The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Some interpret that to mean the more things change the more they stay the same. Others simply assert that although technology and what passes for knowledge has changed, the heart of man has not changed. The Bible proves time and again the truth of the great hymn: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”
Sadly, that truth does not just relate to individuals, it relates to peoples and nations as well. Kingdoms, city-states, and nations rise and fall. There is yet to be a nation under heaven that has not wandered away from the very God who has poured out blessing upon it. Some have been characterized by faithfulness to biblical Christianity — at least in cultural mores. But, the societies that once reverberated with Christian truth throughout the Western world have succumbed to a post-Christian ambivalence toward truth itself.
How did the West stray so far, and is there hope for America, teetering on the brink of that same fate?
We can learn much from the example of Israel and Judah. Made up of God’s own Chosen People, those nations were destined for greatness. Their people were blessed as no other nation, raised up literally to bear testimony to what a relationship with the living God could mean. Long before America sang of God’s grace being shed on our land, His unmerited favor fell on the Jewish people. He did not choose them because they were more worthy. Moses made it clear that He did not even choose them because they were mighty in number, but rather because of God’s love and grace (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).
Did the Jewish people appreciate the singular privilege of such a blessing? Did they revere the God who poured out such blessings? Clearly not. That is why the Lord repeatedly sent prophets to warn, to call to repentance and to declare judgment.
Consider the situation in Israel immediately following the period of the Judges. The book of that name tells us repeatedly that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). There were a few individuals who lived upright and exemplary lives. Ruth tells of one such man named Boaz, who foreshadowed his descendant who would become the ultimate kinsman-redeemer. But, First Samuel describes a people who were generally going through motions rather than seeking hard after the Lord. Even the priests and religious leaders had grown apathetic toward God.
The text tells about the worthless sons of Eli — Hophni and Phinehas. Although serving as priests of the Lord, they did not know Him. Their disdain for God and self-serving interaction with the people was well-known. Eli recognized their evil ways — from helping themselves to the sacrifices dedicated to the Lord to sexually cavorting with women at the very doorway of the tent of meeting. And yet, he did not take action to hold his own sons accountable and ensure reverence before God.
In 1 Samuel 4, the people found themselves drawn up in battle against their ongoing foe, the Philistines. After straying from God under the errant spiritual leadership of men like Hophni and Phinehas, Israel found itself defeated. The Israelites expressed complete surprise, exclaiming, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” (v. 3). Their solution was to trot out the Ark of the Covenant, presuming upon the Lord’s protection. In other words, although their hearts were clearly far from Him, the Israelites looked to their god-in-a-box as the ultimate weapon or the surest talisman.
Viewing God as a Good-Luck Charm
How many people today wear a cross necklace or WWJD bracelet or some other such bobble, not to shamelessly proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” but because they think God is obligated to shield them from all harm if they just cover themselves in Christian symbols? Sort of like the old horror movies where the vampire could be driven back by a mirror or a cross. But God is not a cosmic good-luck charm to wear when the going gets rough.
Samuel records the results of such callous treatment of God and disrespect of His Shekinah Glory hovering above the Ark’s Mercy Seat. To their dismay, Israel was soundly defeated once again and the Ark was captured. On top of that, Hophni and Phinehas — the two men whose position as priests should have given them insight to know better — were killed. When a young man brought news of the tragedy back to Eli, the chief priest of Israel fell over, broke his neck, and died.
The Bible is unflinching in its description of Eli. It says that Eli was very old and could no longer see, and that he was very heavy. It also says that Eli had judged Israel for 40 years. Taken together, it is instructive to consider why those traits are specifically included.
In the second segment of this look at the fate of America, we’ll explore the symbolism found in the biblical character Eli.