Christians. God is sovereign and human religion always fails. 

As we discovered last week in the text, God is working all things together in this way so that His own strength, power, and the riches of His glory might be made known. You see, God’s purpose as He accomplishes all of His work according to His own will is not that people would somehow be attracted to a religious institution. The church is to be a picture of Christ and is to be the body of Christ. God’s purpose is not to make the church body known or people known. It is to make Himself known. We cannot accomplish this by any means of our own, either by clinging to sacred cows or by hoarding the things of the world. 

This is why false churches grow and grow. This is why healthy churches seem to suffer. This is why people are fooled by atheism. This is why there are so many religions and cults in the world. God is showing us that all of our ways are insufficient. We need a savior. We need a king who has made atonement on our behalf. What we don’t need is another person telling us what we can do to get there or to live a happy and satisfying life or get more people to come to church. These things and this type of advice has failed for centuries. The Law reveals our desperate need. Neither the Israelites nor the Philistines have understood that up to this point. We cannot accomplish the things of God no matter how religious our language, how traditional our liturgy, how attractive our music, how meaningful our causes, or how knowledgable our minds. God accomplishes His own work and Christ alone builds His own church. Because we have assumed that we are the sufficient ones, because of our unrighteousness, God’s word calls us, again, to repentance. May God bring us to rest in His glory alone in spite of our addiction to self, to self-centered living, and to our aversion to anything that would discourage us from seeking our own glory. This is an intervention.

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