by Michael Gallup
There is this interesting story that comes near the beginning of First Samuel. The Israelites are battling the Philistines (I know, big surprise) and are losing. So the Israelites get the Ark of God and bring it out into battle with them. Yet something funny happens at the this point, the Israelites are completely defeated and lose the Ark. Not only are thousands of the sons of Israel slain, but the very presence of their God, Yahweh, has left them. The news is so shocking that Israel’s chief priest Eli dies at the reception of the news. His daughter-in-law goes into labor at the sound of the shocking report and dies in the process. As she is dying, she names her son Ichabod, which means ‘no glory.’ In her dying words she sums up the desperate condition of her people: “The glory has departed Israel.”
Now we have to take some time to understand the desperate situation Israel finds themselves in this story. Yahweh is the defining attribute of this people, they are keenly aware that without Him they have nothing. They have no protection against their warring neighbors, they have no leader. The only reason they occupy the land that is so precious to them is because the glory, Yahweh, has been with them. And now all that they are has been stripped from them. They no longer have any real hope, any real future. Without Yahweh they are no longer Israel but merely a group of sojourners, former slaves in a foreign land. Their very source of being is gone, the glory had departed.
I think that if we are honest with ourselves there are those times when God feels like a figment of our imaginations. These are times when we parade out our spirituality in hopes that it will have some effect against the various trials of this life and yet not only do we find ourselves defeated, but God Himself seems to have left us all alone. We may not be willing to admit it, but the glory has departed. These can be very trying times. Nothing appears as it once did; we become hopeless in a way that deteriorates our very drive to wake up again. These are times when inevitably something must die.
This is a familiar story. In fact the succession of events in the history of Israel are rather cliché, with God and Israel tottering back and forth between blessings and cursings, between presence and absence. Yet when you isolate an episode like the one found in Samuel, it magnifies the despair behind the absence of God. Yet, we have the privilege of knowing the rest of the story. God returns and all of Israel unpops the cork and throws one heck of a party. And it is no ordinary party, not just another Friday evening, but an explosion of celebration, a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza. I’m sure years later they will sit around the campfire reliving that night, perhaps growing a bit embarrassed about how undignified they acted. The joy is certainly not unfounded, for God left and they had no reason to expect His return, but here He comes and it is good news indeed.
However, we do not have the luxury of knowing the end of our own stories. We have no way of knowing if the dark night will pass. In the moment of pain, it could seem that all is lost. But we should know better. These stories and even are own are testimonies that although God may seem distant now, He will not always remain so. There is a day coming, when we too will lose our dignity in joyous celebration. The glory may have departed but it is not lost forever and that is good news indeed.
I mentioned earlier the inevitably of death during these times of divine absence. In the moment, death seems to have the ultimate say, the final word. As we acquire scars, it can seem as if our state is deteriorating. But it is in the dying and in the scars that true life and true beauty emerge. Just as the soil cannot produce its yield until it is broken, nor can we truly thrive unless we are pruned. These times when God is absent remind us that He is all we truly need, that He is all we truly hunger for. And that realization kills the things that have seized our attention away from Him. That realization brings death and scars, but by God, it also brings life.
The good news is that today is not the end of our stories, even if today brings death, because death no longer has hold of the final chapter. The joy is that even in the face of the Absence of God, we can rejoice in His ultimate return. The beauty is that we can pull the cover off our wounds and see them for what they are, simply the breaking of our soil so that we may finally blossom.