Wednesday, April 13, 2011


1 Samuel 6:1-6
by Daniel Harrell

I was once in a small group where we’d kick off each fall by narrating our summer vacations. One year, a couple shared about taking a fascinating backpacking trip across Europe, another person enjoyed a relaxing trip to the beach. A family of five made the requisite trip to Disney World while I had taken a couple of bike trips out West. When we made it around to a member named Gary, he just shook his head sadly. He said he’d spent his summer on a “guilt trip.” Turned out that he’d devoted his summer vacation to mission work in Haiti. The poverty he’d hoped to ameliorate completely demoralized him. He felt horrible. How was he supposed to go on living in America when so many were suffering so awfully just a few hundred miles off our southern coast? The rest of us probably should have tried to console him, but by now we were too busy feeling guilty ourselves. None of us had even thought about spending our vacations helping other people.

Of course a guilt trip doesn’t require traveling to an impoverished country. For many people, just traveling to visit parents will do the trick. My favorite was a friend whose parents constantly warned how lying to them would make her nose glow in the dark. To this day she still can’t go to sleep in her parents’ house with the lights off. Not that kids can’t give as good as they get. One friend’s son managed hundreds of extra hours on his Play Station just by alluding to his dad’s busy work schedule: “Gosh dad, I could wait for you to come home early some day so we could play catch.”

Basically, guilt has two distinct aspects: actual guilt and emotional guilt. Actual guilt is that behavioral breach of conduct or code; whether violating law or social mores, it’s what the Bible commonly refers to as sin. Emotional guilt is the guilty feeling, the remorse, the regret, the responsibility that accompanies the bad behavior—or at least shows up once you get caught. Such emotional guilt is what induces the guilty to apologize, to make amends, to confess and seek forgiveness and reconciliation, to change behavior. We call people who respond to guilt in this way contrite. On the other hand, there are those for whom actual guilt prompts no remorse or regret; they refuse to admit any wrong. Their lack of emotional guilt may be due to cluelessness or denial, but in worse cases its cause is self-centeredness or downright nastiness. People who respond to their guilt in this way we call calloused. But then there are those who feel emotional guilt in the absence of actual guilt. They feel responsible, ashamed and bad about things that are not even their fault. People who respond to guilt even when there is none we call Christians.

Here in 1 Samuel 6 you’d call them Philistines too. The Philistines ostensibly possess no actual guilt, but nevertheless tender a guilt offering to God. After thoroughly and fairly thrashing Israel in battle, the Philistines seized what was legitimate booty; the venerable Ark of the Covenant—that gold-laden chest with the Ten Commandments tucked inside and a replica of God’s throne on top. The Philistines merrily made off with the Ark fair and square. However their spoils of war spoiled their lives. No sooner had their victory party finished than the Philistine deity was deposed and the populace plagued with tumors and rats.

We’re making our way through 1 Samuel 4-6 this Lent, an odd choice for leading up to Easter to be sure. The backdrop is the extortionate sins of Hophni and Phinehas, two sons of Eli the priest and priests of God in their own right. Their atrocities brought down God’s curse and infected Israel’s military, subjecting an army that relied on God’s power to disastrous defeat. The Philistines trounced Israel not once but twice. However the fault for their military failure was also due to Israel’s arrogant leadership. Deducing that the first loss occurred because of God’s absence, the elders presumptuously proceeded to treat God like a marionette, pulling the Ark as the strings to get God back onto the battlefield and guarantee victory. And yet to everyone’s shock, God lost—just as he would shockingly lose on Good Friday. Israel went down to defeat and the Ark went down to the Philistine city of Ashdod.

Chapter 5 opened with the gloating Philistines installing the Ark next to an idol of their chief deity, Dagon. Such placement ceremoniously displayed Yahweh’s proven inferiority. However the Lord of All played second fiddle to none, not even in defeat and captivity. In the dark of night, as the Philistines slept, the idol of Dagon was toppled from its pedestal and forced face down into disarmed submission before the Ark of the Lord, its hands and its head hacked off. We then read that “the hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod.” The Hebrew word for heavy is the same word as glory—kabod. You may remember how at the end of chapter 4 the glory of the Lord was Ichabod, departed. But now the kabod was ka-boom, terrorizing the Philistines with tumors and rats, just as it exploded on the Egyptians in Exodus.

The Philistine rulers were frantic. What were they to do with their hot potato of a victory trophy? The citizens of Ashdod tried passing the Ark off onto neighboring Gath and Ekron, hoping perhaps it was something in the Ashdod water that had made them so sick. But when the people of Gath developed tumors too, Ekron refused to touch the Ark. The conclusion was obvious. The Ark had to go. But how do you send it back? What was the return policy?

Perceiving their dilemma as essentially a religious one, the Philistine rulers summoned the religious professionals. Was there an appropriately pious gesture of surrender? A devout way to clearly cry uncle? An unmistakably placating white flag? “By all means do not send it back empty,” the Philistine priests replied. “Include a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and ransomed—will not his hand then turn from you?” The Philistines had broken no rules of war or convention, but apparently some line had been crossed. Thus the Philistine priests recommended the guilt offering. “Give glory to Israel’s God and perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.”

Just like fighting fire with fire, the best way to tackle kabod was with kabod. The heavy hand of God’s glory could only be stopped by giving God glory. “Offer your guilt even though you don’t know what it is,” said the priests. “Make five golden images of your tumors and rats.” Gold to articulate worth and value. Five, the total number of Philistine cities, to communicate total submission. The shape of tumors and rats to communicate that from which mercy was sought. Send them with the Ark, the sublime symbol of God’s glory. Give God back his glory and you may get back your life.

It’s an odd way to depict giving glory to God. Usually when we think of giving God glory we think of worship and praise and thanksgiving. We sing and pray and offer gifts of gratitude. King David famously sang before the Ark, “Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.” However in just as many cases—like with the prophet Jeremiah as well as here in 1 Samuel— “giving glory to God” has more to do with guilt than gratitude. Jeremiah warned, “Give glory to the LORD your God before it's too late. Acknowledge him before he brings darkness upon you, causing you to stumble and fall.”

Now to give glory to God because he deserves it is one thing. To have him demand it? That’s something else. Why would the Lord of love and mercy need to threaten people to get them to praise him? Is he really some sort of Celestial Narcissist concerned for getting all the credit as his critics insist?

The problem of God demanding glory is due to the lack of any feasible analogies. Any person who needs praise so badly immediately solicits our suspicions. Dawn and I had a fancy dinner once with a couple of fairly famous people, former GE CEO Jack Welch (who attended our church at the time) and Purpose-Driven Life Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (he prayed at President Obama’s Inauguration). We mostly listened as they shared their creative ideas, successes and impressive influence in both business and ministry arenas. For instance, Rick Warren described how he trained over 138,000 preachers every day over the internet in 62 countries and how 40,000 people show up at his church on Easter. (I was thinking, wow, who makes the coffee?) At the same time he mentioned how he’d personally advised then President Bush, as well as the Presidents of Rwanda and the Philippines, appeared on Larry King, consulted with Rupert Murdoch and forgot to call Mel Gibson. I whispered to Dawn how I thought all the name-dropping was really a bit much. But she whispered back how it could only be name-dropping if he had been talking to me—and not to Jack Welch who knew most of the same people as well as Rick Warren did.

If we’re honest, the trouble we have with anybody else hogging glory is that we really want to have it for ourselves. Among preachers it’s called “pulpit envy.” Attend any ministers’ gathering or read the blogs and twitter feeds and watch as we scrutinize attendance statistics, nitpick success stories and seek out specks in each other’s eyes, despite the fact that we all play for the same team. The early Christians would have categorized pulpit envy under the sin of vainglory. Vainglory is when you long for praise and prestige and are annoyed and even depressed when we do not get the recognition you think you deserve. You obey the Lord and do all the right things, but rather than thank God for his enablement and grace, you’re upset that nobody notices what a good Christian you are.

Vainglory is misdirected glory, and with disastrous results. Verse 6 of our passage mentions the Exodus and God’s plaguing Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hard heart. Had Pharaoh relented, “given glory to God” and let God’s people go, perhaps Pharaoh could have avoided all the appalling calamity that eventually ensued. Instead, we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. The word for harden is again the word kabod, glory. Pharaoh’s hard heart resulted from glory Pharaoh tried to hog for himself. He absurdly believed that he himself was god. Therefore in Exodus 14, the LORD “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”—harden in that instance from the word meaning strengthen or embolden. God gave Pharaoh what he wanted, allowing Pharaoh to have his vainglory and eat it too. In the end the true glory ended up where it rightly belonged with the Lord.

The Philistines remembered this story. Which was why their religious professionals put forward Pharaoh’s prideful miscalculation as a caution: “Offer your guilt and give glory to God. Do not even try to keep any for yourself.” So the Philistines put together the golden guilt offering and sent the Ark back on a guilt trip to Israel. They gave God his glory. In doing so they foreshadowed that coming day promised in the book of Revelation when every nation, tribe, people and language will bow before the throne of the Lamb and give God glory. As the prophet Isaiah put it: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction; you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun shall no more be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; for the LORD shall be your everlasting light and your days of sorrow shall end. Your God shall be your glory [too].”

Though analogies remain inadequate, God’s glory is kind of like nuclear power. Keep it where it belongs and it lights up a whole state. But try and bring it into your house and you’re dead before dinner. Which is why God insists we not try.

As Dawn and I sat over that fancy dinner, I felt some serious pulpit envy as I listened to Rick Warren go on and on about his packed out worship services and winsome evangelism and innovative outreach initiatives and worldwide effectiveness. Saddleback. What a goofy name for a church.

Why couldn’t I just praise the Lord for all the ways the gospel was having influence and effect around the world? Vainglory. Not that I felt I deserved equal praise mind you, I just wanted a little attention. Rick Warren wasn’t the only minister at the table, you know! As I was starting to get all righteous, Jack Welch startled me by suddenly asking, “Daniel, why don’t you do some of these things? I’d think as a pastor you’d want to have some success for Christ’s sake—you know, for Jesus.” And just like that, all my vainglory got vanquished by guilt. It was a good thing too. I needed to get jolted out of my little self-centered love fest.

Granted, to say guilt is good is not to say that guilt is always good. Guilt for guilt’s sake is a failure of faith: an unwillingness to believe that the Spirit is present enough or that the cross was powerful enough or that God is good enough or that grace is sufficient enough. Such guilt is no more than a refusal to trust God. There’s also fake guilt: the guilt you wear as a cover for not loving our neighbor or forgiving those who have hurt you. “I can’t help it,” you say, “I’m a sinner.” You pretend to be unworthy or unable when in fact you’re really hardhearted.

But guilt that is good can jolt us out of our selfishness. It reinvigorates our trust and soften our hearts. It reorients us back toward God who alone deserves glory. Good guilt releases confession; as Jesus famously illustrated by contrasting a Pharisee and a tax-collector in Luke’s gospel. The vainglorious Pharisee crowed aloud in his prayers about what a good Christian he was; while the despised tax-collector could not even look up to heaven. Rather than saying, “I can’t help it, I’m a sinner,” the tax-collector prayed, “I’m a sinner, God, help me.” In offering honest guilt, he gave God His glory.

Good guilt releases confession and compassion too. This was the guilt my friend Gary felt in our small group that night following his trip to Haiti. Such guilt compels our prayers and spurs our loving service toward people in need.

The Westminster Catechism instructs that our chief end as humans is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Wouldn’t you know it? In Hebrew, the words enjoy and glory are both also kabod. To glorify God is to enjoy God. Good guilt releases confession and compassion, allowing grace to flow into and out from your soul. Indeed the sun need no more be your light by day, nor for brightness the moon by night; for the LORD shall be your everlasting light. The glory of the Lord is your glory too.

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