Is God on Our Side?
1 Samuel 4: 1b-11 (NRSV)
1b In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.” They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
10 So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Israel presumed that if they took the ark of the covenant with them into battle against the Philistines, who had just recently defeated them, Israel would indeed have a great victory. In so doing, they treated both the ark and God as a talisman, presuming that God was on their side (verse 3). The result was that even though the Philistines were afraid when they first saw the ark of the covenant, Israel was thoroughly defeated and the ark was captured by the Philistines.
It is always dangerous to assume that we have an open channel to God and that God is on our side with respect to political issues or events. In 1857, during the Indian rebellion against the British Raj, over one hundred sermons were preached from the pulpits of London after the nation observed a day of prayer. Many of those sermons articulated British national identity regarding God’s people waging war against God’s adversaries. Such sermons brought together Christian piety and messianic vocation while revealing racial prejudices and a distorted understanding of the Bible and Christianity.
The focus was on defending Britain’s colonial venture in India. Yet, sermons failed to recognise the gross injustice done to the people of India in the name of the British Empire and the fact that the reprisals for the uprising far outweighed the original excesses. Hundreds of Indian soldiers were bayoneted or fired on from cannons in a frenzy of British vengeance, even though some British officers protested the bloodshed.
The alignment of Christianity to any colonial or imperial powers is dangerous, for the Cross and the Flag do not easily unite without the gospel of Jesus Christ losing its power and it being defaced and distorted in the process. The reality is that the cross is against all forms of imperialism and injustice. So let us be beware of assuming that we have God on our side!
Enable us to have the courage to speak out against the powers
and act on the side of justice and the oppressed.
May we live in the light of your Kingdom.