Do you recall the circumstances under which those words were spoken? During the days of Eli, the next-to-last judge of Israel, the Israelites were warring with the Philistines. After about four thousand Israelites died in one battle, the elders of Israel wondered, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” Those elders then made a proposal: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).
Which ark was it that the elders of Israel wanted to take along? Surely it was not the ark which Noah built, right? Correct. Noah did build an ark – a huge floating vessel which was used as the means of preserving human and animal life (Genesis 6). But, Noah’s ark was not the “ark of the covenant/ Testimony” which Israel wanted to carry into battle. What about Moses’ ark? Moses was connected with an ark, too, you know. When he was three months old, his mother put him in an ark of bulrushes and placed that ark in the river (Exodus 2). That ark, though, was not “the ark of the covenant” for which the Israelite leaders called when they faced the Philistines in battle. Failing to keep these three arks straight in our minds can lead to confusion and ridiculous conclusions.
How significant was the ark of the Testimony? It was located in the holy of holies of the tabernacle and later in the temple (Exodus 26:34). Jehovah promised the Israelites that He would dwell between the cherubims which were on top of it (1 Samuel 4:4; Exodus 25:22). Inside the ark were the tables on which the Ten Commandments were written, a pot containing manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded (Hebrews 9:4). When the children of Israel left Mount Sinai and continued their journey toward the land of Canaan, the ark of the covenant went before them for three days to find a resting place for the people (Numbers 10:33). There is no doubt that the ark of the Testimony was counted as a holy vessel, was located in the most holy place, and was connected with holy activities.
What about transporting the ark? It was acceptable to move it from one location to another; in fact, in some cases it was required to do so. When the Israelites did move the ark, God wanted them to transport it in the manner which He prescribed. Two poles were to be placed inside four rings of gold, and the ark was to be carried by using those poles (Exodus 25:10-16). No one, including the Levites from the family of Kohath who carried the ark, was allowed to touch it (Numbers 4:4,15,17-20). Uzzah lost his life for failing to heed God’s warning (2 Samuel 6:6,7). So, yes, transporting the ark was a big deal, a matter to be approached with great reverence.
What we find in the days of Eli, though, was not a failure to think highly of the ark of the covenant. On the contrary. Again, what was it that the elders said when they wanted some security before heading into battle with their enemies, the Philistines? They said, “Let us bring the ark of the covenant . . . that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” Having a high regard for the function and symbolism of the ark was one thing. Claiming that it could “save” the people or “save” the nation was another matter entirely!
In fact, when we read the rest of the historical account which is recorded in 1 Samuel 4, what do we see? The Israelites fetched the ark, and when it came into their camp, they “shouted so loudly that the earth shook” (1 Samuel 4:5). Excitement was at a high level! Then, what happened? In the next battle, “Israel was defeated . . . and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers” (4:10). It turns out that having the ark close beside them was not the key to victory after all! The Israelites were excited and put their confidence in the presence of a material object – in this case, the ark, instead of trusting in the living God.
Over four hundred years after the Israelites were convinced that the ark of the covenant could save them, some in the days of the prophet Jeremiah were saying, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:4), as if the temple’s presence guaranteed the people’s safety. The Jews counted the temple as the holiest place in the holy city of Jerusalem, but simply possessing that material structure was no guarantee that Jehovah would bless them. The temple was not a lucky charm that automatically made God’s people victorious. Material facilities were not the key to the Israelites’ real security. No, physical structures were not their Savior. Spiritual Israel, are we listening?!
Since Christians are required to assemble (Hebrews 10:25), they must have a place to do so. Renting, buying, or building a physical structure (“church building”) in which to congregate is authorized by the command to assemble for worship. However, let us be clear, absolutely clear, about one matter: a church building is not the key to spiritual success. The victory comes to those who live and overcome by faith (1 John 5:4; Revelation 2:10,11). A building, regardless of how nice it might be, is not the Savior, and it should not be that in which we place our hope and trust. Church buildings serve a purpose, but let us be honest with ourselves: they do not cause people to repent and obey Jesus.
The real source of help for God’s people has never been a material object. God alone is our refuge, strength, and help (Psalm. 46:1).
— Roger D. Campbell