Reflections on September 11th
By John Telgren
As we near the anniversary of September 11, our thoughts go back to that day. It began like any other day, but most of us can remember very vividly what we were doing that morning. Many peopleís lives changed forever on that day. The images of the once tall, proud symbols of American prosperity burning, then tumbling to the ground with all those people inside provoked disbelief and horror. Some grieved. Others were numb. Then came the questions. Who did it? Why? What are we going to do about it? Perhaps some of the most penetrating questions dealt with the existence of God. Where was he that morning? Why didnít he do something to prevent it? Surely all those people who died, their families, their children, they really didnít deserve this amount of evil and suffering in their lives? For many people in the days and months that followed, these questions hung thick in the air like the smoke that lingered at ground zero.
The texts we will be looking at this morning deals with some of the same dynamic. Unlike so many westerners who are accustomed to living in relative safety, who have never known true hunger, who are used to having the illusion of control over their lives and surroundings, Godís people in scripture were accustomed to true hunger, hardship, and persecution. Some of the hardship would be unimaginable to us. These hardships raised many of the same questions that had been asked by so many over the last twelve months. The questions were hard, but those with even an ounce of faith are not afraid to ask hard questions when their lives have been shattered by tragedy.
So with that, we will begin with 1 Samuel. This text provides a rhythm for all of scripture. Some have found in it a "theology of the cross." As we go through the text, I think we will agree that there is indeed an echo of Calvary here.
So letís begin with 1 Samuel 2:12-17.
"Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they did not know the Lord and the custom of the priests with the people. When any man was offering a sacrifice, the priest's servant would come while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand. Then he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. Thus they did in Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Also, before they burned the fat, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, "Give the priest meat for roasting, as he will not take boiled meat from you, only raw." If the man said to him, "They must surely burn the fat first, and then take as much as you desire," then he would say, "No, but you shall give it to me now; and if not, I will take it by force." Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord, for the men despised the offering of the Lord."
The text introduces us to Eliís sons who were priests to the Lord. As we could see, they were not interested in honoring the Lord, only in filling their belly. These priests were seriously dishonoring God for their own selfish purposes. The specific indictment against them is that they despised, or had no regard for the offering of the Lord. Letís continue with verse 27-34.
"Then a man of God came to Eli and said to him, "Thus says the Lord, 'Did I not indeed reveal Myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt in bondage to Pharaoh's house? Did I not choose them from all the tribes of Israel to be My priests, to go up to My altar, to burn incense, to carry an ephod before Me; and did I not give to the house of your father all the fire offerings of the sons of Israel? Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel? Therefore the Lord God of Israel declares, 'I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever'; but now the Lord declares, 'Far be it from Me--for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming when I will break your strength and the strength of your father's house so that there will not be an old man in your house. You will see the distress of My dwelling, in spite of all the good that I do for Israel; and an old man will not be in your house forever. Yet I will not cut off every man of yours from My altar so that your eyes will fail from weeping and your soul grieve, and all the increase of your house will die in the prime of life. This will be the sign to you which will come concerning your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas: on the same day both of them will die."
Now we see the sentence that is to be passed on these wicked priests. It is interesting that the text mentions the unconditional promise that God made to the house of Eli in verse 30. However, the conduct of these priests were so belligerent that even this unconditional promise from God was now made void.
So far there is nothing surprising here. These men had acted wickedly and will suffer the consequences of their own sins. Then the scene changes. The focus is on the rise of Samuel and the decline of the house of Eli. In chapter 4, the scene shifts to a military confrontation between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines defeated Israel, killing four thousand men! Notice what happens next in 4:4-9.
"When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, "Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us take to ourselves from Shiloh the ark of the covenant of the Lord, that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies. So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. As the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth resounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, "What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?" Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. The Philistines were afraid, for they said, "God has come into the camp." And they said, "Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Take courage and be men, O Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight."
The Philistines knew about the Exodus and about the might of Yahweh. They were rightly afraid. Yahweh was going before his people. The Lord of Hosts, strong and mighty, the divine warrior, he who sits enthroned above the cherubim was coming! Victory was guaranteed. Then an unexpected twist. Eliís sons are still in the story, but they are pushed to the background. Letís read verses 10-22.
"So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died."
We expected the death of Hophni and Phinehas. What about the rest? The death of 30,000 soldiers? As bad as this is, it is thrust to the background in the text. Something more horrible has happened. The Ark of God was taken. This is where the glory of the Lord dwelled. As we continue to read, notice how many times the phrase "Ark of God was taken" appears.
"Now a man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he came, behold, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road eagerly watching, because his heart was trembling for the ark of God. So the man came to tell it in the city, and all the city cried out. When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said, "What does the noise of this commotion mean?" Then the man came hurriedly and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were set so that he could not see. The man said to Eli, "I am the one who came from the battle line. Indeed, I escaped from the battle line today." And he said, "How did things go, my son?" Then the one who brought the news replied, "Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has also been a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been taken." When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy. Thus he judged Israel forty years. Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas's wife, was pregnant and about to give birth; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and her husband had died, she kneeled down and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, "Do not be afraid, for you have given birth to a son." But she did not answer or pay attention. And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, "The glory has departed from Israel," because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, "The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken."
Where is the glory? The glory has departed from Israel. The word "depart" is interesting because it is the same word that means, "to go into exile." If you were to do a study of the word glory in relation to God, you would find that "glory" is a reference to his power and majesty. Godís glory has gone into exile! The Lordís people are ruined! They are vulnerable. Yahweh has been captured! How could this be?
Picture the scene. 30,000 of Godís people. Slaughtered by pagans. The Lord who sits enthroned above the Cherubim. Captured! Perhaps stowed in a horse drawn cart like some caged prisoner of war. Going. Going. Away from Israel. If the Philistines were like any other typical people, they paraded their prize in their streets in a military parade. Where was God when 30,000 Israelites were slaughtered? How could he be overwhelmed by the enemy? Hasnít he already demonstrated his power over Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt? What has happened? Is there no hope? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Iím sure these questions continued to race through the minds of the people.
To make matters worse, The Ark is placed in a Philistine temple. They set it before Dagon. Dagon stands towering over the Ark of Yahweh. Dagon has prevailed against Yahweh.
Now the story no longer makes sense. It is very difficult to try and explain the massacre and the capture of Yahweh in terms of the guilt of Eli and his sons. We know they deserve judgment. But 30,000 people? The exile of Yahweh in a pagan land in a pagan temple? How can that be?
This isnít the last time we see this sort of thing in scripture. The departure of Yahwehís glory due to sin seems to be a theme that repeats itself throughout scripture.
In Ezekiel 8, there were those who had made a lifestyle of committing different types of abominations. As a result, the text tells us that "the Glory of the Lord departed from the templeÖ (Ezek 10:18)." When that happens, the people are vulnerable. The pagans come and take them away into exile, away from Jerusalem, away from the temple, away from their home.
We can get a glimpse of the despair and bitterness of the aftermath from Lamentations 2:11-22.
"My eyes fail because of tears, My spirit is greatly troubled; My heart is poured out on the earth Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, When little ones and infants faint In the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, "Where is grain and wine?" As they faint like a wounded man In the streets of the city, As their life is poured out On their mothers' bosom. How shall I admonish you? To what shall I compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? To what shall I liken you as I comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For your ruin is as vast as the sea; Who can heal you? Your prophets have seen for you False and foolish visions; And they have not exposed your iniquity So as to restore you from captivity, But they have seen for you false and misleading oracles. All who pass along the way Clap their hands in derision at you; They hiss and shake their heads At the daughter of Jerusalem, "Is this the city of which they said, 'The perfection of beauty, A joy to all the earth'?" All your enemies Have opened their mouths wide against you; They hiss and gnash their teeth. They say, "We have swallowed her up! Surely this is the day for which we waited; We have reached it, we have seen it." The Lord has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word Which He commanded from days of old. He has thrown down without sparing, And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the might of your adversaries. Their heart cried out to the Lord, "O wall of the daughter of Zion, Let your tears run down like a river day and night; Give yourself no relief, Let your eyes have no rest. "Arise, cry aloud in the night At the beginning of the night watches; Pour out your heart like water Before the presence of the Lord; Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your little ones Who are faint because of hunger At the head of every street." See, O Lord, and look! With whom have You dealt thus? Should women eat their offspring, The little ones who were born healthy? Should priest and prophet be slain In the sanctuary of the Lord? On the ground in the streets Lie young and old; My virgins and my young men Have fallen by the sword. You have slain them in the day of Your anger, You have slaughtered, not sparing. You called as in the day of an appointed feast My terrors on every side; And there was no one who escaped or survived In the day of the Lord's anger. Those whom I bore and reared, My enemy annihilated them."
Once again, here is another case of a carried out sentence that seems excessive. In an oversimplified paraphrase, the poet here is telling God, "Just LOOK at what you have done! I can deal with the fact that we suffer the consequences for our sins, but this is too much! What did the children do to deserve this?" And so the poet vents his frustration, anger, despair, and lack of understanding. What is happening no longer makes sense. God no longer makes sense.
Look at what has happened! 30,000 of Godís people are slaughtered by a pagan nation. The Ark of Yahweh is captured and brought among pagan people. The priests of Dagon triumphantly place Yahweh before Dagon, and lock up the temple for the night. Darkness settles over the land. Can you imagine just how dark it was in Israel! The light of Godís presence was painfully ripped away from them. But something happens in the darkness. No one witnessed what happened between Yahweh and Dagon in the middle of the night, but something did happen! Letís Read 1 Samuel 5:1-3
"Now the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon. When the Ashdodites arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord."
It doesnít take a rocket scientist to see the theological significance of what happened in the middle of the night. Yahweh had not moved. But Dagon did, right on his face before the Lord of hosts! The priests of Dagon found their so-called god prostrated in front of Yahweh! Do you suppose they told anyone, or quietly and quickly placed their god back in his place? Perhaps they even nailed him down more securely! After all, they canít have their god falling down on the job! Letís continue in verse 4-5.
"So they took Dagon and set him in his place again. But when they arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. And the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him."
If they tried to hide what happened the first time, they cannot hide it now. Yahweh has smashed Dagon. Dagon has been defeated. He has fallen, and all the kings horses and all the kings men cannot put him back together again! But it doesnít end there! Look what happens next in verses 6-12.
"Now the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. When the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, "The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is severe on us and on Dagon our god." So they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them and said, "What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?" And they said, "Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath." And they brought the ark of the God of Israel around. After they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city with very great confusion; and He smote the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And as the ark of God came to Ekron the Ekronites cried out, saying, "They have brought the ark of the God of Israel around to us, to kill us and our people." They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines and said, "Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, so that it will not kill us and our people." For there was a deadly confusion throughout the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were smitten with tumors and the cry of the city went up to heaven."
They could not subdue Yahweh. In the end Yahweh returns home with gifts and eventually back to his sanctuary. Thatís how the story ends. The exiled God returns home.
Later, the exiles in Babylon will return home. Even though they were separated, they would be reunited once again. Even though Ezekiel quite graphically portrays the glory of God leaving the temple, it does not end with that message. The last portion of Israel describes a rebuilt temple and a rebuilt city. Notice how Ezekiel ends in 48:35. After describing the name of the new city after the exile, it says that it will be called, "The Lord is there."
So the glory will return. Even though the enemy supposedly shut up Godís glory in the night in a pagan place, God will prevail. The false gods and their people are no match for Yahweh. Jeremiah sums up the comparison between gods like Dagon and Yahweh in Jeremiah 10:1-10.
"Hear the word which the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord, "Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them; For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. "They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers So that it will not totter. "Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, For they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good." There is none like You, O Lord; You are great, and great is Your name in might. Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations And in all their kingdoms, There is none like You. But they are altogether stupid and foolish In their discipline of delusion--their idol is wood! Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, And gold from Uphaz, The work of a craftsman and of the hands of a goldsmith; Violet and purple are their clothing; They are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure His indignation."
Indeed, the Philistines could not endure his indignation. God is not a lifeless idol. The Philistines had the illusion of control when they had no control. It appeared Dagon was the victor, but in the end it was God. God seemed to be absent, shut up by the enemy in a foreign temple. The night was long and dark. But remember when the darkness comes, God is not inactive. Even in the darkest night, God topples the enemy to the ground.
There was another dark night 2000 years ago. Friday came, and it shook the earth. The Son of God was exiled to hades. He was supposed to bring deliverance. He was captured by the enemy. The glory had departed. But the enemy could not keep him shut up in the ground. He returned from exile. In the night, he toppled the accuser and cast him down.
I canít fully explain Friday. However, I can mourn with you. I can weep with you. I can ask the hard questions alongside you. I donít know everything. But I do know this. It may seem God is absent, but it will not stay that way.
It doesnít matter where the power of the enemy comes from. It matters not if it is some strange god, a pagan idol, or Satan. Yahweh is God. The Lord of Hosts always overcomes. Yahweh of Armies always wins. God overwhelmed Dagon and all his subjects. God destroyed brutal Assyria who had overrun Israel (Isaiah 10). God destroyed arrogant Babylon who had gloated over the destruction of Jerusalem (Isaiah 14). God destroyed Rome, the beast, because they had persecuted his people (Rev 19:20). And God will destroy any other enemy that persecutes his people.
God will ultimately overcome all evil, and cast it away forever into the abyss. Fridayís terror comes, and it seems as if God is absent. Fridayís destruction shakes the earth, and it seems as if God has lost. However, Fridayís darkness will be overcome by Godís marvelous light. Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning. Contemplate these last two passages from Isaiah and Revelation.
"All the nations are as nothing before Him, They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless. To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him? As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, A goldsmith plates it with gold, And a silversmith fashions chains of silver. He who is too impoverished for such an offering Selects a tree that does not rot; He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman To prepare an idol that will not totter. Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. To whom then will you liken Me That I would be his equal?" says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the Lord, And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God"? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the Lord Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary (Isaiah 40:17-31)."
"And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, "Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great. And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone (Rev. 19:11-20)."
Jesus is our strong deliverer. He is our divine warrior. He is our hero! He came the first time on a donkey. He will return with flaming eyes and a sharp sword on a white horse leading the army of heaven! He will sweep us away from this world and take us home with him! Amen.
NOTE: A part of this sermon are reflections based Ichabod Toward Home, by Walter Brueggemann