“Dwelling with Imminent Transcendence”
1 Samuel 6:10 – 7:2
July 15, 2018
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We’ll be looking at 1 Samuel 6:10-7:2 this morning. It could be helpful to recap again where we are at in the story in 1 Samuel.
In 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites went to war with the Philistines. Because they were not being faithful to their God, the Christian God of the Bible, identified in the Hebrew by the name Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth – because they had not been faithful to him, he did not help them in battle, but allowed them to be defeated. Then, rather than reflecting on their sin, on their failure to live in the ways God had called them to, the Israelites instead took the Ark of the Covenant, the special box kept in the holiest part of the sanctuary, which was understood to be God’s throne, which represented his special presence, and they brought it into battle with them, as an attempt to force God’s hand to fight for them. They tried to manipulate God rather than renew their faithfulness to him from the heart. God then responded by allowing an even greater defeat and allowing the Philistines to carry the ark into exile. Yahweh was of course not restricted or bound to the ark, but since it was a symbol of his special presence he continued to be specially present with it, even when it went into exile.
In Philistia Yahweh, the God of Israel, then defeated Dagon, the god of the Philistines, and he brought judgment on the Philistines through plague and infestation, until they finally decided, after seven months, to just send the ark away, back to Israel, while also making offerings to Yahweh that were intended as a way of asking for his pardon, so that he might end his judgment on them. They asked their diviners how they should send the ark back and were told to make offerings of gold in the shapes of the instruments Yahweh had used to defeat them: tumors and mice. They were then given a test to set up to confirm that it really was Yahweh who had done this thing – placing the ark on a cart attached to two cows that had never been yoked and that would want to return to their calves. The Philistines’ idea was that they would see if Yahweh would really drive the cows to pull the cart with the ark on it back to Israel, specifically to the town of Beth-shemesh.
We will re-enter our story when the Philistines are setting this up, we will see Yahweh, victorious over Dagon and the Philistines, riding back to Israel like a conquering king. And then we will see how things go when he is reunited with his people, Israel.
As in the past, while I read, I’ll be restoring the Hebrew name for the Christian God, “Yahweh” where it has been replaced with the title “the LORD” in our translation tradition.
Let’s turn to our text, 1 Samuel 6:10-7:2 …
6:10 The men did so [that is, the Philistines did as their religious leaders advised them to do with the ark of Yahweh], and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of Yahweh on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. 12 And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. 13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to Yahweh. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of Yahweh and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to Yahweh.16 And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.
17 These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to Yahweh: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18 and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of Yahweh is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.
19 And he [that is, God,] struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of Yahweh. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because Yahweh had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of Yahweh. Come down and take it up to you.”
7:1And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of Yahweh and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of Yahweh.2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after Yahweh.
This is God’s Word.
Our text, coming where it is in the larger story … is a bit of a downer. We come off the high of Yahweh, the God of Israel, defeating his and Israel’s enemies, he returns triumphant, the people rejoice … and then God strikes and kills 70 Israelites. What’s going on here?
While God has been victorious, there are still problems in Israel, and there are still problems in how they relate to God. Remember – that’s part of what got this all started in the first place – the way Israel treated God in 1 Samuel 4.
The problem that our text points to is Israel’s difficulty dwelling with a God who is both transcendent and imminent – Israel’s failure to adopt the proper pattern for living with a God who is both holy and near. Israel seems to be prepared to live with a god who is one or the other, who is either near and imminent, or who is holy and transcendent. They know what those patterns of life would look like. But they are unprepared to relate to a God who is both. And Yahweh, the God of Israel, the maker of heaven and earth, is both.
Let’s look a little more closely at their struggle with this – let’s consider first their failure to live with God’s transcendence, his holiness, and then second their failure to accept God’s imminence, his nearness.
So first – how does Israel fail to recognize, to live rightly with, God’s transcendence – his holiness, his honor, his majesty?
The key is in verse 19 – they looked upon the ark of Yahweh. Now, according to some commentators the Hebrew could be understood as saying that the Israelites looked into the ark [Jordan; Leithart,64; Finch, 101] or that they looked at it [Leithert, 64; Davis, 65].
So, the people at Beth-shemesh did one of three things: They either lifted the lid off the ark and looked into it, or the ark had been covered and they uncovered it, or the ark came back from Philistia uncovered, and they failed to cover it. [Davis, 65]
Now – whichever one it was, why is it such a big deal? Why does it matter?
First, we need to keep in mind that the ark was considered the throne of God, and that it represented his special presence. This was not news to Israel – it’s why they brought the ark into battle in the first place! So, all of Israel knew that the ark was to be treated with special deference because of its association with Yahweh. It communicated Yahweh’s presence, and so showing deference and respect to the ark was a way of showing your deference and respect to Yahweh. Similarly, showing disrespect to the ark was an expression of disrespect to Yahweh.
And so that there wouldn’t be any guess work, God had specifically told them how he wanted them to honor the ark, or, we might say, how he wanted them to honor his holiness through how they treated the ark.
In Numbers 4:1-20 specific instructions are given on the care of the ark. When it is not veiled in the tabernacle, we are told that the ark is always to be covered. In verses 16-20 of Numbers 4 God even stresses this point – it says “7 Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 ‘Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites [that’s the Levitical clan assigned to caring for the ark] be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.’”
God had warned the Israelites, the Levites specifically, to be sure to cover the ark, lest they be struck down in judgment.
All Israel should know that … but especially the Levites should be aware of it.
And Beth-shemesh was a Levitical city [Leithart, 64; LaSor, 478] – it was a city set aside for Levites to live in, the very people responsible for the proper care of the things of God’s sanctuary, who should be most aware of these regulations about how to treat God’s ark.
But the people failed to treat the ark as commanded. They either failed to cover it, as they were commanded to … or, even worse, it was covered, and they uncovered it … or, even worse than that, they not only had it uncovered but they opened it up and looked inside it.
And so, God strikes them in judgment. Seventy men are struck down. You might notice the footnote to verse 19. The received Hebrew text seems garbled here – it seems to first say that 70 men were struck, and then that 50,000 were struck. Because the grammar is off and because it seems highly unlikely that 50,000 Israelites would be in that city or region, many commentators (as well as, it would seem, the ESV translators) see the “50,000” as a later addition to the text [e.g.: Alter, 34]. One commentator speculates somewhat creatively that it could be referring to leaders of units of Israelites that were sometimes called “thousands” – and so it could mean “70 men were struck, 50 of which were unit leaders.” It’s speculation – we really don’t know. In any case, it seems most likely that 70 men were killed altogether. [Jordan]
The question is why – why were these men killed?
They were killed because they failed to recognize God’s transcendence, his holiness – because they adopted a pattern of relating to God that was inconsistent with his transcendence and holiness. And we can think of that in at least a couple different dimensions.
First, they failed to recognize God’s majesty – his divine honor that was far above them. And second, they failed to recognize his moral purity in light of their own sin and moral impurity.
We can start by considering God’s moral purity and righteousness, and our unrighteousness, our moral corruption before him. God is just, his very nature demands justice, and if we come fully, on our own, into his presence, we encounter his justice, just as these men did.
It’s worth considering what would happen to you if every evil thing you did was known, if every sinful and selfish thing you had ever done was taken and laid bare before the face of justice. That is something of what is reflected here in what happened to these men.
But it was more than that too. It was their nonchalant approach to the majesty of God. It was their failure to recognize God’s “otherness” – his transcendence above them.
God is the maker of all things, the one in whom is the ground, the basis, of all being, all existence. We are his creatures, the ones whom he has made, dependent on him every second for our existence. It is hard … impossible even … to express in words the distance between God and us, in terms of our natures.
But even if we can’t express it, we can know when we are underestimating it. Israel’s casualness with the ark showed that they disregarded it. They were intrusive with it in a way that they knew God did not want them to be – they looked on it when he told them not to, or they uncovered it when he told them not to, or they pried into it when he had said it was not for them.
They failed to conduct themselves before God with a proper recognition of his holiness, his transcendence, his power and authority.
We might think of it a little like this – if a current or former President of the United States suddenly walked into the room you were in … how would you feel?
You would probably feel kind of nervous. And you would probably feel that way regardless of whether you agreed with that current or former president politically. And that’s appropriate. You recognize, on a gut level, that this person has or has had a level of authority and power well above yours. So, you feel uncomfortable. You feel self-conscious.
Maybe you get fidgety. Maybe you shift your weight a lot. Maybe you become weirdly self-conscious – like when you get so nervous that you have trouble remembering how to stand normally … or you forget where you put your arms when you’re not using them …
The point is, the weightiness, the significance of a powerful person, like a president, affects you.
Does the thought of interacting with God ever make you feel like that?
Now – I’m not asking if you feel that way all the time … but do you sometimes feel that way? Do you ever feel that way? When was the last time?
Do we, even just from time to time, grasp the reality that when we pray we speak to the maker of all things – the all-powerful God? When we come into worship, do we even occasionally feel a fraction of the weight of what it means to be in God’s presence? When you hear God’s word, do you ever feel in your gut the power of the one who speaks to us in those words?
We very rarely feel that as we should.
The men at Beth-shemesh clearly didn’t. Their response was less like feeling nervous before a President and more like rummaging through his personal belongings. They acted with what we might call a contemptuous familiarity.
We don’t have the ark. But we have our own versions of that I think – of dishonoring God with how we treat him. Of reducing his majesty.
You may have heard this before, but Tim Keller tells a story that gets at just a bit of this. He says: “In July 1970 at a Christian camp in Colorado, a woman Bible teacher […] gave an illustration that changed my life. She said: ‘If the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of paper 70 feet high. And the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of paper 310 miles high – that’s how big the galaxy is. And yet the galaxy is nothing but a speck of dust, virtually, in the whole universe, and the Bible says that Jesus Christ holds this universe together with the word of his power – his pinky, as it were.’ she said. And then she asked the question: ‘Is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?’” [Keller, 36:40]
On its face it seems absurd. But we all do it. We treat him not with the deference due to the maker of all things, not even with the loving familiarity of a child with their father, but we treat him with the contemptuous familiarity that says we can do with him as we please – that he is there for us – the pattern of relating to him that is a familiarity that denies his transcendence.
That is the first thing Israel does here, and it’s what you and I so often do as well. It is an absurd thing, but we approach the God who made the galaxies in a way that denies his transcendence, denies his holiness.
And as punishment, God strikes these men. We might say that he gives them a taste of what it would be like if he was what they treat him as – if he really wasn’t transcendent, if he wasn’t the foundation of all existence and all life. In response he takes their lives from them – he ceases to be the source of their life just as they treat him as something less than the source of all life.
Do we want God to give us what we seem to want – an un-transcendent God? Is that really what we want? Would that not leave us in the same place as those 70 men?
Once Israel has made the first mistake, they quickly rush to a second mistake. They are struck by God, and they cry out and ask, “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God?” … which is a good question.
But then, kind of like back in chapter four again, after asking the right question, without waiting for an answer, they move on to their own solution. They follow it with another question – they ask: “And to whom shall he go up away from us?” Which is at least as much of a plan of action as it is a question. Their plan is to get the ark away from them. The only question is where to send it – whom to convince to take it.
When they are struck with God’s transcendence, with his holiness, their next response is to try to put an end to his imminence, his nearness. They want to send God away from them. They adopt a pattern of relating to him of pushing him away so that he does not get too close.
God can be transcendent, he can be holy – but, they decide, he can’t also be imminent then. He can’t also be near.
This might seem like a solution – it might even seem like a humble pattern for relating to God. But it’s not really.
We can think of the same analogy we used before – that of meeting a president, past or present. We shouldn’t be contemptuously familiar, as we said before, that’s true. But locking a president out of the room we’re in is also not a humble solution.
If the president walked into the room we were in at some event, it’s not a sign of humility for us to command him to leave because his stature makes us nervous. It’s not humble if when you hear he’s on his way you run and bolt the door and refuse to open it. Not pushing yourself onto someone of high rank is one thing, but the solution is not to forbid him from entering your presence if he wants to, or even worse: casting him out of your presence.
But that’s essentially what Israel does here.
And again, this pattern is not unique to Israel either. When we, or when human beings in general, are not denying God’s transcendence, we find ways to deny his imminence, his nearness to us. We find ways to try to keep him at arm’s length – to send him away from our presence.
What might that look like?
Well, if you’re coming at it from a non-Christian perspective, you can do it in a pretty straightforward way. If God exists, maybe he (or she, or it, depending on your view) is the one who set everything in motion, who began creation on its trajectory to become what it now is … but you can believe that while denying that this same God would be involved with the day-to-day details of our lives. You can deny that he’s ever spoken to humanity or appeared in a certain way. He’s at a distance, maybe watching the universe he began, maybe pleased, maybe displeased, maybe on to some other project. In any case, God is distant – he might be all-powerful, but he’s not near to us.
I’ll tell you why I at least find that hard to swallow. If there is a God who made this universe, look at what has been made. Look at the galaxies, that move in relation to each other. Look at the stars that pull other objects into their orbit. Look at the solar system, the way the sun holds the earth and the earth holds the moon. Look at this planet, all the variety of life forms that are interrelated. Look at animal life – the connections and dependencies between different animals. Look at human life – the importance of relationships, one person seeking and connecting to another person, in every human life, around the world billions of times over.
One theme that emerges is connection – relationship. God has made a connected and relational world. If this is the creation of an artist, it would seem apparent that that artist values connection, values relationships – values self-disclosure while seeking another.
If that is the case … then how can we believe that this God made this world that emphasizes and glorifies the beauty of connection and relationship and especially interpersonal relationship … but desires no relationship with his creation himself? That he made persons designed for relationship, people craving relationship, while he had no desire to relate to other persons himself? That he is a God who makes a world and beings shaped by self-revelation and other-seeking, while he has no desire to reveal himself or seek others himself? That he is a God who made a world of connections, but he likes to stay isolated?
I’m not saying that that logically disproves the idea of a creating God who stays at a distance … I’m just saying it makes it a bit difficult to believe.
Now, if you are a Christian, you cannot officially relegate God to a distant location … but we have our own ways of sending God away. Of at least keeping him at arm’s length.
We can be clever. Because we can take the very things meant to draw us closer to God and use them to keep him farther away.
One great example is often theology. We, especially in our circles, frequently use theology to make God more distant, rather than to draw closer to him.
You may have heard this before (Pastor Rayburn may have spoken of it not long ago), but Helmut Thielicke speaks of this in his small book titled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Thielicke writes: “The man who studies theology […] might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference.”  Theilicke is pointing to our tendency to speak more about God than we speak to him. He goes on to point out that theologians of the past like Anselm began their written theological works with written prayer. This is not merely formality for Anselm, Theilicke argues, but a sign of how Anselm primarily thinks about God – in the second person, “you”, rather than the third person, “he”. [33-34]
Theilicke goes on: “Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was the very moment when the question resounded, ‘Did God really say?’ [in Genesis 3, when the serpent tempted our first parents to rebel] […]. This fact ought to make us think. / In contrast with this, the crucified Jesus, out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned Him. He speaks to Him at this very moment – in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that the circuit between Him and the Father is complete. This observation, too, should make us think.” [34-35]
Theilicke’s point is not that theology is bad or that we should never speak of God in the third person. His point is that we need to be very wary of how we can misuse theology and speaking of God in the third person. We can use theology not as a discipline to draw closer to God, but as a way to keep him at a distance – to make him an object of study rather than a person to engage with. How are we guilty of that?
Peter Leithart points out one other way we can use theology to keep God farther from us. He writes:
“Theology is a specialized, professional language, often employing obscure (Latin and Greek) terms that are never used by anyone but theologians, as if theologians live in and talk about a different world from the one mortals inhabit. […] Whereas the Bible talks about trees and stars, about donkeys and barren women, about kings and queens and carpenters.”
He goes on:
“Theology is a ‘Victorian’ enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.
“Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and […] emissions.
“Here’s an experiment you can do at any theological library. You even have my permission to try this at home.
“Step 1: Check the indexes of any theologian you choose for any of the words [just mentioned] [That would be “hair, blood, sweat, entrails,” and so on.] […]
“Step 2: Check the Bible concordance for the same words.
“Step 3: Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same world the Bible does?” 
Leithart’s point is a bit different from Thielicke’s – he’s not drawing attention to how we de-personalize God, but to how we relegate God to a world of ideas and abstractions, and thus keep him out of the real, nitty-gritty world that we live in.
Do you think of God that way? As existing in a realm of abstract ideas rather than the real world of your everyday life?
Theology is just one way we can do that. We can also do it through worship preferences, fixating more on the forms than on their functions. We can do it through obedience, using our good works as a way to avoid real interaction with God over our sin, rather than using good works as an expression of our loving relationship to him. We can even do it with our devotional practices, when they become a buffer between us and God rather than an avenue for connection.
How do you keep God at arm’s length? What patterns of life or relating to him do you adopt to deny his imminence, his closeness?
So, on the one hand, we can be guilty of denying God’s transcendence, his holiness. On the other hand, we can be guilty of denying his imminence, is nearness.
How then do we dwell with imminent transcendence, with near-by holiness?
Our text does not lay out a detailed answer to this question, but it does give us two significant hints towards a two-part answer.
It points us to our need of a person and our need of a specific a pattern of life, and it does this through a question, and a community.
First, let’s consider the question that points us to a person.
This is that question that we mentioned earlier – the good question that the people of Beth-shemesh ask in verse 20: “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God?”
One of the obvious points of this passage is that they are not able to! But they need someone who is.
They don’t stop to wait for an answer. And any answer they might have received would have been partial – more of a hint than a full-blown picture.
But their question should make us think of texts like Revelation 5. There the Apostle John gets a vision of heaven. And there is a scroll. And on it are the secret things of God. And it is asked: who is worthy to gaze upon it? And no one answers. Because no one is. And then Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, steps forward. And the saints and hosts of heaven rejoice, and they proclaim: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe, and language, and people, and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priest to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” [Rev. 5:9-10]
There is one who is able to stand before this holy God, to see the secret things of God: Jesus, God’s Son. And not only is he able to stand in God’s presence, but he has saved a people by his blood, and he will bring them into God’s holy presence as well.
The first piece needed for us to stand before this holy God, is that by faith, we be united to the one who is worthy to stand in his presence: Jesus Christ. And when we trust in him, when we pledge our ultimate loyalty to him, then we are united to him, and as he stands before God, so do we, through him.
So, the first part of the answer to how we can dwell with this God of imminent transcendence, hinted at in this question in verse 20, is that we must be united to the one who is worthy to stand before this holy God – we must be united to Jesus Christ, by faith.
But our text gives us more than that. Being united to Christ is the necessary component – dwelling with the imminent and transcendent God is impossible without that. But once we are there, how then are we to live? How do we carry out our lives while dwelling with God through Christ?
Because part of what we’ve said is that we need the right pattern of life to dwell with the God of imminent transcendence – we need the right pattern of relating to the God who is both holy and near. And the two patterns we see in the people of Beth-shemesh will not do.
In response to that need, our text hints at the pattern of life, the pattern of relating to God, that we must adopt by pointing us to a community: the people at Kiriath-jearim.
That’s where the people of Beth-shemesh send the ark. And notice … it seems to do okay there. For twenty years. No further disaster is mentioned there. That should catch our attention. As David Firth puts it, this fact shows that “it is still possible to live with this dangerous holiness” , or, as we have said, it is possible to dwell with imminent transcendence. But how do they do it?
The key hint may be the kind of community they send the ark to. Kiriath-jearim, while it certainly had Israelites in it, was not a primarily Israelite community. It was a Gibeonite community. [Leithart, 65; DeVries, 42]
Now, who were the Gibeonites? We need to do a bit of Biblical exploration to answer that question. We encounter them in Joshua 9 and 10. In the Book of Joshua the people of Israel are entering the promised land, and the default response of most of the Canaanites is to fight them. But not the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites, which included the people of Kiriath-jearim (we are told in Joshua 9:17) realize they cannot stand before Israel and the God of Israel. So, they send representatives to make a peace treaty with the Israelites. And to do this, they trick the leaders of Israel. They present themselves as representatives of a distant land rather than a land in Canaan. And the Israelites go ahead and make a covenant of peace with them. And in it, the Gibeonites present themselves as servants to Israel. When Israel realizes they have been tricked, they’re angry. But they stand by their promise, only they stress that the Gibeonites will be their servants. They summon the Gibeonites and ask why they did what they did – why they deceived them. The Gibeonites reply that they knew the power of Yahweh, Israel’s God, and they feared what he would do to them. Israel explains that the Gibeonites will now be subject to them and to Yahweh. Joshua says to them “some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” The Gibeonites accept this role without complaint, and we are told that they became servants of the alter of Yahweh. That’s all in Joshua 9.
In Joshua 10, the Gibeonites are attacked by other Canaanites for their alliance with Israel. Rather than relying on their own strength, the call on Israel for help. Israel comes and fights for them, but more than that, we are told that God fights for the Gibeonites, attacking their enemies with hail, so that God’s hail ends up killing more enemy soldiers than are killed by the Israelite soldiers.
Now, we may analyze their deception, but the overall picture we get of the Gibeonites is one of a humble people, who see their dependence on Gods mercy, and who are happy to serve him. We see dependence, along with humble service towards God. That is the pattern of the Gibeonites.
Now, the events of Joshua 9 and 10 happened centuries before the events of 1 Samuel 6 and 7. These were not the same people. And yet, they were, in some ways, the same community. And beyond that, it would seem reasonable to think that the author of 1 Samuel, both the human and the divine author, would expect us, when we read of Kiriath-jearim in 1 Samuel 6, to search the Scriptures to see what kind of people it is referring to.
And when we do, we find a people living in dependence on God’s mercy, and willing to humbly serve him. We’ve already mentioned that dependence component – our dependence on Christ to be in the presence of a holy and imminent God. Now we see the pattern of life that goes with it: a pattern of humble service to God.
On December 22, 1996 the Los Angeles Times ran an article on a man named John Muffler. John Muffler had spent, at that point, 51 years working in the White House.
He wasn’t a great ruler or politician. But he was the longest-serving person in the White House. What was his role? He was “the White House’s official clock fixer and winder.” His job was to keep “85 clocks balanced and oiled and wound.” The article is filled with stories of his different interactions with different presidents.
John Muffler had spent decades interacting with some of the most powerful men in the world. How did he do it? What pattern of life allowed him to do that?
He didn’t do it by disregarding or dismissing the rank or authority of the presidents he interacted with. He was deferential and respectful. He also didn’t do it by avoiding such men. But he was able to dwell with them by relating to them in a pattern of humble service. He had a job. His job was not glamourous. But it was important. It was a job that served the president – that played a small role, that fit into the overall mission of the president. And John Muffler served faithfully at it. And his faithful, humble service kept him there for 51 years, while far more well-known but also more arrogant men and women came and went.
It was by relating to God in a similar pattern, a pattern of humble service, that the people of Kiriath-jearim were able to dwell with the ark for decades – because they were people from a community that had known what humble service towards Yahweh looked like.
John Muffler was welcomed in the great halls of power because he knew who he was, he knew who those around him were, and he knew the pattern of a humble servant. Can we say the same of our knowledge of ourselves, our knowledge of God, and the pattern by which we relate to him?
The Kiriath-jearimites of 1 Samuel 6 and 7, these descendants of the Gibeonites of Joshua 9 and 10 call us to consider our own pattern of life before God.
Do we approach God as dependent, humble servants? Do we come dependent on Christ, knowing, like the Gibeonites did, that we cannot save ourselves?
And if so, how do we live after that with God?
Are we really willing to serve him? Or do we treat him, like Tim Keller mentioned, as our personal assistant?
Do we see the honor of even a menial task in his kingdom – even a menial role in spreading his word to others, in serving others faithfully in our families or in our vocations, in volunteering in our churches, in reaching out to those on the fringes of our congregation, in discipling children, or sacrificially serving others? Do we willingly take those roles up like the Gibeonites did, or do we grumble and resist when such tasks and needs are set before us?
Can we honestly from our hearts say with the psalmist “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”? [Psalm 84:10b]
The God of the universe, the maker of the cosmos, wants to be in relationship with you. If you’re not a Christian, he’s calling you to begin a right relationship with him. If you are a Christian, he is calling you to more and more truly dwell with him. His desire is for you. How will you respond?
You are faced with a choice. You can deny God’s holy transcendence and face his just judgment as the men of Beth-shemesh did. You can try to send God away, keep him at arm’s length as the survivors of Beth-shemesh did. Or, you can put your trust in Christ, depending on him to bring you before this holy God, and walk in humble service before him, following the pattern of the people of Kiriath-jearim.
Who in this story will you be? What pattern of life will you choose? How will you relate to your maker?
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Davis, Dale Ralph. I Samuel: Looking on the Heart. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000.
Devries, C. E. “Kiriath-Jearim” in ISBE (Rev.).
Firth, David G. 1 & 2 Samuel. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
Jordan, James B. Lecture 6 of the lecture series “Books of 1-2 Samuel.” WordMP3.com. (http://www.wordmp3.com/product-group.aspx?id=152 )
Keller, Timothy. “The Gospel and Your Self” (Accessed at: http://download.redeemer.com/sermons/The_Gospel_and_Your_Self.mp3)
Knutson, Lawrence L. “He’s Having a Great Time as White House Clock Man” Los Angeles Times. December 22, 1996. (http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-22/news/mn-11620_1_white-house)
LaSor, W. S. “Beth-Shemesh” in ISBE (Rev.)
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
Leithart, Peter. Against Christianity. Moscow, ID: Canon, Press, 2003.
Origen. Homilies on Joshua. Translated by Barbara J. Bruce. Edited by Cynthia White. FOTF. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2002. (Homilies 10 and 11)
Thielicke, Helmut. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Translated by Charles L. Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.