Today's reading from the OT (1 Samuel 3-5) contains one of the most tragic stories in the Bible, and (to me at least) one of the most humorous - and both revolve around the ark.
The tragedy unfolds in the course of a battle at Aphek between Israel and one of its perennial enemies, the Philistines. After an initial setback, the elders of the people decide that in order to assure victory they need to bring out the ark of the covenant. So the people transport the ark from Shiloh to Aphek, thinking that the mere presence of the "ark of the covenant of God" (4:4) will guarantee success. At first the news of the arrival of the ark in the camp of Israel causes alarm among the Philistines, but this alarm turns to even greater resolve, and in the ensuing battle the Israelites are routed. Worst of all, the ark itself is taken as plunder for the Philistines to treat as a trophy. This news devastated the aged leader of Israel, Eli, who literally keeled over and died when the report came from the battle. And it also caused his pregnant daughter-in-law to go into labor under duress, which was eventually fatal. Her dying words were spent naming her son, Ichabod, which is Hebrew for "the glory has departed." What a tragedy.
In contrast to this bleak story, the account of the ark's impact in the cities of the Philistines strikes me as humorous. I am sure it wasn't funny to the Philistines for their god to be desecrated, or for their people to be afflicted with tumors, but there is something amusing to me in the way these pagans react to the judgment of God. And as we will see in tomorrow's reading, they decide to return the ark to Israel.
Israel's defeat was caused by the failure to remember that the ark was the ark of the covenant. It's power was not the wood and gold construction, but the covenant it contained. If the people were obedient to the covenant, no foreign army could withstand God's power. But if the people were unfaithful to the covenant, then the ark was simply a very expensive box.
We have to guard againt the same fundamental error in our relationship with God. Owning a Bible, or coming to a building, does not necessarily prove anything about who we are. What matters is that we live according to what the Bible says, and that we worship God from the heart in our assemblies. Otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves, and await a day when God's glory will depart from us forever.